The mind, however, is not an easy thing to express. When Woolf looked inside herself, what she found was a consciousness that never stood still. Her thoughts flowed in a turbulent current, and every moment ushered in a new wave of sensation. Unlike the “old-fashioned novelists,” who treated our being like a static thing, Woolf’s mind was neither solid nor certain. Instead, it “was very erratic, very undependable—now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now in a daffodil in the sun.” At any given moment, she seemed to be scattered in a million little pieces. Her brain was barely bound together.
And yet, it was bound together. Her mind was made of fragments, but it never came undone. She knew that something kept us from disintegrating, at least most of the time. “I press to my centre,” Woolf wrote in her diary, “and there is something there.”
Woolf’s art was a search for whatever held us together. What she found was the self, “the essential thing.” Although the brain is just a loom of electric neurons and contradictory impulses, Woolf realized that the self makes us whole. It is the fragile source of our identity, the author of our consciousness. If the self didn’t exist, then we wouldn’t exist.
But one must never forget just how flimsy the self is. In her modernist novels, Woolf wanted to simultaneously affirm our existence and expose our ineffability, to show us that we are “like a butterfly’s wing…clamped together with bolts of iron.”
Bruce Hood, a psychologist at the University of Bristol, picks up where Woolf and the modernists left off. In his excellent new book, The Self Illusion, he seeks to understand how the singularity of the self emerges from the cacophony of mind and the mess of social life. Dr. Hood was kind enough to answer a few of my questions below: [continue]