January 25, 2010
When, towards the end of her life, VIRGINIA WOOLF (1882-1941), pioneer of literary modernism, met Sigmund Freud, pioneer of psychic spelunking, the latter presented her with a narcissus. It is not clear what Freud meant this gift to signify, but charitably it was a tribute to Woolf’s powers of penetrating the illusions of self. Her innovative and supple prose fiction elevates mundane events and concerns — planning a party (Mrs. Dalloway) or thinking about a family visit (To The Lighthouse) — to heights of lyric self-consciousness that define the age. Woolf’s recurring depression, rooted in childhood sexual abuse by a half-brother, is subtly folded into her art, giving the novels a melancholy beauty also to be found in the person of their author. Hence, perhaps, the barroom graffito that inspired Edward Albee’s play. Q: Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? A: People with no stomach for emotional turmoil — or formally challenging anti-narratives about it. Woolf’s non-fiction is more straightforward in both style and message, especially the famous feminist argument that a woman must have a room of her own in order to create art. Woolf had that room, and ample support from her dedicated husband Leonard Woolf; but it was not enough to save her. In late March 1941 she donned an overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, and walked into the River Ouse near their home.
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