March 28, 2013
As I begin to feel my way toward speaking about Virginia Woolf, there’s a song that keeps coming through and since I’m a believer in anything that keeps trying to come through I’m going to let it in. It’s a song by Joan Manuel Serrat based on a small poem titled “La saeta” by Antonio Machado. It speaks to a traditional Andalusian song type, sung this time of year to the “Jesus de la agonia” in which the singer asks for a ladder to climb up the cross and take the nails out of Jesus’s hands. The saeta is not for him, Machado says. The horror of the cross is not what he chooses to sing to, he saves his song for the Jesus who walked on the water. Machado was fundamentally on the side of life. As was Virginia Woolf.
It’s not a simple thing to be on the side of life. There’s no naivete to it, it’s not a wish to return to the simplicity, the unambiguous peace of the Garden. “[T]he beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder,” Woolf says near the beginning of A Room of One’s Own, locating the beauty of the world right on the fine line between love and grief. To hold the balance of those two opposites, this is my version of being on the side of life, to know that both things are always true even though on any given day one or the other may be out of sight. For me, that’s wholeness, presence, sanity.
Most of my most important friends are women and are writers. We all have days more full of love, days more full of grief. By and large writers are the sanest people I know and writing is the container that many times keeps us whole through the passages back and forth. “Art is for life,” my friend Eleanor said to me early on, “and not life for art.” As I open to the first entry in A Writer’s Diary I find this same advice in Woolf’s words about Christina Rossetti: “[I]f I were bringing a case against God she is one of the first witnesses I should call. . . . First she starved herself of love, which meant also life; then of poetry in deference to what she thought her religion demanded.” Woolf’s last day was her own. What she left for us was the love, life and poetry she wishes here for Rossetti and for all “born poets” as she calls her. She left us the words for saying what we need and every time we borrow those words to insist on our own rooms, our own lives, we take her side.