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1 Citation in this Annotation:
Valerie Keller on A Room of One’s Own
4 November, 2022
Exactly 90 years ago, in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf delineated the necessary conditions for the creation of pure poetry. The foundation of her argument was the so-called room of one’s own, meant both as a weighty symbol and as a very concrete place of retreat, where one can think of things in themselves, idle, contemplate the future or the past of the world, dream over books and “let the line of thought dip deep into the stream”.
The origin of these ideas can be found in the England of the 1920s; a period of upheaval, when pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages, bicycles and automobiles all shared the streets of London. This was a time when female students at Oxford University finally received the right to study for the same degrees as their male colleagues. But then, a year later at Cambridge University, the decision is made to block this very same policy. Students celebrate by destroying a monument to Anne Jemima Clough. This place – England – is where radio waves are transmitted for the very first time, and where the BBC extends its area of coverage to the whole of the British Isles within a mere three years. It is, too, the heyday of the English imperialism: the British Empire encompasses 458 million inhabitants (a quarter of the world’s population at the time), making it the largest empire of all time.
In 1929 Virginia Woolf described a situation without which the writing of pure poetry is impossible. A situation which can only be achieved when certain basic requirements of space, time and spirit are met. In doing so, she denounces a society that has until then hindered the very existence of female poets:
It is important to have a room of one’s own, which is reserved for oneself alone. It offers the possibility to be oneself, to think of things in themselves, and bars admission to any distraction. It offers time to linger and to become engrossed, without any deadline that may expire.
A social counterpart is needed: a society that is curious about thinking. Indifference should not exist, nor should hostility. A community is needed to prevent the mind from being mislead, to avoid feelings of resentfulness, protest, anger, bitterness or fear. Only in such conditions can the mind arise that is androgynous, porous and resonant, and is freed from expectations of how it must fit within the social order.
The path to education must be free. There must be a universal basic income of CHF 30’000 per year*, to guarantee independence and free one from having to work in grey suits for some unknown person or thing.
Woolf gives a hopeful prognosis for the year she is in: Shakespeare’s sister may well be born – a poet with an androgynous mind, with the same talent and carefree life as her brother, who enjoys the conditions stipulated by Woolf, who has the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what she thinks.
The birth of Shakespeare’s sister – and thus of Woolf’s hopes in the possible realization of the social structures she’s called for – is imagined in today’s world, a time nine years after the Swiss Federal Council first contains a majority of women; in a decade when the Swiss electorate has its first opportunity to vote on a referendum for the Universal Basic Income, when the term ‘fake news’ has entered our dictionaries and the Democratic Republic of the Congo holds the last place on the Human Development Index of the United Nations. Her prediction coincides with the thirtieth anniversary of the World Wide Web.
In our present, without explicitly referencing Woolf’s texts, Rita Siegried paints spaces which show us the room of one’s own: they remind us of Woolf’s aspirations for the contemporary world. The motifs seem familiar, they seem to show what has already become part of our material reality. And yet Siegried’s works still leave us with a feeling of longing. The moments in which we can linger and become engrossed seem rare; an androgynous, porous and resonant mind turns out to be the exception to the rule. Let us together take the final steps to this goal.
For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.
-Woolf, Virginia: A Room of One’s Own.
* Virginia Woolf donated the sum of £500 per year in 1929, which would be about CHF 30,000 today.
at Milieu in Bern