Thursday, 21 January 2010

A question of identity

I have just come across an essay by Virginia Woolf, entitled Street Haunting: A London Adventure. Woolf was an inveterate London walker and there are numerous examples in her novels of characters walking the streets of London. In this essay, she muses on the notion of how we are able to cast off the shackles of our personality as we walk in the city streets, losing ourselves in the anonymous city crowds, where nobody knows who we are or what we are thinking. She realised that you do not have to travel far to lose yourself.

"As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one's own room"

Out in the streets we cast aside that 'shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves' and our minds become concentrated into 'a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye'. It is then that we can free ourselves and become like a collector of images, not wishing to delve too far beneath the surface, not engaging our brains too much, the eye alighting on a succession of pleasing or delightful trophies. There are times in my wanderings when I feel just like this, when as Woolf writes everything is accidentally but miraculously sprinkled with beauty, when even the prosaic or the mundane seem enhanced and beautified.

When we are wandering without any ulterior motive but just following some impulsive impetus to move about, is this when we are more truly ourselves? She asks herself:

"Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?"

Woolf seems to have had a need to put aside the I of her self and take on something of the multiple identities of the crowd, thinking that by penetrating some way into other people's lives she can give herself the 'illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind'. When I am wandering in the city I too relish the idea that nobody knows who I am and there are no expectations of me other than the usual social proprieties. I can be who I wish for the day - a form of escape from the daily realities of life. As Woolf notes 'to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures'.


  1. What a find: a wonderful essay by Virginia Woolf that may accompany your street haunting - photographing work! Woolf's thoughts and feelings are always inspiring and fascinating as I myself experienced while reading her novel "Mrs. Dalloway" (in German)- a stream of impressions, memories, desires, thoughts... the outer and the inner world would streaming together and waves of consciousness might overflow you if you would stroll like an eccentric VW through a city like London....- The pic (oh, no red shoes?) echoes finely the titel and the text- I hope and I'm sure that you will be getting some anwers to your questions!

  2. I will send you a link to the essay Philine, though it is in English. I too have read Mrs Dalloway, though some time ago now - another book I must revisit.