I was out for a walk the other morning when I came across a crumpled piece of rope lying in the road. It was just the sort of object that a small boy would instinctively try to grab before his mother pulled him roughly away with a lecture about not picking up things you find lying on the ground. As it happened, I had been on the lookout lately for wildflowers I could bring home to photograph close up. This was no wildflower, but the little boy in me picked it up and inspected it closely. It was a coiled length of hemp rope less than half an inch thick, no more than three feet long, frayed on both ends, with a loose knot in it. The mother in me duly noted the rope had grease stains on it, but no matter. This was found art. My eye became the lens of a camera exploring the rope’s marvelous weave as I happily anticipated shooting it close up under a cone of white light in a darkened room.
I know what Virginia Woolf meant when she said the whole world is a work of art. If you are paying the least bit of attention, as an artist must, you can’t help seeing it. When I was out walking the other morning along a perfectly ordinary stretch of road, flat and straight, with little in the way of obvious visual interest, I kept wishing I had my camera with me. I was just grateful I could bring back that poor bedraggled length of rope to photograph.
If you have ever read any of Virginia Woolf’s novels, such as Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, you have no doubt been struck by the exquisite sensibility that sustains her writing. She was probably what psychologists call a highly sensitive person, someone whose senses are pitched at a much higher and deeper level than the rest of us. The poet Emily Dickinson was another likely candidate. Dickinson rarely left her bedroom for fear of sensory overload. Yet all the traits that made her unfit for a rough-and-tumble world enabled her to perceive what the rest of us often fail to notice and to capture it in her poetry.
As rarified an atmosphere as Woolf occupied as a member of the Bloomsbury Group, she did not spend her life shut away in her bedroom. Nor, despite the impression you might get from her writing, was she always transported by ecstatic thoughts and feelings, which she called her “moments of being.” There were also long stretches of “non-being,” when she slogged through the dull humdrum of everyday life like everyone else. “Every day includes much more non‐being than being,” Woolf wrote in her journal.
I have already forgotten what [husband] Leonard and I talked about at lunch; and at tea; although it was a good day the goodness was embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool. This is always so. A great part of every day is not lived consciously. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; writing orders to Mabel; washing; cooking dinner; bookbinding.
Woolf made clear there is little outwardly to distinguish the experience of being from non-being. She recalled a luminous moment that was one of her earliest memories, a night in the nursery at the house along the Cornish coast in St. Ives that her family rented in the summers. Writing more than half a century later, she could still vividly recall the blinds shaken by the wind, the light streaming through the window, the sound of the sea. But what set this singular moment apart from the nondescript cotton wool of ten thousand similar moments in her life?
Had hers been an overtly religious sensibility, Woolf might have subscribed to the poet Gerald Manly Hopkins’ statement that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Christians speak of the “sacramental imagination,” the ability to see everyday experience as a revelation of God’s grace. However, Woolf categorically rejected any belief in God, somehow embracing an ecstatic consciousness while rejecting all trappings of religion. The closest she came was to acknowledge there was a hidden pattern behind the cotton wool – not some deity, mind you, but a work of art. “Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world,” she wrote. “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.”
For “work of art,” we might say creation; however, that would suggest a creator. Likewise, a work of art normally requires an artist. Perhaps, as Woolf insists, there is no God, emphatically or otherwise. But a Hamlet without Shakespeare? A Beethoven quartet without Beethoven? One might sooner imagine a Mrs. Dalloway without Virginia Woolf.