Virginia Woolf and Autism

In February I wrote about Virginia Woolf and her attempt to go beyond words and literature. Recently,  I have come across a book titled Thinking in pictures: and other reports from my life with autism by Temple Grandin. I was captivated by these particular words:

I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full colour movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR type in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. [1]

Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin


What fascinated me about this fragment was the fact that autistic mind not able to cope with language-based communication chose pictures as an alternative form. This conclusion instantly brought me back to Virginia Woolf. At the beginning of The Waves thereis a fragment when every character announces what they see (and rarely hear). Later we find out that every object they described refers to their personality, as if their perception defined them as individuals. They do not talk about their feelings, about events in their lives- they only tell what they see.[2] When I compared these two fragments – Woolf’s and Grandon’s- it occurred to me that in The Waves Woolf, in a strange way, wanted to communicate in images; still using language, she attempted to allow the characters to communicate in their perceptions, to omit the level of linguistic understanding and metaphorically go back to “the roots”.  What I mean by “the roots” are the first attempts of a human to write down oral communication, namely,  first proto-writing systems which were  based mainly on pictograms- images that resembled objects or ideas and had literal, as opposed to ambivalent, connection with them.

Thus, it seemed that Woolf perceived images as something much more instinctive and therefore natural/truthful  to human soul than words. Paradoxically, however, being a novelist, and not a painter, she decided to combine them and paint with words.

[1] Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures: and other reports from my life with autism, London, 2006. p. 3

[2] Virginia Woolf, The Waves, London, 2000, p. 5-6.


Virginia Woolf- Beyond literature..

During my university course I had to write an essay on the following subject “Words no longer have any vital significance for me. Words have killed images or are concealing them. The fact is that words say nothing” (Eugene Ionesco). How do Modernist writers confront this sense of linguistic failure? The book I chose to exemplify this battle with language was Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. I remember that I did not give one unequivocal answer whether she won this battle or not. And I was probably right since as linguistic failure is identified with the inability of language to express human experience, the reader (who cannot grasp the author’s mind) will never be able to judge if particular text is the expression the author actually wanted. However, now, especially after reading Jacob’s Room, I would say that she was much closer to a victory than to a failure. Woolf seems to use language to create something beyond novel writing or even beyond literature, something that belongs to different form of art like poetry or painting.

The Waves appears to be written as a poem with symbols build on images ( that do not describe the emotions but stir them) and the unifying power of rhythm. Each character is expressed by his or her perception. For example, the first thing Bernard sees is the ring which symbolizes his desire of wholeness.  As for the rhythm, the characters’ monologues seem to be reflected in the rhythm of the interludes describing the waves. The narration of this short fragments changes from rather slow, when personalities of the characters are not distinctly outlined,  to more dynamic, when they are fully developed andfinally, slow at the end of the book.

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell (1912)

In Jacob’s Room, on the other hand, Woolf appears to create small paintings that like puzzles build  the character of Jacob. These paintings, however, resemble the portrait of Virginia by Vanessa Bell- we know it’s her but we can’t exactly see her face. Similarly, we get to know Jacob by series of incidents and other protagonists’ perceptions but our knowledge about him is never full, never definite. The dialogues  seem like insertions and the descriptions (like impressionist paintings) are supposed to give impressions and stir emotions rather than precisely  reflect reality. Everything we know about Jacob is not for sure, we only get fragments of reality, never the whole picture.  Like the image of Bonamy holding Jacob’s shoes in the last scene of the book- there is no direct statement telling us Jacob is gone but we obviously feel it and if we add the other elements of the puzzle we will find out why…