Goethe loved his devil; he allowed him to end well. Virginia Woolf struggles all her life against the demon that protects her; finally she triumphs over it, in an obscure gesture that perhaps consecrates the truth of her vocation. This struggle is strange. The one who tricks us saves us, but by making us unfaithful to ourselves, too prudent and too wise. In the journals published after her death, it is the peripeteia of this combat that we seek, while still deploring the limits of its publication: twenty-six volumes that have been changed into one single volume; literary conventions demanded it so. It remains a deeply disturbing document, as it reflects the attitude of the writer, with here and there a gleam illuminating the happiness, the unhappiness of her labors.
Deeply disturbing, but often difficult to read. Readers who are not indulgent risk being irritated in seeing the Virginia they love so taken with success, so happy with praise, so vain about a moment of recognition, so wounded at its lack. Yes, that is surprising, painful, almost incomprehensible. There is something enigmatic in these distorted reports that place a writer of such delicacy in such gross dependence. And each time, with each new book, the comedy, the tragedy is the same. This repetition, of which she is very aware — who was more lucid? — is made even more annoying by the abridgments of the Journal, but these errors of perspective also have their truth. And suddenly the outcome: that death she chose, which comes to take the place of the public, and which finally gives her the true answer for which she had never stopped waiting.
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… The art in Virginia Woolf is shown to be what it is, of a terrible gravity. Cheating is not allowed. How tempting it would be to try to translate into a great revelatory affirmation those brief illuminations that open and close time and that, well aware of their cost, she calls moments of being. Won’t they wonderfully, once and for all, change our lives? Do they bear that power of decision and creation capable, as happens in Proust, of making possible the work that must be assembled around them? Not at all. “Little daily miracles,” “matches unexpectedly struck in the dark,” they speak of nothing but themselves. They appear, they disappear, brilliant fragments that blot out with their saturated purity the space of transparency.
At the same time, and although the misunderstanding is constantly to be feared, what these cores of moving clarity let her see in a necessary dispersion must not be confused with the play of appearances. They are not “impressions,” even if they have the modesty of them, and we could not be more mistaken than by describing her writing as impressionist. Virginia Woolf knows that she must not remain passive before the instant, but answer it with a brief, violent, obstinate, and yet thought-out — pensive — passion. [ … ] “It is a mistake to think that literature can be taken directly from life. You must go out of life. … You must go out of yourself, and concentrate as much as possible on one single point. … ”
… To link oneself to dispersion, to intermittency, to the fragmented brilliance of images, to the shimmering fascination of the instant, is a terrible movement — a terrible happiness, especially when finally it must give way to a book.
… What is this secret, elusive, and inexistent aim whose constant pressure is, in fact, exercised on humankind, and particularly on problematic beings, creators, intellectuals, who are almost at every moment accessible and dangerously new? The idea of a calling (of a fidelity) is the most perverse that can afflict a free artist. Even and especially apart from any idealistic conviction (in which this idea is most easily tamed), we feel it close to each writer like a shadow that precedes him and that he flees, or that he pursues, deserter of himself, imitating himself or, worse, imitating the inimitable idea of the Artist or of the Man he wants spectacularly to present.
The perfidious side of the calling is that it is far from moving by necessity in the direction of the artists’ aptitudes, since it can on the contrary, demand a renunciation of natural talents, as we see from so many artists who were facile to begin with, who became what they are by ceasing to be themselves, ungrateful then for their spontaneous gifts.