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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

Virginia Woolf´s mixed feelings about Psychoanalysis

Author: Sabrina Zehetner (TVP)

(08/30/2017)
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"Freud is upsetting: reducing one to whirlpool; & I daresay truly. If we´re all instinct, the unconscious, whats all this about civilisation, the whole man, freedom &c?” Virginia Woolf was in two minds about psychoanalysis which she perceived not only as threat and competition, but also as reference point. Perhaps Freud´s rational observations of the mind were too close to comfort for the troubled storyteller.

When Freud met Virginia Woolf she was still resisting the raison d´être of psychoanalysis and described the doctor as “a screwed up shrunk very old man” who seemed “inarticulate: but alert”, “an old fire now flickering” with “immense potential”. This ambivalence would remain at the center of Virginia Woolf´s stance on psychoanalysis. The field was too rational, too objectified for the author´s romanticized approach to her work and self-image. To Freud, creativity was not an abstract concept but strongly linked to an artist´s biography. He took the mystery, the unexplained out of the equation and instead tried to interpret the underlying motives of the creative processes. It knocked the artist´s persona off its pedestal and, consequently, the impact wounded the egos of not a few writers.  After all, the truth is rarely as exciting as the eccentric stories artists tend to weave around their lives. Virginia Woolf, however, was not only the victim of her own ego: "Virginia´s need to write was, among other things, to make sense out of mental chaos and gain control of madness. Through her novels she made her inner world less frightening. Writing was often agony but it provided the ´strongest pleasure´ she knew" (Psychiatrist Peter Dally, 1999)

 Freud´s analytical and objective observations must have frightened her deeply.  By using her character´s as an extension of herself, she avoided addressing her own shortcomings in a way that might have cured them. Later, she was convinced that her writing alone sufficed as treatment: “I suppose that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest”. In one of her countless diary entries, she writes: “How many times have people used a pen or paintbrush because they couldn’t pull the trigger?”

Her tragic suicide, however, proved that nothing in Virginia Woolf´s mind had ever been laid to rest. Still, being ordinary was not a desirable option for the eccentric writer.

The stereotype of the tortured but brilliant artists has a long and widespread tradition. Through their stories, female writers like Woolf or Plath provide troubled young women with relatable experiences. Sylvia Plath´s and Virginia Woolf´s mental illnesses were so interwoven with their imagination that a psychoanalysis would have certainly disrupted their dynamic as artists. What if a treatment would erase the very foundation of their creativity? The psychologist James C. Kaufman referred to the phenomenon of suicidal writers as the “Sylvia Plath effect” and demonstrated that especially female writers are more prone to developing mental illnesses and committing suicide. Virginia Woolf lost her mother when she was 13 followed by her father´s death nine years later. The list of her mental problems seems infinite. To her, Freud was another patriarch who threatened to undermine her creative talent and genius. The mere notion that all her artistic talent was the consequence of painful childhood experiences offended her. Romanticizing the problems of her characters and her own, Woolf was irritated by what she referred to as “Freudian Fiction” and preferred what Keats called “Negative Capability” – the ability “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. Part of her was in love with her own darkness, the unexplained mysteries of the self. Freud´s job was to shed light on them, to reveal the internal and hidden. Ironically, she had more in common with the father of psychoanalysis in that regard than she dared to admit, and perhaps even viewed him as competition. Both had a knack for describing the internal workings of the mind and were avid writers.

As a core member of the Bloomsbury group, it was almost impossible to escape the association´s fascination with psychoanalysis and Freud.  In the 1920s, many Bloomsburies became psychoanalysts themselves, among them Woolf´s brother Adrian and sister-in-law Karen Stephen who - much to the writer´s chagrin- were trained by Freud.  The analysis took a toll on their marriage which only validated Virginia Woolf´s suspicions. Adding insult to injury, her husband Leonard was full of praise for the Austrian doctor pointing out his “wide imaginative power” and even compared his imaginative mind to that of a poet.   

The historian Lytton Strachey was an early admirer´s of Freud´s work. His brother James and his wife Alix translated his books for the Hogarth Press owned by Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. It is not surprising that in such an environment Freud started to rub off eventually. After their encounter followed by Freud´s death in August 1939, she “began reading Freud last night; to enlarge the circumference. to give my brain a wider scope: to make it objective; to get outside.“  The technical, psychoanalytic vocabulary helped her “center” herself and his theories seemed to offer her a sense of orientation in this dark forest of her mind. At the end of her life, she started to draw on Freud´s insights: “It was only the other day when I read Freud for the first time, that I discovered that this violently disturbing conflict of love and hate is a common feeling; and is called ambivalence.” Perhaps this very observation perfectly describes Virginia Woolf´s feelings towards psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud.


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