Virginia Woolf, Dina, and Me:
The Poverty of Language and
The Richness of Proxy Communication
Nina Lohman Cilek
I wasn’t planning on buying all five volumes of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, but the cost of purchasing the entire set was, oddly, similar to the cost of purchasing just the one volume I needed to reference. Besides, if I was going to immerse myself in her diary I may as well be caught in the full swirl of her brilliance.
I am researching pain. My days are spent taking apart the language we use to communicate suffering, then slowly, hopefully with tact and generosity, putting it back together again. I labor my way through dense medical texts. I read Sontag and Didion and Dillard, grateful to find myself amongst women who effectively communicate hurt. Even my own medical records, that unruly stack of doctor’s notes and prescriptions and x-rays and referrals towering in the corner, has a role to play in this research.
But back to Virginia and the five sturdy, hardbound volumes of her diary now in my possession.
Lately, I have discovered a kindred in Virginia Woolf. This realization surprised me because to this point, it is fair to say, reading her fiction has felt more like an endurance test than an enjoyable pastime. I am not proud to admit this, but I recall picking up Mrs. Dalloway only after seeing The Hours. It used to be that I would feel a measure of shame when her name surfaced in books or conversation; as if she was someone—a quick witted, independent, literary woman who, like me, happened to live in pain—whose work I should to but never actually did favor. Reading her fiction I was left, for good reason, with the impression that I was admiring a polished, clean work of art; exact and flawless. Truth, it seemed, was presented not discovered along the way. This is not criticism, merely preference. I like my art best when it shows the seams, when I see the nicks and imperfections. I take comfort in knowing that creation is an ongoing, human process.
That familiar feeling of I-should-but-I-don’t shame gave way to near-instant fondness when recently I came across Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill.” That I favor one genre over another by the same author is not revelation, but in this case, I was caught off guard by the swiftness of my conversion.
In this essay, Woolf questions the absence of illness among the major themes of great literature. “Considering how common illness is,” she begins,
how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness… when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.The reason for this absence, Woolf believes, is that when it comes to experiencing and expressing illness we are limited by “the poverty of language.”
Dear Virginia, what else have you been keeping from me?
Her diaries, stacked in my office next to the teetering pile of medical records, confirm how the nuanced subject of this essay, the inability of language to adequately describe the errant often overwhelming sensations of our bodies, is not merely fodder for intellectual discourse. Day after day, year after year, she battled headaches, depression, anxiety; a “tired heart” her doctor once concluded.
Monday 14 September, 1925
I am writing this partly to test my poor bunch of nerves at the back of my neck—will they hold or give again, as they have done so often?
Saturday 18 June, 1927
Three weeks wiped out by headache.
Sunday 16 February, 1930
To lie on the sofa for a week. I am sitting up today, in the usual state of unequal animation.For Woolf, and for me as well, the language of suffering is inextricably tied to the incident of suffering; a yoke complicated by the poverty of language. How are we to voice our suffering when conventional words lamentably, reliably, fall short?
The inadequacy of language to express the true sensations of the body remains a problem because, Woolf asserts, language has grown entirely one way. I am drawn to the both the visual and the metaphorical movement of this statement. After all, to vocalize—pain, love, else—reflects choice; to give our attention is also to give our language. We demonstrate our commitment, our command, when we name the unnamed. Woolf continues, describing how a young girl in love can parallel her romantic experience to Shakespeare and Keats but “let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.”
Language at once runs dry.
“But with the hook of life still in us still we must wriggle,” Woolf writes, illustrating how the body constantly intervenes, forcing us to reckon time and again with the inescapable poverty of language. Our bodies track injury and illness. Our heads ache. Our stomachs ache. Our muscles ache. Our backs ache. I have a toothache. I have a side-ache. My joints ache. But also, our bodies allow pleasure. They hold our tender, often broken hearts. They hold our tender, often sleeping babies. To adhere to the meager language that surrounds our bodies is not, for Woolf the writer, for Virginia the sufferer, a choice.
What then? How does she settle the score between a living body and a withered language? How does she stifle the reflex to trope her pains?
By doing what she always does: she picks up her pen and begins to write. But, and this is critical, the voice which she chooses to animate this space belongs not to Virginia Woolf the polished and professional novelist, but to Virginia Woolf the raw and honest diarist. By utilizing her most honed skill to express her most intimate truths she plants herself in “the infinite oddity of the human position” and writes her way out of the corner. She bends language to accommodate her reality. She creates, if not new words then at least fertile ground upon which new words can flourish. This is where for the first time I caught a glimpse of the well-worn seams, the imperfections, the essence behind the essay. “We need the poets to imagine for us,” she writes. Yes and we need writers to bring light to words otherwise hidden in the dark abyss.
Friday 9 April, 1926
Writers do not live like that perhaps.
Saturday 27 February, 1925
I have to husband my head still very carefully.
Sunday 22 September, 1929
And it is ten minutes past ten in the morning, and I am not going to write a word. I have resolved to shut down my fiction for the present. My head aches too easily at the moment; I feel The Moths a prodigious weight which I can’t lift yet. And yet, so odd a thing is the mind, I am never easy, at this early hour, merely reading or writing letters. Those occupations seem too light and diffused. Hence, though write letters I will and must—to Dotty, to Gerald Brenan, to peevish Eddy, I will canter here a moment.Dear Virginia, we are companions in this ripe emptiness.
Like Woolf, I write about pain not because it interests me (though it does), but because it will not leave me alone. I suffer pain daily. I also suffer the poverty of language to describe that cloaked beast. The poverty of language to describe that pestilent presence. Language to describe that muted other. That absence.
On a windy night last week I left Virginia at home but carried the concept of impoverished language with me as I walked downtown to the local art house cinema. How do we communicate truth when our words are insufficient? Are the sensations of my body as beholden to words as I imagine them to be? Distracted but content, I settled into the theater, beer in one hand popcorn in the other, for Dina, a tender documentary featuring two adults of the neurodiverse community, Dina Buno and Scott Levin.
The film follows Dina and Scott as final preparations are made for their upcoming wedding: Scott moves into Dina’s apartment, there are fittings—dress for her, tux for him—, finances are combined. Dina’s friends throw her a bachelorette party complete with a stripper posing as a police officer. There is an engagement party in a room brought to life by well-wishing toasts and lively dancing.
Both Dina and Scott are on the spectrum. When they speak to each other, their words are honest and direct, not veiled or unkind. There are no mind games or passive aggressive behaviors; there is an abundance of love. Dina is vulnerable. Scott is sincere. Still, communication, as is the case for so many couples, is a challenge. On more than one occasion we witness Dina’s frustration with Scott. She desires more passion in their relationship. He, on the other hand, would like to leave well enough alone. We watch Dina, slumped in her armchair by the window, cry as she explains this to Scott. We watch Scott kneel beside her, his attention not on her face but on the phone in his hand. It seems as though Scott is present in body only, absentmindedly patting Dina’s arm for comfort, gazing at his phone—that is, until he speaks, his voice soft, “This should help, listen.”
Scott hits play and a love song fills the room. He begins to sing to her. Slowly, her crying stops and she begins to sing as well.
The poverty of language. Language at once runs dry. We need the poets to imagine for us.
Dear Virginia, I saw you in the theater tonight.
Some of us have poetry in our souls, some have a wild forest of wonder, and some are fortunate enough to have unheeded happiness. Scott? I think it’s fair to say that Scott has music in his soul. He is emblematic of those for whom the poverty of language is a tangible, daily encounter. But his story does not end with this struggle. What Scott feels but cannot express through his own words he communicates with through song. Music is a proxy for language. Scott bent conventional rules, so to speak, by using music—the words themselves, yes, but also the cadence, the emotion—to reconcile a communication gap.
Language is not static. Words atrophy and fall from use as our lives, our technology, our priorities shift and morph. Language has and continues to be an unfolding evolutionary process: we actively create, we portmanteau, we popularize words and phrases that directly convey the reality of our experience. September’s 2017 quarterly review of the Oxford English Dictionary issued over 1,000 new headwords, senses, and subentries. Alternative sources such as The Urban Dictionary and The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows work to extend the reach and the breadth of traditional lexicons.
I began researching pain because I am a writer whose words had run dry. I had the desire but not the ability to align my experience of suffering with a greater truth. I needed the poets to imagine for me a world unified, but not destroyed, by brokenness. I needed Leslie Jamison to redefine empathy:
Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard—it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all.
Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds.I needed Maggie Nelson to show me love born of anguish:
Perhaps writing is not really pharmakon, but more of a mordant—a means of binding color to its object—or of feeding it into it, like a tattoo needle drumming ink into skin.
All right then, let me try to rephrase. When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light.I needed Virginia Woolf to lend me confidence:
It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal—that she in the end will conquer.
To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer.Ultimately, I needed the seam of language to split in order to create space for a new form of expression; one that dealt head-on with the poverty of language. And I have found it, or, am finding it as I move forward. Sometimes this new language takes the form a single word, sometimes it is a phrase or a novel perspective, other times, joyous times, it is an insight that manages to carry its very own tune.
Nina Lohman Cilek lives in Iowa. Currently, she is writing a book that explores the manifestations of pain at the intersections of philosophy, theology, and personal narrative. Examples of her work can be found on can be found on Huffington Post, The Rumpus, and Paste Magazine.