Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Virginia Woolf's "The Leaning Tower," To the Lighthouse and Viva the Income Tax

In a late essay, "The Leaning Tower," a talk given to the Workers' Educational Association in Brighton in May, 1940 less than a year before her death and in the midst of World War II, Woolf makes a stunning claim. She asserts it as she envisions a post-war world where the "hedges" of social classes have been abolished and "all classes will be merged in one class."

Key to this transformation is the income tax, utterly central and integral in her mind to the better society waiting to be born. The "towers" that protect elites, she states, "will disappear," as will "class" because of

the income tax. The income tax is already doing in its own way what the politicians are hoping to do in theirs. The income tax is saying to middle-class parents: You cannot afford to send your sons to public schools any longer; you must send them to the elementary schools
This is stunning because of the context in which we have lived in the United States for the last forty years, where taxes have long been posited as the great, existential evil, the Satan rising dangerously to consume us above all the other arch-demons in the pantheon in hell. 

Woolf's advocacy of taxes should not hit with force of a shock: it should be a sensible idea that has been dunned into us with equal or greater force than that of lowering taxes as a supposed social good. But it has not been.

As Woolf understood, taxes are our boon and our power, even if we have, ostensibly, less money in our pockets on an individual level. If we tax high, especially the rich--as we have done in the past, in this country and the UK--abundant money exists (assuming we don't throw it into wars or walls) for social good: better education, better libraries (a system Woolf strongly supports in this talk), better roads, better healthcare, jobs, and, as the quote above indicates, a wealthier class that might have to rely on the same infrastructure we do.

And yet Woolf's advocacy shocks in its openness. It is more than a subversive whisper or an apologetic murmur to be shouted down in incandescent indignation. Instead it is states plainly what is censored and verboten in our society: taxes are a social good.  Education, too, she asserts in this essay is a great good in and of itself, a social force that in our society has been eroded as much as the tax base--and yet is still vitally important. In today's New York Times, for example, an op-ed piece quotes a scholar named Linda J. Skitka:

Every study I’ve ever seen across the social sciences shows that education promotes less in-group favoritism and greater tolerance toward those unlike ourselves,” she continued. “In panel studies that track the same people over time, as people gain advanced levels of education, they become more tolerant and favorable toward liberal democratic norms.” (
No wonder that Woolf pushed her listeners to educate themselves.

The audience for Woolf's essay was working people, perhaps those who came bemused to see the famous and much caricatured Bloomberry. Yet continuing her Society of Outsiders theme from Three Guineas, she speaks to them as "us," finding common ground:

the immense class to which almost all of us must belong, to pick up what we can in village schools; in factories; in workshops; behind counters; and at home.
She goes on:
We can help England very greatly to bridge the gulf between the two worlds if we borrow the books she lends us and if we read them critically. …are we not commoners, outsiders?
Clearly, Woolf 's audience is working people, not of her class, and yet she is appealing to them in terms of "we." It could seem stunning--or disingenuous or dishonest (though more easily done in a time of war)--for her, the snobbish emblem of the upper crust, to speak with working people as if they are a "we." Yet she is being honest--and honesty about one's life was a key value for her, as she says in this essay. Self-honesty, Woolf states in the essay, is the only possible way to an honest literature--and only an honest literature can help people. 

I am rereading To the Lighthouse, always a stunning book if we are to be endlessly stunned--and am struck anew about how openly the novel explores identity as fluid and ever-changing, as created by people who see us one way and then another: Mr. Bankes is in one instance, struck dumb with love for Mrs. Ramsey, and a few hours later he hates her, feeling:

rigid and barren, like a pair of boots that have been soaked and gone dry so that you can hardly force your feet into them. 

Then he loves her again. Much of Lighthouse is an exploration of this kind of knowing of the other, through variable emotion, through touch, through constructing fictions, through an always veiled intimacy--and an exposé about how often we construct false narratives about people we know. In the long section of Lily's stream-of-consciousness near the end of the novel, she muses on Paul and Minta, who Mrs. Ramsey pulled together years ago:
He was withered, drawn; she flamboyant, careless. For things had worked loose after the first year or so; the marriage had turned out rather badly.

Yet Lily immediately goes on to think:
this making up of scenes about them, is what we call "knowing" people, "thinking" of them, "being fond" of them! Not a word of it was true;
she had made it up; but it was what she knew them by all the same.
This sense that what we grasp of people is both a fragment we think we know and yet incomplete and provisional, ("made ...up") is core to Woolf's thought and project. And yet we pigeonhole her all the time: she is, we say definitively, as if we know, a classist snob. When we do so, we can write her off, hate her, place ourselves in a superior position to her. Yet to pigeonhole her this way ironically violates exactly her life project of trying to understand people, leaving intact their layers of complexity so as not to reduce them to merely this or that, good or bad, lovable or detestable.

Woolf was both an insider snob and  an outsider. When she lumps herself with the working people listening to her talk, she is careful to tell the truth. She had spent her life as part of that "immense class" that picked up what education they could, where they could, in her case, mostly, at "home." In the world of education, at a time when women were earning advanced degrees and teaching at prestigious universities, she was largely self taught, with only some university day classes--perhaps more than we earlier knew--behind her, but never a degree that could open doors.  So insider/outsider, elite and not--this makes sense in context, but that is for the next blog.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

On Woolf, Cruelty, Kindness, and Self-Righteousness

In a blog post about the response in the press to Virginia Woolf's suicide, Brainpickings cites the work of scholar Sybil Oldfield to show how one reader, the wife of the Bishop of Lincoln, misrepresented Woolf's anguished suicide letter as Woolf's cowardly inability to face the suffering others were bravely standing up against in the early years of World War II . This was a moment when the frightening possibility of a German invansion loomed large. To self-righteously judge Woolf for her suicide involved either willfully or unconsciously misreading her words. Even after Leonard wrote an outraged letter to The Sunday Times trying to set the record straight by quoting what Woolf actually wrote and explaining its context, the words were still twisted to label her a war shirking coward. The post, which I can't do justice to in summary, is superb and well worth examining in its entirety. If nothing else, it reminds us to carefully read the words people actually write: 

Woolf's suicide note

Brainpickings sums up the situation as follows:

Above all, however, embedded in the media’s treatment of Virginia’s suicide is a grotesque reminder that the only thing more morally repugnant than passing judgment on another human being’s private struggle and inner world — than choosing self-righteousness over compassionate understanding — is doing so publicly, especially as a currency of tabloidism. What a spectacular failing of the awareness that it’s far more rewarding to understand than to be right. One can only hope this awareness has evolved for us, both as a culture and as individuals, since Woolf’s time.

Unfortunately, the note of optimism that rang out in 2014 has become dimmed. 

An Op-Ed  by Paul Krugman  in The New York Times ( to a piece by Adam Serwer in The Atlantic: The Cruelty is the Point, Oct. 3, 2018:

I find convincing Henry Giroux's argument that we in the U.S. live in a "culture of cruelty" and so read Serwer's article with interest. Serwer moves in it from a recent trip he has made to the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. to the cruelty he argues that Trump's followers feel. He first writes of photos of whites proudly posed by the mutilated bodies of lynched black men:

Their cruelty made them feel good, it made them feel proud, it made them feel happy. And it made them feel closer to one another.

He then moves to Trump’s cruelty and  the cruelty of Kavanaugh and his friend laughing over what Kavanaugh was doing to the frightened Christine Blasey Ford. One of Serwer's chief points is that shared cruelty is a bonding mechanism: 

a vehicle for intimacy through contempt. The white men in the lynching photos are smiling not merely because of what they have done, but because they have done it together.

Serwer goes on to say:

Taking joy in that suffering is more human than most would like to admit. Somewhere on the wide spectrum between adolescent teasing and the smiling white men in the lynching photographs are the Trump supporters whose community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.
This isn’t incoherent. It reflects a clear principle: Only the president and his allies, his supporters, and their anointed are entitled to the rights and protections of the law, and if necessary, immunity from it. The rest of us are entitled only to cruelty, by their whim. This is how the powerful have ever kept the powerless divided and in their place, and enriched themselves in the process. 
The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united.

Shared cruelty can bond people, either in exaltation or shame. Nevertheless, while he mentions it--"Once malice is embraced as a virtue, it is impossible to contain"--Serwer largely does not emphasize or unpack the underlying moralism that justifies exulting in cruelty.

As Serwer says, joy in suffering (schadenfreude or perhaps sadism) is not what humans like to admit. Therefore, the implicit assumption that underlies the naked pleasure in cruelty is righteousness. Those proudly photographed by the mutilated corpses of lynching victims would most likely say--and believe--that they were celebrating their part in making the community "safe" again from vicious thugs who deserved everything they got. The lynching in question was not an exercise in group sadism, but an exercise in community justice. 

I remember in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, when I was a religion reporter, the constant drumbeat of Christian right wing radio (now solidly behind Trump)  self-righteously praying not that the U.S. would have a change of heart and refrain from brutally invading another country, but that the Iraqis would see the error of their ways and humbly repent and beg forgiveness for having offended the United States. The not-too-subtle implication was that that if they did not prostrate themselves and do the impossible, such as depose Sadam Hussein, they "deserved" their fate. It was sad, but they had had their "chance," and if they didn't take it they had to learn a hard lesson.

This same mentality seems to permeate the thinking of Trump's most passionate supporters. While I might see it as sheer cruelty to separate a young child (who had no say in coming to this country) from his or her parents, I have heard people say that this is what the parents "deserve" for coming to this country illegally. It is their own fault for bringing their children here, and they--or their innocent children--have to suffer the consequences. It is not our cruelty to their children but their own. 

However, this self-righteousness, if integral to justifying cruelty, does also morph at times into open cruelty: Mrs. Trump's coat as she visited the immigrant children saying "I don't care, do you?" was openly cruel (however it was spun), as is a mocking "boo-hoo" emoticon of a crying figure that was apparently making the rounds in response to the outcry over separating immigrant children and parents.

Self-righteousness permeates the cruelty mind-set: blacks, women, immigrants, the LBGT ... community, have gotten away with "too much" and have to be stopped.  It is not cruelty to do so, the righteous assert, but righting wrongs: tough love, perhaps.

The largely secular wisdom book of Proverbs in the Bible, like its counterpart in the New Testament book of James, has something to say about righteousness: 

Proverbs 12:10 The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.

What this rather curious proverb says to me is that the truly righteous take care of those who can't take care of themselves in a straightforward way, but the wicked pretend that cruelty is kindness. 

Moving back to Woolf, while she seldom uses the word self-righteousness in her writing, condemnation of it permeates her thought. As she writes in The Common Reader,  in the essay “Notes on an Elizabethan Play:” "delightful though it is to indulge in righteous indignation" it is perhaps a feeling we want to avoid. (Perhaps the Bishop of Lincoln's wife should have read this essay?)

What becomes perplexing is tension between the need to take a stand at time when the choice between cruelty and kindness has seldom been more starkly laid out and the need not to become a mirror of the self-righteousness that morphs into a cruelty justified because the other side "deserves" it. It is so easy to be self-righteous on the left these days--and yet that stance, as Woolf might point out, is destructive. As the ship's captain warns Crusoe in Tournier's retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story,  Friday, purity, another form of self-righteousness is "the acid of the soul."  

Tournier, author of Friday

We need, at least imho, to keep focused on caring for the needs for others and trying to bring the systemic change that will right the wrongs done, not on retaliation or righteousness. 

Friday, January 3, 2020

Bride of Northanger, part II, without spoilers

I finished Diana Birchall's The Bride of Northanger, a sequel to Austen's Northanger Abbey, and find myself in the perplexing position of hoping to discuss it without giving away the plot points. Onward we plunge.

We were left at the end of the last post with a possible ghost in the form of the Grey Lady seen floating around the abbey, as well as a possibly poisoned General Tilney. The plot only gets more exciting with a pile up of events that keep the pages turning. We are also offered reunions with familiar characters from Northanger Abbey, including the brother and sister duo we love to hate, John and Isabella Thorpe. Needless to say, they add greatly to the excitement that unfolds in the novel's latter section.

But The Bride of Northanger is also lovely in its quiet moments. Despite all the suitably dramatic events going on at the abbey, Diana takes the time to depict the happy marriage of Henry and Catherine amid the peaceful setting of Woodston, Henry's--and now Catherine's-- parsonage home. Catherine's little sister Sarah comes to visit and admires the "lovely long windows" and the view of the "apple-trees ripening so beautifully." We learn from the narrator that:

the summer weather continued golden and delightful, with the sweet strawberries reddening, and Catherine was in the garden more than half the day, pruning plants, and learning to tell which were weeds.

Clearly, Catherine has more fortitude and realism that Mrs. Elton, who couldn't last half an hour in the Donwell Abbey strawberry patch, though, in Mrs. Elton's defense, she picked there on an exceptionally hot day. Woodston, in any case, is an Edenic contrast to the increasingly troubled Northanger Abbey, though notably in the end, perhaps like Adam and Eve, Henry and Catherine put their shoulders to the grindstone and decide to leave their paradise.

But that is not until many adventures have occurred, including, suitably, a trip to Bath.

The novel revels in Gothic elements Austen clearly enjoyed in her own novel reading, though she also parodied them. There is an edge of gentle parody in this novel too, even while the story is told in a way that fully satisfies the reader's desire for mystery archetypes--a desire that Austen thwarts. I enjoyed this book and can't help but imagine that others will too.