An Incessant Shower of Innumerable Atoms

woolf-virginiaI recently came across a passage in an essay by Virginia Woolf that resonated with me in a surprising way, and I thought I would share a few thoughts on it.

The passage comes from her 1925 essay “Modern Fiction,” in which she discusses several then-current authors and the subject matter with which they chose to deal in their works. While she doesn’t take for granted the idea that fiction of recent times is automatically better, a manifestation of “progress,” than older works, she does believe that a new approach was emerging. In the case of authors she criticizes, like H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and John Galsworthy, she feels that they are “materialists,” concerned with the outer rather than inner life, “making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.”

That observation leads to the beautiful passage that got my attention:

“Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this.’ 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…”

Later on, she states it in a different way: “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.”

If a writer were to choose to focus on that “incessant shower” of impressions, Woolf says, “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.” Writing of the intentions of one author, James Joyce, who seemed to have embraced this idea, Woolf writes, “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”

Now, Woolf is obviously critiquing fiction, saying that traditional forms fail to convey fully the processes of the human mind, and that one of the projects of modern writing is to experiment with alternative strategies that might evoke those processes more accurately. At the same time, I think we can see in her marvelous words the truth of what we experience on a moment-to-moment basis.

If you were to examine your thought processes closely during a five minute period at, let’s say, a movie or symphony concert, or while you’re driving somewhere, what kinds of thoughts would travel through your mind? I mean to include not just extended trains of thought, but even fleeting impressions.

I hope I turned off the heat at home.
It was really difficult to find a parking spot this afternoon.
I wish I’d slept more last night.
Lots of stupid drivers out today.
Will I have time to complete my project at work on Monday?
I hope her knee is healing OK.
I wish that person would stop coughing!
Oh, the clarinetist clammed that note.
I’m hungry.
This is kind of a boring movie.
Look at the way the sunlight glistens off of those mountains!
Why can’t they make these seats more comfortable?
Etc. etc.

Yet, if someone were to ask you later that day what you were doing during that time, you’d likely reply, “I was at a symphony concert,” or “I was driving home from work.” That might very well also be what you’d put in your journal at the end of the day, too. Our thoughts are all over the place at any moment, as anyone who has tried to meditate can verify. Innumerable thoughts and impressions pass through our minds. Many come to consciousness, a few are memorable, and very, very few make their ways into the narrative we are constantly creating for our own lives.

If we were to come upon a person on the street carrying on an ongoing conversation with her- or himself, we would probably think that there was some psychological or mental health issue there. Yet we all do this all the time – we’re just a little more decorous about it and keep the conversation to ourselves within our brains. But that little voice, that incessant chattering voice registering all those fleeting thoughts, is always with us.

Our impressions of the world around us, too, get focused, put into some kind of form, by this chattering voice. We actually take in much more information than our conscious minds can handle. Aldous Huxley took this idea to its extreme in The Doors of Perception: “Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.” Or, as Michael A. Singer puts it in The Untethered Soul, “Your consciousness is actually experiencing your mental model of reality, not reality itself.”

So as not to be overwhelmed and paralyzed, our minds automatically, mostly without conscious input, reduce the “incessant shower of innumerable atoms” to just a few. To a large extent, this happens simply to give us at least a small sense of control over a world that is raging around us, entirely out of our control. We’ve got to bring order to it, somehow. How else can we function? How else can we find happiness? How else can we find ourselves? How else can we create ourselves?

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Schopenhauer and Mencius

Two thousand years and thousands of miles apart…

“How is it possible that another’s weal and woe should influence my will directly, that is, exactly in the same way as otherwise my own move it? How can that which affects another for good or bad become my immediate motive, and actually sometimes assume such importance that it more or less supplants my own interests, which are, as a rule, the single source of the incentives that appeal to me? Obviously, only because that other person becomes the ultimate object of my will, precisely as usually I myself am that object; in other words, because I directly desire weal, and not woe, for him, just as habitually I do for myself. This, however, necessarily implies that I suffer with him, and feel his woe, exactly as in most cases I feel only mine, and therefore desire his weal as immediately as at other times I desire only my own. But, for this to be possible, I must in some way or other be identified with him; that is, the difference between myself and him, which is the precise raison d’être of my Egoism, must be removed, at least to a certain extent. … It is, what we see every day – the phenomenon of Compassion; in other words, the direct participation, independent of all ulterior considerations, in the sufferings of another, leading to sympathetic assistance in the effort to prevent or remove them; whereon in the last resort all satisfaction and all well-being and happiness depend. It is this Compassion alone which is the real basis of all voluntary justice and all genuine loving-kindness. Only so far as an action springs therefrom, has it moral value; and all conduct that proceeds from any other motive whatever has none.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), The Basis of Morality, Chapter 5

“All people possess within them a moral sense that cannot bear the suffering of others. The former kings had such a moral sense and thus they devised means of government that would not allow people to suffer. If a ruler were to employ the moral sense that makes human suffering unendurable in order to implement such humane government, he would find bringing the entire empire into order to be simple, as though he were turning the world in his hand. Why do I say that all people possess within them a moral sense that cannot bear the suffering of others? Well, imagine now a person who all of a sudden sees a small child on the verge of falling down into a well. Any such person would experience a sudden sense of fright and dismay. This feeling would not be one that they summoned up in order to establish good relations with the child’s parents. They would not purposefully feel this way in order to win the praise of their friends and neighbors. Nor would they feel this way because the screams of the child would be unpleasant. Now by imagining this situation we can see that one who lacked a sense of dismay in such a case could simply not be a person. And I could further show that anyone who lacked the moral sense of shame could not be a person; anyone who lacked a moral sense of deference could not be a person; anyone who lacked a moral sense of right and wrong could not be a person.”
– Mencius (372–289 BCE), Mencius, 2A:6