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24 September 2014
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Virgina Woolf - and Freud

By Cathryn Setz
What are the complex connectrions between Virgina Woolf and Sigismund Freud? Cathryn Setz went to Charleston - home of the Bloomsbury Group - to find out more.

In golden light and gentle breeze of the Charleston gardens, with festival drawing to a close came an absorbing talk about Virginia Woolf’s complex connection to Sigmund Freud.  Introduced by Virginia Nicholson, the Charleston Trust Chair and great-niece to Woolf, the academic biographer of Woolf, Julia Briggs, brought us through this connection with charm, wit, sadness - and the need to read on.

Virginia resisted the founding principles of psychoanalysis; the overarching patriarchy at Freud’s root. Where Freud saw “supreme order” of man Woolf saw a dangerous system, tyrannical and wrong. Where Freud saw a personal presence of the author Woolf saw a creative romance, even in her own mental disturbances.

"The ‘ego’, ‘id’, the ‘superego’. The analysis of dreams, the death drive – the Oedipus Complex… Charleston was central to it all..."
Cathryn Setz

Yet Virginia was alone in her resistance. Husband Leonard wrote Freud’s first non-medical review in Britain, their Hogarth Press took massive risks but delivered the Professor’s ideas into the London literary world, who lapped it up and mused the weight with relish. Family friends the Strachey’s translated and converted to psychoanalysis, in writing, science, thought. All, it seemed, save Virginia, whose work strove bravely for a female voice – a tradition of writing untouched by the corruption of the phallus. Alone she may have been but her influence, like Freud’s, lives on.

The ‘ego’, ‘id’, the ‘superego’. The analysis of dreams, the death drive – the Oedipus Complex… the very process of analysis: Charleston was central to the development of psychoanalysis in Britain. Despite Woolf’s resistance there was harmony too, in work and deed. Briggs revealed wonderful Woolfian moments embedded in ideas of the subconscious – of childhood, repressed memory. Perhaps Freud was rubbing off.

By the outbreak of war Woolf eventually read Freud. The two actually met in person. Best understood as dialogue, Woolf’s resistance is a monument to her work. To hear this talk in such surroundings, with Woolf’s great-niece moved by the invocations, was a privilege. With bombers overhead Woolf lived out her life with a feminist commitment to that famous, unanswered question Albert Einstein asked Sigmund Freud. A question still pertinent today, of men with their guns and what Woolf deemed the “subconscious Hitlerism in all”. Two words, one question remains. “Why War?”

last updated: 14/06/06
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