Language and Communication

The Autobiographical Compulsion

In 1931, Virginia Woolf wrote The Waves, a poetic novel that evokes the rhythms created by the interpenetrations of cosmic cycles and particular lives. Pieces of prose describing the landscape at particular times of the day, under certain heights of the sun, intersect with an account of six individuals’ innermost orientations towards the world from childhood to old age. As the title suggests, each character is evoked and communicated through the particular way that he or she experiences and interacts with the rhythm of the waves of surrounding reality and of his or her own inner experience.

Though we can never know all the reasons an author chooses to write a particular book, we do know that in this case Woolf’s theme is in part a representation of how she experienced the process of writing itself. She says, “I am writing to a rhythm and not to a plot. … All writing is nothing but putting words on the backs of rhythm.”

The question, then, is: exactly what rhythm(s) is Woolf writing to? Sitting here, writing this blog post, the process is slow and gets interrupted a lot, I hit “backspace” a lot; there is no apparent rhythm that I am writing to. I guess one could say that syntax itself is a rhythm that I put words to, or the typing of my fingers is a rhythm. And then there are all the rhythms that make up my body – breath, heartbeat, brainwaves. But, in that case one could just say that every activity happens on the back of rhythm. While that may be true, is there some specific rhythm that writing rides or manifests? If so, what does it tell us about why we write?

I think there might be a clue in The Waves. In the novel, each personality literally manifests as a unique intersection of rhythms. Each person feels and transposes the rhythms of world differently to the extent that (s)he is held and constrained by those rhythms. The characters are never directly aware of them, but they nevertheless cannot escape them. If you were to ask what a given character is like, the truest answer would be that this one feels himself nearly seamlessly a part of the great, changing fluidity, while that one is a rock against which the rhythms of life break. This one is order – the cut, the well-defined thing that stand out against the surrounding chaos – while still another precariously floats above the rhythms of daily life that threaten to engulf her.

In other words, personalities are rhythms. Your personality (insofar as you even have anything as solid as a “personality”) is a rhythm produced by intersections of the rhythms of body, environment, patterns of thought, gestures etc. As pie-in-the-sky as this perhaps sounds, it’s worth noting the new research that has found that the human mind thinks in pulses. If, biologically speaking, our personalities are embedded in and emerge out of the rhythms of the brain, then it’s perhaps not so farfetched to think that personalities themselves might be thought of as particular rhythms.

But here’s the problem: this means that at bottom, our own personalities, our own minds, always elude us. If the answer to the question ‘who am I?’ is that I am a particular rhythm or intersection of rhythms, this is not something that I will ever be quite able to articulate. To borrow another image from the novel, it’s like trying to catch a glimpse of ourselves in a mirror when we’re not expecting to see ourselves in order to somehow see ourselves as we really are. The best we can get is a fleeting glimpse. We always escape ourselves.

This may be part of why we are driven to write, and it suggests that all writing is to some degree autobiographical (particularly evident in the world of blogging and social media). The rhythm to which Woolf writes is her own – the waves beneath the surface that she will never quite be able to catch but to which she may get slightly closer by trying to put them on paper by assigning their dimensions to different characters. Writing is the great hunt for ourselves fueled by the hope that we will be able to catch ourselves by seeing our rhythms nailed to a page. Writing is not self-expression but self-pursuit.

Thinking about it in this way, poetry is, arguably, the most successful autobiography. We encounter another person most forcefully in poetry. A poem often does not communicate a lot of content, at least in comparison to prose. It foregrounds form, or rhythm, instead. Yet it is often those patterns, rather than semantic meanings, that connect us most effectively to the idiosyncratic ways that someone else experiences the world. It can almost communicate that which is incommunicable, not to the understanding but to the body.

This is why the philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe suggests that one’s unconscious is one’s style – gesture, intonation, diction. The manifestation of one’s style is the compulsion of the unconscious to confess itself.[1] We do not have to think about “unconscious” here as a Freudian fairy-tale; we can equally conceptualize it as the form of the mind’s pulses which we cannot analyze. In this way all writing becomes autobiographical because you can never escape your style, which is always your unconscious attempting to express itself so that you can perhaps catch a glimpse of it and know yourself a little better.

Perhaps this is why so much writing fills the internet. Regardless of what we are writing about, we are always attempting to manifest some hidden music that seems to live us. But style – rhythm – can never really be known, even when it is manifest. Its manifestation is its hiddenness and autobiography remains impossible. And so we are driven to keep trying, to repeatedly keep writing. And repetition, of course, is the essence of music.



[1] Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “The Echo of the Subject,” in Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics, 166. Lacoue-Labarthe’s essay is of course far more complex than just this one point. For a great introduction, see John Martis, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe: Representation and the Loss of the Subject.

Image: By Johntex – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

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