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 true when they were young. In those days they argued intensely about the consequences of actions, and Woolf was not thought odd among the Apostles to ask what part those who sought the good life ought to play in politics. How could it have been otherwise when they were as students ardent Dreyfusards, a case which to them symbolized the forces of good and evil in public life? Woolf was the only member of the group to spend his life in politics and in the direct sense to remain faithful to Moore’s fifth chapter.
KEYNES CALLED WOOLF with a faint smile of affectionate disdain a rabbi. The description is misleading. Woolf did not follow one notable part of the rabbinical tradition. He did not take simple rules of conduct and then refine their definition so as to distinguish between different kinds of right and wrong actions. In Christian terms he was not a casuist. He preferred to make clear scorching judgments even if they were bound to be simple and limited. Compared to him Keynes was an intellectual of easy virtue ready to be seduced by the beau monde or by Whitehall. Keynes preserved his integrity in the manner of the classic courtesans by exposing his ruling-class clients to his powers of ridicule and, if marriage was proposed, retiring provocatively back to the demimonde of the intelligentsia. But Woolf could never, like Keynes, have written “I have never in my life been able to resist a Cecil.”
Woolf has never had any difficulty in resisting Cecils. Not that he was a recluse. Although he had to protect Virginia from overstraining herself and bringing on another attack of the manic-depressive disease from which she suffered, he went to his fair share of Bloomsbury frivolities and knew everyone on the Left in politics. He can hit off a person in a sentence and often reveal a great deal of himself in the process. Writing about Cyril Joad, a professor of philosophy in London University’s night-school who made a national reputation for himself on the radio during the war as a moralist until he was arrested on the charge of having evaded paying for his railway ticket, Woolf observed: “Cyril was a curious character; high-minded, loose-living and loose thinking…. He was one of those people whom I dislike when I do not see them and rather like when I do see them. He was in fact a selfish, quick-witted, amusing, intellectual scallywag.” Despite his sharp opinions, he is remarkably charitable in his judgments of people—even of politicians. The only people for whom he never mitigates his contempt are the bien-pensants and the clergy.
Despite the title of his latest volume of autobiography Woolf does not repeat the well-worn story of despair which intellectuals felt at the collapse of the League of Nations and the march of Hitler. Between the wars he spent his time doing many of the things that intellectuals enjoy doing. He edited the International Review, was for seven years literary editor of the Nation, and in 1931 became joint editor of the Political Quarterly. He and Virginia founded the Hogarth Press, an avant-garde publishing house which printed Eliot’s poetry and brought out a host of young writers. They brought and sold period houses and wrote for the weeklies.
Unlike most intellectuals, however, Woolf is a tough, shrewd, businessman, and none of his personal ventures failed. An eager young man who came to the Hogarth Press agog at the thought of bringing out revolutionary literary works might indeed find himself setting up the type for a book of Nancy Cunard’s poetry, but most of the time he was tying up parcels with string and earning an office-boy’s wage. Woolf knew how to work young men hard and get rid of them if they didn’t. He knew how to keep his overheads low. He set the example in his own overhead. Nothing is more typical of Woolf than the way he sets out in this book his personal accounts. He and Virginia had a gross income in 1924 of £1,047 which had risen by 1938 to£2,462. During those years their personal expenditures rose from £826 to only £1,116. They saved some £16,000 into which they occasionally used to dip for a new dress or a new car. Since then Woolf has displayed a formidable ability to get the top price for his literary possessions, such as Virginia’s manuscripts.
There is a lot about money in this book. But what does it mean? He is palpably not an inhabitant of Weber’s acquisitive society. Still less for one so austere (though not mean) in his spending habits is he the conspicuous consumer, conspicuous drone, or conspicuous waster in Veblen’s world. Woolf is totally uninterested in what money will buy. In his early days as a writer he refused offers from American agents which could eventually have enabled him to make a small literary fortune. What then does he find satisfying in his business transactions?
THE CLUE is his passion for justice and his contempt for sentimentality. The justice he demanded for colonial peoples he demanded no less for himself. He took pride in showing that an intellectual need not by definition be incompetent in running the kind of business which intellectuals all too often expect foundations or financiers to bale them out of because of their incompetently budgeted schemes. But this did not mean that profit was to be regarded as an end in itself. It had to be geared to the objective. If the objective was to publish a left-wing periodical on politics, there was no point in trying to increase the profits if that meant blurring its purpose and nullifying the objective. On the other hand, when Woolf got an opportunity to get better sales and production facilities for the Political Quarterly, while ensuring that its character was safeguarded, he did not hesitate to take it to the Thomson organization and abandon the Turnstile Press which prints the New Statesman and had seen his periodical through many lean years.
Woolf had to be tough because for thirty years he was active in Labour politics—an activity which none of his Bloomsbury friends had much sympathy with. He was secretary of two of the party’s advisory committees, an active Fabian, an attender of meetings in sweaty committee rooms, working with the narrow, single-minded, fervent trade unionists. In those days the gap between the intellectuals and the trade unionists was wide, but Woolf had no difficulty in getting on with them as they were often more to his liking than the intellectuals. Labour was never in power and rarely in office; and when they were he saw the policies which he had hammered out disregarded. He tells how he implored Sidney Webb, when he was Colonial Secretary, to reverse the Conservative policy of spending all the funds for education in East Africa on the whites and virtually none on Africans; and how Webb refused, for he was as completely under the control of the civil servants as any Tory minister.
He would have liked to have written a memorable book on politics. He tried to do so. He published three volumes of a work which he eventually called Principia Politica and had planned two more, when at the age of seventy-three he was told on all sides that it was a failure. “No one likes,” he writes, “to spend 23 years of his life and nearly 300,000 words on something which is invisible to a Fellow of All Souls’ or Magdalen.” It is a study in what Woolf called communal psychology and attempts to explain how national policy, ending as it often does in war, is molded by the nation’s ideology. It is a direct descendant of the last chapters of Mill’s System of Logic and is written as if Marx, Weber, and Durkheim had not revolutionized sociology when Woolf was young. But as the Fellows of All Souls’ and Magdalen had done their best for years to prevent the study of sociology at Oxford it was hardly for them to tell Woolf where he got off.
Woolf gazes dispassionately on this minor calamity and tells us that he does not grieve. Authors are foolish to be depressed when their works are ill-received: indeed Virginia Woolf’s despair and venom when reviews were bad puzzles him because books are as mortal as human beings. This is one of several instances where I find Woolf’s “rational” commentaries on life odd. Is he saying that it is foolish to wish like Horace to leave behind a monument more durable than brass? Is not the artist’s despair, which is carved on Keats’s tombstone, inseparable from the creation of works of art? Yet perhaps this is no more than the old Victorian distrust of any emotion which ends in a waste of spirit and deflects man from his true end. And what is that? True to the ideals of his youth Woolf would argue that it is to diminish human suffering and improve man’s lot through political action. But it is perfectly clear that intimate friends are infinitely more important to him than public affairs, his dogs and pets to parties or acquaintances, and truthfulness to political debate.