Virginia Woolf was a writer concerned, above all, with capturing in words the excitement, pain, beauty, and horror of what she termed, the Modern Age. Born in 1882, she was conscious of herself as a distinctively modernist writer at odds with a raft of the staid and complacent assumptions of nineteenth-century English literature. She realized that a new era, marked by extraordinary developments in urbanism, technology, warfare, consumerism, and family life would need to be captured by a different sort of writer. Along with Joyce and Proust, she was a relentlessly creative writer in search of new literary forms that could do justice to the complexities of modern consciousness. Her books and essays retain a power to convey the thrill and drama of living in the 20th century. Woolf was born in London. Her father was a famous author and mountaineer, and her mother, a well known model. Her family hosted many of the most influential and important members of Victorian Literary Society. Woolf was largely cynical about these grand types, accusing them of pomposity and narrow-mindedness. Woolf and her sister weren’t even allowed to go to Cambridge like their brothers, but had to steal an education from their father’s study. After her mother died when she was only thirteen, Woolf had the first of a series of mental breakdowns that would plague her for the rest of her life; partly caused, too, by the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her half-brother, George Duckworth. Despite her illness, she became a journalist, and then a novelist, and the central figure in the Bloomsbury Group, which included John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey. She married one of the members: the writer and journalist, Leonard Woolf. She and Leonard bought a small hand printing press, named it “The Hogarth Press,” and published books from their dining room. They printed Woolf’s radical novels and political essays when no one else would and they produced the first full English edition of Freud’s works. In just four short years between World Wars I and II, Woolf wrote four of her famous works: “Mrs. Dalloway,” “To the Lighthouse,” “Orlando,” and the essay, “A Room of One’s Own.” In March 1941, feeling the onset of another bout of mental illness, Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse. Her work has many vital things to teach us. Woolf was one of the great observers of English literature. Perhaps the finest short piece of prose she ever wrote was the essay, “The Death of the Moth,” published in 1942. It contains her observations as she sits in her study, watching a humble moth trapped by a pane of glass. Rarely have so many profound thoughts been eked out from such an apparently mindless situation– though for Woolf, there were no such things as mindless situations. “One could not help watching him. One was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him. The possibilities of pleasure seemed, that morning, so enormous and so various, that to have only a moth’s part in life– and a day moth’s at that– appeared a hard fate… …and his zest in enjoying his meager opportunities to the full, pathetic. He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and after waiting there a second, flew across to the other. What remained for him, but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth. That was all he could do in spite of the width of the sky, the far off smooth of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steam out at sea. Woolf noticed everything that you and I tend to walk past: the sky, the pain in others’ eyes, the gaze of children, the stoicism of wives, the pleasures of department stores, the interests of harbors and docks. Emerson, one of her favorite writers, may have been speaking generally, but he captured everything that makes Woolf special when he remarked, “In the work of a writer of genius, we rediscover our own neglected thoughts.” In another great essay, “On Being Ill,” Woolf lamented how seldom writers stoop to describe illness– an oversight that seemed characteristic of a snobbery against the everyday in literature. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. The mere schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let us suffer her trying to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. This would be her mission; Woolf tried throughout her life to make sure language would do a better job at defining who we really are, with all our vulnerabilities, confusions, and bodily sensations. Woolf raised her sensitivity to the highest art form. She had the confidence and seriousness to use what happened to her– the sensory details of her own life– as the basis for the largest ideas. Woolf was always profound, but never afraid of what others called “trivial.” She was confident that the ambitions of her mind to love beauty and engage with big ideas were completely compatible with an interest in shopping, cakes, and hats– subjects on which she wrote with almost unique eloquence and depth. In another particularly good essay of hers called the “Oxford Street Tide,” she celebrates the gaudy vulgarity of this huge London shopping street. “The moral-less point the finger of scorn at Oxford Street; it reflects, they say, the levity, the ostentation, the haste, and the irresponsibility of our age. Yet perhaps, they are as much out in their scorn as we should be if we asked of the lily that it should be cast in bronze, or of the daisy that it should have petals of imperishable enamel. The charm of modern London is that it isn’t built to last– it is built to pass.” In an accompanying essay, equally open to the un-prestigious side of modern life, Woolf goes to visit the giant docks of London. “A thousand ships with thousand cargoes are being unladen every week… and not only is each package of this vast and varied merchandise picked up and set down accurately, but each is weighed and opened, sampled and recorded, and again stitched up and laid in its place, without haste or waste or hurry, or confusion, by a very few men in shirt sleeves who, working with the utmost organization in the common interest, are yet able to pause in their work and say to the casual visitor, ‘Would you like to see what sort of thing we sometimes find in sacks of cinnamon? Look at this snake!'” Woolf was deeply aware that men and women fit themselves into rigid roles, and as they do so, overlook their fuller personalities. In her eyes, in order to grow, we need to do something gender bending– we need to seek experiences that blur what it means to be a “real man” or a “real woman.” Woolf had a few lesbian affairs in her life, and she wrote a magnificently bold queer text, “Orlando,” a portrait of her lover, Vita, described as a nobleman who becomes a woman. She wrote, “It is fatal to be a man or woman, pure and simple. One must be woman-manly, or man-womanly.” In her anti-war track, “Three Guineas,” Woolf argued that we will only ever end war by rethinking the habit of pitting of sex against sex; all this claiming of superiority and impudent inferiority belonged to the private school stage of human existence where there are sides, and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance, to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the headmaster, a highly ornamental pot. Woolf wished desperately to raise the status of women in her society. She recognized that the problem was largely down to money. Women didn’t have freedom, especially freedom of the spirit, because they didn’t control their own income. “Women have always been poor,” she cried. “Not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time, women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry.” Her great feminist rallying cry, “A Room of One’s Own,” culminated in a specific political demand: in order to stand on the same intellectual footing as men, women not only needed dignity, but also equal rights to education, an income of five hundred pounds a year, and a room of one’s own. Woolf was probably the best writer in the English language for describing our minds without the jargon of clinical psychology. The generation before hers, the Victorians, wrote novels focused on external details: city scenes, marriages, wills. Woolf envisaged a new form of expression that would focus instead, on how it feels inside to know ourselves and other people. Books like Woolf’s, which aren’t overly sarcastic, aren’t caught up in adventure plots, or cradled in convention are our contract. She’s expecting us to turn down the outside volume, to try on her perspective, and to spend energy with subtle sentences… and in turn, she offers us the opportunity to notice the tremors we normally miss, and to better appreciate moths, our own headaches, and our fascinating, fluid sexualities. If you like this video, then I think you’ll really appreciate “Wisecrack,” another fine channel on YouTube that also celebrates literature, philosophy, cinema, psychology, and more. Click here to visit their channel page, and see how they’re introducing important topics and critical analysis through the lens of comedy. If you’re interested in smart, yet hilarious, breakdowns of classic literature, be sure to watch their popular series, “Thug notes.” They have over 80 titles in their library to choose from, including: “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Lolita,” “Dune,” “Crime and Punishment,” and many more. I think you’ll enjoy them as much as we do.