Keeping Secrets From Ourselves

Joshua Rothman contemplates the “artist’s sense of privacy” in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which he describes as an “inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others’ prying eyes, but from your own”:

By learning to leave your inner life alone, you learn to cultivate and appreciate it. And you gain another, strangely spiritual power: the power to regard yourself abstractly. Instead of getting lost in the details of your life, you hold onto the feelings, the patterns, the tones. You learn to treasure those aspects of life without communicating them, and without ruining them, for yourself, by analyzing them too much.

Woolf suggests that those treasured feelings might be the source of charisma: when Peter, seeing Clarissa at her party, asks himself, “What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? … What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?,” the answer might be that it’s Clarissa’s radiance, never seen directly, but burning through. Clarissa, meanwhile, lets her spiritual intuitions lift her a little above the moment. Wandering through her lamp-lit garden, she sees her party guests: “She didn’t know their names, but friends she knew they were, friends without names, songs without words, always the best.” That’s the power of artist’s privacy. It preserves the melodies otherwise drowned out by words, stories, information.