Readers on holiday: Orlando, Virginia Woolf

In Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ (1928), the main character, Orlando is tormented in the quest for identifying and conquering his/her real ‘essence’. The process is slow and is crossed by periods alternating life experiences, lethargy, and metamorphosis, after which the character finally reaches understanding. Orlando was born as a male during the reign of Elizabeth the First of England but ends his story as an emancipated woman at the turn of the 20th century. He passes through two eras, two eons, to reach his/her metamorphosis: the modern era and the contemporary one. Across the centuries, Lord Orlando takes off his clothes of a rigid male and full of false gender absolutisms in which ‘every man is…’ and ‘every woman is…’ dictated in a life of honors of great values for others, but of no value for himself, to become the ‘other self’ desired by Woolf. Approximately, around 1610, the triggering factor of horror and compassion for a soldier dying next to him in war will make him fall asleep in some oriental non-lieu to be born again later as Lady Orlando. From this moment, in the following centuries, he struggles to affirm the fact of ‘being a woman’ through the right of inclusion in conversation with male poets, such as Swift and Pope, who celebrate her beauty but ridicule her female intelligence or through the right of private property, from which she is excluded because she has no male heirs. The novel ends with the encounter with an adventurer arriving on his horse and ready to leave again for non-specified ideals in the New Continent; here, she ends the love story with the restless cavalier to conquer her freedom, autonomy, and independence and thus completing her metamorphosis.

Orlando is the manifesto of the dual nature of Virginia Woolf. The peculiarity of Orlando is that in these two eras (more than four hundred years), the protagonist falls into lethargy to heal from life experiences continuously affecting his/her most intimate soul and the people she/he has encountered and who have passed away. Every time Orlando wakes up as a man or woman, he/she decides to radically change his/her life by moving to other countries or changing sex, lover and profession. Thus, the novel is extraordinary: to make deep and not ephemeral changes, there must be two elements, time and sleep.
The first element, time, dilates across centuries until becoming the age, the ‘Aion’— where history, as life phases, divides in centuries: for ancient Greeks, Aion, another of the multifaceted ways to call time, is translated as the succession of historical ages throughout eternity. Aion symbolizes Cosmos and its seven stellar orders (the Greek representation of the eternal universe expanding towards eternity) [Von Franz, 1992].

Sleep, the other ingredient, represents a dreamless rest, an oblivion, a long pause, retreating from worldliness, becoming a cocoon to mature and give life to a new blooming. Using terms of NSM, it would be expressed as ‘not doing’. Scientific and hard-working Western world based on efficacy can barely understand the transformation mystery that happens when one withdraws and creates a void as taught in the oriental approaches to life (Zen, Yoga, and mindfulness).

Yet, I write about NM and ask you what Orlando’s story has to do with illness narratives. We can look at patients and their familiar stories, which live with diseases not only in a ‘chronic’ but also in an ‘aeonic’ way, almost eternal in their perception—a succession of eras, phases, and cycles. When Virginia Woolf started writing ‘Orlando’, she was feeling ‘bad’ (so to use a term of NSL) or, as we would label her today, ‘depressed’. De facto she was an emancipated and free woman facing a very hostile society. The book was her way to understand and solve her discomfort, traveling across a four-hundred-year eon and reading her life through lethargy (from Lethes, oblivion, and Argos, inertia) [Liddell and Scott, 1843], i.e. the inactivity in the resetting of memory. The protagonist is seesawing between happiness and unhappiness for almost the entire book. Yet, through his/her experience of young love, war, poetry, politics, society and again adult love, he/she finds his/her final happiness, open to the new experiences. For the society at that time, Virginia was considered to be ‘not normal’ and ‘sick’, as she was in love with the woman to which the novel is dedicated: this is the occasion for passing again through this suffering of being victim of social constructions in the ancient world of unequal opportunities to arrive then in the modern world loving her diversity. There are both the real-time of writing and the long time necessary for metamorphosis.

Listening to the narratives of ‘sick’ people, we see that they want to be ‘normal’ as Lord Orlando, at least initially, and they search for a key to be accepted by the others: family, friends, workplace and external environment. This happens especially in the case of disabilities. Searching for normality, yet, can be an idiot Chimera, if it becomes a useless obsession stealing time to the discovery of one’s own real essence. As explained by Arthur Frank in The wounded storyteller (1995): In order to cherish ourselves in our state of discomfort and the world around us, we must find our own way of living our diversity and turn that ‘frailty’ into a point of strength. We cannot obtain this in the short term. It requires honesty, long time and lethargy between attempts, as taught by Great Virginia.

While above I focused on the need for an instantaneous and quick time, Kairos, to realize and correct pathways of patient-care, I wish to stress the importance of living according to a slow and persistent maturation time, consistently with the saying, ‘haste makes waste’. As Carl Gustav Jung wrote the Soul—the undefined that defines our essential nature—is much slower than the rational mind [Jung, 1969]. Latins, who were a people of pragmatic spirits, conciliated both time dimensions with the paradox Festina Lente [Suetonius, 2nd century BC], Make haste slowly. We must remember that next to the voracity of infinitesimal time, our nature—above all, the suffering one—needs long times for accepting the illness condition, finding a new way to live with the disease. Decisions that may help us will be taken calmly, as the choice we will take with who takes care of us. This is a juggling exercise between velocity and slowness.

Here, the Orlando book by Virginia Woolf, for free in pdf.

Good reading every one!


Written by

Epidemiologist and counselor – 30 years of professional life in health care. Classic humanistic background, including the study of Latin and ancient Greek, followed by scientific academic studies, chemistry and pharmacology. First years of career, in private international environment. I worked in medical research, moved to health care organization, getting academic specialization in Epidemiology. Later, in consultancy and health care education. Counselor with transactional analysis orientation. Currently, director of Innovation in Health Care Area of Fondazione ISTUD, an independent not for profit Italian Business School with an humanistic approach acknowledged by the Italian Ministry of Researech.. Active member of the board of Italian Society of Narrative Medicine, tenured professor of Narrative Medicine at Hunimed, Milan, and in 2016, referee for World Health Organization for “Narrative Method in Public Health.” Writer of the book; “Narrative medicine: Bridging the gap between Evidence Based care and Medical Humanities,” edited with Springer and of international publications on narrative medicine in scientific journals. Last book “The Languages of care in narrative medicine: words, space and sounds in the healthcare ecosystem”. Lecturer in different international contexts from Academy to Public and Private Foundations.

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