Unfortunately, one “can’t unriddle the universe at tea,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in 1934 after a chat with William Butler Yeats, who had come to her both with a mysticism-inflected interpretation of The Waves and extraordinary visions of “the Occult.”
“Neither religion or science explains the world,” Yeats had informed her, as she recorded. “The occult does explain it.” Woolf, who enjoyed nuance, might have partially agreed with Yeats’s assessment that neither religion nor science had plumbed every fathom of the universe, but the Bloomsbury author unquestionably leant more to science. Not only did she often sprinkle wry bits of venomous invective for anything she deemed superstition through her private and public writings, but she also held a deep interest in advances in physics and astronomy, most notably Albert Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity of 1905 and 1915 respectively, which essentially posited that events in time are not the same everywhere for everyone, but, rather, depend on an observer’s distance and speed. (A clock moving at light speed, for instance, would appear to tick more slowly than a clock moving at less than light speed.) This counter-intuitive notion revolutionized Woolf’s world after the astronomer Arthur Eddington observationally proved relativity in 1919, a feat that both helped overturn scientific orthodoxy and captured the general public’s interest.