#78 Virginia Woolf – Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid
“One infers that the desire of man for the tortoise, like the desire of the moth for the star, is a constant element in human nature”
I had originally planned to write something about some of the essays describing walks in west and central London (which I admit is a bit parochial of me), but instead I’ve been seized of a tangent.
One of the greatest pleasures of reading is when you find an author has set down an idea you had thought peculiarly yours, and explained it with such facility and grace that you know you have been absolved of all need to spread it. On reading ‘How it strikes the contemporary’ I felt I was about to have just such a moment. She begins by describing two critics in discussion, unable to agree about a recently released book.
“Yet both critics are in agreement about Milton and about Keats. They display an exquisite sensibility and display genuine enthusiasm. It is only when they discuss the work of contemporary writers that they come to blows.”
Yes, I thought to myself, yes. That’s just how it is! We have an almost lockstep appreciation of ‘classics’ with sufficient hindsight, and yet we are unable to identify the real classics of today. I waited eagerly for her to follow this train of thought to the same conclusion as me… but sadly, she fluffed it. She saw it far more as a comment on the nature of literary criticism in her day – and lamented the lack of a Dr Johnson, or a Matthew Arnold to sort gold from trash. But to me, this is drawing the wrong conclusion.
It’s easy to envy the readers of the past. Imagine someone living in 1890s London, able to read Sherlock Holmes for the very first time; or think of the feeling an erudite reader of the twenties must have had to be handed Ulysses. The past seems so orderly, in that respect. Poor us, living in the utter chaos of the present. In the past decade there will have been published perhaps a dozen books that will be rated stand-out classics a century from now. And not one of us could even begin to guess what they might be.
In fact, Woolf illustrates this neatly with a passage of her own about the writers of her own day.
“Yes, it is a lean age, we repeat, with much to justify its poverty; but, frankly, if we pit one century against another the comparison seems overwhelmingly against us… [I]f we ask for masterpieces, where are we to look? A little poetry, we may feel sure, will survive; a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mere. Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness, but hours of something very different. Mr Beerbohm, in his way, is perfect, but it is not a big way… Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe- immense in daring, terrific in disaster.”
To judge by a quick search of Amazon, Walter de la Mere certainly didn’t pass that test. The only book of his reprinted in the past fifteen years is one small anthology of poems. It’s unsporting of me to quote at such length, but it demonstrates the point. I can forgive the silences – who would have predicted that P G Wodehouse would turn out to be the most durable, perfect author in all of English comic fiction; or that Eric Blair would metamorphose into George Orwell? But if a highly attuned, deeply cultured literary figure (an author of Great Ideas, no less) could fail to predict that Ulysses would even be seen as a good book, let alone one of the landmarks of western culture – that says that the game is simply unwinnable.
The fact is that classics are always written in an age just out of reach. It is the exact reverse of women’s fashion – where what is stylish can change dramatically because the clothes are always worn by glamorous people. Classics can only be recognised by those who were not there at the moment of their creation. They must be handed down, from the knowing of one generation to the wide-eyed of the next. Ultimately, we only learn the beauty of great books by forgetting.
My apologies for rambling, in that this is a nice collection of essays, particularly on the art of reading. The pieces about walking in London include some moments described richly, if a little self-consciously. I can think of a lot worse to be trapped in an air raid with.