Friday, November 24, 2006

admirable men

Drama dislikes the constant lover. The Bhudda's Middle Way is boring. Beatrice and Benedick delight and what adjective serves for Hero and Claudio? Insipid, right? It's a commonplace that Paradise Lost presents Lucifer as hero (though in this Milton's motives are debatable).

I'm doing dissertation research on an admirable man: publicist, literary agent, and friend to Britain's 17th-century mathematical geniuses.

The new biography of Leonard Woolf makes clear he was another such: friend of the famous and self-denying spouse of the most famous of all, she who credited his steadfast care with keeping her alive decades longer than she expected to last.

The author makes plain he was a soul-companion -- as well as friend -- to Isaiah Berlin: both of them unapologetic spokesmen for civilization -- as she says, defending "the Enlightenment virtues of reason, tolerance, and decency."

Both of them Jews in the snobbish and flippantly-antisemetic ambience of the interwar OxBridge generation of selfconsciously lost children.

The book is Leonard Woolf: A Biography, By Victoria Glendinning

The New York Sun has the review that caught my eye:

The Constant Husband, by Adam Kirsch.

Kirsch shows how Leonard Woolf endured
all the ambivalence associated with being a Jew in snobbish Bloomsbury. His brilliant, privileged friends were not deeply anti-Semitic, or they would not have made him so intimate a part of their lives. But part of the Bloomsbury style was a heartless snobbery that often took the form of anti-Semitism (along with other kinds of racism). A typical instance came when Vita Sackville-West complained that Leonard could be "tiresome and wrongheaded and sometimes Jewish." Virginia Woolf herself never for an instant forgot her husband's Jewishness, and she could be disgustingly nasty about his family, from whom she effectively isolated him.
Virginia was airily dismissive of Isaiah Berlin in this same heartless manner. She'd heard that he was "Oxford's leading light; a communist, I think, a fire-eater." But though he sought her out during an Oxford banquet they both attended, she paid him no heed. To one correspondent she depicted him as "a Portuguese Jew by the look of him," and to another: "I never realised which of [the guests] Mr Berlin was, but had to piece him together from descriptions afterwards." I wrote about this non-encounter last January: Prufrock at New College, Nov 30, 1933.

Woolf, like Berlin, made himself vaguely unpopular during the interwar era of Fascism by criticising the Soviet brand of totolitarianism no less than the German one. And both were unfailingly generous and kind. Of Leonard, Kirsch says 'Angela Graham, the wife of a Virginia Woolf scholar who barely knew Leonard, kept his photograph on her desk, and confided,"I used to write to you when I felt particularly isolated and confused ... these weren't letters for mailing — just letters for healing."'

John Collins, the subject of my dissertation research was similarly attentive, patient, persevering, and content play a supporting role in the great drama of cultural advancement.

A Middle-Way indeed. Unexciting. And like Zen Bhuddism, infused with a latent drama, if examined closely enough. For Leonard Woolf lived by the motto "Nothing Matters" by which he meant not only the obvious: that we are made of matter; we are controlled by laws of nature and not by any higher being. He also meant, with Democritus, Bhudda, and Samuel Beckett, that our consciousness is supremely important to us and its opposite "nothing" -- absence of all -- can be no less so. It is our triumph that we know ourselves to exist and our tragedy that we have no spiritual destiny.

This hard knowledge can make for hedonism, abandonment of moral values. But in Leonard Woolf it made for a loving servant. Why? One wonders why.


The many reviews of Glendinning's biography succomb to the painfully obvious. So The Times (of London) gives us A life of one's own, FT has Not afraid of Virginia, a rag in Camden NJ has Who’s ever heard of Mr Virginia Woolf?, and the Telegraph (less imaginatively) Out of the shadow cast by his wife. Oddly the New Yorker contents itself with VILLAGE SCRIBE. Cheers to The New Statesman and The Guardian for Nothing matters and Nothing matters, and everything matters, respectively.

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