Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Variations on a theme

Theodore Dalrymple,
The Rage of Virginia Woolf

The book is important because it is a naked statement of the worldview that is unstated and implicit in all of Virginia Woolf’s novels, most of which have achieved an iconic status in the republic of letters and in the humanities departments of the English-speaking world, where they have influenced countless young people. The book, therefore, is truly a seminal text. In Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf lets us know without disguise what she really thinks: and what she thinks is by turns grandiose and trivial, resentful and fatuous. The book might be better titled: How to Be Privileged and Yet Feel Extremely Aggrieved.
Carl Rollyson,
A woman of her word

[W]hile a bewildered Virginia Woolf enjoyed the way West brought the world to her, Woolf withdrew from West’s very presence, preferring to dismiss Rebecca because she had dirty fingernails. Bloomsbury was Woolf’s safe haven, but West—certainly just as enamored of creature comforts as Woolf was—journeyed to the Balkans and beyond, to Lebanon and South Africa, in order to understand the nature of the modern world. She was not, in short, afraid of dirtying herself by reporting on great events and movements of the twentieth century, including the Russian Revolution, the New Deal, the Nuremberg and treason trials after the Second World War, and the Cold War.
Theodore Dalrymple,
Small Acts of Disdain

And so, in dealing with her servants, as this interesting book shows, she often managed to think of herself as almost martyred by them; she was always the injured party in any dispute. Her servants worked long hours in harsh conditions, of a kind not met with anywhere in the Western world today, but she nevertheless berated them in her diary and in her letters for their stupidity, their lack of finer feeling or accomplishment, their suspected dishonesty and even their greed when, like Oliver Twist, they asked for more (despite her advanced views, she never offered them more than the going rate, and sometimes a little less, the annual wages of a servant employed by her being at one time no more than one percent of her own annual income). She thought that they were so different in kind from her own class that no real communication could exist between her and them, as if they were aliens from another planet. She wrote repeatedly that subjective understanding of their lives was impossible for her.
Virginia Woolf letter (1928) [From Joseph Pearce, Bloomsbury and Beyond

I have just had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.
Theodore Dalrymple, "Rage of Virginia Woolf"

If the good life is a matter of judgment, the war proved that all her adult life she had none. My mother, with her wrench by day and helmet by night, did more for civilization (a word that Mrs. Woolf enclosed in quotation marks in Three Guineas, as if did not really exist) than Mrs. Woolf had ever done, with her jeweled prose disguising her narcissistic rage.

Had Mrs. Woolf survived to our time, however, she would at least have had the satisfaction of observing that her cast of mind—shallow, dishonest, resentful, envious, snobbish, self-absorbed, trivial, philistine, and ultimately brutal—had triumphed among the elites of the Western world.

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