Thursday, March 28, 2013
The Certainty of Goodness
A melancholy anniversary today: 72 years ago, appalled by the prospect of war and afraid that she was, in the language of the day, going mad again, Virginia Woolf left her Sussex country cottage, filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones, and walked into the nearby river Ouse. She wasn't found for three weeks.
She left behind her husband, the writer and publisher Leonard Woolf, to whom she wrote a final note that is almost impossibly touching, painful, and beautiful. "What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you," she wrote. "You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness."
Today, we think of Woolf, not as mad, but rather bipolar - what used to be called "manic-depressive." Whatever the words, if one has known depression, Woolf's thinking rings true. One of the hardest, cruelest things about depression is the way it fills one with a total, bottomless feeling of sheer unworthiness. If one of the greatest writers of the English language felt unworthy of love, where does that leave the rest of us? But there is no reason in madness, at least madness of this kind. "If anybody could have saved me it would have been you." No; she had to save herself. Even a love as all-encompassing as Leonard's - one that was willing to brook madness and infidelity of various kinds and the inevitable self-absorption of genius - can't do it all.
I've always liked this picture of Virginia Woolf, one of the rare ones (almost as rare as comparable ones of Queen Victoria) that catches her with the hint of a smile. When people kill themselves, we lose sight of the rest of them - of the woman who loved a stiff drink, was mad for gossip about her friends and enemies, who could turn a crush on a dashing poetess into the fantasy that is Orlando or some disconnected memories of childhood into threnody of To the Lighthouse. Everything in Woolf's life until just a few minutes before she started to write her final note - even the weeks and months she lay in bed believing the birds were singing in Greek and that Edward VII was lurking in the bushes outside her window, shouting profanities - is a direct rebuke to the few minutes that followed.
"I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been," her note ends. That is the Woolf I choose to remember. Even at her nadir, she was able to recognize, as removed from it by her illness as she was, what it was to be connected, in way she had been to Leonard and by extension to the great circle of friends and relatives in which they lived. It wasn't enough to save her, but I hope she took that shred of consolation with her on her long journey. It's one we'll all make, sooner or later, one way or another, that trip, and we should all have at least that little piece of baggage to warm our way.