From Virginia Woolf’s exquisite Mrs. Dalloway
But this question of love (she thought, putting her coat away), this falling in love with women. Take Sally Seton; her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love?
She sat on the floor—that was her first impression of Sally—she sat on the floor with her arms round her knees, smoking a cigarette. Where could it have been? The Mannings? The Kinloch-Jones’s? At some party (where, she could not be certain), for she had a distinct recollection of saying to the man she was with, “Who is that?” And he had told her, and said that Sally’s parents did not get on (how that shocked her—that one’s parents should quarrel!). But all that evening she could not take her eyes off Sally. It was an extraordinary beauty of the kind she most admired, dark, large-eyed, with that quality which, since she hadn’t got it herself, she always envied—a sort of abandonment, as if she could say anything, do anything; a quality much commoner in foreigners than in Englishwomen. Sally always said she had French blood in her veins, an ancestor had been with Marie Antoinette, had his head cut off, left a ruby ring. Perhaps that summer she came to stay at Bourton, walking in quite unexpectedly without a penny in her pocket, one night after dinner, and upsetting poor Aunt Helena to such an extent that she never forgave her. There had been some quarrel at home. She literally hadn’t a penny that night when she came to them—had pawned a brooch to come down. She had rushed off in a passion. They sat up till all hours of the night talking. Sally it was who made her feel, for the first time, how sheltered the life at Bourton was. She knew nothing about sex—nothing about social problems. She had once seen an old man who had dropped dead in a field—she had seen cows just after their calves were born. But Aunt Helena never liked discussion of anything (when Sally gave her William Morris, it had to be wrapped in brown paper). There they sat, hour after hour, talking in her bedroom at the top of the house, talking about life, how they were to reform the world. They meant to found a society to abolish private property, and actually had a letter written, though not sent out. The ideas were Sally’s, of course—but very soon she was just as excited—read Plato in bed before breakfast; read Morris; read Shelley by the hour.
Sally’s power was amazing, her gift, her personality. There was her way with flowers, for instance. At Bourton they always had stiff little vases all the way down the table. Sally went out, picked hollyhocks, dahlias—all sorts of flowers that had never been seen together—cut their heads off, and made them swim on the top of water in bowls. The effect was extraordinary—coming in to dinner in the sunset. (Of course Aunt Helena thought it wicked to treat flowers like that.) Then she forgot her sponge, and ran along the passage naked. That grim old housemaid, Ellen Atkins, went about grumbling—“Suppose any of the gentlemen had seen?” Indeed she did shock people. She was untidy, Papa said.
The strange thing, on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was not like one’s feeling for a man. It was completely disinterested, and besides, it had a quality which could only exist between women, between women just grown up. It was protective, on her side; sprang from a sense of being in league together, a presentiment of something that was bound to part them (they spoke of marriage always as a catastrophe), which led to this chivalry, this protective feeling which was much more on her side than Sally’s. For in those days she was completely reckless; did the most idiotic things out of bravado; bicycled round the parapet on the terrace; smoked cigars. Absurd, she was—very absurd. But the charm was overpowering, to her at least, so that she could remember standing in her bedroom at the top of the house holding the hot-water can in her hands and saying aloud, “She is beneath this roof… . She is beneath this roof!”
No, the words meant absolutely nothing to her now. She could not even get an echo of her old emotion. But she could remember going cold with excitement, and doing her hair in a kind of ecstasy (now the old feeling began to come back to her, as she took out her hairpins, laid them on the dressing-table, began to do her hair), with the rooks flaunting up and down in the pink evening light, and dressing, and going downstairs, and feeling as she crossed the hall “if it were now to die ‘twere now to be most happy.” That was her feeling—Othello’s feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it, all because she was coming down to dinner in a white frock to meet Sally Seton!
She was wearing pink gauze—was that possible? She seemed, anyhow, all light, glowing, like some bird or air ball that has flown in, attached itself for a moment to a bramble. But nothing is so strange when one is in love (and what was this except being in love?) as the complete indifference of other people. Aunt Helena just wandered off after dinner; Papa read the paper. Peter Walsh might have been there, and old Miss Cummings; Joseph Breitkopf certainly was, for he came every summer, poor old man, for weeks and weeks, and pretended to read German with her, but really played the piano and sang Brahms without any voice.
All this was only a background for Sally. She stood by the fireplace talking, in that beautiful voice which made everything she said sound like a caress, to Papa, who had begun to be attracted rather against his will (he never got over lending her one of his books and finding it soaked on the terrace), when suddenly she said, “What a shame to sit indoors!” and they all went out on to the terrace and walked up and down. Peter Walsh and Joseph Breitkopf went on about Wagner. She and Sally fell a little behind. Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it—a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!—when old Joseph and Peter faced them:
"Star-gazing?" said Peter.
It was like running one’s face against a granite wall in the darkness! It was shocking; it was horrible!
Not for herself. She felt only how Sally was being mauled already, maltreated; she felt his hostility; his jealousy; his determination to break into their companionship. All this she saw as one sees a landscape in a flash of lightning—and Sally (never had she admired her so much!) gallantly taking her way unvanquished. She laughed. She made old Joseph tell her the names of the stars, which he liked doing very seriously. She stood there: she listened. She heard the names of the stars.
"Oh this horror!" she said to herself, as if she had known all along that something would interrupt, would embitter her moment of happiness.
For me, literature is a form of play… When children play, though they’re amusing themselves, they take it very seriously. It’s important. It’s just as serious for them now as love will be ten years from now. I remember when I was little and my parents used to say, ‘Okay, you’ve played enough, come take a bath now.’ I found that completely idiotic, because, for me, the bath was a silly matter. It had no importance whatsoever, while playing with my friends was something serious. Literature is like that—it’s a game, but it’s a game one can put one’s life into. One can do everything for that game.
My favorite thing to remember about novel-writing is an observation I saw taped to a friend’s wall in her office in graduate school: ‘Nobody asked you to write that novel.’ Therefore novel-writing is a choice—you can always stop, always keep going. You are free to do whatever you want.
The responsibility of the writer is to put into words what everyone knows is true. And sadly, truly, most of those things have usually been left unsaid. When Henry Miller was writing Tropic of Cancer, for example, the word out on the boulevards in Paris was that he was putting into the book all the things other writers had left out of their own novels. In the end what he wrote wasn’t surprising in itself—most intelligent people know that stuff. What was shocking was that he dared to put it out on the marketplace where it became a part of the common culture and couldn’t be ignored. The same I feel is true when Alexander Solzhenitsyn published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Most thinking people in Russia knew about the gulags. What they didn’t have from first- or secondhand knowledge, they knew from their dreams and nightmares: their imagination filled in the rest. Solzhenitsyn added some specific details, obviously, but the main thing he did was to put the experience of the gulag out on the chopping block where everyone could see it, where the full shame became a part of public discourse.
Language, of course, is constantly being redefined, not just by demagogues, but by people who employ it. Language is we realized. Each word has passed mouth by mouth over the centuries, changed by intonation and accent, changed by wit and utility. Those before us decided that a certain thing—an amaranth, a colander—needs naming. Naming, as Emerson argues, is a poet’s undertaking. It is not happenstance that the poet’s job is the job of language itself—to reach beyond the impossible chasm of two minds, of multiple times, and make known the inner things. And language, like the other democratic things—freedom of assembly, habeas corpus—is among first casualties of war. The maiming and obliteration of language preempts and attempts to excuse the maiming and obliteration of bodies. Poets, as the caretakers of language, if by no other contested purpose of poetry—to humanize, to emote, to demand a ‘total reaction’ as Muriel Rukeyser puts it—are called upon to respond, to defend their medium.