The 1928 novel Orlando is as much a love letter to literature as it is to a human being. It speaks passionately to those of us addicted to words, who lock ourselves away in quiet rooms and sink into different worlds, shutting off our external senses to sharpen our internal ones.
Many who love reading also love writing, that mad attempt to somehow express the rich and mysterious jungle in our minds. The world of the mind can only be touched a set of agreed upon arrangements of characters. If we set them down in a certain way we can transfer, like a magic, a crumble of that mansion in our hearts. We can transmit to each other unheard of colors embedded in the patterns of these black and white letters.
A quarter into the book, Orlando, a moody nobleman besotted by a betrayed romance and morbid curiosities, returns to his first love. Literature, both the reading and the writing of it is his salvation, his addiction, and his compulsion.
It feels like an inextricable part of one’s self, this love. In runs through my veins and it is on my mind most of the time. I cannot look at the sky or speak to a person without trying to file it all away for later use, to grasp a germ of the moment that I can later tend to and help grow it into something other people will enjoy.
Woolf’s narrator suggests that this often ecstatic obsession is also a disease. It’s a kind of incurable possession. The following passage makes a beautiful metaphor about the spread of this disease throughout the Western world from its celebrated cultural Greco-Roman roots.
“To put it in a nutshell, leaving the novelist to smooth out the crumpled silk and all its implications, he was a nobleman afflicted with a love of literature. Many people of his time, still more of his rank, escaped the infection and were thus free to run or ride or make love at their own sweet will. But some were early infected by a germ said to be bred of the pollen of the asphodel and to be blown out of Greece and Italy, which was of so deadly a nature that it would shake the hand as it was raised to strike, cloud the eye as it sought its prey, and make the gone stammer as it declared its love . . Orlando , to whom fortune and given ever gift . . . had only to open a book for the whole vast accumulation to turn to mist.”
And, of course, from this magic, Orlando’s disease progressed to a thirst for writing.
“Stealing away from talk and games, he had hidden himself behind curtains, in priest’s holes, or in the cupboard behind his mother’s bedroom which had a great hole in the floor and smelt horribly of starling’s dung, with an inkhorn in one hand, a pen in another, and his knee, a roll of paper.”
Soon, Orlando’s fever had infected every inch of him, and made him long for the breath of immortality that seems open to a person’s particular words if they are sticky, sharp, and swift enough to infect whole generations of people. Of course, as it turned out, Virginia Woolf’s words themselves had a high viral load.
This passage acutely nails the dizzying and addictive roller coaster routines of the writing process:
“Anyone moderately familiar with the rigors of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted his people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the field of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”
That is it exactly. That is what it is to write, to create. It is not easy on the soul. The adventure turns into terror at odd and sudden angles. It is a nauseous ride, but if your blood is infected with it, you would pick the fever of it over any cure. It’s like magnets in your blood drawing you a certain way, and if you ignore it, the pain and longing is too much to bear.