"This wave in the mind"

« previous post | next post »

Ursula K.Le Guin died a couple of months ago, and since then I've been re-reading some of her works that I've enjoyed over the years. Yesterday I was struck by the epigraph to her 2004 collection The Wave in the Mind, which apparently I missed when I read the book a decade ago.  It's part of a letter from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West, 16 March 1926:

As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. 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 it; and in writing (such is my present belief) 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 it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.


  1. DH said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 7:57 am

    Wow, this captures my intuitions beautifully. When the right words don't come to mind, it's like they are lost in an undercurrent and I need to try to get back them in the rhythm of linguistic thought, or back on the wave.

  2. languagehat said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 9:41 am

    That is indeed a wonderful quote, but my favorite thing about it is the final "But no doubt I shall think differently next year." It took me a long, long time to realize that what now seemed to me an irrefutable truth might wind up at some future time consigned by my mind to the dustbin of history.

  3. jin defang said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 10:05 am

    mehh. IMHO, rhythm can't take care of le mot injuste, to paraphrase. I'm currently reading a fine book about Chinese debt that has too many of these. Get annoyed with them…for example, referring to a bar whose liquor bottles are in various states of "demise." Really?

    Hope Virginia adjusted her views a year later.

  4. cameron said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 10:08 am

    Note the wave/particle dualism in the metaphor – words are particles, the wave is continuous. But where modern physics stresses the duality, and the incommensurability of the two models, Woolf here expresses the very Bergsonian idea that the wave is primary and the particles (words) secondary. Bergson always had the idea that to express ones thoughts in words is to do violence to the initial continuity of ones intuitions.

    [(myl) Interesting observation — and made more plausible by the letter's date of 1926, two years later than the de Broglie hypothesis, and the same year as the Schrödinger equation. Virginia Woolf was no physicist, but I imagine that such ideas were discussed in newspapers and magazines that she read or heard discussed.]

  5. RfP said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 1:01 pm

    Mind the sounds and the sense will take care of itself…

  6. David L said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 2:16 pm

    I recently read Mrs Dalloway and loved it. The rhythm of her prose is indeed remarkable, and carries the sense along with it.

    But not all writers work the same way, of course. Theodore Dreiser (who I like, mostly) is a strong counterexample.

  7. AntC said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 6:30 pm

    @David L, yes Mrs Dalloway is exactly what I thought of immediately. I would re-read sentences and passages of that; not because I couldn't get the sense; but just for the pleasure of the rhythm running through my mind. Like a Bach fugue.

    English has a far larger vocabulary/many more near-synonyms than most languages: does that make it easier to find the mot juste? Both the right sense and the right rhythm.

    No doubt I shall think differently next week: internet time has sped up everything.

  8. RfP said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 10:45 pm

    This post overlaps with several issues I’ve been studying lately—so much so that I had just been reading The Wind in the Wave when I first saw this post!

    I’ve been focusing on The Movement of English Prose, whose author, Ian A. Gordon, says that “In good [English] prose, … sentence-structure and not the use of the spectacular word is the supreme test of effectiveness and even of meaning.” That sentence, written in the mid-‘60s, seems to agree pretty much exactly with what Woolf said.

    But Woolf was a Modernist and I’m pretty sure that her position as quoted in the post grew at least to some degree out of her specific take as a Modernist. Gordon, however, is writing as a student of the history of English prose and seems to feel that his statement covers prose written throughout that history.

    What Gordon says makes a lot of sense to me, but I was wondering if modern linguists would basically agree with this position, and if so, how it might relate to what Woolf says.

  9. TIC said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 6:57 am

    @RfP: The Wind in the Wave(?)…

  10. RfP said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 9:58 am

    The Wave in the Mind

  11. TIC said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 10:03 am

    Yup… No offense intended… Just couldn't resist pointing out that intriguing mix-up…

  12. RfP said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 1:31 pm

    And none taken!

    I admit that I was at the beach yesterday and that it was pretty breezy. I also have to wonder whether Kenneth Grahame is involved in there somehow, as well.

  13. Graeme said,

    April 5, 2018 @ 3:59 am

    As I read this quote she isn't saying style isn't related to choice words and phrasing.
    Rather she is reflecting on the internal process – rhythm – of inspiration that drives (creative?) writing.
    Something contrasted to a more mechanical (bureaucratic or academic?) writing process. Which can feel like depositing, in a polished order, various factual claims and information. And where one often sits back, riflng through a mental thesaurus for the 'mot juste', like a compositor searching for type.

  14. RfP said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 12:16 pm

    @Graeme: I think your point is related to what Woolf is saying, and that it probably goes hand in hand with her theory of composition, in terms of the kind of process that might be involved.

    I also agree that her style is very different from one that grows out of the kind of mechanical writing process that other authors have clearly followed. And I think this is an important element of what’s being discussed.

    But Le Guin goes more deeply into this issue in one of the essays in The Wave in the Mind, “The Question I Get Asked Most Often,” and I think her point is somewhat different, and more in line with what Woolf is getting at. The essay is pretty long, and I am still trying to understand it, but I think this quote lays an important part of the foundation for understanding Le Guin’s take on Woolf’s quote:

    “Art is craft: all art is always and essentially a work of craft: but in the true work of art, before the craft and after it, is some essential, durable core of being, which is what the craft works on, and shows, and sets free. The statue in the stone. How does the artist find that, see it, before it’s visible? That is a real question.”

    Le Guin clearly sees the creative process as an act of discovery. And unlike, say, Theodore Dreiser, her theory of composition is rooted in rhythm, in a way that’s analogous to the sculptor’s fixation on stone.

    At the end of the essay, she reiterates the quote from Woolf, and says:

    “Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention—beneath words, as she says—there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move; and the writer’s job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, to find it, move to it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find words.”

    It’s like finding the true heartbeat—the living pulse that speaks to the reader.

RSS feed for comments on this post