Downhill All The Way
The survivors of the original Bloomsbury group are by any reckoning old. E. M. Forster was eighty-nine on New Year’s Day, Leonard Woolf is eighty-seven, Duncan Grant a mere stripling of eighty-two. Meanwhile the documentation continues. Wilfred Stone’s work on Forster contained a good deal of new material; Quentin Bell is writing a biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf; and Michael Holroyd’s life of Lytton Strachey, due shortly to appear here, sorts out the highly complicated relationships, homo- and heterosexual, in the group in which, so it used to be said, all couples were triangles and lived in squares. Before the field is completely taken over, as inevitably it must be, by learned interpretations of the letters, diaries, and works of the dead, it is worth listening to the last remaining voice of Bloomsbury that is still willing to tell us at first hand what he thought it was all about.
Today Leonard Woolf looks like a papyrus, a brown lean face scored with a multitude of lines. Some notable figures go soft in old age like a medlar: this process is kindly described by their biographers as mellowing. Woolf on the contrary resembles mahogany: he grows tougher with age. He is still very pure, fierce, and uncompromising; impervious to fashion, contemptuous of success, and sardonic about human folly and insensitivity. He remains dedicated to rationality and the ideals of his youth. For him the most important of these ideals was to concern oneself passionately with the problem of what is right and what is wrong. Believing that moral judgments must be analyzed without deference to the customs, conventions, and accepted values of society, he wants to clear out the lumber-room of piety and bigotry and free people’s minds.
Woolf found this ideal as an undergraduate at Cambridge. It is well known how he, Keynes, Strachey, and their circle fell as undergraduates under the spell of G. E. Moore. When in their third year Moore published his Principia Ethica, it seemed to them as if a new revelation in the history of the Enlightenment had suddenly been vouchsafed—if revelations are permitted to rationalists as a means of comprehending wisdom. Two first hand accounts exist of this experience, and they show how Woolf differed from the rest of the circle. Writing about his early beliefs, Keynes said how voraciously he and his friends absorbed Moore’s notions about good states of mind and the pursuit of such states of mind in friendship and the experience of art; but how deliberately they neglected everything that Moore said about moral obligation. “We accepted Moore’s religion, so to speak, and discarded his morals…meaning by ‘religion’ one’s attitude towards oneself and the ultimate and by ‘morals’ one’s attitude to the outside world and the intermediate.’ Woolf in his account said that this was quite untrue. It might have been true ten years later when in London the Bloomsbury group had discovered pleasure. But it was not …