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How Much of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is in the Writing of Virginia Woolf?

Unfortunately, one “can’t unriddle the universe at tea,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in 1934 after a chat with William Butler Yeats, who had come to her both with a mysticism-inflected interpretation of The Waves and extraordinary visions of “the Occult.”

“Neither religion or science explains the world,” Yeats had informed her, as she recorded. “The occult does explain it.” Woolf, who enjoyed nuance, might have partially agreed with Yeats’s assessment that neither religion nor science had plumbed every fathom of the universe, but the Bloomsbury author unquestionably leant more to science. Not only did she often sprinkle wry bits of venomous invective for anything she deemed superstition through her private and public writings, but she also held a deep interest in advances in physics and astronomy, most notably Albert Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity of 1905 and 1915 respectively, which essentially posited that events in time are not the same everywhere for everyone, but, rather, depend on an observer’s distance and speed. (A clock moving at light speed, for instance, would appear to tick more slowly than a clock moving at less than light speed.) This counter-intuitive notion revolutionized Woolf’s world after the astronomer Arthur Eddington observationally proved relativity in 1919, a feat that both helped overturn scientific orthodoxy and captured the general public’s interest.

Reading Woolf through the prism of Einstein and relativity—physicist or theory of which are mentioned in passing in Mrs. Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own, and in her letters—can enrich the spiraling contortions of time and narrative structure in To the Lighthouse (published nine decades ago this year), Orlando, The Waves, her short story “The Mark on the Wall,” and many other texts. Einstein’s theory may even have subtly influenced Woolf’s simple-but-sublime philosophy of art and life, which sought meaning in a frenetic, non-linear, likely godless world. Woolf desired to write fiction that captured the flux and strangeness of inner and outer life, contra the work of someone like Arnold Bennett, who she described as creating characters like houses in which “life… refuse[s] to live there.” This idea of life not being simple, solidly definable, and linear—something rigidly defined by dogma—but, rather, something diaphanous, elusive, and relative to individual experience, is vividly summed up in a line from “Modern Fiction,” one of Woolf’s best-known essays. “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged,” she wrote; rather, “life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.”

Although Woolf’s interest in science has received some critical attention, like Henry Holly’s Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science and in a few texts on Modernism and scientific discourse, it’s still relatively rare to see Woolf discussed in this context. Yet new ideas in the science of her day arguably permeate her work. She proffered a vision of a world in flux, where time for me might tick slower than time for you at one moment or the next—a vision delivered in an era when notions of time itself were frequently being redefined by scientific advances, from the revolutionary development of stop-motion photography (which slowed time down, so to speak) to relativity, Edwin Hubble’s shocking announcement that the universe was expanding, and quantum mechanics (which made time stranger than ever)—these last three all after Lord Kelvin, near the start of the 20th century, provided one of history’s most premature announcements: that “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.” To be sure, Woolf was no scientist. But she translated what she understood of the new languages of physics—especially Einstein’s—into both her art and, I believe, into a philosophy that offered a simple but moving vision of meaning for life and art alike.

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Einstein was a scientific celebrity. At its peak, his popularity arguably eclipsed even that of Stephen Hawking today or the zeal devoted to contemporary popularizers of science like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye.

After Eddington proved Einstein’s theory by measuring the bending of starlight during an eclipse, there arose in the general public an extraordinary outburst of curiosity about relativity, such that almost anything written by or about Einstein was expected to sell copies, if not cause riots. For the rest of the year after Eddington’s feat, The Times of London carried pieces about Einstein and his signature theory almost daily. One could even purchase relativity merchandise in London, including relativity pottery. Part of Einstein’s appeal was the dumbfounding counter-intuitiveness of relativity, and for a time, newspapers were willing to pay unusually high fees for concise, simple explanations. So feverish, so corybantic was the general public’s obsession with Einstein that when, in, 1929, Einstein wrote a short paper for a German publication, he received a telling letter from Arthur Eddington, in which Eddington informed him that “You may be amused to hear that one of our great department stores in London (Selfridges) has posted on its window your paper (the six pages pasted up side by side) so that passers-by can read it all through. Large crowds gather around to read it!” The following year, as Henry Holly records, guards at Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History had to break up what almost became a riot when over 4,000 people rushed to see a film purportedly demystifying relativity.

How familiar Woolf was with Einstein’s work is unclear, even contradictory. She would have been exposed to his work via her friendship with the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who released a charming explanation of the German physicist’s theories, the ABC of Relativity, in 1925. Yet in 1938, Woolf wrote that she “had not read Einstein; I should not understand it” in a letter from October to the American literature student Elizabeth Nielsen (the first to write a dissertation on Woolf), who had visited the author to discuss, in Woolf’s words, “Einstein, & his extra mundane influence upon fiction.” However, in a diary entry from 1926 describing a party at Clive Bell’s, Woolf wrote that she “wanted, like a child, to stay & argue,” though “the argument was passing my limits—how, if Einstein is true, we shall be able to foretell our own lives.” (This is a misunderstanding of Einstein, perhaps derived from over-interpreting his idea of an unbounded but finite universe in which all beams of light will eventually return to their source, or, possibly, the notorious twin paradox, in which someone could age slower than someone else by approaching the speed of light; such elaborate misreadings were common for the time.) Beyond this, Woolf pasted Einstein’s denunciation of fascism into her notebook. So, she unquestionably read Einstein; perhaps what Woolf meant in her letter is that she had not read his formal papers. Woolf may also have gleaned some of her understanding of relativity through newspaper pieces by Eddington and the astronomer and science popularizer James Jeans.

Woolf’s debt to Einstein may be clearest in her ludic 1928 novel, Orlando. The eponymous Orlando begins the book as a young boy during the reign of Elizabeth I and, much later, wakes one day as a woman, who lives on into the 20th century. For Woolf’s protagonist, as for Orlando’s critic friend, Nicholas Greene, who also lives for more than one conventional lifespan, time is relative; time moves much more slowly for Orlando and Greene than for the world around them. This connection to Einstein in Orlando has largely gone unnoticed, though one early reviewer caught it: in a review of Orlando for the New York Times from October 21, 1928, Cleveland B. Chase claimed that the novel was nothing less than a conscious examination of Einsteinian relativity. “Those who open ‘Orlando,’” Chase wrote, “expecting another novel in the vein of ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ and ‘To the Lighthouse’ will discover, to their joy or sorrow, that once more Mrs. Woolf has broken with tradition and convention and has set out to explore still another fourth dimension of writing. Not that she has abandoned the ‘stream of consciousness’ method which she used with such conspicuous success in her previous novels, but with it she has combined what, for lack of a better term, we might describe as an application to writing of the Einstein theory of relativity.” Woolf herself lyrically seemed to reference a well-known icon of Einsteinian relativity, clocks that tick at different rates, towards the end of the novel:

And indeed, it cannot be denied that the most successful practitioners of the art of life, often unknown people by the way, somehow contrive to synchronize the sixty or seventy different times which beat simultaneously in every normal human system so that when eleven strikes, all the rest chime in unison, and the present is neither a violent disruption nor completely forgotten in the past. Of them we can justly say that they live precisely the sixty-eight or seventy-two years allotted them on the tombstone. Of the rest some we know to be dead though they walk among us; some are not yet born though they go through the forms of life; others are hundreds of years old though they call themselves thirty-six. The true length of a person’s life, whatever the “Dictionary of National Biography” may say, is always a matter of dispute. For it is a difficult business—this time-keeping…

Here, relativity leads to a philosophical insight: that we understand each other better if we do not assume our experience of time, our weight of past and present, is the same as everyone else’s, that we can be old in a young body and young in one outwardly aged, that time flows differently inside us all. (I’m reminded, too, of Tobias Wolf’s temporal distortions in “Bullet in the Brain.”) While Woolf’s passage exaggerates the science of relativity, it feels accurate, nonetheless, to experience. Woolf has translated an often discombobulating idea into a lovely image with the grace of balloon.

To the Lighthouse, too, creates a sense of palpable relativity in its celebrated “Time Passes” section. The Ramsays, formerly the focus of the novel, are reduced to brief, minimalist parentheticals. In one astonishing instance, Mrs. Ramsay dies in brackets, and, in another, Andrew Ramsay is blown up during war. While these are quick, jagged ticks on the clock, the rest of “Time Passes,” which describes the atmosphere inside and outside the near-empty house, is slow, drawn-out. It literally feels as if time is moving differently for the Ramsays and for their home. Whether or not Woolf had Einstein in the back of her mind while composing this tempestuous, mystical reflection of an abandoned abode—she described “Time Passes” in a 1925 diary entry as “this impersonal thing” friends dared her to do, a “new problem” to tackle that would “break [the] unity of design”—it remains a stunning literary depiction of relativity. Woolf utilizes a similar technique in “The Mark on the Wall,” wherein a nameless narrator wonders, with much meandering, what a mark on the wall (all of which is a memory) might be, until another character interrupts their wandering thoughts and unceremoniously reveals the mark a snail. It is as if we’ve been forced out of one clock’s gentle march into the harsh rapidity of another clock’s rhythm.

In The Waves, structural relativity is taken to an extreme. The book’s italicized portions slowly chronicle a single day of a sun rising and falling over waves, alternating between a local and global perspective; however, the soliloquies of the six characters that occur between these atmospheric interludes take place over many years. Language, too, reflects relativity: all the speakers’ soliloquies employ the same elevated and lambent, yet overall simple, diction, while the interludes, as if in another time-world altogether, move with a deep oceanic languor: colossal and cavernous in one moment, contorting, colubrine, and light the next. The Waves, which Woolf famously described as “an abstract mystical eyeless book: a playpoem,” takes that signature of Modernist novels—a plot occurring over the course of a day—and transforms it into something architecturally Einstenesque.

While some critics argue Woolf’s depictions of time show the influence of French philosopher Henri Bergson—immensely popular before a fatal 1922 debate with Einstein, in which the physicist claimed Bergson had failed to understand relativity, and Bergson began to slip into obscurity—Woolf’s husband Leonard denied it. “Mrs. Woolf did not read a word of Bergson,” he declared. Lest one suspect she might have been indirectly influenced by the French philosopher, who’d proposed an immeasurable “inner” experiential time called “duration” that differed from clock-time, Leonard added, “I do not think she was influenced in the slightest degree by Bergson’s ideas.” Woolf herself never clarified. Though she probably knew of Bergson’s much-discussed ideas, her imagery, to me, harkens more to the physicist she also—allegedly—never read.

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If relativity intrigued and quietly informed Woolf’s work, her views on organized religion were both clearer and less appreciative. Much of Woolf’s recorded life—diary entries, letters, publications—contains explicit contempt for organized religion and superstition in general, a stance that would come to influence her philosophy of life. Most of Woolf’s protagonists, like their author, were atheists or anti-theistic. “Oh, how I loathe religion,” Woolf told the composer Ethel Smythe in a 1934 letter; the year before, Smyth had written in her diary that “[o]f religion [Woolf] has no conception.” In Woolf’s own words, she possessed “an anti-religious bias.” She loathed her “religious cousin” Dorothea Stephen, who voyaged to India to study and subsequently wrote about what Woolf termed “the fallacies of Buddha.” E.M. Forster she described as “mystic, silly”—the word pairing, of course, suggestive. When Dorothy Brett, an acquaintance, claimed the ghost of Katherine Mansfield was haunting the Brett home, Woolf acerbically observed that “Brett is not scientific; she at once takes the old fables seriously… did K.M. do something to deserve this cheap posthumous life?”

Some of Woolf’s most venomous excoriations were saved, however, for T.S. Eliot, whose conversion to Anglo-Catholicism irked the Bloomsbury skeptic. In a masterpiece of epistolary contumely, she declared in a 1928 letter that Eliot was “dead to us all from this day forward,” as he “has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.” Despite the tartness of such descriptions, Woolf could write mellifluously, too, of how we could be good and kind people, no gods required. As she put it in Mrs. Dalloway: “[Clarissa] thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.”

Her views were influenced by her famously agnostic father, Leslie Stephen (caricatured as Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse), himself a product of a divided Victorian England in which scientific advances—especially evolutionary theory—engendered conflicts with long-established biblical descriptions of humanity’s place in the cosmos. This tension animated iconic texts of the era, like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” Science (both then and now) seemed luciferous, in that it both seemed to shed light on shadowy questions and, to the zealous, act as a deceiving tool of the Devil. For Woolf, the light of institutional faiths appeared too dim, too clean and narrow of flame, to guide through life’s murkiness. Despite her critical portrait of her father, some of his writing on what he termed “the dark riddle of the universe” resonated with her. Unlike his more materialistic philosophy, however, Woolf fostered a loose mysticism in which art and life were connected, in which the borders between people and experiences were permeable. For all her interest in science, she did not really adhere to an adamantine scientism; her mind was closed to religion, but open elsewhere. In Woolf’s vision of life—which echoes the ever-evolving flow of her language—the universe may remain a godless dark riddle, but some starry doors remain ajar, leading to the wonderful and terrible who-knows-where.

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Woolf made reality itself transcendent, sacred. As a nonbeliever myself, I’ve often seen the silly stereotype that to have no religion is to lead a lightless, dull, pointless existence. Woolf’s life philosophy defied this. A 1926 passage from her diary gorgeously demonstrates a mundane experience of secular transcendence:

I see the mountains in the sky: the great clouds; & the moon which is risen over Persia; I have a great & astonishing sense of something there, which is “it”? It is not exactly beauty that I mean. It is that the thing is in itself enough: satisfactory; achieved. A sense of my own strangeness, walking on the earth is there too: of the infinite oddity of the human position… I do fairly frequently come upon this “it”; & then feel quite at rest.

But the passage that illustrates this philosophy best, to me, appears in “A Sketch of the Past,” when Woolf has a sudden “shock” that reveals a mystical vision of the world “behind the cotton wool of daily life,” in which life and art, suddenly, are the same:

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.

Here is a kind of “mystic atheism,” to borrow a term from Julia Kristeva. A transcendental experience that may not contain any god, but which affirms something majestic, all the same: life itself, turned, if briefly, to the luminous, numinous quality of art. Here, behind the wool, maybe all clocks tick the same.

The meaning of life may simply be to live, Woolf seems to be telling us, and yet that, in of itself, can be marvelous, can be a worthy lighthouse to guide us on blustery, or unnaturally calm, nights of the soul.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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