Once again, I dip into Woolf’s writings and find treasure, of the wry variety. Here’s the opening paragraph from her essay, “Street Haunting,” collected in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays:
“No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner. As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling a pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: “Really I must buy a pencil,” as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest please of town life in winter–rambling the streets of London.”
Now look at what Woolf has focused her roving halogen beam on in the first two sentences?We recognize in ourselves the tendency to rationalize, to justify our actions using some concrete, false excuse, when there is something much more basic, more related to emotional well-being, at stake. Then we reach her third sentence, the first half of which stops us for a moment–can she be serious about foxhunting and golfing? But when we continue, she brings us round to seeing that the foxhunter’s justification, the golfer’s justification are merely pretexts for the real reason behind their actions, doing these things brings them pleasure. Not a slab of concrete in sight; it’s a pure emotional connection.
After first pausing to describe a particular memory (sparked by an object) she is leaving behind in her room, our tramp through the streets of London and Woolf’s thoughts continues. We see London’s streets with their “islands of light, and its long groves of darkness,” then pass “offices and houses where at this hour fierce lights burn over maps, over documents, over desks where clerks sit turning with wetted forefinger the files of endless correspondences…the figure of a woman, accurately measuring out the precise number of spoons of tea…But here we must stop peremptorily. We are in danger of digging deeper than the eye approves…”
Woolf pulls back from her internal vision, the place where she has taken us floating like a dandelion seed on the wind. She is aware that her eye has “a strange property: it rests only on beauty; like a butterfly it seeks colour and basks in warmth.” So she makes an excuse “which has nothing to do with the real reason” for stepping into a boot shop and “folding up the bright paraphernalia of the streets and withdrawing to some duskier chamber of the being …”
Ah, the dusky chamber of the being, that allows the asking of the rude question: “What, then, is it like to be a dwarf?” We then watch for a page and a half as a young woman transforms into a shimmering beauty as she tries on shoes and then back into a “hobbling dwarf” when she leaves the shop. This experience shocks Woolf out of her beautiful world and presents a “change in mood” that arrives with Dickensian characters “wild, hunger-bitten, glaring out of misery,” blind, and feeble-minded. But then she notices how the downtrodden of London “lie close to those shop windows were commerce offers to a world of old women laid on doorsteps, of blind men, of hobbling dwarfs, sofas which are supported by the gilt necks of proud swans; tables inlaid with baskets of many coloured fruit…” She furnishes a house from the wares on display in shop windows and just as quickly dismantles it and adorns herself with pearls from the window of an antique jewellers “and then imagine(s) how, if we put them on, life would be changed. It becomes instantly between two and three in the morning; lamps are burning very white in the deserted street of Mayfair. Only motor-cars are abroad at this hour, and one has a sense of emptiness, of airiness, of secluded gaiety…”
We will follow this woman anywhere, but then she slams the door:
“But what could be more absurd? It is, in fact, on the strike of six; it is a winter’s evening; we are walking to the Strand to buy a pencil. How, then are we also on a balcony, wearing pearls in June? What could be more absurd? Yet it is nature’s folly, not ours. When she set about her chief masterpiece, the making of man, she should have thought of one thing only. Instead, turning her head, looking over her shoulder, into each one of us she let creep instincts and desires which are utterly at variance with his main being, so that we are streaked, variegated, all of a mixture; the colours have run. Is the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that is is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? Circumstances compel unity; for convenience’ sake a man must be a whole.”
Therein lies her genius. So many moments such as these, I shudder in wonder. How often are we in two places at once? How can we possibly be in the moment when our selves are split between the Here and the Then? How can I possibly be any less Buddhist/Zen if I cultivate the not-being-solely-in-the-now?
Even as I watch a tense moment in my son’s baseball playoff game, I am multiple selves, seeing and feeling multiple emotions, thinking contradictory thoughts. And the notion that this is the result of nature’s own distraction at the moment of our creation, but we are forced to present a unified composite to the world—or be judged insane. All of this brought on by the simple excuse to walk out in search of a pencil.