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  • Virginia Woolf was a writer concerned, above all, with capturing in words

  • the excitement, pain, beauty, and horror of what she termed, the Modern Age.

  • Born in 1882, she was conscious of herself as a distinctively modernist writer

  • at odds with a raft of the staid and complacent assumptions of nineteenth-century English literature.

  • She realized that a new era, marked by extraordinary developments in urbanism, technology, warfare,

  • consumerism, and family life

  • would need to be captured by a different sort of writer.

  • Along with Joyce and Proust, she was a relentlessly creative writer

  • in search of new literary forms that could do justice to the complexities of modern consciousness.

  • Her books and essays retain a power to convey the thrill and drama of living in the 20th century.

  • Woolf was born in London.

  • Her father was a famous author and mountaineer,

  • and her mother, a well known model.

  • Her family hosted many of the most influential and important members of Victorian Literary Society.

  • Woolf was largely cynical about these grand types,

  • accusing them of pomposity and narrow-mindedness.

  • Woolf and her sister weren't even allowed to go to Cambridge like their brothers,

  • but had to steal an education from their father's study.

  • After her mother died when she was only thirteen,

  • Woolf had the first of a series of mental breakdowns that would plague her for the rest of her life;

  • partly caused, too, by the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her half-brother, George Duckworth.

  • Despite her illness, she became a journalist, and then a novelist,

  • and the central figure in the Bloomsbury Group,

  • which included John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey.

  • She married one of the members: the writer and journalist, Leonard Woolf.

  • She and Leonard bought a small hand printing press, named it "The Hogarth Press,"

  • and published books from their dining room.

  • They printed Woolf's radical novels and political essays when no one else would

  • and they produced the first full English edition of Freud's works.

  • In just four short years between World Wars I and II, Woolf wrote four of her famous works:

  • "Mrs. Dalloway," "To the Lighthouse," "Orlando," and the essay, "A Room of One's Own."

  • In March 1941, feeling the onset of another bout of mental illness,

  • Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse.

  • Her work has many vital things to teach us.

  • Woolf was one of the great observers of English literature.

  • Perhaps the finest short piece of prose she ever wrote

  • was the essay, "The Death of the Moth," published in 1942.

  • It contains her observations as she sits in her study, watching a humble moth trapped by a pane of glass.

  • Rarely have so many profound thoughts been eked out from such an apparently mindless situation--

  • though for Woolf, there were no such things as mindless situations.

  • "One could not help watching him. One was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him.

  • The possibilities of pleasure seemed, that morning, so enormous and so various,

  • that to have only a moth's part in life-- and a day moth's at that-- appeared a hard fate...

  • ...and his zest in enjoying his meager opportunities to the full, pathetic.

  • He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment,

  • and after waiting there a second, flew across to the other.

  • What remained for him, but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth.

  • That was all he could do in spite of the width of the sky, the far off smooth of houses,

  • and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steam out at sea.

  • Woolf noticed everything that you and I tend to walk past:

  • the sky, the pain in others' eyes, the gaze of children, the stoicism of wives, the pleasures of department stores,

  • the interests of harbors and docks.

  • Emerson, one of her favorite writers, may have been speaking generally,

  • but he captured everything that makes Woolf special when he remarked,

  • "In the work of a writer of genius, we rediscover our own neglected thoughts.”

  • In another great essay, "On Being Ill," Woolf lamented how seldom writers stoop to describe illness--

  • an oversight that seemed characteristic of a snobbery against the everyday in literature.

  • English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear,

  • has no words for the shiver and the headache.

  • The mere schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her,

  • but let us suffer her trying to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.

  • This would be her mission; Woolf tried throughout her life to make sure language would do a better job

  • at defining who we really are,

  • with all our vulnerabilities, confusions, and bodily sensations.

  • Woolf raised her sensitivity to the highest art form.

  • She had the confidence and seriousness to use what happened to her--

  • the sensory details of her own life--

  • as the basis for the largest ideas.

  • Woolf was always profound, but never afraid of what others called "trivial."

  • She was confident that the ambitions of her mind

  • to love beauty and engage with big ideas

  • were completely compatible with an interest in shopping, cakes, and hats--

  • subjects on which she wrote with almost unique eloquence and depth.

  • In another particularly good essay of hers called the "Oxford Street Tide,"

  • she celebrates the gaudy vulgarity of this huge London shopping street.

  • "The moral-less point the finger of scorn at Oxford Street;

  • it reflects, they say, the levity, the ostentation, the haste, and the irresponsibility of our age.

  • Yet perhaps, they are as much out in their scorn as we should be if we asked of the lily

  • that it should be cast in bronze, or of the daisy that it should have petals of imperishable enamel.

  • The charm of modern London is that it isn't built to last-- it is built to pass."

  • In an accompanying essay, equally open to the un-prestigious side of modern life,

  • Woolf goes to visit the giant docks of London.

  • "A thousand ships with thousand cargoes are being unladen every week...

  • and not only is each package of this vast and varied merchandise picked up and set down accurately,

  • but each is weighed and opened, sampled and recorded, and again stitched up and laid in its place,

  • without haste or waste or hurry, or confusion, by a very few men in shirt sleeves

  • who, working with the utmost organization in the common interest, are yet able to pause in their work

  • and say to the casual visitor, 'Would you like to see what sort of thing we sometimes find in sacks of cinnamon?

  • Look at this snake!'"

  • Woolf was deeply aware that men and women fit themselves into rigid roles,

  • and as they do so, overlook their fuller personalities.

  • In her eyes, in order to grow, we need to do something gender bending--

  • we need to seek experiences that blur what it means to be a "real man" or a "real woman."

  • Woolf had a few lesbian affairs in her life, and she wrote a magnificently bold queer text,

  • "Orlando," a portrait of her lover, Vita, described as a nobleman who becomes a woman.

  • She wrote, "It is fatal to be a man or woman, pure and simple. One must be woman-manly, or man-womanly."

  • In her anti-war track, "Three Guineas," Woolf argued that we will only ever end war

  • by rethinking the habit of pitting of sex against sex;

  • all this claiming of superiority and impudent inferiority belonged to the private school stage of human existence

  • where there are sides, and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance,

  • to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the headmaster, a highly ornamental pot.

  • Woolf wished desperately to raise the status of women in her society.

  • She recognized that the problem was largely down to money.

  • Women didn't have freedom, especially freedom of the spirit, because they didn't control their own income.

  • "Women have always been poor," she cried. "Not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time,

  • women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.

  • Women have not had a dog's chance of writing poetry."

  • Her great feminist rallying cry, "A Room of One's Own," culminated in a specific political demand:

  • in order to stand on the same intellectual footing as men, women not only needed dignity,

  • but also equal rights to education, an income of five hundred pounds a year, and a room of one's own.

  • Woolf was probably the best writer in the English language

  • for describing our minds without the jargon of clinical psychology.

  • The generation before hers, the Victorians, wrote novels focused on external details:

  • city scenes, marriages, wills.

  • Woolf envisaged a new form of expression that would focus instead,

  • on how it feels inside to know ourselves and other people.

  • Books like Woolf's, which aren't overly sarcastic, aren't caught up in adventure plots, or cradled in convention

  • are our contract.

  • She's expecting us to turn down the outside volume, to try on her perspective,

  • and to spend energy with subtle sentences...

  • and in turn, she offers us the opportunity to notice the tremors we normally miss,

  • and to better appreciate moths, our own headaches, and our fascinating, fluid sexualities.

  • If you like this video, then I think you'll really appreciate "Wisecrack," another fine channel on YouTube

  • that also celebrates literature, philosophy, cinema, psychology, and more.

  • Click here to visit their channel page, and see how they're introducing important topics and critical analysis

  • through the lens of comedy.

  • If you're interested in smart, yet hilarious, breakdowns of classic literature, be sure to watch their popular series,

  • "Thug notes."

  • They have over 80 titles in their library to choose from, including:

  • "Pride and Prejudice," "The Great Gatsby," "Lolita," "Dune," "Crime and Punishment," and many more.

  • I think you'll enjoy them as much as we do.

Virginia Woolf was a writer concerned, above all, with capturing in words

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LITERATURE - Virginia Woolf

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    Tracy Wang posted on 2018/10/31
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