Moments of Being
is a 1972 collection of five autobiographical essays by British modernist author Virginia Woolf. Published after her death, the essays converge on Woolf’s philosophy about the human condition: she believed that a good human life moves through time flexibly, without unnecessary analysis of its own being-ness, and without drawing conclusions rapidly. Written in Woolf’s signature stream-of-consciousness style, the essays were created at different junctures in her life. Together, they explore Woolf’s key life experiences, connecting them to her evolution as a writer and philosopher.
The first essay, “Reminiscences,” was written in Woolf’s early twenties, just as she began thinking she might write for her career. It consists of a series of reflections on Woolf’s childhood. These include memories of her mother, whom Woolf loved and respected immensely, but who died when Woolf was only a teenager. Woolf’s essay states that she remains emotionally tied to her mother, thinking of her as a constant audience for her work.
The second essay, “A Sketch of the Past,” represents a time late in Woolf’s writing career, after she was already famous and financially independent. Like “Reminiscences,” it also turns to Woolf’s childhood and memories of her mother. In contrast to the earlier essay, it looks back with a more realistic
perspective, exposing some of the flaws and disappointments Woolf observed, and occasionally inherited from, her mother. In this essay, Wolff is also more self-conscious of her immediate context, referring to the chaos of World War II, which was raging about her at its time of writing. Woolf expresses a deep discomfort with armed conflict, thinking of it as universally corrupt and evil.
The book’s third section, titled “The Memoir Club Contributions,” contains the final three essays. These essays, still deeply reflective, focus less strictly on Woolf’s encounters with other people. She wrote them with a more intellectual audience in mind – in particular, her close friends and family who frequently engaged with her. The essays deal generally with the question of how to renew one’s perspectives on being and one’s relationship to suffering. The section’s first essay, “22 Hyde Park Gate,” recalls several key memories from the house where Woolf grew up, including one of her first friendships, and romanticizes her youth. Its second essay, “Old Bloomsbury,” celebrates the period of life when Woolf left behind her childhood home and entered the huge, freer world of adulthood. Woolf, an advocate of childhood autonomy, laments that she had to wait so long to make certain choices independently.
The book’s final essay, “Am I a Snob?”, interrogates the character archetype of the “snob,” which she equates to the compulsive desire for aesthetic freedom. She totally reframes the idea of snobbery, distancing it from its common negative associations, and even embracing the archetype as a partial description of herself. This essay is often credited as the moment of the invention of the “modern snob,” a character that has become prevalent in modern literature, TV, and film. The highly personal collage of sketches that comprises Moments of Being
illuminates Woolf’s deep genius and, occasionally, certain anxieties about living in the modern world that she kept from the public eye even in her most personal writings.