Virginia’s Relativity

                 Virginia Woolf at age 20


Doing some research reading on Virginia Woolf for a post yesterday about her novel To the Lighthouse, I came across an article that made what seemed like a weird connection between Woolf and Albert Einstein.

Imagine this: Virginia has a conversation with poet William Butler Yeats. It is 1934. Yeats wanted to talk about her very experimental novel from 1931, The Waves. Yeats’ interpretation of it was mystical and he had visions of “the Occult.”

She wrote in her diary after the conversation that you “can’t unriddle the universe at tea,” She also noted that Yeats had said that “Neither religion or science explains the world. The occult does explain it.”

Virginia was more interested in science than the occult. She was interested in physics and astronomy. Albert Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity were news in 1905 and 1915 respectively and astronomer Arthur Eddington proved (observationally) relativity in 1919, and it became something heard by (but not really understood by) the general public.

What might a novelist do with Einstein’s theory that events in time are not the same everywhere for everyone? It could certainly change how you used time as a narrative structure.  That is what is happening in To the Lighthouse and the article’s author sees the influence in her Orlando, and The Waves, which are two novels I don’t know very well.

Virginia – and others in and out of the literary world – were influenced by Einstein’s view that this is a non-linear, probably godless and probably impossible to fully understand the world and universe.

The article goes into much greater detail but what seems to at least partially have created some of the popularity of his theories in the culture was that they were just so damned counter-intuitive. They turned earlier ideas upside down.

Did Woolf read Einstein’s work? Not clear. She might have just heard it in conversation with friends like philosopher Bertrand Russell who published the ABC of Relativity in 1925. Maybe she read some of the many newspaper accounts. 

Did it get her thinking in such a way about narrative that the character Orlando in that same-named novel is a boy in Shakespeare’s time but later wakes up as a woman in the 20th century? Time in the novel is relative and it moves much more slowly for Orlando than for the rest of his/her world. That’s a paradox that Einstein suggests, though not in such an extreme fashion.

Yeats wanted her to consider that there is a world beyond this one we see. Einstein would agree, but he wouldn’t explain any of it as mystical or having to do with religion. Either would Woolf, who would have a character in Mrs. Dalloway say that “there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.” It’s a philosophy of simplicity and seeing the marvelous in every day.

And yet, her life ended in suicide. She finished her last novel and fell into another depression as she had before. It was the start of World War II and her London home was destroyed during the Blitz. Her diary was full of thoughts about death. Woolf was overtaken by mental illness throughout her life and was institutionalized several times and attempted suicide at least twice. Her illness may have been bipolar disorder, for which there was no effective intervention during her lifetime. On March 28, 1941, she filled her overcoat pockets with stones, walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned. She left a suicide note, addressed to her husband:

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do… 
I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.  V

To a Lighthouse

Godrevy Lighthouse

“Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation,  and our ultimate connectedness to each other.”
– Virginia Woolf.

I have always found lighthouses to be Romantic places. I’m not alone in that notion. The first lighthouse I visited as a child was at Sandy Hook in my home state of New Jersey. I did not climb to the top. It might not have been open for that back in the day or there might have been a height requirement. (I was a little guy.) The second lighthouse i visited was a bit further south. “Old Barney”  is the nickname of Barnegat Light at the tip of Long Beach Island in New Jersey.

As a young man, I imagined that being a lighthouse keeper would be a good job of a writer. Isolation, few distractions, a wide view of the world. (In college, I actually tried to get a job as a fire tower lookout – but that’s a tale for later.)

“Inside my empty bottle, I was constructing a lighthouse
while all the others were making ships.”  – Charles Simic

When Virginia Woolf was 11, she took a boat trip to Godrevy Lighthouse. Virginia (born Adeline Virginia Stephen) and her family did summer vacations from London in Cornwall and their summer rental looked out at St. Ives Bay.

As an adult writer, she used those summer trips in her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse. She changed the location to the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides, Scotland.


I was assigned that novel in college and found it a challenging read. I liked the idea of a family going on their visits to the Isle of Skye (a great name for an island) and I suppose I tried to connect that with my own family’s childhood visits to the Jersey Shore. But it is a Modernist novel and I wasn’t quite ready for that at 19. In that college course, we also read Marcel Proust and James Joyce. I grew up on plot-driven, linear stories and I still prefer them in novels and in films. I guess I’m old school in my literary tastes. Those novels did not thrill me.

Modernist novels get into philosophical introspection, with little dialogue and (I’m not being insulting here) very little action. Her novel is full of thoughts and observations about both the recollection of childhood memories and adult relationships.

In 1940, Virginia wrote  “In retrospect nothing that we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summer in Cornwall,” The family went there for thirteen summers but after Julia, Virginia’s mother, died, they never returned.

I had to look online for a reminder of the novel’s plot and structure. It is an especially hard plot to recall since there is so little plot. One “action” is the inaction of a postponed visit to the lighthouse.

“To the Lighthouse, considered by many to be Virginia Woolf’s finest novel, is a remarkably original work, showing the thoughts and actions of the members of a family and their guests on two separate occasions, ten years apart. The setting is Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s house on a Scottish island, where they traditionally take their summer holidays, overlooking a bay with a lighthouse. In 1998, the Modern Library named To the Lighthouse No. 15 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.”

Reading about the novel, one person noted from a 2020 perspective that it is a good example of “social distancing.” Critics love the book and toss out phrases like “the vagaries of consciousness,” “a titan of modernism,”

book covers

I have attempted some of the other novels of Virginia Woolf since college. I tried listening to an audiobook version of Mrs. Dalloway this past summer. I don’t advise the audio format for Woolf. I love audiobooks but I think Modernist literature as audio tends to just wash over me. I get swept away by the stream of consciousness swirling in my head.

When the professor discussed Woolfherself in class, I was fascinated by her – much more than I was interested in her novel. That is still true.

“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”  –  Anne Lamott

I read Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, when it came out and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. (I also enjoyed the film version of The Hours with its stellar cast including Meryl Streep , Julianne Moore , Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris)

The Hours is also a book that experiments with time, though not in the same way as Woolf. Like Woolf’s novel, it has three parts. Each section is the story of one day in a woman’s life. One is the story of Virgina Woolf (Kidman) as she begins writing Mrs. Dalloway. (Virginia’s working title for her book was The Hours.) A second plot is set in modern-day New York with Clarissa (Streep) at the side of her poet friend dying from AIDS and planning a party in his honor. Plot three is about Laura (Moore) who lives near Los Angeles in 1949 and is questioning her life rather normal suburban life.

Do the stories intertwine and finally come together? Yes. Do I love that kind of plot structure? Not really, but I must be in the minority because it is such a common structure in novels, films, and television today. But in Cunningham’s novel, the plot moves in a linear fashion with the three stories but takes time hops.  He follows Woolf’s 3 stories of 3 women who have all been somehow affected by Woolf’s novel.

It’s odd that this playing with time and consciousness annoys me because I am a big fan of time travel and consciousness and read and write about both things often. I also like the odd synchronicities in the background of stories and lives. For example, in The Hours, Clarissa on her way to a man’s apartment thinks she sees Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep ended up playing Clarissa in the movie adaptation. In the book, Clarissa later thinks it actually might have been Vanessa Redgrave that she saw on the street and Redgrave played Clarissa Dalloway in the 1997 film version of Mrs. Dalloway.

Lighthouses have been used in literature and cinema as symbols for a long time. They are built to withstand powerful storms and pounding waves and might to symbolize strength, safety, individuality, and obviously act as a beacon and guide and therefore as hope.

Though Woolf would never use it this way, they often appear as Christian symbols. Ben Franklin also would dismiss that kind of association. He wrote, “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.”

Sheltering at Home

The weekdays blurred into the weekend as we all are sheltering at home. I’ve been writing a lot, but mostly poetry and email to say in touch with friends. Nothing seemed like the right thing to write about this weekend in Paradelle in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I spent an entire afternoon drinking tea today and paging through a book of paintings by Vincent van Gogh. It was therapeutic. Maybe I’ll write about that this week.

Posts here appear on weekends but, as I said, weekday, weekend – it’s all the same.

I should be used to this because since I have retired the days have already been blurring, so I should be used to this “new normal.” Except, this time is not chosen retirement from normal life. And retirement doesn’t mean staying in the house and avoiding your family, friends, neighbors and places you have been going to for years.

Here’s one poem that came out of this time inside. It wasn’t written about the pandemic, but maybe it is about that.

Diner Coffee

Two Hours of Coffee at the Diner

My newly retired friend says every day is a weekend.
A month of Sundays like that Updike novel, he says.

No, no, says his longer-retired wife
Every day is Wednesday. Weekends have no meaning now.

They are saying this to me because I’m nearing retirement
but I don’t want to hear either of those theories of time.

I want my days to continue to be 24 hours,
my weeks to have five weekdays and a weekend.

I tell my friends this and they laugh.
You’ll lose track of the days, she tells me.

If I didn’t have this phone calendar reminding me,
I wouldn’t know what day it is, he says to his iPhone.

None of this is making me feel good about retiring, I say.
You’ll get used to it, my long-retired friend says.

We all lift our coffee cups and drink and I realize
that two hours have passed without me realizing it.

Ways to Time Travel

time traveler

I’m time traveling. So are you. We’re moving at the speed of one hour per hour. We are moving always forward towards the future.

Of course, when we speak of time travel most people think about speeding up or slowing down time or visiting the past or looking at the future.

Einstein wasn’t a believer in the constant, linear construct that most of us operate within. He actually proved that time changes depending on your position in space.

I’m sitting at my laptop at the desk looking out the window and occupying the three dimensions of space – length, width and height – but, though I’m seemingly motionless, I am moving forward in that fourth dimension of time.

Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity proposes that time does not pass at the same rate for everyone. If you are an observer or you’re the one traveling and being observed, time moves at different speeds.

The people in the International Space Station are moving faster in space through time than we are on Earth. But not much faster. If we could travel at 186,282 miles per second. (speed of light) then time slows down. Your clock runs slow relative to people who are still. Travel that way and you could return many years in the future.

If we could go faster than the speed of light (670 million mph), one year on that timecraft would equal 223 years on Earth.

Of course, Einstein is a time travel spoiler because he said that anything with a mass cannot physically reach the speed of light. So much for that time machine.

Sci-Fi folks like to offer the warp drive for time travel. Yes, this is a Star Trek thing but scientists have picked up on it. What warps is the fabric of space-time. Planets, stars, constellations – all of the universe is on that fabric.  Our timecraft would push up the fabric of space in front of it causing a bubble of space-time we could travel on and we wouldn’t be traveling faster than light.

I won’t even try to discuss traveling via cosmic strings which would enable our timecraft to attach onto them and fly through space at amazing speeds which might allow time travel.

As intriguing as time travel is to me, I have no hope that we can do it. So, I will continue to move at one hour per hour into the future and think about the past and guess at the future and try to slow down the present.

Leap Days, Years and Seconds

Leap Year 2012

2020 has an extra day because it is a leap year. This year has 366 days instead of 365. This year also will not begin and end on the same day of the week, as a “normal” non–leap year does. The extra day is February 29 – a day added nearly every four years to the calendar year.

Why? The short answer is that try as we do to control time, we need to adjust to keep our calendar aligned correctly with the astronomical seasons. The Earth’s orbit around the Sun takes approximately 365.25 days, so without this extra day, our Gregorian calendar would get out of sync.

A leap year is also known as an intercalary year or bissextile year and a year that is not a leap year is a common year.

This is for the Gregorian calendar. It’s a lot more complicated if we get into other calendars. In the lunisolar Hebrew calendar, Adar Aleph, a 13th lunar month, is added seven times every 19 years to the twelve lunar months in its common years to keep its calendar year from drifting through the seasons.  Complicated. In the Bahá’í Calendar, a leap day is added when needed to ensure that the following year begins on the March equinox.

A long time ago, Leap Day was known as “Ladies Day” or “Ladies’ Privilege,” as it was the one day when women were free to propose to men. One tradition today is called Sadie Hawkins Day which sometimes applies to February 29 and allows ladies to ask men for a date or dance.

Two questions that puzzled me about leap years: 1) Why is it called a “leap” year?   2) What happens if your birthday is on February 29 and you only have that birthday every 4 years?

In the Gregorian calendar, a fixed date normally advances one day of the week from one year to the next. January 1 this year was on Wednesday and normally the following year it would be on Thursday.  But in the 12 months following the leap day (March 1 – February 28 of the following year) the day will advance two days due to the extra day. So, next year January 1 and the other days will “leap” over one day in the week. January 1 will leap over Thursday and be on Friday next year.

A person born on February 29 is sometimes called a “leapling” or a “leaper.” In common years, they usually celebrate their birthdays on February 28, but it could be celebrated on March 1 since that is the day after February 28. Though a leaper might claim to be only a quarter of their actual age (by counting only their leap-year birthday anniversaries). For legal purposes, these birthdays depend on how local laws count time intervals.

At the end of 2016, there was a “leap second” added to the year to correct the length of a day into Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). This tiny insertion adjusts because of variations in Earth’s rotational period. Leap seconds are not regular things because variations in the length of the day are not entirely predictable.

And though you won’t hear anything like the madness that surrounded the Y2K bug, leap years can present computing problems if the 366th day or February 29 is not handled correctly.


“There is a planet in the Solar System where the people are so stupid they didn’t catch on for a million years that there was another half to their planet.” – Kilgore Trout

The timequakes keep happening to me in my reading and viewing.

I finished Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. which is a tough book to categorize. It is labeled as a novel and there are some parts credited to Kilgore Trout that are stories or fragments of stories. But Kurt enters frequently as himself adding passages that are autobiographical. It is a bit of a memoir, but since he treats fictional author Trout as a real person that he interacted with in life, the line is blurry.

“And so it goes…”

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. published this in 1997 and it is his last “novel.” He died in 2007. Vonnegut described the book as a “stew” and it is that. Less of a novel and more of him summarizing a novel he had been trying to put together for years.

All that makes it sound like the book is a mess, but it’s not. I enjoyed it. Not as much as his other novels but three-star Vonnegut is still more enjoyable than a lot of other writing.

“And so it goes…”

What is a timequake? It is a repetition of actions. A quake in the continuum of Time.

The timequake in the book has quaked citizens of the year 2001 back in time to 1991. This global time travel is Einsteinian in that everyone is forced to repeat every action they undertook during that time. Kilgore Trout writes all over again every story he wrote the first time

So, in this story, Vonnegut is pondering free will, which after the timequake does not exist. Maybe it didn’t exist before. Vonnegut has explored determinism in earlier works.

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.”

Kilgore Trout is a fictional character created by Vonnegut who is an unsuccessful author of paperback science fiction novels. We are told here that Trout died in 2001, at the Xanadu retreat in Rhode Island. Perhaps Kurt knew that his own end was near or was just thinking and preparing for it.

He said that he wasn’t happy with the first version of this book and so he went back and rewrote it and included more of his personal thoughts, anecdotes about his family and death. The deaths of Trout and also loved ones, and the last words of people.

He also brings in lots of depression and sadness that comes from observing our own bad choices and those of other people. There might be some relief after the timequake because then we would know that there was no free will. You can’t blame yourself for what happens if you don’t have the tree will to make those decisions. Can you?

“I didn’t need a timequake to teach me being alive was a crock of shit. I already knew that from my childhood and crucifixes and history books.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake

Vonnegut has played with time before. People famously became “unstuck” in time in Slaughterhouse-Five, and here people have to watch loved ones die again. A drunk driver will again get drunk and cause a fatal accident.

When the timequake ended you might think people were happy, but no. Now they have control, free will, and it’s all up to them to screw up on their own.

“And so it goes…”

Kilgore Trout is not as sad or apathetic as others and he keeps telling people “You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.”

“My wife thinks I think I’m such hot stuff. She’s wrong. I don’t think I’m such hot stuff.
My hero George Bernard Shaw, socialist, and shrewd and funny playwright, said in his eighties that if he was considered smart, he sure pitied people who were considered dumb. He said that, having lived as long as he had, he was at last sufficiently wise to serve as a reasonably competent office boy.
That’s how I feel.”

* All quotations are Kurt Vonnegut