I begin my Tuesdays and Thursdays with a class called Virginia Woolf. Unsurprisingly, what we do in Virginia Woolf is talk about Virginia Woolf’s books. It’s only a few weeks in, but the class already feels like a tremendous privilege. I couldn’t think of anything better for the mind and soul than to spend eight weeks discussing Mrs. Dalloway. Her books are works of tremendous empathy, and while they may not bring the rush of a good plot twist, they do something better–make you feel like you can actually know someone (which, given our distance from every other person’s consciousness, you sort of can’t do in real life).
The experience of reading Woolf’s books is like the opposite of the way I tore through The Secret History while on the beach in the Dominican Republic. Her books require you to slow down and take each sentence slowly, let it melt in your mouth like dark chocolate, so the meaning isn’t lost. If you read her book like it’s a normal book a) you won’t have any idea what’s going on and b) you’ll miss what makes her books so magical–processing the world through glittering language, slowing time down because they require so much thought to process. But they’re so rewarding! And they should be savored.
Each of her books is perfectly constructed, and if you’re paying attention, it’ll turn into a treasure hunt of piecing together shards of brilliance just waiting for you to piece together into a whole. For example, Septimus Warren Smith’s first proclamation in Mrs. Dalloway is that “men should not cut down trees.” And how does Clarissa’s sister die? Her father cuts down a tree that falls down on her. I mean, really.
What I’ve realized is that her books are as close as I’m ever going to get into the mind of another person. In the book Mrs. Dalloway, we flit from the perspective of character to character as they come into contact with one another. It makes me more aware of an obvious but easy to overlook fact: every person I encounter has the same nonstop train of thought I have, but with thoughts I will never hear, thoughts they’ll neversay. And, as Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse show so well, saying what you think and feel is incredibly difficult. As Mrs. Ramsay sits frozen, unable to say she loves her husband, she is assured that he knows she does. But he never hears it. We never know if he does really know that she loves him. Richard Dalloway wants to tell Clarissa he loves her, (“for it is a thousand pities not to say what one feels”) but ultimately is unable to. Are we ever able to jump the gap between what we feel and what we’re brave enough to express?
Virginia Woolf lets us, for a moment, understand what it’s like to be another person. If I can take the experience of reading her characters into the way I interact with the people that I meet, I’ll be a more conscientious, kinder person. We all will be. Read Virginia Woolf!