What Are You Thinking?

Robert Fludd Representation of Consciousness 1619


What are you thinking right at this moment? 

What’s flitting through your mind or crashing into your brain this second?

— Did you just remember something for your to-do list?  

— Did you just hear a noise? 

— Did you just enjoy, for a millisecond, the coffee that touched your lips? 

— Did you just think about that twinge in your knee or shoulder? 

— Are you wondering — where the hell is she going with this email?  

As you read these words, all that stuff you just thought and continue to think about as you read these words is what neuroscientists call consciousness..  

But where does consciousness come from?   

How does that 3 pound mass of soft tissue, cells, water, neurons, non-neurons, ‘electrical’ impulses, and fat (your brain) closeted in a shell (your skull) in total darkness, generate thought?  

How does what we see, hear, smell, touch get processed to become your ‘reality’? 

What ‘stuff’ gets let into consciousness while other ‘stuff’ gets gated out? 

What does it mean to be you?  To be me?  To be a self? 

In 1619 the English physician, astrologer, mathematician, and cosmologist Robert Fludd drew an image of the thinking mind. Now largely forgotten, he was often controversial for many of his wide-ranging ideas, magical practices, and use of alchemy.  

Fludd publicly supported William Harvey’s theory of blood circulation (heretical at the time), proposed a perpetual motion machine, wrote treatises on music, and outlined a notion of the brain’s memory system.  

Today, philosophers, psychologists, psychiatrists, biologists, and neuroscientists are still grappling with some of the same questions.  What is consciousness?  How does it get scrambled or improved? What makes up a self? 

Aided by new technologies, polymath scientists like Dr. Anil Seth, Professor at the University of Sussex, are looking for answers as they study and probe the “tofu-textured meat-machine in between your ears.”  (Anil Seth, ScienceNordic

With 7.5 million views, Dr. Seth’s  2017 TED Talk: “Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality,”  posed some of these big questions that he keeps pondering — because what we are learning about the hardware and software of our brains keeps changing.

In a September 2019 article for Scientific American, Dr. Seth wrote, 

“Our perceptions come from the inside out as much as, if not more than, from the outside in.”  

He goes on, “…the brain is attempting to figure out what is out there in the world (or in here, in the body) by continually making and updating best guesses about the cause of its sensory inputs.  It forms these best guesses by combining prior expectations or ‘beliefs’ about the world, together with incoming sensory data, in a way that takes into account how reliable the sensory signals are.”   

Writers, too, have been asking questions about consciousness and our ability to perceive ‘reality.’ 

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is, in part, an exploration of what it ‘sounds’ and ‘feels’ like to be conscious in our thin slice of the bigger world — what it feels like to be a self.  

Throughout the novel, Woolf’s characters are forever sharing their inner consciousness. 

There is not much of a plot: one day in London. Mrs. Dalloway, fresh from a bout with influenza, plans a party.  Septimus Warren Smith, a WWI veteran and his wife, Rezia traverse the city hoping to find advice and care for the ‘shell-shocked’ Septimus. 

Mrs. Dalloway not an easy read. The defined edges of dialogue — both internal and external — are missing; conversations — past and present — butt into one another on the page.   

Toward the end of the novel, Clarissa Dalloway shares observations and inner dialogue as she makes her way around her party exchanging pleasantries. 

Clarissa looked at Sir William [Bradshaw], talking to Richard. [Clarissa’s husband] He did not look like a boy — not in the least like a boy. She had once gone with some one to ask his advice. He had been perfectly right; extremely sensible. But Heavens—what a relief to get out to the street again! There was some poor wrench sobbing, she remembered, in the waiting room.  But she did not know what it was —- about Sir William; what exactly she disliked. Only Richard agreed with her, ‘didn’t like his taste, didn’t like his smell.” But he was extraordinarily able. They were talking about this Bill.  Some case, Sir William was mentioning, lowering his voice. It had its bearing upon what he was saying about the deferred effects of shell shock.”    

(Mrs. Dalloway, p. 183)

In real life, we walk the streets, barely aware of our ‘brain chatter’ — our thoughts flit from one thing to the next.  We’re used to it in our brains, but it’s not what we expect from our books.  

But, this is part of what makes Mrs. Dalloway such a startling read. I strongly recommend the audio version read by Juliet Stevenson.  

It’s often required reading in high school and college, but its full flavor is perhaps better appreciated by those with worn tread on their shoes. 

Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925, with a cover designed by Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. Vanessa designed the dust jackets for virtually all of her sister’s books published by The Hogarth Press. 

The year of Dalloway (1925) saw the arrival of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Kafka’s The Trial, Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Mein Kempf by the as yet unknown Adolf Hitler.   

Virginia Woolf created a Dalloway world that sat at the end of the Edwardian Era, the Great War, and a global flu pandemic that killed millions.   

This new world embraced emerging technology like airplanes, saw a sea of cultural & economic change, and learned new theories of psychological introspection, such as those championed by Sigmund Freud.  Massive change, not unlike our world today. 

It’s worth noting that in 1924 at the urging of their friend, psychoanalyst James Strachey (brother of Lytton) Virginia and husband Leonard published the first English language version of Freud’s Collected Papers through their Hogarth Press. The Hogarth Press was started by Virginia and Leonard in 1917 on their dining room table.

But how did Virginia Woolf come to write Mrs. Dalloway over two years from 1922 to 1924? Some biographers/critics, like Alexandra Harris in her biography, Virginia Woolf say it was ‘her riposte’ to the avant-guard novel, Ulysses.

In April 1918, the British political activist and magazine publisher Harriet Shaw Weaver came to the Woolf’s with early chapters of this new novel by Irishman James Joyce.  Weaver was a champion and significant financial supporter of Joyce.  

Was The Hogarth Press interested in publishing his manuscript?  

Virginia read the manuscript chapters. It might be too long for their tiny press to produce.  And there was the possibility of an obscenity charge from the authorities given its content, so The Hogarth Press declined. 

Woolf wrote to Lytton Strachey on April 23, 1918, 
“First there’s a dog that p’s—then there’s a man that forths, and one can be monotonous even on that subject—moreover, I don’t believe that his method, which is highly developed, means much more than cutting out the explanations and putting in the thoughts between dashes.  So I don’t think we shall do it.”     (Lee p. 386)     

Hermione Lee continues in her splendid biographical tome, Virginia Woolf
“But this did not mean that Virginia dismissed Joyce unthinkingly.  As Ulysses appeared in the Little Review [in serial] through 1918, she took careful reading notes on what he seemed to her to be doing,……Woolf’s notes to herself … wrestled with this problem of the relation between “reality” and “consciousness” in modern fictional forms.”    (Lee p. 386) 

Ulysses percolated with Virginia. She made frequent comments about  the novel in her diaries and letters.  After its 1922 publication in book format by Sylvia Beach in Paris and its positive critical reception by many in the Bloomsbury circle,  Woolf would revise her public assessment. 

In 1925, writing in The Common Reader, she said of the Joyce novel, ‘‘Whatever the intention of the whole, there can be no question but that it is of the utmost sincerity and that the result, difficult or unpleasant as we may judge it, is undeniably important.”

It certainly was important to Woolf. She may have written disparagingly of the novel — and Joyce, but as Lee noted, she made extensive notes in her reading of the text.  Hardly something you do with a book you think monotonous. 

The Hogarth Press published Mrs. Dalloway in May 1925 to generally good reviews.  The Times Literary Supplement was ‘Impressed by the novel’s experimentalism, and its power to enhance the consciousness and zest for living.”   Initially, sales were slow but have grown steadily over the years — especially in years when anything ‘Virginia Woolf-y’ came to the big screen.  

Woolf contracted with Harcourt Brace to be the U.S. publisher.   On Tuesday 22 September 1925,  she noted in her diary, 
“Yesterday I heard from Harcourt Brace that Mrs. D and CR [The Common Reader] are selling 148 & 73 weekly — isn’t that a surprising rate for the 4th month? Doesn’t it portend a bathroom & a W.C. [water closet] either here, or Southease?”

The creativity of the mind pays for the necessities of the flesh.   

Mrs. Dalloway is not just a literary achievement; it’s also a nifty complement to the current neuroscience of consciousness. Science and art in combination — adding to the meaning of the human experience.  

Neuroscientist Dr. Anil Seth writes, “The reality we experience — the way things seem — is not a direct reflection of what is actually out there.  It is a clever construction by the brain …”  (Scientific American, September 2019) 

A clever construction by Virginia Woolf’s brain — Mrs. Dalloway. 

So I ask — whom are you reading?  And what will you think about today? 

Maybe it will portend a new bathroom and a w.c.  🙂


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