Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

20 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Humane Art: Virginia Woolf on What Killed Letter Writing and Why We Ought to Keep It Alive

By:

“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.”

“A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence,” advised an 1876 guide to the art of epistolary etiquette, “but also as a work of art.” More than half a century later, and another half century before the dawn of email as we know it today, one of the greatest letter writers of all time turned a concerned eye toward the death of that singular art form. In April of 1940, Virginia Woolf was tasked with reviewing a new biography of 18th-century English art historian Horace Walpole, a prolific writer of sixteen published volumes of letters. Woolf’s essay, titled “The Humane Art” and found in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (public library | IndieBound) — which also gave us Woolf on the malady of middlebrow and the piece she read in what became the only surviving recording of her voice — is less about Walpole or his biography and more about the art of letter writing itself: its private function, its cultural evolution, its uncertain future in the face of emerging forms of media.

Countering the biographer’s assertion that Walpole’s letters were “inspired not by the love of friends but the love of posterity” — a tool of history rather than of his inner world — Woolf considers the general genius of the letter writer:

If we believe that Horace Walpole was a historian in disguise, we are denying his peculiar genius as a letter writer. The letter writer is no surreptitious historian. He is a man of short range sensibility; he speaks not to the public at large but to the individual in private. All good letter writers feel the drag of the face on the other side of the age and obey it — they take as much as they give.

Woolf makes the curious but instantly sensical proposition that the rise of her very own ilk — the paid writer — is what spelled the decline of fine letter writing:

Was it … the growth of writing as a paid profession, and the change which that change of focus brought with it that led, in the nineteenth century, to the decline of this humane art?

In prescient sentiment that resonates all the more loudly as we consider the currency of the social media age, she points to new media in particular as the dagger at the heart of the personal letter:

News and gossip, the sticks and straws out of which the old letter writer made his nest, have been snatched away. The wireless and the telephone have intervened. The letter writer has nothing now to build with except what is most private; and how monotonous after a page or two the intensity of the very private becomes!

As though with blogs and Tumblrs and Facebook feeds in mind, Woolf writes:

Instead of letters posterity will have confessions, diaries, notebooks… — hybrid books in which the writer talks in the dark to himself about himself for a generation yet to be born.

Returning to Walpole, she considers what his letters — and the traditional art of epistolary correspondence in general — reveal about the vitalizing role of real letters in our lives, as an anchor to both our tribe and to our own identity. As we continuously struggle to understand what binds our past selves and our future selves together into the same person, Woolf points to the power of the letter, which bridges two privacies, in assuring us of our own selves, at once stable and self-renewing:

Above all he was blessed in his little public — a circle that surrounded him with that warm climate in which he could live the life of incessant changes which is the breath of a letter writer’s existence. Besides the wit and the anecdote and the brilliant descriptions of masquerades and midnight revelries his friends drew from him something superficial yet profound, something changing yet entire — himself shall we call it in default of one word for that which friends elicit but the great public kills? From that sprang his immortality. For a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.

Whether it is an act of supreme irony or supreme affirmation that Woolf herself ended her life with a letter — and a letter so cruelly commoditized by the era’s parasitic news media — remains an open question.

Page from 'How to Write Letters,' 1876. Click image for more.

Complement with Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, writing and consciousness, and her breathtaking love letters to Vita Sackville-West.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

05 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Malady of Middlebrow: Virginia Woolf’s Brilliantly Blistering Response to a Patronizing Reviewer

By:

“If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me ‘middlebrow’ I will take my pen and stab him, dead.”

Susan Sontag once scoffed that reading criticism is “cultural cholesterol” that “clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas.” Despite her svelte frame, Virginia Woolf, on at least one notable occasion, indulged in such a high-cholesterol gorge of the mind.

On October 13, 1932, the English novelist and critic J. B. Priestley reviewed Woolf’s The Second Common Reader — the source of that superb essay on how to read a book — and hurled her way the patronizing remark that her writing belonged to the ilk of “terrifically sensitive, cultured, invalidish ladies with private means.” (The privilege narrative, it seems, is the perennial low-hanging fruit of criticism.) He also referred to Woolf by a term the writer Arnold Bennett had coined some years earlier — “the High Priestess of Bloomsbury” — which she found loathsome. In a letter to her onetime lover and lifelong literary confidante Vita Sackville-West, Woolf wrote that Priestley’s remarks elicited in her “unadulterated disgust.”

The situation escalated when, four days later, the BBC invited Priestley to give a radio talk under the title “To a Highbrow,” mocking those who reject anything “popular” for the sake of appearing intellectual and urging them instead to “be a broadbrow.” A week later, Sackville-West’s husband, the diarist and author Harold Nicolson — whose book Priestley had eviscerated in the same review as Woolf’s — was invited to give a rebuttal under the title “To a Lowbrow.” The following week, New Statesman reviewed the BBC debate and declared Nicolson victorious.

But Woolf, fifty at the time, remained unsettled by the “battle of the brows.” To address the complex issues at stake, she penned a brilliant, spectacularly scathing letter to New Statesman, in which she argued that the true social malady in need of eradication wasn’t “highbrow” or “lowbrow” but “middlebrow” — that lot of men and women of “middlebred intelligence” concerned not with the lowbrows’ pursuit of living, nor with the highbrows’ pursuit of the life of ideas, but with “betwixt and between” simulacra, “neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.”

The piece stands as proof that literature, at its best, is the original internet — the letter a lace of hypertext, full of elegantly placed “hyperlinks” to a web of external ideas and incidents related to Woolf’s commentary. It is also a masterwork of irony in the true literary sense. She mocks not only Priestley as a stand-in for “middlebrow,” at that point occupying the decidedly middlebrow position of book critic from the Evening Standard, but also the BBC itself, renaming it the “Betwixt and Between Company” — subtly piercing, not to mention astoundingly timely, criticism against the commodification of journalism that happens when media companies package their product for sale to an audience of “middlebred intelligence” and package that audience for sale to advertisers.

Woolf didn’t send the letter — after completing it, she became convinced that it was better-served as an essay and intended to rework it into one. But it was never published in her lifetime. It appears under the title “Middlebrow” in the posthumous collection The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (public library | IndieBound) — the same spectacular volume that gave us the record of the only surviving recording of Woolf’s voice, aired, ironically, by the BBC.

In the spirit of such irony, Woolf opens with a complaint that she wasn’t called a “highbrow” in the review and writes:

Since the Battle of the Brows troubles, I am told, the evening air, since the finest minds of our age have lately been engaged in debating, not without that passion which befits a noble cause, what a highbrow is and what a lowbrow, which is better and which is worse, may I take this opportunity to express my opinion and at the same time draw attention to certain aspects of the question which seem to me to have been unfortunately overlooked?

Now there can be no two opinions as to what a highbrow is. He is the man or woman of thoroughbred intelligence who rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea. That is why I have always been so proud to be called highbrow. That is why, if I could be more of a highbrow I would. I honour and respect highbrows. Some of my relations have been highbrows; and some, but by no means all, of my friends. To be a highbrow, a complete and representative highbrow, a highbrow like Shakespeare, Dickens, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Charlotte Bronte, Scott, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Hardy or Henry James — to name a few highbrows from the same profession chosen at random — is of course beyond the wildest dreams of my imagination. And, though I would cheerfully lay myself down in the dust and kiss the print of their feet, no person of sense will deny that this passionate preoccupation of theirs — riding across country in pursuit of ideas — often leads to disaster… Highbrows, for some reason or another, are wholly incapable of dealing successfully with what is called real life. That is why, and here I come to a point that is often surprisingly ignored, they honour so wholeheartedly and depend so completely upon those who are called lowbrows. By a lowbrow is meant of course a man or a woman of thoroughbred vitality who rides his body in pursuit of a living at a gallop across life. That is why I honour and respect lowbrows — and I have never known a highbrow who did not. In so far as I am a highbrow (and my imperfections in that line are well known to me) I love lowbrows; I study them; I always sit next the conductor in an omnibus and try to get him to tell me what it is like — being a conductor. In whatever company I am I always try to know what it is like — being a conductor, being a woman with ten children and thirty-five shillings a week, being a stockbroker, being an admiral, being a bank clerk, being a dressmaker, being a duchess, being a miner, being a cook, being a prostitute. All that lowbrows do is of surpassing interest and wonder to me, because, in so far as I am a highbrow, I cannot do things myself.

Half a century before Sontag’s lament about the artificial divide between “high” and “low” culture, Woolf offers “another point which is surprisingly overlooked”:

Lowbrows need highbrows and honour them just as much as highbrows need lowbrows and honour them. This too is not a matter that requires much demonstration. You have only to stroll along the Strand on a wet winter’s night and watch the crowds lining up to get into the movies. These lowbrows are waiting, after the day’s work, in the rain, sometimes for hours, to get into the cheap seats and sit in hot theatres in order to see what their lives look like. Since they are lowbrows, engaged magnificently and adventurously in riding full tilt from one end of life to the other in pursuit of a living, they cannot see themselves doing it. Yet nothing interests them more. Nothing matters to them more. It is one of the prime necessities of life to them — to be shown what life looks like. And the highbrows, of course, are the only people who can show them. Since they are the only people who do not do things, they are the only people who can see things being done…

Nevertheless we are told — the air buzzes with it by night, the press booms with it by day, the very donkeys in the fields do nothing but bray it, the very curs in the streets do nothing but bark it — “Highbrows hate lowbrows! Lowbrows hate highbrows!” — when highbrows need lowbrows, when lowbrows need highbrows, when they cannot exist apart, when one is the complement and other side of the other! How has such a lie come into existence? Who has set this malicious gossip afloat?

There can be no doubt about that either. It is the doing of the middlebrows. They are the people, I confess, that I seldom regard with entire cordiality. They are the go-betweens; they are the busy-bodies who run from one to the other with their tittle tattle and make all the mischief — the middlebrows, I repeat.

Woolf then offers a definition of “middlebrow”:

They are neither one thing nor the other. They are not highbrows, whose brows are high; nor lowbrows, whose brows are low. Their brows are betwixt and between. They do not live in Bloomsbury which is on high ground; nor in Chelsea, which is on low ground. Since they must live somewhere presumably, they live perhaps in South Kensington, which is betwixt and between. The middlebrow is the man, or woman, of middlebred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that, in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.

This preoccupation with appearances and approval is a central element in Woolf’s critique of the middlebrow. In a passage that no doubt glares at Priestley’s remark about her “private means,” she writes:

We all have to earn our livings nowadays, my friends the lowbrows remind me. I quite agree. Even those of us whose Aunts came a cropper riding in India and left them an annual income of four hundred and fifty pounds, now reduced, thanks to the war and other luxuries, to little more than two hundred odd, even we have to do that. And we do it, too, by writing about anybody who seems amusing — enough has been written about Shakespeare — Shakespeare hardly pays. We highbrows, I agree, have to earn our livings; but when we have earned enough to live on, then we live. When the middlebrows, on the contrary, have earned enough to live on, they go on earning enough to buy.

Woolf paints the middlebrow as perpetually caught on the hedonic treadmill as she describes what they actually buy:

Queen Anne furniture (faked, but none the less expensive); first editions of dead writers, always the worst; pictures, or reproductions from pictures, by dead painters; houses in what is called “the Georgian style” — but never anything new, never a picture by a living painter, or a chair by a living carpenter, or books by living writers, for to buy living art requires living taste.

(In fact, Woolf’s contempt for Priestley as an epitome of such middlebrow repugnancy predated the “Battle of the Brows.” In 1930, writing in her diary, she mocks Priestley’s hypocritical relationship with money and status: “At the age of 50 Priestly will be saying, ‘why don’t the highbrows admire me? It isn’t true that I write only for money.’ He will be enormously rich; but there will be that thorn in his side — or so I hope.”)

In one particularly entertaining passage in the letter, Woolf describes what happens when she is asked to read a middlebrow book — but not without the wonderfully witty remark that the highbrows, among whom she proudly counts herself, “never buy a middlebrow book, or go to a middlebrow lecture, or read, unless we are paid for doing so,” a wink back to the “private means” accusation:

I read a page here, and I read a page there (I am breakfasting, as usual, in bed). And it is not well written; nor is it badly written. It is not proper, nor is it improper — in short it is betwixt and between. Now if there is any sort of book for which I have, perhaps, an imperfect sympathy, it is the betwixt and between. And so, though I suffer from the gout of a morning — but if one’s ancestors for two or three centuries have tumbled into bed dead drunk one has deserved a touch of that malady — I rise. I dress. I proceed weakly to the window. I take that book in my swollen right hand and toss it gently over the hedge into the field. The hungry sheep — did I remember to say that this part of the story takes place in the country? — the hungry sheep look up but are not fed.

Woolf’s letter is laced with perfectly highbrow zingers (the notion of a “highbrow zinger” being, of course, already a thoroughly middlebrow linguistic construct perhaps betraying my own betwixt-and-betweenery) — bemoaning what middlebrows “have the impudence to call real humanity,” she calls their version of culture a “mixture of geniality and sentiment stuck together with a sticky slime of calves-foot jelly” — but nowhere more so than in her concluding paragraphs:

The true battle in my opinion lies not between highbrow and lowbrow, but between highbrows and lowbrows joined together in blood brotherhood against the bloodless and pernicious pest who comes between… If the B.B.C. stood for anything but the Betwixt and Between Company they would use their control of the air not to stir strife between brothers, but to broadcast the fact that highbrows and lowbrows must band together to exterminate a pest which is the bane of all thinking and living.

In closing, Woolf wryly proclaims, with a pun jabbing at Priestley’s name, that she will stay in Bloomsbury — “a place where lowbrows and highbrows live happily together on equal terms and priests are not, nor priestesses, and, to be quite frank, the adjective ‘priestly’ is neither often heard nor held in high esteem” — until the rent is raised “so high that Bloomsbury is safe for middlebrows to live in.” She ends by sarcastically thanking Priestley for his “courteous and interesting review” and returning to the root of her reproach — his chief transgression of not having called her “highbrow”:

I ask nothing better than that all reviewers, for ever, and everywhere, should call me a highbrow. I will do my best to oblige them. If they like to add Bloomsbury, W.C.1, that is the correct postal address, and my telephone number is in the Directory. But if your reviewer, or any other reviewer, dares hint that I live in South Kensington, I will sue him for libel. If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me “middlebrow” I will take my pen and stab him, dead.

Yours etc.,

Virginia Woolf

Woolf makes her point even in her signature — nowhere in the history of the English language has the use of “etc.” connoted so much contempt as Woolf deliberately deploys it in place of all variations on the epistolary etiquette of sign-offs.

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays remains a remarkable glimpse into one of the greatest minds humanity has ever known. Complement it with Woolf on writing and consciousness and the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

23 OCTOBER, 2014

A Wave in the Mind: Virginia Woolf on Writing and Consciousness

By:

“A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”

“A crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase,” Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker wrote in his wonderful modern guide to style, “are among life’s greatest pleasures.” A century and a half earlier, Schopenhauer proclaimed that “style is the physiognomy of the mind.” Undoubtedly one of humanity’s most beautiful minds and greatest masters of elegant, pleasurable language is Virginia Woolf — a mastery that unfolded with equal enchantment in her public writings as well as her private, as both sprang from the same source of passion and perspicacity. But nowhere was Woolf’s intensity of heart, mind, and style more palpable than in the writing she did for and to her longtime lover and lifelong friend, Vita Sackville-West — from her novel Orlando, based on Sackville-West and celebrated as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” to the actual missives between the two women, which remain among the most bewitching queer love letters ever written.

In March of 1926, a year before her famous love letter to Vita, Virginia wrote to her lover about the very thing that brought them together, that invisible, immutable force which animated Woolf more than any other — her love of language. (Celebrated writers have a way of fleshing out their professional convictions about the craft in their most intimate correspondence — Nietzsche set down his ten rules for writers in a letter to his lover.)

The beautiful phrase at the heart of Woolf’s meditation, found in The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume Three (public library), is also what inspired the title of Ursula K. Le Guin’s spectacular collection of essays — Le Guin being, of course, the closest thing we have to a Woolf today.

Woolf writes:

Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.

Complement with Woolf on how to read a book, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice, then revisit Anaïs Nin on why emotional intensity is essential to creativity.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.