Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is smart, weird, and when you’re reading it you can’t help but think it’s far ahead of its time. The title character, Orlando, changes gender halfway through the book. One day, he wakes up a woman. While society treats her differently as a result, the core of her remains the same when as a man or as a woman. Virginia Woolf is at her wittiest in this spoof of a biography of a person who never existed. It’s so entertaining that I almost overlooked all the subtle brilliance of it, too, the way she makes us think about our selves–and men and women and what’s bigger than those categories.
While Orlando merits a long post just to itself, for now I’ll just share a passage where Woolf confronts the search for the single self. After living for over three centuries (!) Orlando is aware of the many selves within her. Throughout the book, Orlando’s character changes–her habits and proclivities and passions alter as the times do. Now, she’s in the present moment and is searching for her “present self,” the true self.
Before she achieves her composite self, though, comes this fantastic passage. So, while I may not be gender-bending heroines (and heroes) of Virginia Woolf’s novels, Woolf puts her finger on something inexpressible. That’s her job, after all, expressing the inexpressible better than anyone!
When this happened, Orlando heaved a sigh of relief, lit a cigarette, and puffed for a minute or two in silence. Then she called hesitatingly, as if the person she wanted might not be there, ‘Orlando? For if there are (at a venture) seventy-six different times all ticking in the mind at once, how many different people are there not–Heaven help us–all having lodgment at one time or another in the human spirit? Some say two thousand and fifty-two. So that it is the most usual thing in the world for a person to call, directly they are alone, Orlando? (if that is one’s name) meaning by that, Come, come! I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another. Hence, the astonishing changes we see in our friends. But it is not altogether plain sailing, either, for though one may say, as Orlando said (being out in the country and needing another self presumably) Orlando? still the Orlando she needs may not come; these selves of which we are built up, one on top of another, as plates are piled on a waiter’s hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, little constitutions and rights of their own, call them what you will (and for many of these things there is no name) so that one will only come if it is raining, another in a room with green curtains, another when Mrs Jones is not there, another if you can promise it a glass of wine–and so on; for everybody can multiply from his own experience the different terms which his different selves have made with him–and some are too wildly ridiculous to be mentioned in print at all.