The correlation between manic-depressive illness and creative thinking is one that has received much attention in the worlds of literature, art, and music. Masters of the creative realm, such as Vincent van Gogh, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ernest Hemingway, and, of course, Virginia Woolf are all believed to have suffered and prospered from manic depression. With this impressive list of patients, it is understandable why manic depression began to gather support as a potential contributing factor of creative genius. Manic depression is, in itself, intriguing due to its inherent transience and inability to rest within fixed borders. In his book, The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic-Depressive Illness, Thomas Caramango begins by defining the two primary states that constitute the illness. The phase called “mania” is characterized by “an elevated and expansive mood” which “may range from dreamy or infectious cheerfulness to ecstasy and exaltation” (Caramango 39). The manic state also causes the ascension “to visionary heights by distancing ordinary things” and “absolute certainty that one has seen the ‘truth’” (Caramango 50-51). In stark contrast to mania, the depressive state brings on feelings of despair, hopelessness, anger, and irritation. Caramango also notes that sensory perceptions are exaggerated to the point of hallucinations during the manic phase, while “depression dulls, leaving physical and mental worlds monochromatic” (Caramango 53). This description sheds light on the complex ways in which manic depression can both intensify and plague the creative process. Perhaps the most well-known case of manic depressive illness in association with creativity is that of Virginia Woolf. Through diary entries, letters, and secondhand accounts of Woolf’s emotional highs and lows, her struggle with the illness has been thoroughly examined and analyzed from many combinations of medical and literary standpoints. Although these analyses were most likely exacted with scholastic intentions, one Woolf scholar asserts that “by thinking of Virginia Woolf and her fiction as manic-depressive…many biographers and critics this deny her the element of control over her life that we find so evident in her diaries, letters, memoirs, and manuscripts” (Kenney and Kenney 163). To attribute Woolf’s literary genius solely to a mental illness is to deny her the dynamic individuality that she strived to preserve in her fiction. Furthermore, studies have indicated that a scientific correlation between “madness” and creative genius is not a particularly strong one. In a study performed by Robert W. Weisberg on the creative output of the manic-depressive composer Schumann, the quality of creative output was in no way increased during the manic phase. However, Weisberg noted in his preliminary findings that both manic-depressive patients and relatives of manic-depressives have displayed higher levels of creativity than “normal” patients. Thus, we are left with the intricate problem of how to approach Virginia Woolf’s fiction through the lens of a fascinating mental illness, while preserving the individuality of her writing style and the vibrancy of her fiction. Like the characters in her novels, Woolf and the thematic elements in her works cannot be regarded in an objective manner; rather, her fiction is testimony to the fact that humans and our existence are entirely subjective, possessing layers upon layers of dimensions. In a somewhat paradoxical attempt to unravel these layers, this paper seeks to understand the unique way in which Virginia Woolf’s mental illness contributed to the development of her highly aware and psychologically-driven writing style, making sure to preserve her individual elements which never ceased to play an equally important role. The traits of both mania and depression, combined with traumatic and unique life experiences, come together to form her fictional prose that displays recurring themes. Through her novels Jacob’s Room and To the Lighthouse, Woolf’s sensory awareness, her use of fiction as elegy, and her quest to understand identity will all be examined.
Virginia Woolf’s search for a way to represent identity is pertinent to the themes of both Jacob’s Room and To the Lighthouse. Jacob’s Room can be characterized in many ways. Most importantly to this paper, and coincidentally the most striking of the novel’s features is the fact that the book seeks to understand identity as it pertains to Jacob and the plethora of other characters. From the very start of the novel, the reader understand Jacob to be an elusive character, one whose intriguing nature is readily attested to by the other characters but is never fully understood. From an outsider’s perspective, it is seen that Jacob is driven by curiosity, searching for meaning in life outside the realms of society and class. This character trait of Jacob’s manifests itself in various actions, such as wandering the shore alone as a child, studying intently the speciation of moths, and his voracious search for new intellect in books. While we are told these things about Jacob and his personality, we are given all information either from an omniscient narrator, or from the perspectives of those around Jacob. Full access to Jacob’s consciousness is denied the reader, and we are ultimately left to piece together a person through outside observations and occasional bits of dialogue. The problem of comprehending the complete identity of others is addressed directly in the novel by a woman who encounters Jacob on the train. After trying to characterize Jacob based on visual clues, such as his manner of dress and his attitude towards her, she comes to the conclusion that “it is no use trying to sum people up” because “one must follow hints, not exactly what is said, not yet entirely what is done” (Woolf 29). The complex and often overwhelming idea that we can never fully know others is also addressed at the end of the novel, after Jacob’s death in the war. Woolf paints of picture of the effects that the elusive question of identity has on our personal relationships when she describes the scene in Jacob’s room after his passing. Family and acquaintances have gathered in the room, and Mr. Bonamy remarks that Jacob “left everything just as it was” (Woolf 186). The possessions in Jacob’s room are concrete representations of his self, but these objects allow little understanding of the intricacy of Jacob’s identity. The forever elusive identities of others is an important theme in this novel and other works by Woolf because it indicates the way in which she attempted to give her own personal quest for identity an element of coherence through her fiction. Caramango notes in Flight of the Mind that Jacob’s Room is indicative of “a self-conscious expression, in both content and form, of the bipolar subject-object relations of reading fiction, transactions which go awry in manic-depressive episodes” (Caramango 186). Thus, Woolf’s struggle with her own sense of self was intensified greatly by her illness. Her personal reflections on individual consciousness in comparison with the perceptions of others appear in fictional form, an indication that Woolf was in control of her writing. Through this manifestation of Woolf’s personal struggles in her fiction, we see that, although a lack of identity is common in manic depressives, Woolf evolved this trait of her illness into a unique and personal version by incorporating it into her writing. Jacob’s Room and the question of identity raised in the novel are testimony to the fact that Woolf did not rest helpless to her manic depression, but sought to establish her own individuality through the lens of an illness.
The question of identity in To the Lighthouse is examined in a much different manner than in Jacob’s Room. To the Lighthouse is written using the detailed inner thoughts of the characters who have gathered at a house on the Isle of Skye for the summer holiday. The access to the consciousnesses of the characters provides the reader with both firsthand information about the individual personalities and various perceptions of others. Mrs. Ramsay is the matriarch of the party, and the reasons for her intriguing presence are constantly pondered over by other guests in the house. Mr. Bankes observes Mrs. Ramsay in the house, in the seemingly insignificant act of having her son James try on a stocking, yet we see that his thoughts wander to the question of what goes on in her mind. He asks himself, “What was there behind it—her beauty and splendour?” and goes on to hypothesize that she is silent on account “of love foiled, of ambition thwarted” or that there may actually be nothing significant behind her beautiful appearance (Woolf 32). Lily Briscoe, too, is intent on understanding the mystery of Mrs. Ramsay’s identity “for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired” (Woolf 54). The interesting feature of this novel is that, while all of the other characters are attempting to unlock the identity of Mrs. Ramsay, we have full access to her consciousness and the thoughts that flow through her mind. The workings of her mind are far removed from her beauty, as Mr. Bankes conjectured. She thinks elaborately about her husband and her son James, the practicalities of running the household, and her mind often digresses to the ability of life to cause sadness and disappointment. She revels in the moments of privacy during which she “carries her privacy with her in the hubbub of family life” (Caramango 245). This glaring separation in the consciousnesses of the characters “invites readers to relinquish the wish for an objective narrative truth—by giving us not simply two irreconcilable views but seventeen subjective points of view, each provisional” (Caramango 244). Lily’s desire for the “unity” that she believes can be achieved by understanding the mind of Mrs. Ramsay is, from Woolf’s perspective, impossible. In order to preserve the idea of individuality, unity by means of understanding the identity of others must be sacrificed. In the article “The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’,” Martha Nussbaum explores the reasons that full knowledge of other minds is impossible. In addition to the fact that the pace in which we think is too rapid to hope to express every thought, Nussbaum remarks that language is “too crude to express what is most personal, what is deepest in the individual consciousness” (Nussbaum 734). Furthermore, there is the possibility that an individual, such as Mrs. Ramsay, possesses the “desire for liberty and privacy” that comes along with the subjectivity of identity (Nussbaum 739). Lily’s wish for unity in contrast with Mrs. Ramsay’s desire to preserve her most inner self private is indicative of the ambivalence which Woolf towards her constant assertion that subjectivity exists in all experience. Unity between people at the most personal level cannot exist with the subjective nature of consciousness, and these competing ideas are in line with the manic-depressive’s constant fluctuation between feeling a sense of love and community for all of humanity and feeling completely disconnected from humanity due to the unusual intensity with which they experience emotions.
Woolf experienced many deaths in her lifetime, losing her mother, father, half-sister, and brother Thoby all before the age of thirty-five. These losses, combined with the intensity of emotions that mania and depression provoke, allowed for the elegiac theme seen in Woolf’s fiction, specifically in Jacob’s Room and To the Lighthouse. An elegy is defined as “a song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation especially for one who is dead.” Jacob’s Room is presumed to be an elegy for Woolf’s brother, Thobey Stephens, who died in World War I. In creating Jacob’s character, she was able to “create something that no one could take away from her,” a capability which is important for someone whose mental illness and experiences of death left her in a constant state of instability (Kenney and Kenney 172). Jacob’s elusiveness and air of prominence are traits that had been attributed to Thobey during his lifetime, and by developing a character so similar to her brother, we see that Woolf sought to apply the same element of control over her experience of death as she applied to the concept of identity. The paradox involved in using fiction as elegy is that attempting to describe a person on paper, using limited language and with limited understanding of that person’s consciousness, is contradictory to Woolf’s deeply ingrained idea that every individual is singular and unique in the composition of the self. Death can only seal the truth of the impossibility of truly knowing others, yet Jacob’s Room at times seems like a novel written with the hope that some understanding of the identity of Jacob can be attained. We see this through the numerous characters who attempt to describe Jacob. Mrs. Durrant has an immediate curiosity about Jacob when Timmy brings her to their home, scrutinizing him and noting that “he is extraordinarily awkward…yet so distinguished-looking” (Woolf 61). The ever-present narrator notes more psychological traits of Jacob, asserting that “he had a violent reversion towards male society, cloistered rooms, and the works of the classics” (Woolf 83). However, although we are given tidbits of information about Jacob’s character throughout the entire novel, we ultimately see that his death only magnifies the futility of trying to understand the elusive consciousness of Jacob. This fluctuation between feeling as if some universal truth has been found, followed by the subsequent realizations that no truth can ever be known due to the subjectivity of every aspect of life is indicative of the manic-depressive’s “moments of being” followed by the disparaging feeling of hopelessness in the search for truth. Woolf’s attempt to give an elegy for her brother Thobey is coupled with the constant undertone of never being able to truly know his complete identity. Although she created a piece of fiction as part of the mourning process, even Woolf’s prose cannot pierce the intricacies of consciousness. Thobey’s elegy in the form of Jacob’s Room, then, is “an attempt to name and invoke the dead as well as a demonstration of the impossibility of its success” (Smythe 70). Jacob’s death and the simple image of his possessions filling his room prove to us that, in both life and in death, we can only know others through an objective eye, constantly maintaining an awareness that individual identity is subjective to its core.
Virginia Woolf herself attested to the fact that To the Lighthouse was written in an effort to lay the memory of her parents to rest. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay possess some characteristics of Leslie and Julia Stephen, yet the Ramsays must still be viewed as creative constructs who do not necessarily represent Woolf’s parents as much as Woolf’s individual emotions about her parents. Woolf admitted that with the completion of the novel, she was no longer obsessed with the memory of her mother. The novel often shows the ambivalence of Woolf towards both of her parents through the thoughts of Lily Briscoe. Lily fluctuates between an overwhelming need to understand the mind behind Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty, and a sense of irritation with Mrs. Ramsay’s “highhandedness.” Lily’s inability to complete the portrait of Mrs. Ramsay is due to the fact that she can only paint the figure of Mrs. Ramsay through the use of her creative memory. Mrs. Ramsay’s death allows for the “drop of silver in which one dipped and illumined the darkness of the past” that Lily needs to finish the painting (Woolf 173). To the Lighthouse as an elegy for Julia Stephen in particular shows the complexity of consciousness in the endeavor to memorialize a person who has passed. Lily Briscoe, as a representation of Virginia Woolf, comes to terms with the idea that the preservation of Mrs. Ramsay’s elusive identity is important to Lily’s own personal sense of self; Lily’s portrait of Mrs. Ramsay can be completed through artistic memory, which is entirely subjective of Lily’s individual consciousness. The “quest for “some real thing,”” that “functions thematically and structurally in Woolf’s fiction-elegies” ultimately returns to the bittersweet concept that in life and in death, individuality of experience and consciousness is crucial to the understanding of oneself and of others (Smythe 67).
A simpler aspect of Woolf’s writing style which has strong ties to the manic phase of her illness is the intensity of sensory awareness, particularly when it comes to the visual. Whereas the very nature of consciousness does not allow the written or spoken word to describe its complexities, visual awareness can be thoroughly and artfully described through prose. Both Jacob’s Room and To the Lighthouse possess numerous passages in which the natural surroundings are painted, through words, to give us striking, and often haunting, pictures. In a tangential passage, the narrator of Jacob’s Room is describing the campus of Cambridge when, out of nowhere, the buildings of the campus fall away and “before one’s eyes would come the bare hills of Turkey—sharp lines, dry earth, coloured flowers, and colour on the shoulders of the women” (Woolf 44). This beautiful description of a foreign world indicates an author whose capability to capture and describe her surroundings is highly developed. The imagery of Turkey in the middle of a passage that intends to describe the campus of Cambridge is beyond tangential, however, and is a potential example of the fact that mania can cause people to “experience extremely vivid hallucinations…accelerated psychomotor activity and intensified sensory perceptions” (Caramango 42). Aside from numerous other picturesque descriptions, Woolf speaks through the narrator on the subject of this elevated visual awareness, stating that “the observer is choked with observations” and that “to prevent us from being submerged by chaos, nature and society between them have arranged a system of classification which is simplicity itself; stalls, boxes, amphitheatre, gallery” (Woolf 69). However, Woolf and her fiction cannot be defined by a system of classification. The awareness that is so apparent in her prose is not bound by the conventional understanding of awareness. The manic phase allows for an incredibly high level of perceptiveness, and rather than letting herself feel “choked by observations,” Woolf transfers her sensory perceptions to the creative process of writing fiction.
The sensory awareness that we see in To the Lighthouse also differs from that of Jacob’s Room in the sense that it is described to us through the thoughts of the characters as opposed to omniscient narration. The perceptions of the various characters, therefore, include the natural surroundings and also the actions, speech, and habits of the other guests in the house. Lily Briscoe is the character who is most acutely aware of visual stimulation as she is a painter; awareness and the ability to discern the smallest details in her surroundings is pertinent to the art which allows her to feel a silent pride. Therefore, it is through Lily’s stream of consciousness that we see words put together in a way that is most similar to the narrator in Jacob’s Room. Contemplating the way that she should finish her picture of Mrs. Ramsay, Lily thinks to herself that “the whole mass of the picture was poised upon that weight…Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wing” (Woolf 174). The mass that Lily speaks of is the unfinished figure of Mrs. Ramsay, whose identity, in Lily’s mind, is so important to the completion and truth of the painting. Lily’s intense awareness of the visual, seen by her attention to colour and reference to the elusive butterfly, is unique to her consciousness throughout the novel. Due to the fact that Lily’s thoughts seem to be the most in line with Woolf’s artistic vision, some critics have conjectured that “the novel, To the Lighthouse, constitute Virginia Woolf’s attempts to elucidate her being” (Albright 2). Lily’s constant attention to both her physical surroundings and the identity of Mrs. Ramsay mirror Woolf’s heightened sense of awareness and her need to understand her deceased mother. The biological symptoms of mania are largely responsible for the ability to paint a vibrant picture, yet it is Woolf’s personal experience of the loss of her parents combined with the nature of her illness that contribute to the intensive search for her mother’s identity. Lily’s trait of sensory awareness in comparison with Woolf’s own had led to the belief that “it is in the world of imagination that [Woolf] finds the relationship that defines her identity” (McCracken). Thus, even a literary detail as straightforward as Woolf’s visually and psychologically aware prose becomes an extension of the consciousness of Woolf. Although Nussbaum asserted in her article “The Window: Knowledge of Other Mind’s in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse” that language is not an effective medium to describe the richness of the consciousness, Woolf’s prose in the form of the consciousness of Lily Briscoe is proof that she is incredibly capable of using words in a way that mimics one’s own thoughts.
While certain literary critics attempt to understand Woolf’s fiction solely through the characteristics of manic-depressive illness, it is clear that a mental illness cannot be the only contributing factor to creative genius. Not only does Robert Weisberg’s study prove that manic depression does not necessarily increase creativity, but Caramango also asserts in The Flight of the Mind that “the symptomatic form manic-depressive illness takes…usually reflects the individual experience” (Caramango 54). The nature of the illness is subject to the infinite variety of life experiences that a person can have, and Virginia Woolf’s fiction, therefore, is comprised of themes which had origins in both her illness and her unique consciousness. Thus, the themes that we see in Jacob’s Room and To the Lighthouse closely resemble Woolf’s unique symptoms that emerged as a result of the combination of an illness with individual experience. Truthfully, the themes of the search for identity, the use of fiction as elegy, and an elevated sensory awareness all tend to return to a main focal point of Woolf’s: the subjectivity of all life experience. When we seek to define the identity of Jacob Flanders and Mrs. Ramsay through the perceptions of others, the result is having to give into the fact that we cannot know the identity of others due to the subjectivity of individual consciousness. Furthermore, if we look at Jacob’s Room and To the Lighthouse as elegies for Thobey Stephens and Woolf’s parents, respectively, we once again arrive at the conclusion that attempting to remember and record the traits of an individual after his/her death brings us no closer to understanding the mind of that person. Finally, the incredibly descriptive passages of prose indicative of extreme sensory awareness were perhaps influenced by Woolf’s mania, but her perceptions and their subsequent usage in her fiction belonged solely to Woolf; she observed the beauty in everyday life through a completely unique set of eyes and a singular mindset. What then, is the concept of subjectivity of individual consciousness is so pervasive in life, did Woolf hope to accomplish by writing about a topic which, in itself, emphasizes the complete inability to know others? Why did Woolf perform the contradictory act of trying to pin down the characters of Jacob Flanders and Mrs. Ramsay on paper, only to arrive at the conclusion that we cannot truly know the identities of these characters? Just as Woolf was ambivalent towards the symptoms of her illness, she was also ambivalent towards the overwhelming concept of the subjectivity of consciousness. We see the paradoxical endeavor to understand Jacob and Mrs. Ramsay because Woolf felt the need to exercise control over the concept of identity due to the fact that she was in a constant state of a fluctuating sense of self, and also because she felt powerless in the ability to understand the identities of the loved ones she had lost. Yet, both the manic-depressive and Woolf’s fiction continue to return to the realization that no universal, unchanging truth can ever be admitted in the face of individuality. Woolf’s lifelong struggle with identity manifests itself in her novels so frequently because “Virginia’s existence depended in some way upon her creativity” (Kenney and Kenney 165). The mistake that many make in the analysis of Woolf’s fiction is in assuming that her “existence” can be fully explained by her illness. On the contrary, the intricacy of the consciousness must apply to Woolf herself, and the manifestation of her struggle with identity in her fiction should be recognized as a delicate and complex combination of her manic depressive illness and the individuality of her life experience.
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