March 21, 2011
As some of you know, I've been reading up on Virginia Woolf lately and learning a bit more about her than I knew before, mainly through Hermione Lee's fine biography. I have liked Virginia Woolf -- the person and her writings -- for some time now and as I grow older I find myself liking her even more. One reason is that she was courageous enough not to give way to public sentimentality when she found no echo of it in her heart. I've tried to exercise the same discipline on myself and may have succeeded to a degree but not as much as she did.
A point she was never hesitant about was the supposed grandeur of the common people -- whomever they might be defined to be. She didn't find them grand at all. Her political sentiments were always supportive of doing things to ease the hardships of the majority but that never meant she pretended to share their tastes or their values.
Here, for example, is part of a letter she wrote to her sister Vanessa in May, 1926:
I have just traveled Kensington High Street -- which almost made me vomit with hatred of the human race. Innumerable women of incredible mediocrity, drab as dishwater, wash up and down like dirty papers against Barkers and Derry and Toms.
You could exclaim, if you wished, "What a snob!" But you could also applaud the honesty, which is what I choose to do. I sometimes think that the principal worth of novelists -- if they are serious -- is they have to force themselves to tell the truth about what they see and feel.
Making a fetish of "the people" may well have damaged more actual people than any other foolish sentimentality. It encourages hideous indulgences which collectively beat us all down.
A friend recently admonished me -- gently -- for not trying hard enough to sympathize with the pride many people feel about their young relatives who go off to "fight for freedom" in foreign fields. I think I understand the pride, and what manufactures it. But that doesn't mean I'm going to have a soft sport in my heart for something I regard as little more than unconsciously bowing down to manipulation. Why should I? The genuine friends of those young people are those who want to get them out of places where they're going to kill and be killed, and rescue them from the incessant brainwashing they are bathed in every day. Then they can come home, and kiss girls, and have babies, and drink beer with their friends, and watch baseball games. They might even read a book, now and then, as they get older. Isn't that better than having their legs blown off or having their brains permanently addled by exploding bombs? People who glory in human sacrifice are not significantly different from the guys who some time ago plunged daggers into the hearts of virgins to appease the gods.
I have been reading recently about James Fishkin, a professor of communications at Stanford, who has been conducting experiments to find out how people's opinions change as they become better informed about an issue. And guess what? They change radically. In other words, opinion is tied very closely to knowledge, and it seems to be the case that if people knew what they were talking about minority opinions would rapidly gain majority support.
It may be that the most rancid arguments in American politics arise not as much from differences in values as they do from differences in knowledge. That being the case, you might think the people would be eager to acquire knowledge. That, however, seems not to be the case. Why Americans are not as avid for knowledge as the citizens of other Western democracies is our most perplexing national mystery.
The point is that the people's indifference to knowledge is not an endearing trait. I don't care how quaint they are in their ignorance, or how humorous, the fact of it remains a blight on the nation. Individuals are hurt every day, and lose their lives every day, because of the people's propensity for ignorance. Many persons are hurt by other things too -- greed, maniacal lust for power, childish militarism, resentment flowing from masked feelings of inferiority. But ignorance plays its part; it is not cute, or sweet, or innocent. And since it marks too many of us, we ought not to get in the habit of worshipping ourselves. We are not as grand as we think we are, and certainly not as grand as the politicians, and the mainstream media, tell us we are -- for their own benefit.
An astringency of the sort practiced by Virginia Woolf, especially about popular prejudices, is healthy, refreshing, and socially beneficial. It may seem harsh, at times, but harshness is seldom untoward when it comes to self-adulation.
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