"Behind the Cotton Wool"

Process Philosophy in the Works of Virginia Woolf


Katelynn Carver, MTS candidate, Harvard Divinity School

Abstract: The literary works of Virginia Woolf consistently evoke what she terms a “philosophy” of interconnectivity within the world. From such a scaffolding of intersubjectivity, the following essay connects Woolf’s writings with the process-relational metaphysics developed by Alfred North Whitehead in order to highlight the similarities between Woolf’s work and Whitehead’s philosophy. This essay also seeks to lay a foundation for recognizing these parallels between creative writing and process-relational philosophy in the interest of identifying and further developing literary coping mechanisms for mental illness.

In her memoir A Sketch of the Past, Virginia Woolf states what she “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.”[i] In applying this scaffolding to her catalog of work in its entirety, a number of recurring themes related to this sense of interconnectivity arise: interpesonal relationality, the influence of the past upon the present, and the affirmation of an intersubjective universe. Holistically, these concepts echo the core assertions of the process-relational metaphysic developed by Alfred North Whitehead in the early twentieth century. [ii][iii] While it is unlikely that Woolf considered herself a process-oriented thinker, the consistent and multifaceted overlapping of her fictional and personal writings with Whiteheadian metaphysics not only begs further inquiry, but implies the possibility of a rich lens through which we may further plumb the depths of Woolf’s literature. Thus, in orchestrating a dialogue between Woolf and the collective field of Whiteheadian and process-relational metaphysics, I will touch upon two major areas of intersection: 1) the characterization of the universe and its component elements as fundamentally interrelational, and following from this initial discussion, 2) the influence and significance of temporal relationality upon the creation and realization of the present moment.

All Taken Together: Relationality Between Elements of Creation

One of the most significant parallels between the works of Virginia Woolf and process philosophy is Woolf’s consistent affirmation of a foundationally relational universe. Whiteheadian thought prioritizes the interconnectivity of existence both within and between creative entities. Within this relational reality, the harmonization of dynamic contrasts serves to cultivate the necessary intensity and novelty of experience that collectively yields meaning in human life.[iv] Thus, an existence from which one can sufficiently derive meaning is typified by increasingly complex combinations of contrasts, all of which are collectively harmonized so that the “width” and “depth” of relationality are most fruitfully integrated.

Conversely, the mere repetition of action within a Whiteheadian metaphysic cannot adequately foster meaning. Experience that is uniform and persists as undifferentiated ad infinitum possesses no capacity for relationship and contrast. Such a state of being is termed stagnation, or trivialization, in which novelty cannot be derived, and thus the cultivation of meaning is precluded.[v] Whitehead asserts that “it lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity,” and thus, outside of relationship, any singular entity would be largely condemned to an existence of meaningless triviality.[vi] Therefore, just as Sir William advises Septimus Warren Smith that “nobody lives for himself alone,” within a process-relational worldview, each individual acts as a contributing element within a larger, transformative experience of an interrelational reality.[vii]

Woolf addresses the fundamental connectivity of human existence in a number of ways throughout her novels. First, she addresses the relationality of contrasting entities, which is crucial to the cultivation of meaning within a process metaphysic. In To the Lighthouse, Lily Brisoce observes almost casually “how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave,” implying a reality in which differentiated parts are integrated into a whole as a given, a fact of being.[viii] In the same novel, Mrs. Ramsay characterizes life at its core as “a sort of transaction,” a “parley,” a conversation between elements in which integration takes place without appropriation, in which relationship is maintained between unique and individualized parts.[ix] As Louis declares in The Waves, the achievement of “some gigantic amalgamation between … the discrepancies” is the work of an entire lifetime; such a project is the quintessential hallmark of existence within a process-relational worldview.[x]

Woolf’s characters share her Whiteheadian idea of a world that is primarily and inexhaustibly interconnected.[xi] In Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith experiences the world around him as dynamically connected, always in flux, and collectively creating something novel:

But they beckoned; leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat, fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement. The sparrows fluttering, rising, and falling in jagged fountains were part of the pattern; the white and blue, barred with black branches. Sounds made harmonies with premeditations; the spaces between them were as significant as the sounds. A child cried. Rightly far away a horn sounded. All taken together meant the birth of a new religion.[xii]

Here the branches, the sparrows, and the cells of Septimus’ body, as well as the actions and the spaces between, are connected on millions of levels and then harmonized – as is the Whiteheadian ideal – into new meaning. In The Waves, Jinny also characterizes her perspective of the world in terms of this interconnected webbing, noting how “the pulse drums so in my forehead, behind my eyes, that everything dances – the net, the grass; your faces leap like butterflies; the trees seem to jump up and down. There is nothing staid, nothing settled in this universe. All is rippling, all is dancing; all is quickness and triumph.”[xiii] The pulse of her very heart, the momentum of her blood orchestrates an acknowledgement, a vision of the interplay of all creation in dynamic motion, rendering novelty, “triumphing” in every moment against stagnation and entering into meaning.

To appropriately contrast this point of overcoming stagnation, Woolf acknowledges the Whiteheadian problem of triviality, the detrimental effects of a reduction or elimination of dynamic contrast and novelty. She attributes the devolution of the friendship between William Bankes and Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse to the replacement of newness with repetition; later, she writes Lily Briscoe as identifying “a kind of blasphemy” in repeating the same thing over and over again.[xiv] However, Whiteheadian philosophy holds that as long as the relational aspect of reality is affirmed, the “finality of evil” in trivialization is forbidden, because the interrelated community of all creation provides opportunities for contrasts in unbounded plenitude; “the evil of any one relationship can never be the last word.”[xv] Thus, within the interconnected universe that underlies Woolf’s vision, the infinite exchange of “it won’t be fine” cannot persist indefinitely; upon being introduced to the possibility of “perhaps it will be fine tomorrow,” the present reality will be transformed, forever yielding to the hope of contrasts and the denial of the unending evil of trivialization, for “even if it isn’t fine tomorrow … it will be another day.”[xvi]

Perhaps more significantly than the relationality of contrasting entities, however, is Woolf’s engagement with the relationality of selves, the interpersonal connectivity that drives the human condition and the quest of meaning in life. Nowhere is this theme more strongly expressed than in The Waves, where the very story itself is told through the intermingling, inextricable voices of six separate narrators, connected and intertwined to create a single narrative thread that is as unique and differentiated as it is harmonized and meaningful. In this way, the text is a testament to the Whiteheadian ideal in which “the many become one, and are increased by one.”[xvii] The many voices become one story, and in coming together not only create something novel, but moreover, something of greater meaning, depth, and significance.

Beyond the composition and style of the novel itself, the characters offer consistent iterations of this concept of interpersonal interrelationality. Bernard specifically connects interpersonal communion with the creation and affirmation of selfhood, which takes place via the integration of individual experiences within a Whiteheadian framework. “To be myself,” Bernard states, “I need the illumination of other people’s eyes”; Rhoda likewise notes that “alone, I often fall down into nothingness,” echoing the meaningless stagnation that arises in the absence of sufficient relational contrast.[xviii] Whitehead characterizes the self as that which determines each particular event as it coalesces amongst its component parts to create the reality of the ever-changing individual – and by extension, the ever-changing reality of the universe – through constructive interaction with the past and the potential of the present moment.[xix] Thus, within a process metaphysic, the self is crucial to the cultivation of meaning in the world. Without the self, there would be no mode for experiencing the world in relationship, or for creating opportunities for contrast and novelty. Likewise, without a differentiated entity outside of the self with whom to relate, one continuously risks the evil of trivialization in losing contrast and limiting the potential for creative newness. Where Susan “[grasps, holds] fast…[holds] firmly to this hand, any one’s, with love, with hatred; it does not matter which,” she attests to the need for the other, for any other, because existence outside of relationship runs the risk of insignificance.[xx] Woolf uses these characters to underscore the necessity of relationship with the other in order to understand the self, and by extension, to create meaning in one’s life.

Moreover, Woolf portrays the characters in The Waves as creating not merely their own selfhoods in relationship, but also co-creating their realities in connection with one another. Bernard recognizes that “I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me,” but not only is he made from the influence of others, through their presence, he also attests to a feeling of becoming with another person.[xxi] “When we sit together, close,” he states, “we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory.”[xxii] In this way, “all creation is co-creation;” the capacity for creative contrast is only achieved in communion, in relationship.[xxiii] Meaning arises, then from this liminal spiraling, from Jinny’s dancing universe in time with some collective, cacophonic-harmonious pulse. Meaning comes from wanting to give as surely as one wants to be given, from complexity built layer by layer, from contrasts introduced from different sources, from all sides – co-creation breeds significance via novel experiences formed from the collective contributions of all.[xxiv]

It is also significant to note Woolf’s acknowledgement of the result of this interplay, this co-mingling, and what that result means within a Whiteheadian worldview. “All is experiment and adventure,” Bernard observes; “we are forever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities. What is to come? I know not.”[xxv] This lack of knowledge as the consequence of a relational, co-creative universe echoes the above discussion in which contrast through interrelationality bars the immortal reign of trivialization. To never know with absolute certainty what is to come eternally prohibits the exact repetition of any state of being in relationship, ensuring novelty because even if the same objective circumstances come to pass twice, the self is changed in every moment, and so the individual that meets these circumstances meets them differently. Similarly, the experience of suffering is made transient only in relationship, for something other than suffering must always rise to combat its repetition and devolution into stagnation. In his pain, Bernard highlights the significance of such co-suffering:

I went from one to the other holding my sorrow - no, not my sorrow but the incomprehensible nature of this our life - for their inspection. Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends, I to my own heart, I to seek among phrases and fragments something unbroken - I to whom there is no beauty enough in moon or tree; to whom the touch of one person with another is all.[xxvi]

In this confession of feeling, we see one’s friends held equal to one’s own heart: intrinsic, intimately present, and necessary to existence. We see the integration of pieces, of individual elements – “phrases and fragments” – into a complex whole, “something unbroken.” For Bernard, the touch of another, the presence of someone else in relation, is paramount, is “all.” These testaments to connectivity firmly align Woolf’s vision with the central element of interrelationality within Whitehead’s philosophy.

The Common Fund of Experience is Very Deep: Temporal Relationality and The Question of Immortality in Relationship

Having addressed the theme of interconnectivity between external elements of creation, it is significant within a Whiteheadian metaphysic to extend the conversation of relationality across temporal boundaries. Beyond the obvious titular reference of A Sketch of the Past, the role of history – both personal and collective – is consistently present in the works of Virginia Woolf. In The Waves, Neville references the sequential nature of any singular existence that builds upon itself in interdependent layers: “Bernard says there is always a story. I am a story. Louis is a story.”[xxvii] In this way, Woolf implicates the significance of the past in building the present, the elements of a plot functioning within a given story as dialogue building on setting, as climax proceeding from development, proceeding from introduction, one step after another influencing and shaping what follows. Again, in Between the Acts, a voice fills the void after a “hitch,” after a mistaken exchange of the intended music in the play:

Like quicksilver sliding, filing magnetized, the distracted united. The tune began; the first note meant a second; the second a third. Then down beneath a force was born in opposition; the another. On different levels they diverged. On different levels ourselves went forward; flower gathering some on the surface; others descending to wrestle with the meaning; but all comprehending; all enlisted. The whole population of the mind’s immeasurable profundity came flocking; from the unprotected, the unskinned; and dawn rose; and azure; from chaos and cacophony measure; but not the melody of surface sound alone controlled it; but also the warring battle-plumed warriors straining asunder: To part? No. Compelled from the ends of the horizon; recalled from the edge of appalling crevasses; they crashed; solved; united. And some relaxed their fingers; and other uncrossed their legs. Was that voice ourselves? Scraps, orts and fragments, are we, also, that? The voice died away.[xxviii]

In bringing together these fragments, Woolf testifies to the compound nature of reality: the coming together of components, a first that means a second that in turn begets a third, past to present to future throughout time. As a result of these temporally situated experiences, the self is constructed in all directions, each piece acting as a foundation for the next piece to come, the “battle plumed warriors” in the depths compelled from the “ends of the horizon,” called from the edges, from the past into the present to unite and create something new. We are therefore the harmonization of “scraps,” of “fragments” of the past borne into the present. The past is never far, as it creates the self out of which we act in every moment.

Within a Whiteheadian metaphysic, the past serves as an indispensable element in the project of fostering intensity and creating meaning. Whitehead indicates that the “direct perception whereby the datum in the [individual] is inherited from the past can…be conceived as the transference of throbs of emotional energy.”[xxix] We “essentially arise” out of our “immediate relevant past…we finish a sentence because we have begun it.”[xxx] From this, Whitehead proposes a world that “is composed of an infinite number of individual drops of feeling, all woven together by their experiences of each other.”[xxxi] Our development is therefore dependent on the collective impact of our pasts, and our actions in the present – while not determined entirely by the past – are contextualized by our former experiences; our decisions are made out of selves that are created by the past, and therefore are tinged by its influence. “The past is present under an abstraction," Whitehead affirms, and thus the past and present – and by extension the future, as it arrives in the present and proceeds to the past in continuous process – are inextricably linked.[xxxii] The past colors one’s present experiences and interactions within the world, thus perpetuating a cycle of deepening relationality, dynamic contrasts, and ever-novel possibilities in each given moment, cultivating new experiences and giving rise to new circumstances through which an increasingly relational reality can be forged.

Beyond the effect of the personal past, however, Woolf underscores this theme in a larger sense of collective and generalized history. In reference to the time transcending play at the center of Between the Acts, the questions of whether the performance being witnessed is the play, or the prologue, whether it is an old play or a new play, go immediately unanswered for the characters, and perhaps intentionally so.[xxxiii] As we have seen, the line between past and present, new and old, is not easily drawn within a Whiteheadian understanding of the universe, particularly if we broaden the consideration beyond the purely personal. Our past, then, is not merely what we have individually experienced, but what our forebears have experienced, our familial ancestry, the collective experience of our species throughout time. Between the Acts’ Mrs. Swithin supposes that the Victorians did not exist in themselves, but were instead “you and me and William dressed differently.”[xxxiv] While this is an extreme interpretation, it speaks to the idea that the influence of the past endures to impact the present beyond apparent mortality, and likewise, the present is always contextualized by the past at a fundamental level.

In extending the conversation to include the influence of the non-personal past of the individual on the personal present, the Whiteheadian concept of objective immortality assumes distinct relevance. Just as the individual perishes in the colloquial sense only once, in physical death, the experiences of the individual, the actual occasions and entities – moments of emotion and feeling – that are experienced and collectively construct one’s selfhood are perpetually perishing in the subjective sense, passing from immediate to past, from infinite to finite, thus losing the capacity for novel interaction in themselves.[xxxv] However, within a process-relational framework, every actual entity that is experienced subjectively is integrated into the collective experience of the individual, and thus within a truly interrelated universe, all individual experience contextualizes the collective whole of existence to varying degrees.

Within this model, while the objectively immortal occasion remains unchanging and persists in the same form, it persists indefinitely as fodder for the future actual occasions, providing emotional contextualization and scaffolding for future experiences.[xxxvi] Thus, the self ­– composed of consecutive prehensions (which constitute the interaction between the content/datum that one experiences and the way in which that content/datum is experienced and integrated into one’s collective selfhood) of actual entities building progressively upon themselves in increasingly complex conglomerations – survives objectively within this vast store of datum that can be used to shape how individuals prehend and create from their experiences henceforth. A being’s experiences – which are in large part the substance of selfhood that constitutes what we understand to be the unique presence or “soul” of the individual – continue to hold significance after physical expiration because they are "added to the riches of definiteness attainable, the ‘real potentiality’ of the universe.”[xxxvii] The future is where the experiences of the self endure, as “the creature perishes and is immortal."[xxxviii] Woolf speaks to this through her audience in Between the Acts, as William muses about the inadequacy of beauty in the present, when considered in the face of the future.[xxxix] From both a Woolfian and a Whiteheadian perspective, it is not enough to have only the present when the past determines the possibilities of the present and the future looms as unknown. We require the interplay of these three elements in order to create meaning, in order for novelty to persist.

Woolf acknowledges this deeply connected interaction between past and present explicitly through various characters in her novels. Mrs. Swithin in Between the Acts professes the belief that “we have other lives, I think, I hope … we live in others … we live in things,” thus implying that the impact of the self is imparted in some tangible and influential way through people and things throughout time, long after death.[xl] To a similar end, in To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe muses as to the future fate of her beloved, complicated picture, her “attempt at something” that stretched over so many years: “[it] would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did it matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again.”[xli] Woolf recognizes through Lily Briscoe, here, that while the physical endurance of a thing may be limited, the process of bringing it into being is no less affecting, no less profound, and the lasting echo of its existence not only justifies its creation, but likewise validates the continuation of creativity as she takes up her brush again. In a similar vein, Clarissa Dalloway notes:

But every one remembered; what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her … Did it matter then, she asked herself … did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe death ended absolutely? But that somehow in the streets of London, in the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; the part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.[xlii]

Objective immortality, in this way, promises Clarissa’s vision, that in some way she would exist “in the ebb and flow” of being after her own death; objective immortality ensures that “the common fund of experience is very deep,” as Jinny observes in The Waves.[xliii] This depth of the collective, immortal contextualization of human existence can therefore create not only a nearly infinite pool of human experience that exists as datum, but can also be interpreted indefinitely in order to foster richness.

While objective immortality provides a framework for the consistently referenced influence of the personal and collective past on the characters in Virginia Woolf’s novels, the more intimate influence of the past, particularly of the dead, on the lives and experiences of the characters in her books requires an equally intimate model in the Whiteheadian metaphysic. We see Bernard, near the end of The Waves, asking of his friends, both dead and removed by physical proximity: “Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know. We sat here together. But now Percival is dead, and Rhoda is dead; we are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no division between me and them. As I talked I felt, ‘I am you.’”[xliv] Likewise, in Mrs. Dalloway, we see Woolf’s testament to this intangible and yet very real connection between individuals who never meet, as Clarissa Dalloway reacts to the death of Septimus Warren Smith. Clarissa Dalloway experiences news of Septimus’ death – a man she does not know – with a bodily intensity: “her dress flamed, her body burnt … there he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it.”[xlv] In these instances, we see something more than the static, somewhat impersonal persistence of the experiences of the self after death as they influence the present. Here, we see Woolf drawing attention to a subjective, personal experience of the actual occasions that constitute the selfhood of the deceased outside of physical proximity and interaction. Thus, a conceptualization of subjective immortality is necessary to contextualize Woolf within a Whiteheadian framework.

In constructing the idea of subjective immortality, Whiteheadian philosophy begins to reference more consistently the presence and function of a ‘God.’ However, the Whiteheadian metaphysic is particularly flexible in its capacity for expression and satisfaction in both theistic and naturalistic contexts; the specific language of ‘God’ can be absent and/or nontraditionally applied whilst still fulfilling a process-relational worldview. [xlvi] This naturalistic/theistic flexibility of the process-relational worldview aids in applying such Whiteheadian concepts in conversation with an author for whom traditional theology was a source of great conflict. Septimus Warren Smith notes, “Men must not cut down trees. There is a God.”[xlvii] While the nature Woolf’s mention of ‘God’ is unclear (and given her personal history with religious concepts and language, likely not intended as an endorsement of a classical deity), if we interpret the use of ‘God’ as a reference to an Ultimate Reality, the process-relational model again fits much of Woolf’s language and conveyed meaning.[xlviii]

Process theologian Charles Hartshorne notes, "we can never be less than we have been to God, we can in reality never be less than we have been,” and that our consciousness, “so far as there ever has been such a thing as our consciousness, will still be there in God. It will be such consciousness as we had before dying, but all of it will be imperishable in God.”[xlix] What separates this subjective immortality from the aforementioned objective immortality, then, is immediacy.[l] In objective immortality, the experiences of the individual add to that “common fund of experience,” but exist largely in stasis. They must be tapped and applied by an individual in the present in order to have meaning, and are adapted by the individual in the present at will so as to be transformed from their original state.[li] “Objectification involves elimination,” Whitehead reminds us, but he stresses that “there is no reason, of any ultimate metaphysical generality, why this should be the whole story."[lii] Thus immediacy is preserved in subjective immortality in that possibilities for novelty are made available through the direct contextualization of the present moment by the immortal experiences held within and offered to humankind by an Ultimate Reality (a process known in Whiteheadian terms as offering the lure).[liii]

Using a subjective model of immortality, this Whiteheadian ‘God’ that is held synonymous with Ultimate Reality – the whole of being – holds the sum of all possibility, and offers it dynamically within each consequent moment of human experience. This Ultimate Reality therefore does not only provide Clarissa Dalloway’s observed “embrace in death,” but likewise supports her claim that “death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them.”[liv] Likewise, Septimus Warren Smith’s revelation in Regent’s Park is granted a deepened significance within this framework:

He waited. He listened. A sparrow perched on the railing opposite chirped Septimus, Septimus, four or five times over and went on, drawing its notes out, to sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words how there is no crime and joined by another sparrow, they sang in voices prolonged and piercing in Greek words, from there in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk how there is no death. There was his hand; there the dead.[lv]

Within this model, the dead “walk” with immediacy, influencing life with their experiences and contexts through their fully subjective immortality within the ever-luring Ultimate Reality that works in relationship to shape human existence. The dead “reach” through that lure, extend a hand of the past that can be grasped or denied, but is nevertheless offered and, in the mere offering, exerts influence on the present. Either way, Septimus’ hand and the hand of the dead may in this way coexist within the same metaphysical plane. Just as Woolf points out in Between the Acts – though “we act different parts … [we] are the same … Dare we … limit life to ourselves? May we not hold that there is a spirit that inspires, pervades” – the Whiteheadian perspective provides a model in which life cannot be limited to ourselves in the present alone, for the personal, collective, and immortal past – both immediate and distant – is essential to the central endeavor of cultivating contrast, intensity, complexity, and meaning within a process-relational universe.[lvi]

Trees Do Not Remain Leafless: Writing as a Relational Exercise in Coping with Mental Illness

In closing, it is fitting to heed the advice of Virginia Woolf herself: we cannot responsibly analyze the process-relational themes of her storytelling and in doing so, “leave out the person to whom things happened,” the author crafting these words and shaping their collective significance.[lvii] Woolf’s experiences of mental illness were intricately layered and consistently cyclical, driving and inhibiting her writing and her ability to find meaning in her own life until her death in 1941.[lviii] Like many artists who suffer emotional, psychological, and mental instabilities, Woolf’s creative works and the themes with which she imbues them serve as a testament to her life’s struggles and insights.[lix] Moreover, the process of writing for Woolf served as a constant reaffirmation of her own philosophy, a reminder of the connectivity of existence that, in her darkest times, seemed in her own experience to be impossible. The “blows” she speaks of encountering that “[are] or will become a revelation of some order … a token of some real thing behind appearances” were “made real” and “whole” for Woolf by writing them down, by putting them into words.[lx] Writing, in this way, derived some sense from the chaos without communion that typified the mental distress that Woolf often suffered.

However, despite her professed belief in a universe of connection, she notes that in illness this relationality seems to be an illusion: “we do not know our own souls,” she states, “let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way.”[lxi] From this point of disunion, she observes that we turn to the poets, that we look to verse and prose, “break off a line or two and let them open … the depths of the mind.”[lxii] This assertion illuminates a twofold truth: it is through writing that Woolf discovered meaning in her illness, and more specifically it is in conversation with someone – between an audience and an author, between friends, between the self and the text – that this process of meaning derivation is rendered successful. Bernard notes in The Waves,

The truth is that I need the stimulus of other people. Alone, over my dead fire, I tend to see the thin places in my own stories. The real novelist, the perfectly simple human being, could go on, indefinitely, imagining. He would not integrate, as I do. He would not have this devastating sense of grey ashes in a burnt-out grate. Some blind falls in my eyes. Everything becomes impervious. I cease to invent.[lxiii]

Integration, therefore, is the key to creating meaning out of the void of suffering that results from the repetitious trivialization of experience in mental illness, where the same depressive thought processes and oppressive emotional weights persist without contrast or differentiation: stagnated. For Woolf, sharing with her readers, her Bloomsbury companions, or with the Memoir Club meant creating opportunities to break her own cycle of meaninglessness, to climb from her own pit of despair.[lxiv] As Bernard knows that “with [his friends], I am many-sided. They retrieve me from darkness,” so Woolf was able to triumph over her own mind in waves when she reached beyond herself, when she broke out of her self-imposed exile within the confines of her mind.[lxv] In writing of the “absorbing, mysterious … infinite richness [of] this life,” she forges inroads for both her readers and herself to believe again in that infinitely relational reality of intensity, contrast, and significance.[lxvi] Likewise, she could overcome the tragedy of her mother’s death – the way it “made [her mother] unreal” – by writing stories in which the spirit of her mother was present, in writing of characters throughout her novels who experienced Virginia’s own feelings of the past at times as being “more real than the present moment.”[lxvii]

In these ways, Virginia Woolf’s life and works are profoundly Whiteheadian in that they are driven by the need for relationship, even when relationship appears unattainable, or at times intolerable. Although the “leafless” may occupy the backdrop of one’s life for a time, “trees do not remain leafless. They begin to grow little red chill buds”: from both a Woolfian and a Whiteheadian perspective, the world in relation “says beauty,” affirming complexity, intensity, integration, and significance.[lxviii] Behind the cotton wool there is a pattern of connection, although it may sometimes be hidden; its hiddenness, however, does not diminish its enduring presence, its foundational force in all beings, all things. It is the canvas for our brushstrokes, the context for our sketches and our masterpieces alike.


[i] Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being: A Collection of Autobiographical Writing, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (New York: Harcourt, 1985), 72.

[ii] A note on Whiteheadian language: Whitehead proposes that a dynamic, relational reality supports intensity of experience, whereas mere repetition of action devolves into a triviality that is unable to foster novel experiences. Thus, an existence of heightened intensity is typified by contrasts upon contrasts in increasingly more complex combinations aimed at the ultimate goal of a harmonized experience in which “width” and “depth” of relationality are most effectively integrated. In the present context, this creative integration of contrasts is understood to produce an increased sense of meaning in human experience. Because this harmonization definitionally requires contrast, any singular, undifferentiated entity cannot sufficiently provide for contrasts in order to yield meaning on its own. Thus, Whitehead presents an intersubjective model that prioritizes relationship, community, and the co-creation of human experience.3

[iii] John B. Cobb, Jr., A Glossary with Alphabetical Index to Technical Terms in Process and Reality (Claremont, CA: Process & Faith Press, 2008).

[iv] Cobb, A Glossary.

[v] Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, The End of Evil: Process Eschatology in Historical Context (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988), 65.

[vi] Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1961), 80; Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: Corrected Edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: The Free Press, 1986), 21.

[vii] Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (New York: Harcourt, 2005), 96; John B. Cobb, Jr., Bruce G. Epperly, and Paul S. Nancarrow, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in a Relational World (Claremont, CA: Process & Faith Press, 2005), 21.

[viii] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt, 1955), 47.

[ix] Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 59.

[x] Virginia Woolf, The Waves (New York: Harcourt, 1959), 53.

[xi] Woolf, Moments of Being, 72.

[xii] Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 22.

[xiii] Woolf, The Waves, 46.

[xiv] Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 21, 150.

[xv] Suchocki, The End of Evil, 74.

[xvi] Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 14-15, 26.

[xvii] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

[xviii] Woolf, The Waves, 44, 116.

[xix] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 150.

[xx] Woolf, The Waves, 228.

[xxi] Woolf, The Waves, 84, 134.

[xxii] Woolf, The Waves,16.

[xxiii] Carol P. Christ, She Who Changes: Re-imagining the Divine in the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 45.

[xxiv] Woolf, The Waves, 46, 54.

[xxv]Woolf, The Waves, 118.

[xxvi] Woolf, The Waves, 266-267.

[xxvii]Woolf, The Waves, 37.

[xxviii] Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (New York: Harcourt, 1969) 189.

[xxix] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 116.

[xxx] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 129.

[xxxi] Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer (Danvers, MA: Chalice Press, 1996), 39.

[xxxii] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 340.

[xxxiii] Woolf, Between the Acts, 76, 109.

[xxxiv] Woolf, Between the Acts, 175.

[xxxv] C. Robert Mesle, Process-Relational Philosophy: An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2008), 95-99; Cobb, A Glossary.

[xxxvi] Cobb, Jr., A Glossary.

[xxxvii] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 223.

[xxxviii] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 82

[xxxix] Woolf, Between the Acts, 82.

[xl]Woolf, Between the Acts, 70.

[xli] Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 208.

[xlii] Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 9.

[xliii] Woolf, The Waves, 175.

[xliv] Woolf, The Waves, 288-289.

[xlv] Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 179.

[xlvi] C. Robert Mesle, Process Theology: A Basic Introduction (Danvers, MA: Chalice Press, 1993), 127-47.

[xlvii] Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 24.

[xlviii] Leonard J. Biallas, Myths: Gods, Heroes, and Saviors (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1986).

[xlix] Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1934), 121; Charles Hartshorne, “Time, Death, and Everlasting Life,” in The Logic of Perfection and Other Essays In Neoclassical Metaphysics (LaSalle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 1962), 247-53.

[l] Whitehead, Process and Reality, xiii-xiv.

[li] Hartshorne, “Time, Death, and Everlasting Life,” 247-53.

[lii] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 340.

[liii] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346; Cobb, A Glossary.

[liv] Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 180.

[lv] Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 24.

[lvi] Woolf, Between the Acts, 192.

[lvii] Woolf, Moments of Being, 65.

[lviii] Thomas Caramagno, The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic-Depressive Illness (Berkeley; University of California Press, 1992); Phyllis Rose, Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf (London: Routledge, 1986), 243.

[lix] Caramagno, The Flight of the Mind.

[lx] Woolf, Moments of Being, 72.

[lxi] Woolf, Moments of Being, 72; Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill,” in Selected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 104.

[lxii] Woolf, “On Being Ill,” 107.

[lxiii] Woolf, The Waves, 80.

[lxiv] Woolf, Moments of Being, 161.

[lxv] Woolf, The Waves, 116.

[lxvi] Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 159.

[lxvii] Woolf, Moments of Being, 69-67, 95.

[lxviii] Woolf, Moments of Being, 141; Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 67-68.