Nuance, Metaphor and The Rhythm of the Mood Wave in Virginia Woolf

By John Briggs

Western Connecticut State University


Published in Virginia Woolf Miscellanies, Proceedings of the First Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, Edtited by Mark Hussey and Vara Neverow-Turk, Pace University Press, 1992. Copyright Pace University Press.


In "A Sketch of the Past," Virginia Woolf recalled what she described as her "first memory". in fact it is the most important of all my memories. If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills - then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water on the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind the yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing the splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive (75).

Woolf went on to say that she could "spend hours trying to write that as it should be written, in order to give the feeling which is even at this moment very strong in me. But I should fail (unless I had some wonderful luck): I dare say I should only succeed in having the luck if I had begun by describing Virginia Woolf herself." Lyndall Gorden says of this early memory, "Years later, [Woolf] wanted the waves' rhythm to sound all through her greatest books, To the Lighthouse and The Waves" (43). Whether this memory was of an actual event or was a screen memory cast up out of Woolf's unconscious, the St. Ives image captures in an amazingly concentrated form, a vibration that ripples through all her fiction. One of the subtler ways it ripples is through a Woofian phenomena that might be called "the mood wave."

The mood wave is a constant and recurring narrative rhythm in Woolf's fiction. Typically, a character will begin a rumination in a positive frame of mind about her life; her mood will swell to exaltation or "rapture" (as Woolf sometimes called it), until within a few words or sentences or pages the mood will crash into a discovery of some oppressive dimension of the rumination. Or, if the mood has begun with a depressing insight, the wave rises and swells into ecstasy. Sometimes the mood of a single character rises and collapses in this way for pages.

Take as an example Bernard's final soliloquy (or aria) in the last pages of The Waves:

Sitting at a dinner table, fresh from a contemplation of "the old brute," "the hairy man" who squats inside him, Bernard begins to rise above his body toward a moment of ecstasy [the wave swells] until he says:

"When I look down from this transcendency, how beautiful are even the crumbled relics of bread! What shapely spirals and peelings of pears make-how thin, and mottled like some sea-bird's egg. Even the forks laid straight side by side appear lucid, logical, exact; and the horns of the rolls which we have left are glazed, yellow-pated, hard. I could worship my hand even, with its fan of bones laced by blue mysterious veins and its astonishing look of aptness, suppleness and ability to curl softly or suddenly crush-its infinite sensibility" (290).

For the next three paragraphs, Bernard reviews his life (once again) and thinks of himself as "a temple, a church" [The mood wave curls and begins to break up but does not crash.] Then, catching sight of himself, an elderly man in the mirror:

"Lord, how unutterably disgusting life is! What dirty tricks it plays us, one moment free; the next, this. Here we are among the bread crumbs and the stain napkins again. That knife is already congealing with grease..." (292).

[The wave falls.] Bernard laments that "the wave has tumbled me over, head over heels, scattering my possessions. . ."

No need to worry, however; within a page he has regained "the sense of the complexity and the reality and the struggle" [and is riding the swell again].

Amid this rising and crashing of mood, consider Woolf's sentence contained in the up-wave motion where Benard contemplates his hand . Perhaps the reader is just a little shocked to hear that the hand could "curl softly or suddenly crush." The "suddenly crush" is a kind of crash to the wave of that particular sentence. Woolf's mood waves function at different scales: on the level of the novel as a whole, within sections, within sentences. Adherents to the ideas of "chaos theory" might call this the fractal nature of Virginia Woolf: Like real waves-which even as they are rising and seem coherent, are, in fact, dissipating and incipient with the very disorder that will soon bring them down-Woolf's mood waves contain wavelets, and wavelets within wavelets, a fractal structure. This rhythmic action-and the rhythmic eddying action within action-imbues her work with its paradoxical atmosphere of both infinite variety and wholeness. The mood wave rhythm is key to Woolf's unfolding of her characters (their lives are composed of such waves) and provides her with a substitution for the conventional plot structure(here the reader turns the page to see, in effect, how the wave will crash, or rise: Woolf's narrative provides the contemplative fascination of the seashore).

Thus, it is evident that from the predominating presence and pulse of waves in To the Lighthouse and The Waves to the metaphor of the sea as "growing up" in her first book, The Voyage Out, the remembered half-awake, half-asleep moment in the St. Ives nursery must have contained for Woolf an ambience, a nuance or subtle reality which was an endless source of inspiration, in fact, an endless source of novelistic technique. She could return to it again and again from different angles and never exhaust it. In new sentences, new characters, new books she tried new tacks and gave her readers new glimpses of this nuance, which evoked the wavelike movement of consciousness and being itself. This nuance was, for Woolf, a vast hidden reality which she felt it was her task to discover and share with her readers. It was the seed crystal of what she called her "vision."

There are several possible related reasons for Woolf's extensive use of the mood wave rhythm to express her vision. It seems likely that the "hidden reality" Woolf wanted to portray was a single ground experience, neither optimistic nor pessimistic, neither up nor down-neither and yet both-a state of being beyond the fluctuations of mood or deep within them. The being beyond mood was possibly what Woolf meant by her concept of the "moment of being." Of the three examples she gave in A Sketch of the Past of early "moments of being" in her own life, she said that "two of these moments ended in a state of despair. The other ended, on the contrary, in a state of satisfaction" (83). Her tally suggests that it is not the mood itself that matters, but the way in which a mood-whether positive or negative-punctures the surface of everyday life, shatters for an instant habits of mind and emotion, and reveals the essence beneath. Or perhaps the "being" of such moments lies in glimpsing the mortal fact that thought and perception are forward-going even when revisiting memory-that they are an irrevocable yet recurring process-hence the wave. Or perhaps because language is linear in that we read sentences, paragraphs and pages going from one end to the other, a mood wave rising and falling, swelling and collapsing and swelling again through the narrative is a good and efficient way for an author to express within the linear constraints of language a sense of the nonlinear wholeness of a universe that unites without seam such vast and trivial forces as planetary motion, gravity, water, tides and the little girls in nurseries who lie awake to perceive them. Here, again, one may appeal to the insights of chaos theory which posits that the material universe is in fact not linear process so much as a continuous simultaneous event in which everything causes everything else. In short, perhaps in the mood wave Woolf found a strategy for using the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other simplification of language to express her perception of the absolute simultaneous continuity of life.

The mood wave may also have been a good way for Woolf to describe the subtle movement of her experience of her own creativity, and hence the essence of consciousness itself. Though we have come to think of creativity as a comparatively rare state in human consciousness, some scientists believe it is, in fact, the state that underlies consciousness itself.

At this date, there are number of neuroscientific hypotheses challenging the popular belief that the brain is a wet-ware computer. Proposing various mechanisms, these several hypotheses (for example, those of Gerald Edelman, William Gray, Paul LaViolette, Karl Pribram, Matti Bergström, and Gerald Holton) focus on what one of the brain theorists calls waves of "emotional nuance" underpinning cognitive activity: Nuance, to use William Gray's term, is not primitive or atavistic brain activity, according to those theories; it is a primary if extremely subtle brain fuction. In the new perspective, the cerebral cortex is viewed as a limitation as much as an enhancement of conscious awareness. The much vaunted cortex narrows down and inhibits-selects from, simplifies-the range and depth of the primary state. According to the theory developed by Gray and elaborated by Paul LaViolette, consciousness works as follows (Fire 48-56):

Feelings are basic, Gray says: anger, rejection, fear, loss, joy astonishment. Between and among them exists a huge variety of possible shades and combinations: nuances. These nuances are products of the fact that sensations and feelings are constantly pouring through our brains in a cascade that comes both from inside the envelope of our physiology and from outside it. Brain regions "below" the cortex circulate this input in a global way. The spinal cord, midbrain and reticular activating system constitute the so-called the "reptilian brain" located in the brain stem and governing such basic facets of consciousness as attention and arousal. Around this is wrapped the so-called "old mammalian brain" comprising the limbic system, made up of a number of brain "organs" involved in emotion. The limbic system includes, for example, the hypothalamus, which is known to be the seat of pleasure, and its neighbor, the amygdala, the site of rage. Sites for the visceral functions, heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestive activity and hormone levels are also located in the limbic system, hence a literal connection between our emotions and our digestion, between the feeling of love and the quickening heart. The hippocampus, another limbic organ, retrieves long-term memory from storage and turns short-term memories into long-term form. The hippocampus is particularly active during dreaming. The limbic system is also involved in integrating memories from a variety of senses. Thus emotion, which the limbic system controls, includes a complex mix of inner sensations, memories and movements from one state of inner sensation to another.

The neocortex, the so-called "new mammalian brain," is the great outer shell of cells that has evolved above the other two brains and is responsible for the kind of abstraction we associate with high-level (human) thought and perception. Abstracting is our ability to formulate categories, to know that the maple and birch in our backyard, though vastly different entities, are both "trees." The prefrontal part of the cortex is also involved in the emotional responsiveness we associate with intentionality. Individuals who have had connections between the frontal lobes of the cortex and the limbic system severed-a frontal lobotomy-lose creativity and emotional affect; their personalities become flat.

LaViolette hypothesizes that the fate of nuance depends on a series of interlocking loops of electrical activity circulating among the reptilian, old mammalian and new mammalian brains.

Imagine young Virginia Stephen lying in the nursery at St. Ives. The movement of the blind and the sound of its cord weight scraping on the floor activate her arousal system, the reptilian brain. Feedback loops coming from the auditory canal to the reptilian brain pass up through the cortex and down into the old mammalian limbic areas, stimulating the release of neurotransmitters that increase her heart rate. The emotional centers of her limbic system are in full swing, drenched with information about her momentary sense of pleasure and pain, the state of her internal chemistry.

New mammalian cortical areas are also quite active. A famous series of experiments established that the visual cortex located at the top back of the brain is designed to recognize or abstract certain patterns, like straight lines and circles. Other research suggests that the rest of the cortex is similarly designed. Thus in Virginia's cortex, the angle of the blind, the rhythmic patterns of the waves are being abstracted out and transmitted through the brain as sensory information.

In The Interpersonal World of the Infant, Daniel Stern reports evidence that "affective and cognitive processes cannot be readily separated" in an infant, so that even these abstractions originating in the sensory processing parts of the cortex are entirely infused with the electrical activity of the feelings originating in the limbic system. Stern also says that even such basic sensory distinctions as whether something is being seen or heard have not yet been etched in the brain as they will be later on in the child's development. Woolf herself confirms this. She said of her early memories, that if she could depict them, "Everything would be large and dim; and what was seen would at the same time be heard; sounds would come through this petal or leaf-sounds indistinguishable from sights" (Sketch 76).

According to LaViolette, raw sense data passes through the thalamus into the limbic system where it circulates around and around in the Papez circuit, a closed-loop network of neurons connecting the limbic organs of the mammalian brain. There they generate what he and Gray call an emotional "theme." Similar to a musical theme, which is composed of an organized pattern of musical notes, an emotional "theme" is composed of a pattern of "feeling tones" or nuances.

The evolving collection of feeling tones or "themes" circulating in the Papez circuit of young Virginia Stephen's subconscious would have included many nuance-laden sense impressions from other days: for example, her relationship to her mother, Julia, associations with the smell of the room, memories of feelings of security and insecurity evoked by the sights and sounds and sensations around and inside her. In "A Sketch of the Past," Woolf noted, for instance, that her mother would come out in a white dressing gown onto the balcony which connected the nursery to her mother's and father's bedroom.

LaViolette proposes that sense data and emotional nuances physically manifest as neuroelectric waveforms. As these waveforms circulate through the Papez circuit and pass through the hippocampus, they evoke long-term memories having waveforms with similar feeling tone characteristics. These memories, in turn, become part of the evolving nuance "theme." In Woolf's case, the angle of light, the beat of the surf on the beach would have activated memories with similar tags or waveforms, waveforms which might have included the sound of her mother's footsteps or the ghostly sight of her dressing gown in the wind. Together these would circulate and build as a rich "theme" of nuance-riddled sense and memory waveforms. Gray says of "themes," "Wondering is an essential aspect of emotional nuances [and] emotional themes. . . There is always a questioning, a wondering, an incompleteness. . . ." In the normal course of events, however, this wondering and incompleteness is obscured by the transformation of the "theme" into an organization of thought-into what LaViolette calls an "emotional-cognitive structure."

Woolf wrote that her feeling in the nursery was "due partly to the many months we spent in London. The change of nursery was a great change. And there was the long train journey; and the excitement. I remember the dark; the lights; the stir of going up to bed" (76). Suppose that the nursery room feeling tone had activated in Virginia Stephen a set of feeling tones involved in the large "theme" of nuances that included her feeling about her St. Ives summers. This "theme," circulating mostly below the level of awareness, would contain countless sensory fragments impregnated with emotional nuance. Over time these nuances constantly would be modified by other nuances, so that the "theme" would vary in a complex way-shifting like sand in an undertow. This subtle shifting of the nuance "theme" is just the kind of movement Virginia Woolf would later depict in her mood waves.

LaViolette suggests that the "theme" circulating in the Papez circuit of the limbic system enters a second loop communicating between a portion of the thalamus and the prefrontal regions of the cortex in the new mammalian brain. This"prefrontal-cortex-dorsomedial-thalmic loop" (PCDT loop, for short) abstracts or filters out certain nuances and amplifies them, and reintroduces them into the Papez circuit: Woolf's feeling of happiness at the sound of the waves would be an example of an abstracted set of nuances. Happiness was only one facet of all she felt that day and only a small aspect of the larger "theme" of things she felt and experienced about her summers at St. Ives. But in the brain a small movement can become rapidly amplified.

LaViolette includes himself among a number of scientists who see the brain as a nonlinear system. In nonlinear systems relatively small events can trigger immense consequences. Nonlinearity operates like the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. A system goes along in a fairly stable way until some relatively insignificant element coming at just the right (or wrong) time transforms it. With each cycling through the prefrontal cortex, the idea of happiness at St. Ives might be abstracted and amplified until it suddenly massively transformed the content of the theme. The result would be the thought, "I was happy at St. Ives." This thought, or emotional-cognitive structure, would be an abstraction from various memories and sensory fragments in the circulating "theme" coupled with the accompanying organizing feeling (thought), "I was happy then." The nuances, all the rest of the complex of emotion and perception, are still there, but they now lie in the shadow of this abstraction. "Thoughts are sort of cartoons of reality," says LaViolette. "Once formed they shape the way we perceive the world. When we look at a tree, we're filtering the stream of sense data through a stereotyped thought pattern, the pattern we're accustomed to. As a result, there's a lot of data there that never comes to our consciousness." Gray's and LaViolette's notion that even simple cognition has a complexity of nuance behind it seems validated by research indicating that it is much more difficult to recall facts you learned if you're not in the same mood you were in when you learned them.

Although the newly emergent thought dominates the content of the "theme," as the "theme" continues to circulate the possibility remains that another nuance may become amplified and mayh reorganize the whole circulating complex into another thought such as, "I wasn't so happy then."

However, the birth of a thought that she was happy or not happy at St Ives is, as we know, not what happened to Virginia Woolf. Woolf apparently didn't (or couldn't) simplify (abstract) her experience into a definite thought. So what she remembered was not a cognition, but the whole complex "theme" itself with all its nuances. She said this memory of St. Ives supported something you could fill and refill, a bottomless bowl. The memory had for her, in Gray's terms, a "wonder" and "incompleteness." The exact emotion she felt could not be defined in thoughts: It was an emotion that contained wonder, fragility, happiness, vastness, security, insecurity-and more. Nuance in the sense that Woolf experienced it was, therefore, a brain state that was not mainly thought but also not mainly feeling, and not mainly perception. It was rather a state in which feelings, thoughts, memories and perceptions were one.

Such a state is difficult to describe and is riddled with paradoxes. Certainly one of the paradoxes here is that Woolf's chosen to express that state was language. One would expect that employing language to think and write about the nuances infusing a childhood memory would tend to convert the feeling tones more quickly into a closed emotional-cognitive structure. Yet in Woolf's case, language seemed actually to enrich her thematic nuances. For example, she claimed that she often pictured the nursery scene to herself as "lying in a grape and seeing through a film of semitransparent yellow"-a linguistic abstraction that ramifies the nuances of the scene rather than simplifying them. The obvious reason is that her language is metaphoric. Jean Love offers insight into how Woolf came to use language and thought this way.

Woolf, like Einstein, was late in learning to speak and admitted that as an adult, words sometimes seemed like meaningless sounds to her. This suggests that, like Einstein, Woolf retained and, indeed carefully cultivated, the ability to resist formation of the simple cartoons of thought; instead she flooded her brain with the emotion and sense data of pre-thought, what is sometimes called intuition. In fact, in a letter to Vita Sackville-West she described intuition in terms of the rhythm of a deep emotion, and her description fits quite aptly Gray's and LaViolette's idea of the complex of emotional nuance that lies behind cognition. She wrote:

Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit in; and in writing... one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit in (132-3).


At one level, then, one might say that the mood-wave was the inner pulse of the limbic system itself as it coursed through her brain laden with sense data. But there is clearly another level having to do with language, the point at which the deep mood wave meets cognition (or a kind of cognition) and makes the words to "fit in."

T.S. Eliot had said something similar:

"That a poem, or a passage of a poem, may tend to realize itself first as a particular rhythm before it reaches expression in words, and that this rhythm may bring to birth the idea and the image; and I do not believe that this is an experience peculiar to myself" (Harding 87).


Woolf said that words (cortex phenomena), which seemed at one moment "opaque" could also suddenly come together in her mind (as metaphor) and, when words did come together, they would become "transparent," as if the objects of experience shone through them. So while for the most part, language is like a flexible, hugely cross-indexed Rolodex to manage the world's complexity, Woolf used metaphorical language as a means to grasp what she said was the painful and shocking "nonreality"-a shadowy world of nuances which she felt lay hidden behind the appearance of the scenes around her. When she tuned in to the rhythm of the mood wave, metaphors emerged which she believed she could make that nonreality a reality and so take away its power to hurt. By giving the complex of emotional nuance a voice through metaphoric language that others of her species could share, she could find some solace from her feeling that she was, as Jean Love puts it, "the result of a protoplasmic accident."

But, paradoxically, the same rhythm which united her with her fellow creatures also revealed the essential anonymity of individuals immersed in a pulsing, changing sea of nuance at the basis of being. "We can become anonymous through rhythm," she said (Anon.). So anonymity was a charished state for her, the source of truth, creativity, individuality and unity, the source of the "common mind."

For an artist, expressing nuance qua nuance (and not as a cognitive structure) is the essence of creativity. By focusing on the rhythmic movement of the mood wave, Woolf was able to give nuance and therefore "being"a shape. Her rhythmic juxtaposition of up-waves and down-waves has a dynamic that is the rhythmic analogue of metaphoric juxtapositions uniting apparent logical dissimilars. The mood wave is like the faint fractal lines on the sand which are left behind by retreating of waves of the sea at St. Ives-an inspiring record of the creative joys and depressions Woolf experienced as she labored over her sentences, characters, and stories.



Briggs, John. Fire in the Crucible: The Self-Creation of Creativity and Genius. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1990.

Briggs, John. Fractals the Patterns of Chaos: A New Aesthetic of Art, Science and Nature. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Briggs, John, and F. David Peat. Turbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide to Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness. New York: Harper Collins, 1989.

Briggs, John, and Richard Monaco. Metaphor: The Logic of Poetry. New York: Pace University Press, 1991.

Gordon, Lyndall. Virginia Woolf: A Writers's Life. New York: W.W. Norton, 1984.

Harding, D. W. Words into Rhythm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Love, Jean O. Virginia Woolf: Sources of Madness and Art. Berkeley: University of California, 1977.

Woolf, Virginia. "A Sketch of the Past" in Moments of Being. London: Granada, 1976.

-- "'Anon.' and 'The Reader' Virginia Woolf's Last Essays." Edited wtih an introduction and commentary by Brenda R. Silver. Twentieth Century Literature 25, 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter): 356-438.

--The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 3. Edited by Nigel Nicolson; Joanne Trautman, assistant editor. London: Hogarth Press, 1975-80.

--The Waves. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1959.