For some seconds the light went on becoming brighter and brighter, and she saw everything more and more clearly and the clock ticked louder and louder until there was a terrific explosion right in her ear. Orlando leapt as if she had been violently struck on the head. Ten times she was struck. In fact it was ten o’clock in the morning. It was the eleventh of October. It was 1928. It was the present moment.
—Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928), p. 224
On this October morning in 1928, after having crossed centuries and continents, Orlando finds herself abruptly thrown into the present. The 36-year-old woman that Virginia Woolf depicts, who first appears as a young man in the Elizabethan era, sword playing in his ancestral home, is now disconcerted by the displays in a London department store. The agglomeration of goods in space is an exact expression of her experience of time, for it is as though the moments she has lived, scattered across centuries, are condensed into the hollow of the present. Each one of Orlando’s reincarnations throughout the ages reveals a new aesthetic to her, an aesthetic not limited to art or the ordinary objects of everyday life but one that touches on her perception and experience of the world. Just as Oscar Wilde said about the fog that the Impressionists “introduced”1 through their paintings of London, Orlando observes that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the English climate has become significantly more humid, causing forms and colors to lose much of the solidity and clarity that had characterized them in the previous century. But in none of her projections into history’s successive presents has the present imposed itself as violently as it does at that moment, like an explosion threatening at every instant to tear apart her being. The precision of her perception becomes more and more unbearable.
The involuntary and vexed empathy that Orlando feels toward the world she is discovering results from the fact that this latest present is also that of her author. The fact that the past presents have succeeded one another attenuates their unsettling uniqueness, but the time opened by Woolf’s writing gapes wide, and its vast possibilities only sharpen the uniqueness of the current present: “Every time the gulf of time gaped . . . some unknown danger might come with it.”2 Furthermore, the current present, with its syncopated cadence and the shattering of perception that this entails—“What was seen begun . . . was never seen ended”3—seems more than ever before to favor the shattering of the self. Bringing the sequence of Orlando’s past selves to an end, the present no longer guarantees the identity of the name Orlando, and it unbinds all the selves that this name has contained over the course of time.
It is only at dusk on that day of October 11, 1928, that Orlando finds peace. When the light of the setting sun begins to blur forms, colors, and sounds, she is once again able to find the indistinctness of time that has composed her life until that point; her memories and dreams, which seem to her also to be the raw material of art, chase away the brutality of the present. “It was the present moment,” writes Woolf, recalling the beginning of that day; “what more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment? That we survive the shock at all is only possible because the past shelters us on one side, the future on another.”4
1. Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying” (1891), in Wilde, Intentions, 42.
2. Woolf, Orlando, 235.
3. Woolf, Orlando, 307.
4. Woolf, Orlando, 219.