Today was the anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s birth. She, being a hero of mine, deserves plenty of auguri sent her way come any January 25th, and I duly tip my quill to her. This year in particular. This year, on this day, I had forgotten, and was remembered of it tweeting, of all things, waiting for the subway, Moments of Being tucked into my shoulder bag. An accident of books falling like Tetris blocks into my hands, one behind the other in the queue.
This year, also, I have found myself offending narcissism. Which is to say, being defensive at it. Making the case for not it. Hoping very hard to not embody it. You see, I live in Brooklyn, in anno domini 2013, and not just any Brooklyn — hipster Brooklyn. And I’m a writer (though saying so always makes me feel like a massive fraud). A memoir writer, even, telling myself my own stories, studying the ‘I’. And spending a hundred grand to do it.
Still, that word hangs overhead. I will not be a narcissist. I will not be a narcissist. I write it on the chalkboard of myself in smudgy dust. The refrain itself is self-obsessed. I spend so much time trying not to be that I become a version of the thing. Plus there’s all this chat of memoir-writing being navel-gazy; how can that not be true? I’m seven chapters deep into a manuscript whose only plot is hung upon D.I.Y. pegs, distorted and/or amplified bits of biography. I set out to write it in cold blood; it came out a confessional.
And worse, there’s Girls. Lord, but I get into fights about this show. Just Wednesday night, I found myself shouting across a hipster-cafe-table that narcissism, however trendy, was not a life goal to which one should aspire — no matter how artistic or misunderstood we are. But that’s what happens when we aren’t limited by money or time, they argue. As if it were a purpose in and of itself. As if any artist would devolve that way without the whole anxiety of paying rent. But, but, Virginia Woolf! I wailed, but wasn’t heard because our twelve dollar burgers had arrived, half vegan, half grilled in fancy bacon fat.
I decided I should let it go. I’m altogether far too angry lately. Full of rage-against-the-rudeness I-should-not-go-out-in-public city rage. Railing against all those who do not do unto others, damn them, while I’m sitting here damn well doing unto them! I will not pick fights in hipster bars. I will not pick fights in hipster bars. Least of all not arguments I know I’ll never win. But, for the record, I sat sipping my eight-dollar malbec from a juice glass and imagining ole melancholy Jinny Stephen harumphing in her grave. Had I but known what you ungrateful children had in mind when I said you’d need a room and those five hundred pounds…
The point is not that I don’t have the money or the room. The point is, I hate hipsters. And not because they wear skinny jeans with suspenders and find McSweeney’s funny. Because they cannot begin to care about anything more serious than brunch. (I’m being harsh, I know — too harsh. Hipster hatred is also not the point. I expect I’ll have to write an essay just to refute myself and begin unfumbling the ball.) The real point is this: it is Virginia Woolf day. And she cared. And so do I.
It is amazing how, in a series of sketches penned in the months before her death, she could feign such hope. (There’s a lot more darkness in there, I find, rereading it — what with all her talk about the “dismal puddle” and the “child advancing with bare feet” into that cold river, descending into the stream. Not to mention all that stuff about the cotton wool.) By hope I mean this passage:
And I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that 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. And I see this when I have a shock.
I’ll leave you with that. Good night, Jinny. May the heavens be praised for your mastery of semicolons. And for your words.