Readers either worship or denigrate Virginia Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness. I will admit that there are times when her characters’ mental ambling can seem frustratingly opaque, and I begin to grumble to myself about the soft metaphysics of English leisure.

But Woolf was a revolutionary, more even than Joyce in one respect, and precisely in the area of stream of consciousness. I believe that Woolf, with perhaps the example of the newly translated Chekhov in her mind, introduced absent-mindedness—in all senses of the phrase—to English fiction. Consider Woolf’s most delicate treatment of absent-mindedness in To the Lighthouse. Readers will remember a lovely moment when Mrs. Ramsay, at dinner, thought well of her husband, and then a minute later felt “as if somebody had been praising her husband to her and their marriage, and she glowed all over without realizing that it was she herself who had praised him.”

Thus, comically and lyrically, Mrs. Ramsay travels out of herself, forgets herself for a moment, and we experience this self-forgetfulness in the same way that Mrs. Ramsay does. An even finer passage occurs, I think, about twenty pages into the novel. For the first twenty pages, more or less, we have been seeing things through Mrs. Ramsay’s drifting thoughts. She thinks about how much her son wants to go to the lighthouse; she is cross with Tansley for saying that the weather will not be good enough for the trip; she thinks a little about Tansley and her husband’s earnest followers. We are then told that Mrs. Ramsay is sitting and looking out of the window at the lawn. She sees Augustus Carmichael, the poet, and she sees Lily Briscoe painting, and decides that Lily Briscoe is not really a serious artist. And suddenly, Mrs. Ramsay remembers that Lily is painting her, painting Mrs. Ramsay, and that “she was supposed to be keeping her head as much in the same position as possible for Lily’s picture.

Now perhaps this doesn’t seem like a very remarkable event; but consider the implications of what Woolf has written. Mrs. Ramsay has forgotten and only just remembered that she is at the center of Lily’s painting. The remembrance is sudden to us too; it realigns the whole scene, for we realize that Mrs. Ramsay, just as she is actually at the center of Lily’s portrait, is also actually at the center of this novel. Yet Mrs. Ramsay’s slow forgetfulness, and ours too, has taken twenty pages to accumulate, twenty pages in which, in fact, Mrs. Ramsay has been at the center of the novel without realizing it until this moment. She has been at the center of the novel all along, and we have hardly noticed it, because seeing the world through her own drifting thought, we have inhabited her own invisibility. And we have experienced this self-forgetfulness, because it has been ours, as readers, too. It is not as if Woolf simply wrote: “Mrs Ramsay forgot that she was at the center of the painting”; no, the entire preceding twenty pages has been our experience of her forgetting this.

Even so, you may say, this is a technical point, a literary sleight-of-hand. But think of how Woolf thus revolutionizes the scope of what could be done with a certain kind of upper-class female character, an elegant mother and mistress of the house. Woolf is able to convert a cliché—the domestic absent-mindedness of a woman with too much time on her hands—into a ghostly ontology, whereby we discover ourselves in the process of forgetting ourselves. Mrs. Ramsay, we are told later on, dislikes anything that suggests that she has been sitting thinking. But that is precisely what we as readers have just done: we have seen Mrs. Ramsay sitting thinking, and she has seen herself in this mode, too. Mrs. Ramsay is the kind of woman, we’re sure, who if asked what she was thinking about, would probably say “Nothing” and instantly get up to busy herself with some domestic task. But Woolf’s delicate use of drifting thought has shown us that Mrs. Ramsay is never thinking of nothing, that we are always thinking of something, even if the thought is merely the process of forgetting something.

Return, one last time, to that sentence, “she was supposed to be keeping her head as much in the same position as possible for Lily’s picture.” Suddenly we realize that, in fact, Mrs. Ramsay’s head has not been still, is never still. Yes, externally, it might have been as still as Lily Briscoe could want it, but inside her head nothing has been still, nothing has been “in the same position.” She has been in the deepest sense absent-minded. In Woolf’s novels, thought radiates outwards, as in a medieval town, from a beautifully neglected center. And it is we as readers who renovate this neglect as we read Woolf.

This, perhaps, was her greatest feminism. By endowing her female characters, like Mrs. Ramsay and Clarissa Dalloway, with truly random, drifting thought, she endowed them with a freedom which had generally been seen by society as an idleness, as nothing more than the irrelevant freedom of housebound women sitting thinking about nothing. And this is a dangerous literary innovation, because such random thought will seem to hostile critics no more than the literary analogue of that despised female idleness: all these women thinking about nothing, all these irrelevant thoughts. One still hears this about Woolf.

Yet that is the risk of random thought: that it will seem irrelevant. For when thought is truly random, then remembered detail has no metaphysical superiority, no privilege, over what has been forgotten. One of the reasons that random thought is random is that it is treading over what has been forgotten, over the corpses of thoughts. Thought then resembles the old fiendish punishment that used to be handed out in English boarding schools, in which the victim had to color in every other square on a piece of graph paper. There is no necessary difference between a colored square and a blank one.

The delicate question then becomes, what is the status of irrelevant thought? Is it remembered data or forgotten data? Is it the very definition of the self, or everything but the self? Are absent-mindedness and present-mindedness the same thing? Do Clarissa Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsay remember themselves? Do they know who they are? St. Augustine points out in the Confessions that memory is partly convincing yourself of what you already, really knew all along. We are always forgetting things until the moment when we actually remember them. And at that moment, are we really remembering them, or paying a kind of tribute to their forgettability? What does Mrs. Ramsay think she is worth? Worth remembering or only worth forgetting? Surely Mrs. Ramsay is real to us in part because she seems real to herself. She is real to herself but she does not know herself. In this way, Woolf turns female absent- mindedness into the most searching philosophy of the self, and we suffer with her heroines, who are suspended between forgetfulness and remembrance, between their fulfillment and their irrelevance.