Modernism #5: Why did Virginia Woolf want to break from the past?


Virginia Woolf’s passport 

Partly because old ways of thinking about things were beginning to seem irrelevant. By the end of the 19th century, many accepted ideas about human beings and their place in the world – ideas inherited from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment – were outmoded. New ideas about the ‘self’ and the causes of human behaviour had emerged:   – Charles Darwin (1809-1882), with On the Origin of the Species, had suggested that human beings are biologically determined, that human behaviour is governed by biological urges and survival instincts that have evolved to ensure the continuation of the species;   – Karl Marx (1818-1883) had suggested that human beings are a product of their times, that patterns of human behaviour were structured by ideological frameworks and the socio-economic conditions individuals are born in to;   – Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was suggesting that human beings are governed by the unconscious and that human behaviour is motivated by unseen urges, anxieties, desires and drives that we are, at best, only dimly aware of;   – Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) had suggested that moral, religious and philosophical values do not come from a realm of truth but are stories told by human beings in order to keep society functioning smoothly;   – Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) had suggested that ‘subjectivity is truth’ and ‘truth is subjectivity’; that we have no access to an objective reality outside our own, individual, limited and unreliable perception of the world; in other words, that our view of the world is wrong but – because it is the only one we have – we have to act as if it is right.   Writers of Woolf’s generation, then, had a radically new understanding of what it meant to be human. Old ways of writing had developed to reflect a belief in harmony, objectivity, progress and eternity; new ways of writing were needed to embody what T.S. Eliot called “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”.

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