Last Updated on January 17, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1163
The Experience of Time Is Subjective
Virginia Woolf was one of the trailblazers of modernism, a literary movement that tried to capture the subjectivity of human experience. This sense of subjectivity extended to her memoir writing. Woolf attempted to capture the past as she wrote, over a lifetime, the essays that comprise Moments of Being. However, she realized as she did so that every moment of time that makes up the past is not equivalent. Rational, empirical thinking had divided time into equal segments, such as the sixty equal seconds that comprise a minute, and the sixty minutes of an hour, but that is not how humans experience time. Instead, as she describes in "A Sketch of the Past," time can be divided into two types: being and nonbeing. Moments of being are the moments that we remember vividly, the moments when time slows down and awareness sharpens. For example, Woolf records seeing willows "all plumy and soft green and purple" and reading Chaucer with pleasure on a particular day. These are moments of being because they stick in her memory. However, she also notes the much vaster time she spends in the "cotton wool" of nonbeing on the same day, such as when she forgets what she and her husband, Leonard, talked about at lunch and tea. Likewise, whole weeks would pass, for example, unremembered by her at her family's Cornwall summer home in St. Ives, and then some event would etch itself forever into her memory. One such moment of being occurs when fighting her brother Thoby: she suddenly wonders, "why hurt another person?" and never forgets that moment. Although periods of nonbeing predominate in life, it is the moments of being that seem longer and preoccupy us, invading our memory.
Memoir and Autobiography Must Be Candid
Woolf and her Bloomsbury cohort reacted sharply against the way lives, both in biography and autobiography, were presented in the Victorian era. They found these presentations grossly dishonest, replacing the reality of people's experiences with whitewashed versions that left out the uglier, more real, and more interesting parts of who they were. As Woolf writes in "Reminiscences," the "written words of a person who is dead or still alive . . . [tend to] drape themselves in smooth folds annulling all evidence of life." She repeats this theme in "A Sketch of the Past" when she states that memoirs tell us what happened but "leave out the person to whom the things happened." She struggled in her Moments of Being essays with how to fully and truly convey the people she remembered, such as her mother. Most of all, she did not want to sanitize the past.
Woolf had felt this sanitizing constraint especially acutely, as she participated as a very young woman in helping write Maitland's biography of her own father, Leslie Stephen, in which most of the reality of who he was—such as his explosive temper—was airbrushed away in favor of an idealized portrait. She was determined not to do this in her own memoir writing. Thus, the essays in Moments of Being are shocking by Victorian standards in what they reveal—because Woolf fervently believed that a life could not be understood without capturing its darker side. She includes the details she does, however, not to shock but because of her deep conviction that future generations cannot learn from the past if the past is not revealed truthfully.
Thus in "A Sketch of the Past," she writes of her half-brother Gerald Duckworth, far older than she was, molesting her when she was about six at their family summer home in St. Ives: "his hand explored my private parts too." Her father's temper in this same essay is described without whitewashing it, depicting his shouting, breast-beating, melodramatic self-dramatization as he went over the weekly finances and her own fury over his behavior, calling this memory an "unexaggerated account" and his behavior "brutal." In the essay "22 Hyde Park Gate," she likewise is unflinching in depicting the embarrassing emotional cauldron and desire to social-climb that characterized her half-brother George Duckworth. She does not omit George creeping into her room at night and calling her his "beloved," flinging himself onto her bed with the lights off and taking her into his arms: she notes famously that George was not just brother and father to those "poor Stephen girls [she and her sister Vanessa]; he was their lover also." In "Old Bloomsbury," she fearlessly makes the kind of observation that would have astounded her Victorian parents: "The society of buggers [gay men] has many advantages—if you are a woman." This kind of candor was integral to the kind of reality she was trying to convey in her essays in Moments of Being—and finally, with the #MeToo movement, our culture is catching up to her a hundred years later.
Identity Is in a Constant State of Transformation
We have a core identity, Woolf believed, but our identity is also ceaselessly in flux, like the waves in the sea. In "A Sketch of the Past," Woolf notes that "society changes from decade to decade, and also from class to class" and that such broader changes alter the individual, as does the influence of other people in our lives. How we understand our past—and hence ourselves—"is much affected by the present moment." She notes that what she writes today would not be what she would write in a year. As Jeanne Schulkind states in her introduction to Moments of Being, Woolf was acutely interested in this "juxtaposition of the present self and the past self," which leads to changing perceptions not only of oneself but of others in one's life. For example, Woolf, who was almost obsessively interested throughout her life in her mother, who died when Woolf was thirteen (though this obsession waned somewhat after the writing of To the Lighthouse), noted that her perceptions of her mother changed as she herself changed. The mother she describes in "22 Hyde Park Gate," begun in 1907, when she was twenty-five, differs from the mother she understands in 1939-40's "A Sketch of the Past," written when she was almost sixty. This concern with the fluidity and provisionality of perception and memory is a key part of Woolf's modernism and of her critique of trying to fix in concrete a static version of person's life.
Life Has a Pattern Behind Appearances
Part of what motivates Woolf's memoir writing in these essays is the conviction that through writing, one can find the deeper meaning in one's life, the pattern that makes sense of a life of seemingly random events. Woolf writes in "A Sketch of the Past" that this is a therapeutic process, for it takes away her pain when she can put the "severed parts" of her life back together again and make them whole. She asserts that the whole world is a work of art—but it is up to us to find the pattern, provisional as that pattern might be.