“…Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – that they are stored with other meanings, with other memories, and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past.”
With these words Virginia Woolf begins the interview in a BBC radio broadcast in April 29, 1937. The interview is a reminiscence of the essay ‘Craftsmanship’ published in ‘The death of the Moth and other Essays’ in 1942. by Leonard Woolf.
In his editorial note note he states:
“If she had lived, there is no doubt that she would have made large alterations and revisions in nearly all these essays before allowing them to appear in volume form. Knowing this, one naturally hesitates to publish them as they were left. I have decided to do so, first because they seem to me worth republishing, and second because at any rate those which have already appeared in journals have in fact been written and revised with immense care.”
We can only thank Mr. Woolf for enriching us with Virginia’s another amazing work which inspires us to consider our words even more seriously – if for nothing else, than for the simple fact…
“Now we know little that is certain about words, but this we do know — words never make anything that is useful; and words are the only things that tell the truth and nothing but the truth.”
Not only it is important to handle words with care from author’s but also from the reader’s perspective, because…
“… one sentence of the simplest kind rouses the imagination, the memory, the eye and the ear — all combine in reading it.
But they combine — they combine unconsciously together. The moment we single out and emphasize the suggestions as we have done here they become unreal; and we, too, become unreal — specialists, word mongers, phrase finders, not readers. In reading we have to allow the sunken meanings to remain sunken, suggested, not stated; lapsing and flowing into each other like reeds on the bed of a river.”
It is both interesting and valuable to consider her own viewpoint at the time of creation and, although not identical, the two works miraculously intertwine. So Virginia ponders in the interview
“… the very obvious yet always mysterious fact that a word is not a single and separate entity, but part of other words. Indeed it is not a word until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other, (…)
How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question.
And the person who could answer that question would deserve whatever crown of glory the world has to offer.”
And she further continues, describing the art and craftsmanship of writing, and breathing life into words…
“It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, ranging hither and thither, falling in love, and mating together. It is true that they are much less bound by ceremony and convention than we are. Royal words mate with commoners.
Indeed, the less we enquire into the past of our dear Mother English the better it will be for that lady’s reputation. For she has gone a-roving, a-roving fair maid.”
Perhaps the most striking point is the revolutionary meditation on words which will shed a new light on every work of literature ever written – and how do they survive tests of time…
“… all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think before they use them, and to feel before they use them, but to think and feel not about them, but about something different. They are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious. They do not like to have their purity or their impurity discussed. If you start a Society for Pure English, they will show their resentment by starting another for impure English – hence the unnatural violence of much modern speech; it is a protest against the puritans. They are highly democratic, too; they believe that one word is as good as another; uneducated words are as good as educated words, uncultivated words as good as cultivated words, there are no ranks or titles in their society. Nor do they like being lifted out on the point of a pen and examined separately. They hang together, in sentences, paragraphs, sometimes for whole pages at a time. They hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is their nature to change.
Perhaps that is their most striking peculiarity – their need of change. It is because the truth they try to catch is many-sided, and they convey it by being many-sided, flashing first this way, then that. Thus they mean one thing to one person, another thing to another person; they are unintelligible to one generation, plain as a pikestaff to the next. And it is because of this complexity, this power to mean different things to different people, that they survive.”
Maybe we are just slaves to words, and maybe that is not the curse, but rather otherwise.
Do not miss this valuable recording.