Stephanie Paulsell, HDS Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies and Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, discusses her recent publication about Virginia Woolf. Amy Hollywood (HDS) and Terry Tempest Williams (HDS) responded.
Welcome to the Center for the Study of World Religions. I see a lot of new faces here, so I feel as if I should say hello. My name is Charles Stang or Charlie, and I'm the director here at the Center. Without further ado, this popular series was established by my predecessor, Frank Clooney, who is here. Frank, former director of the CSWR.
Frank established this is an opportunity for the HDS community to gather not only to celebrate faculty publications but, more importantly, to learn from them by engaging with them, both appreciatively and critically. And to that end, we're grateful to our two faculty respondents whose comments will kick off this conversation. Before we begin in earnest, may I remind you all, including myself, to silence cell phones so we don't listen to your peculiar ringtones.
And before I introduce everyone, let me just say that I favor brief introductions just because I'm sure you want to hear from them and not me. First, our beloved colleague and author Stephanie Paulsell cell is the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor-- bless you-- of the Practice of Christian Studies and the Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church.
Stephanie has been a member of the HDS faculty since 2001. She is the author of Religion Around Virginia Woolf, most recently, co-editor, also quite recently, of Goodness and the Literary Imagination. And she's served as a regular columnist for the Christian Century since 2007. Her work focuses on religion and literature, Christian spirituality, and spiritually formative dimensions of the practices of reading and writing.
Amy Hollywood is the Elizabeth H. Monrad and professor of Christian studies here at HDS. She's the author of The Soul as Virgin Wife, which received the Otto Grundler Prize for the best book in medieval studies from the International Congress of Medieval Studies. Also the author of Sensible Ecstasy, and, most recently, Acute Melancholia and Other Essays. She is also the co-editor with Patricia Beckman of the Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism in which I have a chapter.
I'm really proud of that, really excited about that.
That Stephanie was supposed to write.
That Stephanie was supposed to-- I was the JV squad. I was B team.
That's totally true. To be fair, I had just graduated, so it was totally-- it was appropriate that I was the B team. And then, our second respondent is Terry Tempest Williams. Terry is in residence here at HDS. And she is the author of innumerable books, including the environmental classic Refuge-- An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Her most recent book is Erosion-- Essays of Undoing, very widely and appreciatively reviewed. And of course, her writing appears in many venues, including the New Yorker, New York Times, and Orion.
So here's how this evening will unfold. Stephanie will say a few words about her book. Then Amy and Terry will respond in turn. We'll then ask them to bring their chairs forward. I'll move this out of the way. Stephanie will have a chance to respond to Amy and Terry, and then we'll open it up to everyone's questions and comments. We will go until 7:00. And then, I also want to thank the Memorial Church, and the staff of the Memorial Church especially, for helping us put this event on, and also to thank them specifically for the reception that will follow immediately upon the conclusion of this.
And that's in our conference room. If you have any difficulty, just follow the crowd. There is food and beverages in there, so we can continue the conversation until 8 o'clock. Pretty straightforward. Wonderful to see you all. I imagine a number of you are from Mem Church, so again, welcome. And please join me in welcoming Stephanie to the podium.
Thank you, Charlie, and thank you all for coming out on such a rotten night. I'm so grateful. I am very grateful to Charlie and Corey O'Brien and Ariela Ruth Goldberg for setting up this event and all the great author events that they have here at the Center. It's a real generous thing they do for us here. I'm very grateful to a Alana Sullivan and Jesus Ramos and Lara Glass and Katie Evans for setting up this lovely reception. And I'm very grateful to two of my favorite writers, Amy Hollywood and Terry Tempest Williams, for agreeing to respond.
When I was in college, home on my first winter break, my mother gave me the first volume of Woolf's letters. And I had never read anything by Virginia Woolf. I was 19 years old. I had peeked at her novels, but they looked hard. And I don't know how my mother knew to give this to me, but she-- my mother and Amy, actually, have really directed my reading life, and I'm grateful.
But I remember sitting upstairs in my parents' house in Lexington, Kentucky, wrapped up in a blanket, reading this book. It was just a revelation. Virginia Woolf has six volumes of letters, six volumes of diaries, six volumes of essays. You can just dive in and spend the rest of your life there, which is what I plan to do.
But with that first volume of letters, just her voice, her young voice coming through, and the gossip, and the crush letters she wrote to older women, it was so delicious. And I couldn't put it down, and I've never stopped reading her since. But even before I began reading her novels, I think when I was still sitting upstairs as a 19-year-old reading her first volume of letters, there was something that felt religious to me about her writing.
Now, she was raised by two famous Victorian agnostics, her mother and father. She didn't go to church. She wasn't baptized. She felt dulled and bothered, as she put it, by the obstacle of not believing whenever she did have to go to church for weddings or funerals and the occasional evensong. So it wasn't a feeling of her being an adherent of a particular religious tradition. It was something about devotion, I think, just her devotion to the things that she loved.
She loved reading. She loved writing. She loved friendship. And she just gave herself to these things in such a-- I don't know, such a full-hearted, complete way, that it felt like what I thought of as and what that think of as religion. So when I started reading her novels, they also felt religious to me. Woolf was trying to make more of life visible in her work, in all of her work.
And so she often focused on the things that went undescribed in the prose fiction of her day and previous-- people's interiorities, what she called moments of being, these moments when something really real breaks through into your ordinary life. And for a moment, you either experience-- she experienced it often as violence, as a sledgehammer blow of reality from out of nowhere. But it could also be a moment where the distance between us, between two people, could be crossable for a moment, that two people who didn't get along or two people who didn't know each other somehow knew each other for a moment.
There's a great scene in her novel To the Lighthouse where one of her characters, Mrs. Ramsay, is imagining what she's like on the inside, and she thinks of herself as this wedge-shaped core of darkness at the center of her that's completely private and through which she can go anywhere she wants anytime she wants. And nobody can see it. It's private. But the painter Lily Briscoe, who loves her, is in love with her, who's trying to paint her, paints a sort of purple triangle when she paints her. And so somehow, she sees it. Somehow she crosses the boundary for a moment.
The revelatory power of ordinary rituals like sharing a meal together or throwing a party, these are the things that she wrote about, and they were also the things that interested me about religion. So when I got to graduate school in 1985, I thought I would write about her.
But then I got caught up in the study of medieval Christianity by a great teacher named Bernard McGinn, who was working on the history and literature of Christian mysticism. And he would give these lectures. And there'd be hundreds of us in this room in Chicago, and he'd be talking about these women's texts that were lying around untranslated and unedited in European libraries.
And I thought, that's the life that I want. And I fell in love with a medievalist. My best friend was a medievalist. So I got all caught up in it. And I eventually came across the writings of a late 13th, early 14th century woman named Marguerite d'Oingt who really reminded me of Virginia Woolf. And she experience God as an author who writes on her heart. And she thinks she's going to die or go crazy if she can't get this writing out of her body, and so she writes her own texts and heals herself.
And when I came across Woolf's autobiography where she says, I have these blows of reality from behind the cotton wool of non-being and they leave me shattered, and the greatest pleasure known to me, the way I heal myself, is by putting those severed parts back together. So I thought, I have found the person I can write about with Virginia Woolf.
So I wrote my oral exam paper on the two of them for my exams. We had to write papers for our exams in those days as well as take five for our exams. Just have to remember that every now and then. Kevin still dreams about them from time to time. And I got it published in Comparative Literature, and I thought for sure I would write my dissertation on these two.
And Bernard McGinn let me try twice to write a dissertation proposal that he would accept. And after the second one, he told me just to write on Marguerite d'Oingt, the medieval writer. And probably, he was right. There were a lot of things about studying the Middle Ages and medieval writing that I needed to learn. But I never stopped reading Woolf and reading her religiously.
And about seven or eight years ago, when Peter Kaufman, who was also a student of Bernard McGinn'd but a generation before Kevin and Amy and me, thought up this wonderful series called Religion Around. He was writing Religion Around Shakespeare. And he called me up and said, how would you like to write Religion Around Dante? And I said I wouldn't.
Or as Kevin said, hasn't that book already been written 100 times? But I said, how about Religion Around Virginia Woolf? And he said, sure, do it. And that's how I came to start teaching the Virginia Woolf and Religion course here to help me think through the project. But of course, so much more than that happened through that course. Where is Vanessa Zoltan Oh, there you are.
Vanessa Zoltan was in the first iteration of that class when I made everyone read every single novel Virginia Woolf ever wrote. I never did that again, but I marched them through every single-- because I needed to read them all quickly in a row. And now Vanessa runs this-- this didn't come out of my class, but she runs these wonderful literary pilgrimages as part of her work with Not Sorry Productions, her feminist production company.
And she and I bring pilgrims on journeys through Sussex, including Brooke and Terry on our very first inaugural pilgrimage. That was an amazing thing that came out of that class. Alejandra who graduated last year, wrote an amazing essay on The Waves and the way children and families and people are treated at the border who are trying to cross, which has just been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, so I'm really proud of-- so proud of her.
Lots and lots of great final papers on Woolf and Buddhism. Somebody needs to write that book. I don't know enough about Buddhism to write it, but there's a lot. I've learned a lot from students over the years. And just a lot of taking up of Woolf as a religious thinker. And I see some of my students from this semester Virginia Woolf and Religion here, and I'm looking forward to their final papers very much.
And that is what I tried to do in this book, was both to think about the religion around Virginia Woolf, which is kind of the assignment of the series, but also to engage Woolf herself as a religious thinker whose novels and stories and essays do a kind of religious work. Now, whenever anybody writes about religion and Woolf, they always end up quoting the same two passages.
And we just had a panel at the AR on this book, and there were two wonderful Woolf scholars there. And we all laughed because in all of our books, we all start with these same passages. But one is her letter to her sister Vanessa after her friend TS Eliot converted to Christianity. "I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Elliott, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God."
Her letters to her sister are fantastic. She's always trying to outdo herself. The second passage that is always quoted is from her autobiography, which she was working on in 1939 and 1940. She died in 1941. She drowned herself in the River Ouse. And there's a passage in this autobiography that reads like a creed. It sounds like a creed. And she says-- she's talking about these shocks that she gets, this reality breaking into ordinary experience.
And she says, "From this I reach what I might call a philosophy. At any rate, it is a constant idea of mine, that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern, that we, I mean all human beings, are connected with this, that the whole world is a work of art, that we are parts of the world of art." And this is a part that we always puzzle over in class. "Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare. There is no Beethoven. Certainly and emphatically, there is no God. We are the words. We are the music. We are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock."
So writing about Woolf as a religious thinker isn't immediately-- it's not immediately attractive to all Woolf scholars. Amy has a really good friend who's a wonderful, fantastic Woolf scholar. And she was in town once. I was just at the beginning of this project, and Amy invited me kindly for a drink with her. And she said, what are you working on? And I said, I'm working on Woolf and religion. And she said, oh.
She squished up her face. Because obviously, she's trying very hard not to be-- she's very critical of the religion that's proximate to her, which is the Church of England, but she's usually critical of it on religious grounds. She says the bishops aren't doing a good enough job. We need poets talking about heaven, not bishops. But I don't think it's very hard to argue that she's trying to do religious work in her work, and many people have done very interesting work around this.
The author that I like to point to in this is Matthew Arnold, who wrote an essay in the mid 19th century in which he said, religion just can't do the work it used to do for us. It attached itself to these facts, and now the facts have failed them-- have failed us, failed religion. And so religion's not going to be able to interpret life for us. It's not going to be able to console us. It's not going to be able to sustain us, so we're going to need something else. So lyric poetry is going to be the thing that does that.
50 years later, Woolf wrote an essay called Poetry, Fiction, and the Future, in which he says, lyric poetry, it just really can't do the work it used to do for us. It used to do this work for our ancestors, but it's not spacious enough. It's not tough enough. It needs the toughness of prose. So there needs to be-- we need a new form that's going to be written in prose, but in prose which has many of the characteristics of poetry.
It will have something of the exaltation of poetry, but much of the ordinariness of prose. It will be dramatic and yet not a play. "Every moment," she said, "is the center and meeting place of an extraordinary number of perceptions which have not yet been expressed." And those are the things that she wanted to express, what she calls life itself or something in the universe that one is left with or something more.
And I think you can hear-- Arnold's writing in response to the Victorian loss of faith, which both of her parents experienced very profoundly. She was raised with no faith to lose. But that desire for a new form, that critique of what's come before, it seems like it's a continuation of Arnold's attempt to respond to that loss of faith. We need something else to do religious work for us, so we'll use poetry.
Woolf says we need something to do the work that poetry used to do, which for Arnold is religious work. So anyway, you see what I'm trying to say. When she talks about her literary problems, they sound like her parents' religious problems. She asks of literature, the way they asked of religion, is this all? Is this enough? Must we believe this? Her literary project is answering the religious longings that still linger, even when "faith" is "lost," both of those words in quotes.
So her literary project feels like a religious project to me, an attempt to create a literature that could do the work of religion, to gesture toward an excess presence in life that resists our attempts to describe it, to explore what she called the life of the spirit, to make space for the work of mourning and the search for meaning, and to cultivate new forms of sacred community and devotional practice.
Now, she came from a very religiously restless family. Her ancestors are the evangelical Clapham sect in England, who were devoted to eradicating slavery from the face of the Earth. Her grandfather wrote the bill that ended slavery. Her great grandfather wrote the-- in England, thank you. Her great grandfather wrote the bill that ended the slave trade in the colonies. These were-- they understood themselves to be radical Christians. They were often criticized. They were called the Clapham sect as a term of derision because they were-- people thought they thought they were better than everybody else, kind of like the Bloomsbury group.
But anyway, she comes out of that-- her family, her father's side especially, comes out of that Clapham sect mentality, devotion. And she inherits not the Christian faith, but she certainly inherits the sense of duty, the sense that you ought to find your work and give yourself wholly to it, and your work ought to mean something beyond the boundary of your own life.
She says a lot in her writings, especially In a Room of One's Own, she says, I'm talking about the common life, not the little individual lives that we all lead. There's this work that we're all doing together. In A Room of One's Own, we're resurrecting Shakespeare's sister. And she says, if we live 100 more years and have a room of our own in 500 years, we'll be able to do it. Well "we," that's not just-- that's "we." That's the people before her, the people after her. It's all of us. She had-- I think that comes in part from the Clapham sect.
Her father lost his faith while a professor at Cambridge, where you had to be ordained in order to be on the faculty. And he had the courage of his convictions and gave it up and became instead a writer. Her mother had also gone through a life-changing experience of losing her faith and wrote a lot about herself, about agnostic women and her vocation of nursing and how agnostics did it better because they didn't have a-- they weren't trying to convert anyone.
She had a Quaker aunt who had also left the Church of England, but for the Quakers, and who Virginia Woolf would go to her house in Cambridge when she was ill. And they would have these nine-hour conversations about Caroline's religious experiences. Caroline told Woolf that God communicates intermittently like a lighthouse, which I think is interesting.
So I don't want to keep talking because I want to hear from Amy and Terry, but the kinds of influences that I tried to write about in the book were those that were really close to her. The religion around her was really shaped by her relatives and her ancestors. But she was also very influenced by a cousin who was always trying to convert her that really gave her a real aversion to conversion.
She was very interested in Walter Pater's novel Marius the Epicurean, which is all about religion and this young man who's going around second-century Rome trying out different religions. The ideas about religion and art, visual art, that her sister and her brother-in-law and her friend Roger Fry were interested in and writing about. The work of Jane Ellen Harrison, the great historian of religions who studied Greek religion.
And one of the things she taught Woolf was that you can have a religion without God. Religion doesn't require God. She traveled to Italy and to Istanbul with her sister to look at art and was very-- worked out a lot of her ideas about what she was trying to do and be as a writer. Standing before religious art, thinking about the similarities and differences between the kind of beauty she was after, the kind of beauty, say, Perugino was after.
She went to the mosques in Istanbul and really loved the way everyday life and religious life seemed to-- the boundaries between them seemed very fluid. And she also comes out of this British, English, Christian culture that has in it the Cloud of Unknowing, great mystical text that, every once in a while, I wonder if she read. I don't have any evidence of that. But there's a great scene in Between the Acts, her last novel, where-- lost my thought.
Oh, yes. This image appears a lot in her work of the burning bush or the match burning in the crocus or the author in the hedges. You get this sense of the story from Exodus. And one of the things that is said in Between the Acts is, it's time for the author to come out from the bushes, and let's speak in words of one syllable. Of course, "I am who I am," those are all words of one syllable. But in the Cloud of Unknowing, the Cloud author says, you've got to choose a word of one syllable and use it to beat at that cloud where God is hiding and try to pierce it with a prayer of one word, one syllable.
But the Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart-- there's lots of-- certainly, she was on some sort of mystical track that, if she didn't know these writers, was certainly thinking very similar thoughts to them. One of the things we might talk about tonight, actually, is the way that the idea of the mystical has been used to keep her on the secular side of the religious/secular divide, and in a way that I think is not always helpful. But maybe Amy, you can enlighten us on that.
So there's one chapter on religious practice that really focuses on reading, because reading was really the practice that grounded her life and shaped her life. There's a chapter on God and the way God hovers around her work as a potential answer to some questions that get repeatedly asked and intrudes into the consciousness of many of her characters. They try to police the idea of God out of their minds.
And how some of her characters, like Elizabeth Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway's daughter, experience a kind of divine presence in the midst of the city, and it's impersonal and consoling to them precisely because it's impersonal, that there's something consoling about that of an impersonal excess presence that's gathering up everything, all of life, and rolling it forward.
And then there's one chapter, the final chapter, on sacred community, which is the last chapter I wrote and feels the most pertinent to our moment. She's writing on community, as many people are in the late '30s and early '40s, as Fascism rises in Europe. And in 1940, her former lover, Vita Sackville-West's son-- Vita was the lover, not the son-- Ben Nicholson writes to Woolf and says, why didn't you and your brilliant friends stop this?
You're so smart. Why didn't you-- why is this happening? Why didn't you stop it? And the only letter that we have of hers that has a draft, an extant draft, is the letter she wrote back to Ben Nicholson, because that question really got under her skin. And it makes me think about the kinds of questions our students and our children are asking us now. How can we be here?
How can we be on the edge of a climate disaster? How did 2016 happen? Woolf wrote to her niece, Judith Stephen, in 1940, did you ever read GE Moore's book that made us all so good, she says. And she said, I'm trying to fight Hitler in his home haunts, even if with only the end of an inky old pen. So she was very concerned about Fascism within British society itself, writes a lot about that.
TS Eliot, her friend, who she did not-- was not dead to her. In fact, she still loved him after he converted, still tried to raise money for him to get him out of the bank. It wasn't enough money, though, so he didn't leave. He was writing around 1938-- he wrote a book called The Idea of a Christian Society, in which he said, we're either going to have a Christian culture, or we're going to have this Nazi-pagan culture.
And he said, everybody doesn't have to be Christian, but the culture has to be Christian, the education has to be Christian. And what we're going to need is a church within the church of people who know the contemplative practices, who know the tradition, who know the literature, and who can shape an education that's going to take us in a different direction from Fascism.
Woolf wrote at around the same time, 1938, a book called Three Guineas, in which she said, what we need is a society of outsiders, of people who have been kept out of the universities, kept out of the professions, and kept out of religion, out of the churches, out of the leadership of the churches, to re-shape our society, to create a world in which people will hate war. Mainly, she meant women by her society of outsiders, but she also names religious minorities, and she also names racial minorities as people who've been marginalized and who are going to be able to look at these institutions and see what needs to be done.
She said, the society of outsiders needs to quietly go around to the churches and listen to the sermons and take notes and maybe propose a new religion, maybe that will be based on the New Testament, but that will look very different from the institution that we have now. So she's part of that larger conversation about what kind of education we need, what kind of society we need, what kind of community do we need to turn this thing around. And of course, in 1938, 1939, people didn't know what was going to happen.
For Woolf, the common ground of our common life, the real life and not just our little individual lives, was literature. She had a lot of hope in literature and in the practice of reading, although that hope waned as she got older and as fascism got stronger and as another terrible war got underway. But I want to end by reading from one of her last essays she wrote in 1940 called The Leaning Tower, in which she says a lot of really interesting things, one of which is, Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott did not hear Napoleon's voice the way we hear Hitler's voice of an evening as we're sitting at home, and that made a difference in the literature they wrote and in the literature that we write.
But she's trying to-- she doesn't live much beyond the end-- this novel-- this essay is written in 1940. She dies in 1941. She doesn't live beyond the War, but she looks beyond it. She's looking beyond it all the time. Even in her suicide note, she's looking beyond it. And what she's looking beyond it to is a new community. And what she has faith in, which feels kind of fragile now, but the faith that she had was in the income tax and in the public libraries, which were new to her society. And she thought, this is going to smooth out the class differences, and it's going to make literature available to everybody. And she says, "We've got to teach ourselves to understand literature. Money is no longer going to do our thinking for us." Little did she know.
But anyway, I'll stop here. She says, "But let us bear in mind a piece of advice that an eminent Victorian, who was also an eminent pedestrian--" That's her dad. He was a great alpine climber, and he walked 20 miles almost every Sunday of his life-- of his adult life. "Let us bear in mind a piece of advice that an eminent Victorian, who was also an eminent pedestrian, once gave to walkers. Whenever you see a board up with 'Tresspassers Will be Prosecuted,' trespass at once. Let us trespass at once.
Literature is no one's private ground. Literature is common ground. It is not cut up into nations. There are no wars there. Let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves. It is thus that English literature will survive this War and cross the gulf, if commoners and outsiders like ourselves make that country our own country, if we teach ourselves how to read and how to write, how to preserve and how to create." Thank you.
OK. I'm here to speak for the pagans, the non-Nazi pagans. Let's hope there are some. We'll see. My mother gave me in high school The Common Reader and Room of One's Own. And she was, with my father, the most democratic person I know, or knew. And so there's something fascinating about where Stephanie just ended up in relationship to Woolf and the fact that Woolf is somebody that both our mothers gave us to read.
When my mother was dying, I was rereading Woolf's letters, and I was reading the letters in which she's very impatiently writing two stories up from her father's sick room desires for him to die as quickly as possible. And I thought to myself-- my mother was very slowly dying, and I was like, die, die, die. It's got to be over. This is too much work.
Which is what Woolf was saying in her letters. She's writing to people, I wish he would die, I wish he would die, I wish he would die. And then, of course, when he dies, she completely falls apart, which was-- and so the whole time, I was thinking about my mother, it's time to die. I thought, I'm going to completely fall apart. Didn't quite happen that way.
But there's that resonance of it's time. It's time to die now, and yet it's unbearable for you to die, that runs throughout Woolf's writing and that I think has everything to do with what Stephanie in her really beautiful book, Religion Around Virginia Woolf, sees as the religious dimension of Woolf's thought. So one of the things-- Stephanie already laid this out, so I want to talk in depth about this.
But one of the things that this series is asking people to do is to think about, obviously, religious influences, religious contexts, religious frameworks within which a particular author, whether they themselves are religious or not, is writing and speaking and reading. And in the best cases, take it a step further or are able-- maybe-- is it the best cases? In some cases are able to take the step further to show how someone who one might not think of as a religious thinker is in fact a religious thinker, a religious writer.
And that's what Stephanie does with Virginia Woolf, I think, with really beautiful readings of Mrs. Dalloway as a recitation of the hours, monastic hours, and being able to plot the monastic hours onto the movements across the novel that takes place within 24 hours. So it fits within the framework.
And the reading of To the Lighthouse and the use of the triangle as a figure throughout To the Lighthouse, which is related, as Stephanie shows really beautifully, to Perugino's paintings, to a certain mode of Trinitarian thought that is about abstraction and humanness, but not about divine other, one-in-three mystery, about something more mysterious and more complex.
It has to do with how we see the living persons in front of us, which is what Lily Briscoe is trying to do in To the Lighthouse and what Woolf is doing as she's telling the story of her father and mother and her siblings in the novel. And then, really beautiful readings also of The Waves and the chorus of voices that speak to each other in The Waves, sometimes distinguishable, sometimes indistinguishable, and the various modes of religious identity that they take up.
What Bernard thinks is not what Louis thinks is not what Rhoda thinks. And so that the ways that they all think about and practice and stand in relationship to religion and also to the figure of Percival, who is the kind of religious hero of this group of friends' lives. And that possibility, the possibility that the religious center of your life might be your best friend, is crucial to what Woolf is doing in The Waves and elsewhere.
So if for nothing else, read for the history of the religion around, but even more I think are the final three chapters of the novel that are readings of Virginia Woolf as herself a religious thinker and her novels as forms of devotional practice in the reading that goes into them and the writing of them. I'm going to go to steal a pass. Oh, and also, I meant to say--
OK, so my friend Brenda Silver, who's the great Woolf scholar-- she doesn't care if I out her on this. This is how much Brenda Silver knows about religion. I was giving a paper once about the side wound of Jesus, Jesus's side wound, and a whole thing about medieval mystical attraction to Jesus's side wound. And I had dinner later that night with Brenda, and she said, Paul didn't know about this either. Paul's her husband, or they're not married. Anyway, it doesn't matter.
And she's said, Paul doesn't know about this either. And I said, know about what? Jesus's thigh wound. And I was like, no, not a thigh wound. So she just made that face because she doesn't know. She didn't know Jesus had a thigh wound, so there's no way she's going to understand how Virginia Woolf could be religious. So I had to get that in there somewhere once you bought Brenda up.
But anyway, one of the things that I was thinking of-- there's two things that I wanted to be sure to say. One is that I wondered-- you answered the questions in some ways, but I found myself wondering about the use of the word religious as opposed to the word philosophy, since Woolf herself says it's her philosophy. So what's at stake in using the word religious? I think you gave some really good answers to that already.
But I'm going to reread the passage that you read that everybody reads when they talk about Virginia Woolf and religion because it does a couple of things for me. "From this, I reach what I might call a philosophy." And again, "what I might call." But philosophy was her father's domain, so she's kind of like, eh, maybe, but maybe not.
"At any rate, it is a constant idea of mine, that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern, that we, I mean all human beings, are connected with this, that the whole world is a work of art, that we are parts of the world of art. Hamlet or Beethoven's quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare. There is no Beethoven. Certainly and emphatically, there is no God. We are the words. We are the music. We are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock."
My question is, A, why religion versus philosophy? But also, even if we stay within the world of religion-- and there's good reasons to do that, I think-- is the pattern-- and this I think runs throughout your book, kind of back and forth between the book. Is the pattern in the things themselves, or is the pattern what we weave into the things themselves?
And so it seems to me that for Woolf, it's very much-- that on one level in Woolf, the pattern is what we make out of it. That there's darkness. That there's the fin in the water. That there's the stones that we're throwing against the darkness. And that we make some kind of meaning out of that, and that we are the only figures.
And again, it's not a singular. It's not Shakespeare. It's not Beethoven. It's not Virginia Woolf. It's a collective we that creates the conditions in which meaning can be made out of what I think for her is a kind of tumultuous, chaotic in and of itself meaningless existence. But we make meaning in that space. The problem with that answer from one perspective is its anthropocentrism. Does that mean that-- "does that mean."
Does that entail disallowing the value of the universe absent the human? Woolf might have said yes. I don't know, and I don't pretend to know what her answer to that question is. But I wonder, and I wonder about aspects of her work that point to or that are immersed in the natural world in a way that suggests that even if it's the human that makes the whole, that the shatters, the splinters, the reality that splinters the subject is itself a value even as it is dispersed and in its very dispersal.
In the book, Stephanie emphasizes a lot the idea of making whole again, and yet you're describing often things in dispersal. And so that pull back and forth between the desire for unity and the willingness or the pleasure in things being dispersed I think is a really interesting thing to ponder and to think about and what the relative balance of desire and pleasure is in Woolf in relationship to those two-- I don't want to see them as two different, but those different poles of reality.
So why not philosophy instead of religion? One reason is to say-- and I don't see religion and secular as distinct. I think the secular is folded into the religious, so I don't think that's an antithesis, although many people do, you're right. So one of the reasons for me to keep the idea of the religious is because those who refuse that title to Woolf may be refusing it on the grounds of her paganism.
And I want to say, no, her paganism is her religion. And so how do we think what her paganism is? And that has to do with her relationship to the natural world as well as her relationship to or her understanding of intersubjectivity and her understanding of that something more that is an excess of that with which we can grapple in the here and now.
That's the main point that I want to foreground, that on my reading of Parsell on Woolf, and I think in my reading of Woolf too, the primary emphasis is on what's here, what's now. There's no other-worldliness in Woolf. And that's where the mystical examples work and don't work for me, because insofar as you see Eckhart as a totally this-worldly mystic, then you can make it work. But I've argued for Eckhart as a totally this-worldly mystic. I also think I'm probably wrong.
So I think there's much more other-worldliness to Eckhart, to Teresa of Avila, to Marguerite d'Oingt than there is for Woolf. And so insofar as there's a site of commonality, it's about a kind of merging, coming together, and dispersal, and the enjoyment in both the coming together and the dispersal. And yet it's happening all here. It's happening in the concreteness of our embodied and lived experience.
And I just want to read something from somebody totally different because that's-- if Stephanie was doing something on my book, she would read Virginia Woolf, so I get to do this. I've been thinking a lot about Henry James. But I'm not going to read from Henry James. I'm going to read from his cousin Minny Temple. His cousin Minnie temple was dying.
The first time James went to Europe as an adult by himself, sort of escaping from his lunatic family, he left behind his cousin Minny Temple and felt guilty about it for the rest of his life and wrote continuously about her and about her life and about her death. She died at the age of 25, I think, while James was in Europe that first trip that he took solo.
She wrote a series of letters to her best-- "best friend." To a friend, her closest correspondent, John Chapman Gray, who was a friend of Henry and William James's and friend of Minny Temple's, and for some reason the person-- this very stoic, puritanical, New England-y lawyer who for some reason Minny Temple chose as the repository for her doubts and fears and attempts to figure out what was happening to her as she was dying.
And she wrote a letter, a couple letters, to Gray that I want to read from because I think they have relevance for thinking about Woolf. She talks to Chapman Gray-- to Gray about how she's trying to think about life and death and God as her own illness progresses. She has tuberculosis. Quote, "I have nobody to speak to about serious things." She didn't have the Woolf family. Or excuse me, the Stephens family.
"If by chance I say anything or ask a question that lies near my heart, Kitty in Ellie," her sisters, "both tell me that I'm queer and that I wouldn't be me for any-- and that they wouldn't be me for anything, which is no doubt sensible on their part, but which puts an end to anything but conversation of the most superficial kind on my part." Excuse me. So here you have somebody dying for that kind of friendship, that kind of society in which she could talk about the things that really matter in the way that Virginia Woolf was able to find.
Closer to her death, she writes this. She's excusing her weary tone. "Can you understand the weariness of thinking about one thing all the time, so that when you wake up in the morning consciousness comes back with a sigh of, oh yes, here it is again. Another day of doubting and worrying, hoping and yearning has begun. And if you don't sleep at all, which is too frequently the case with me, the strain is a little bit too hard, and I'm sometimes tempted to take a little poison."
She uses these little cute words."Pison," I don't even know she's supposed to pronounce that, "to put me to sleep in earnest." I.e., she's thinking about killing herself, and she's in earnest about that. "The momentary vision of redemption from thinking and striving of a happy rest this side of eternity." She had a moment when she thought, oh, it's real. There's going to be redemption. There's going to be a resurrection. There's going to be a life on the other side.
"That has vanished away again. I can't keep it. Peaceful, desirable as it may be, the truth is that I practically-- the truth is that practically I don't believe it." She's sounding like Virginia Stephens. "It was such a sudden thing, such an entire change from anything that has ever come before to my mind." Excuse me. Can't talk today.
"It was such a peculiar thing, such an entire change from anything that had ever come to my mind before that it seemed almost like an inspiration, and I waited, almost expecting it to continue, to be permanent. But it didn't stay, and so back swings the universe to the old place, paganism, natural religion, or whatever you call the belief whose watchword is God in our own soul. And who shall say that there is no comfort in it? One at least feels that here one can breathe one's native air, welcome back the old human feeling with its beautiful pride and its striving, its despair, its mystery, and its faith."
Minny Temple was a lot like Virginia Stephens. And whatever it was that she was looking for that was curtailed by a very early death in her case is very much, I think, what Henry James, but also, and more importantly for our purposes today, what Virginia Woolf goes on to write, to try to talk about the religion that is in the everyday, the something more that is in our everyday interactions, relations to the natural world and to the world of other human beings who are, of course, part of that natural world. And Stephanie helps us see that. So thank you.
"Life grounded in life itself," quote-unquote, Virginia Woolf says. And so I must begin with a full disclosure. I love Stephanie Paulsell. I have been one of her students, so I am not objective. And I love Virginia Woolf. Her voice is in my ear. And I will always remember the day after reading The Waves where I realized a narrative does not have to be linear. And I love this book that weaves the perspective of these two women whose spiritual leadership on the page and in the world have both influenced and infiltrated my life.
So this may not be an academic stance, but a personal one, belonging to the stream of consciousness inherent in Woolf's work how I choose to respond to the author Paulsell and the subject Woolf who belong to the realm of literary sisters. Quote, "We are only lightly covered with button cloth, and beneath these pavements are shells, bones, and silence." Woolf, The Waves.
Virginia Woolf was committed to both voice and silence, the common life, both human and wild, as in present with the politics and poetry of the moment she was a part of. Stephanie Paulsell, like Woolf, is committed to the communal life from which all art and religion unfolds in hers. Their medium is words, texts born out of their questions. For Virginia, what is the place of art? What is beauty in times of war?
As for writing, quote, she writes, "I want to express beauty too, but beauty symmetry of life and the world in action. Conflict, is that it? I obtain a different kind of beauty, achieve a symmetry by means of infinite discords, showing all the traces of the mind's passage through the world and achieving the end some kind of whole made of shimmering fragments. To me, this seems the natural process, the flight of the mind. Do they really reach the same thing?" This from her diary that Amy was alluding to.
And for Stephanie, what is a Pilgrim? What is God? What binds us together rather than what tears us apart? How do we read the world together? Stephanie has shown me being a pilgrim even on the pages of To the Lighthouse, is a path to discovering God. For example, through the presence of Mrs. Ramsay as she choreographs her own dinner party, with all the religiosity of a sacrament to one's family and the memories made in the act of partaking, engaging the real.
Quote, "All the being and doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated, and one shrunk with a sense of solemnity to being one's self, a wedge-shaped core of darkness." What you referred to. Something invisible to others. And this self, having shed its attachments, was free for the strangest adventures. So many of those adventures internal. And again, quote, "She had a sense of being passed everything, through everything, out of everything, as she helped the soup, as if there was an eddy there, and one could be in it or one could be out of it, and she was out of it."
And then, as Stephanie writes, quote, "From this liminal space of the threshold, she turns to inhabit a moment longer the scene she created which was vanishing even as she looked, her art made of fragments of conversation and silence, food and light, poetry in the unspoken feelings, ephemeral." And then, after Mrs. Ramsay's death, through her absence Mrs. Ramsay continues to inspire Lily Briscoe's painting as the artist sits between the hedge and the sea, remembering her as her paintbrush marks her love for her on the canvas.
Mrs. Ramsay had her vision, and she had hers. Like God, Mrs. Ramsey's absence is her presence as she leads Mr. Ramsay and the children to the lighthouse. The dead are among us. The holy are among us. To me, this corroborates with Stephanie's notion of Virginia Woolf as a spiritual writer. 50 pairs of eyes were not enough to get round one woman with, Lilly says of Miss Virginia.
As pilgrims, we walk our own path of inquiry and interrogation, where faith leads us toward the unknowable even as our common and communal ground shakes. Stephanie writes these questions which move me. Can we survive? Can we rebuild? Can we create a whole out of fragments? And she answers with Virginia's response through Isa in Woolf's last novel, Between the Acts.
Quote, "Yes, Isa answered. No, she added. It was yes, no, yes, yes, yes. The tried rushed out embracing no, no, no, it contracted," end quote. Paulsell responds to Woolf. Quote, "The answer shifts, but the fluidity between the options is where hope lies." I think this is useful for us today. As long as we can move back and forth, the possibility for survival, Paulsell says, rebuilding and creating exists.
High tide. Low tide. Advancing. Retreating. Expanding. Contracting. What does it mean to be human, to be changing in a changing world? What is the universe and universality of literature but a liturgy of revelations and exiles? I've learned from Woolf and Paulsell that finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find.
As artists, writers, poets, students, teachers, preachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, construction workers, and shopkeepers, what is common to us all grounds us together. This creative act of living belongs to a realm of a spiritual pilgrimage, not about religious declarations, but a personal and personal transformations. Beauty and God become one, a terrible trembling of awe. And I think we see this in Woolf's writings.
I remember when I was in Spain on a pilgrimage of a different order and I stayed in the hotel that it was rumored that Virginia Woolf stayed in. And there was a very old proprietor. And I asked her if she knew Virginia Woolf. And she said, actually, I did know her. I was a child when Miss Woolf came. And I said, what was she like? And she said, she made us all tired.
And I think that to me is a spiritual seeker, always questioning. We are moved by this knowledge of being part of something very, very large and very, very small. Art is a dance with humility, beauty a bow toward annihilation. Virginia Woolf knew this, and Stephanie Paulsell explores this. Quote, "We are only lightly covered with button cloth, and beneath these pavements are shells, bones, and silence." Worth repeating.
What does it mean to be brave? To me, that's what this book really addresses, and I think that is at the root of a spiritual life. To live and to love. So what do we do in between the acts? Last night, in Act Two of L'Orfeo-- Brooke and I went. It was my Christmas present to him, and he went-- what, dubiously?
When Orpheus grieves Eurydice's death from a snake bite, Orpheus laments, quote, "Oh, powerful spirit, awe-inspiring presence without whose acquiescence no bodiless soul can make the passage to the farther shore, I do not live, for my beloved bride being dead, my heart is gone. And with no heart, how can I be alive?" I couldn't help but think-- and maybe it was just being immersed in your book, Stephanie-- did Virginia Woolf ever see this play?
I thought about how each of her novels and letters and journal entries for me shed light on this question, what does it mean to be alive? Am I alive? How do I survive? Another turn of the kaleidoscope of what it means to be human. And I found out, in fact, she had seen this play. She described it as the loveliest opera ever written. And she wrote to her sister Vanessa, quote, "I was terribly moved by Monteverdi's Orfeo. I see that to be deeply moved I must be at a certain passing distance from the actual emotional situation."
So Stephanie, one of my questions tonight is, what is that emotional-- how she puts it-- that emotional distance, the certain passing distance from the actual emotional situation? What does that mean? Is that the paradox of a writer? On one hand, she writes to create community, and yet on the other hand, she is removed from that community in her solitude, exiled forever, the itinerant observer ruthless with her powers of perception, removed yet misses nothing, the writer who will always betray the one who confides in her, even in fiction-- especially in fiction-- so long as the writer never betrays herself. Is this ethical? Is that the beginning of that passing distance in order for one to move others?
Woolf's capacity to get out of the way of her characters' stream of consciousness soliloquies that create an opening for intimacy, mystery, how the ineffable rises to the sacred. Let me ask that again. Is this what moves us as readers, Virginia Woolf's capacity to get out of the way of her characters, her aloofness, creating a stream of consciousness soliloquies that create an opening for intimacy, mystery, and how the ineffable rises to the sacred.
Quote, "I see you everywhere, in the stars, in the river. To me, you're everything that exists, the reality of everything." Unquote. Virginia from Night and Day. Is this love or God? Or is it the thing itself, life itself as she says, the common life where the roots of the sacred grow, where women and men must also discover the divine within themselves and the world in which they live? Is Earth not enough?
If this is so, then yes, Virginia Woolf is a writer of spirit and spirituality beyond religion, beyond the God, beyond God, here, now, ground. "There was a star riding through clouds one night, and I said to this star, consume me." Is this Virginia Woolf, or Saint Teresa d'Avila? The Castle or The Waves? Quote, "I see nothing. We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with seawater. They will float for a moment and then sink, rolling over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower dissolving me." Unquote.
"Yes," Virginia Woolf writes, "this is the eternal renewal, the incessant rise and fall and fall and rise again." Sacred texts composed, written, performed, sung, and spoken bring us to a living, breathing word. In the beginning was the word. That creates the rituals that keep the flame of a spiritual life alive, a religious practice burning. Belief remains alive, not dead, fluid, not fixed.
In this tradition, we can locate the literature of Virginia Woolf as sacred text, unafraid to illuminate the questions of mortality, morality, and our responses and responsibilities to life here, now, Earth, ground. Consider this passage from the Death of the Moth, which to me corroborates what you're really advocating for, religious Woolf surrounding.
Quote, "Yet because he was so small and so simple a form of the energy that was rolling in an open window and driving its way through so many Nora and intricate corridors in my own brain and in those of other human beings, there was something marvelous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down feathers had set it dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life.
Thus displayed, one could not get over the strangeness of it. One is apt to forget all about life, seeing it humped, embossed, en-garnished, encumbered, so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity. God in a moth." And that last beautiful sentence. "Oh yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am." Night vision. Sacred texts. The religion around Virginia Woolf.
Karen Armstrong in her recent book The Lost Art of Scripture-- Rescuing Sacred Texts writes, "Art has been inextricably bound with religion. Religion itself is an art form. The right hemisphere of the brain is central to the creation of poetry, music, and religion. It sees itself as connected to the outside world, whereas the left hemisphere of the brain holds aloof from it. The right brain sees each thing in relation to the whole and perceives the interconnectedness of reality. It is therefore at home with metaphor."
And then the paradox with Woolf, the thing itself. Do we have to reconcile that? Where is that in terms of literature, religion, spirituality? "I loathe God," she says. And then, in another passage, "The sun fell in sharp wedges inside the room. Whatever the light touched became dowered with the fantastical, fanatical existence. A plate was like a white lake. A knife looked like a dagger of ice. Suddenly, tumblers revealed themselves held up by streaks of light." Mrs. Dalloway.
And in closing, when a group of pilgrims led by Stephanie and Vanessa Zoltan and Julia Argy traveled to the southern downs of England to follow the path of Virginia Woolf to the lighthouse, we finally arrived, walking up and down the Seven Sisters with their eroding white chalk cliffs. And we saw that beam of light surveying the seemingly endless sea in darkness.
We each found our own metaphor for that moment. Intermittent light. A consoling vision that, like all visions, would have to be perpetually remade, writes Woolf. Paulsell responds, quote, "Her vision will be made and remade through art, creating from fragments, quote, 'one of those globed, compacted things over which thought lingers and love plays,'" unquote.
Some secret sense fine as air. Finding the miracle, the ecstasy, and the ordinary stuff of the world. Story, God, a terrible beauty called truth. And in that moment standing in the here again, gone again, flashing light reflected on our moonlight faces as pilgrims, we found a new muscularity in how we belong to one another. This common ground, communal ground that had mysteriously pulled us asunder.
Quote, "Let us now crawl under the canopy of the current leaves and tell stories. Let us inhabit the underworld. Let us take possession of our secret territory." Virginia Woolf. So my last question to you, Stephanie, among so many, too many to tackle tonight, is this. What is the secret territory that Virginia Woolf reveals and conceals through her sacred texts that move us beyond religion to life itself, here, now, at this moment in time? Thank you for this transcendent reading and lived experience in your book that sends us back to the source. Brava.
We can just sit here for a while.
Thank you all so much, Amy and Terry. Too many questions, as Terry said, to answer. But I love that Terry answered one of Amy's questions. That was very helpful. The whole made of shivering fragments, I think that's right.
Still not an answer
The reason why I move back and forth between fragment and whole and between this world and, not some other world, but some excess something, is because she does so much.
Oh, absolutely, yeah.
In that same page in A Sketch of the Past where she says all the creed that you read, she says, this seems given to me, not made by me.
She's constantly moving back and forth. I think in the end, when Eleanor in The Years puts out her hands and says, there's got to be some other world here and now in this room with these people, but my cousin is still talking about-- telling his college stories to this other guy, and I couldn't go to college. And it's still-- I think because she doesn't-- she's just fluid, and she just doesn't land neatly.
The thing I don't trust is wholeness.
I agree. It's just she constantly uses that word.
No, no, no. I know. I'm not--
Let Stephanie answer more. Sorry. I shouldn't have interrupted.
When she says the wonderful passage that you read from To the Light House, she says that the work of the lover is to make this whole-- this globed compacted thing over which thought lingers and love plays. I think-- I don't know, I think modernists still had a confidence in a whole that we don't have anymore. But I think further back, when she's still Virginia Stephen and she's standing in front of that Perugino painting and she thinks, that's really beautiful, but that's not the beauty that I want to create.
I want to create a beauty that's a whole. I think-- I don't know. I think that's just so given to her out of her culture. But she says, but I want to make this whole out of shivering fragments. She kind of wants both.
Yeah. No, I-- that's my answer.
But that would be a question. Can't you have both? Can't one live in the paradox and the uncertainty of wholeness and fractures?
Yeah. I don't think so, but that's-- and I do think Woolf--
--tries to. And I think that the beauty of her work is that it's trying to hold something together that ultimately is uncontainable. And that's the thing that is in excess to. But that excess is itself a language of fracturing, so that there's never-- it's not containable in the way that she's-- she's struggling to contain it, and yet it's not containable. And those two things go hand in hand for me.
I like the way you asked that, isn't there a pleasure in the dispersal for her? And I think that's right. I think that's absolutely right. I think there's a pleasure in the dispersal, and I think there's a pleasure in the--
Yeah, but I think-- she says in that autobiography, today I'm writing about-- she always writes the date when she's writing her autobiography, because she says, if I were writing this tomorrow, I'd write something different. Like one day you make this whole out of fragments. The next day, you make a different whole out of fragments. I think she thought there could be multiple-- she understood herself to be making multiple wholes.
Yeah, I think that's--