Category Archives: Woolf

The double

The construction work on the old farm is coming along. Having demolished the house, barn and cowshed and removed the rubble, they seem to be building a house that looks like a converted barn, as well as a double garage, and have started landscaping. I looked up the planning permission and managed to find the developer’s website, which says: ‘Many people aspire to live in barn conversions. However, the opportunities to convert or renovate an existing barn are limited – there are only so many of them. Moreover, the cost of renovation or restoration can be considerably more expensive than building from new. That’s why a barn-style house is becoming an increasingly popular option.’

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Gide: ‘It seems to me sometimes that I do not really exist, but that I merely imagine I exist. The thing that I have the greatest difficulty in believing in is my own reality. I am constantly getting outside myself, and as I watch myself act I can’t understand how a person who acts is the same as the person who is watching him act, and who wonders in astonishment and doubt how he can be an actor and a watcher at the same moment.’

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When did my double turn up? When was he born? There was a carpark and a concrete path between thistle bushes. I shook my father’s hand, turned away and started walking back to my room in the boarding school. A room in a corridor full of strangers speaking a strange language. In that moment it felt as if I split in two: a body walking down a path and an anonymous observer.
I’ve heard of similar experiences, of situations in which people felt as if they were leaving their bodies and looking down at what was happening to them. People who spend the rest of their lives trying to reverse that moment.
I was maladjusted – that’s what they told me years later when I asked why they sent me away. I’d taken up with the wrong crowd, was on my way to becoming a criminal. That was true in a sense. So this was what I needed, I supposed, it was good for me.
When I wasn’t in class I hid in my room or walked in the forest. I barely spoke. I’d forgotten most of my Danish in any case, still thought in English. I’d overhear people saying I was strange. In the weekends I escaped to my grandparents’ farm in the country and cycled to the coast on my grandfather’s old bike.

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What seems clear to me now is that something goes wrong for everyone. One way or another – suddenly or slowly, of our own will or by force – we go astray. We lose sight of some essential part of ourselves. Hide from being. Yet we can never close ourselves off from it completely, never lose our link to the unity we spring from – how could we?
Michel Haar writes: ‘We are held in being, and no matter how tenuous the thread attaching us to presence – for example in fainting or dreamless sleep – we are never, as long as we are, released into pure nothingness.’
Never released from the impersonal thread of being that lets us become our more or less divided selves and live on the same ground as all other beings, no matter how different from us.

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It’s freezing. On a walk we find the feathers of a pheasant a fox has savaged and carried away. S. collects the tail feathers and some branches and arranges them in a vase when we get home.

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Woolf: ‘There was a spectator in me who, even while I squirmed and obeyed, remained observant, note taking for some future revision.’

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What happened after the double turned up? Didn’t it instantly take the place of my father? One of Blanchot’s narrators talks of being ‘represented in my feelings by a double for whom each feeling was as absurd as for a dead person’. Every feeling: silly, kitschy.
On the path between the thistle bushes there was me, a double, and a haze that began to gather between us – between me and others. When I spoke to people, the words – mine and theirs – moved through the haze while the double stood by with a sceptical smirk. I sat in my room, scared by footsteps in the corridor, knocks on my door.
The haze stayed with me for a long time: when I went to live with my parents again and we pretended everything was all right, when I worked in the factories, asked girls out, went to university… all through a haze, watched over by a dead double.
Then after years of tunnelling through other people’s words, of the turning and returning of words, you found your own, the ones that called you into the service of the moment and drew the double back in, at least for a moment.

(From ‘The Moment’.)

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Illuminations

We cycle up the coast towards Holme, chain our bikes to a tree and walk on a sandy path through the wood. S. stops here and there to open her wildlife book and identify some plant or insect. We chat without paying attention to our surroundings, emerge from the wood, and suddenly we find ourselves before a wide-open view: on one side the sea and sky a vast sheet of whites and blues, on the other scrapes and grassy dunes stretching inland.
It’s moments like that I want to write about. Not a story from beginning to end but a story of continual returns to the open instant.
Like those moment when you stop and see things with new eyes, as when you work on a problem until it seems insoluble and the answer comes to you all of a sudden: it was obvious all along, why couldn’t I see it.
Or those thoughts that lie in wait to show you how you’ve been shielding yourself from them, as in a psychoanalytic breakthrough: so that’s why I’ve always acted like that, why didn’t I see it.
Or, in novels, those passages in which moments of clarity cut through the plot and free up the story. I daydream of a book containing only such passages, something like Stephen Hero’s book of epiphanies, or a collection of Woolf’s ‘little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark’.

The idea has come to me that what I want now to do is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes… Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that do not belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional. Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry — by which I mean saturated?

— Woolf, diary (via here)

So she stood thinking. Without making any thought precise – for she was one of those reticent people whose minds hold their thoughts enmeshed in clouds of silence – she was filled with thoughts. Her mind was like her room, in which lights advanced and retreated, came pirouetting and stepping delicately, spread their tails, pecked their way; and then her whole being was suffused, like the room again, with a cloud of some profound knowledge, some unspoken regret, and then she was full of locked drawers, stuffed with letters, like her cabinets.

— Woolf, ‘The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection’