- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

“When I cannot see words curling like rings of smoke round me I am in darkness—I am nothing.”

 

Happy birthday, Virginia Woolf! Here’s a compilation of quotes from some of Woolf’s many books, letters, diaries, and essays:

 

“For it would seem […] that we write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fibre of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver.”

 

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.”

 

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in midair by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to the grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.”

 

“We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it.”

 

“And for heaven’s sake, publish nothing before you are thirty.”

 

“Nothing has really happened until it has been described.”

 

“I feel so intensely the delights of shutting oneself up in a little world of one’s own, with pictures and music and everything beautiful.”

 

“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”

 

“I am reading six books at once, the only way of reading; since, as you will agree, one book is only a single unaccompanied note, and to get the full sound, one needs ten others at the same time.”

 

“Books are the mirrors of the soul.”

 

“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.”

 

“I walk over the marsh saying, I am I: and must follow that furrow, not copy another. That is the only justification for my writing, living.”

 

“Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind….It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.”

 

“Blame it or praise it, there is no denying the wild horse in us. To gallop intemperately; fall on the sand tired out; to feel the earth spin; to have—positively—a rush of friendship for stones and grasses, as if humanity were over, and as for men and women, let them go hang—there is no getting over the fact that this desire seizes us pretty often.”

 

“Better is silence. Let me sit with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”

 

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

 

“All extremes of feeling are allied with madness.”

 

“Anyone who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, and with extravagant enthusiasm.”

 

“To put it in a nutshell, he was afflicted with a love of literature. It was the fatal nature of this disease to substitute a phantom for reality.”

 

“Really I don’t like human nature unless all candied over with art.”

 

“The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities…into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions—there we have none.”

 

“I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.”

 

“Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends.”

 

“Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.”

 

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.”

 

“No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high.”

 

“Once you begin to take yourself seriously as a leader or as a follower, as a modern or as a conservative, then you become a self-conscious, biting, and scratching little animal whose work is not of the slightest value or importance to anybody.”

 

“Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.”

 

“Neither of us knows what the public will think. There’s no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at forty) to say something in my own voice; and that interests me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise.”

 

“I will not be ‘famous,’ ‘great.’ I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped. The thing is to free one’s self: to let it find its dimensions, not be impeded.”

 

“The artist after all is a solitary being.”

 

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

 

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

 

“The beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.”

 

“Beauty was not everything. Beauty had this penalty—it came too readily, came too completely. It stilled life—froze it.”

 

“No sooner have you feasted on beauty with your eyes than your mind tells you that beauty is vain and beauty passes.”

 

“Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.”

 

“When a subject is highly controversial—and any question about sex is that—one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.”

 

“As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”

 

“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”

 

“How many times have people used a pen or paintbrush because they couldn’t pull the trigger?”

 

“What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that, and the other…”

 

“Let us again pretend that life is a solid substance, shaped like a globe, which we turn about in our fingers.”

 

“Am I a weed, carried this way, that way, on a tide that comes twice a day without a meaning?”

 

“Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life?—startling, unexpected, unknown?”

 

“It might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.”

 

“Yes, I was thinking: we live without a future. That’s what’s queer: with our noses pressed to a closed door.”

 

“We are only lightly covered with buttoned cloth; and beneath these pavements are shells, bones, and silence.”

 

“The moment was all; the moment was enough.”

 

“Let us never cease from thinking—what is this ‘civilisation’ in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them?”

 

“At one and the same time, therefore, society is everything and society is nothing. Society is the most powerful concoction in the world and society has no existence whatsoever.”

 

“There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we, them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

 

“New emotions: humility: impersonal joy: literary despair.”

 

“Every season is likeable, and wet days and fine, red wine and white, company and solitude. Even sleep, that deplorable curtailment of the joy of life, can be full of dreams; and the most common actions—a walk, a talk, solitude in one’s own orchard—can be enhanced and lit up by the association of the mind. Beauty is everywhere, and beauty is only two finger’s-breadth from goodness.”

 

“I don’t believe in ageing. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.”

 

“Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?”

 

“Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!”

 

“I will go down with my colours flying.”

 

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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