Virginia Woolf’s Garden, Caroline Zoob
"The author of “Virginia Woolf’s Garden,” Caroline Zoob, lived at Monk’s house for 10 years as a tenant (The National Trust lets the house out to a live-in tenant in exchange for upkeep of the garden and grounds.)"| Permalink
Virginia Woolf in Venice
Here again we must draw a distinction - there is one kind of life for novelists; shall we call it Monday or Tuesday, everyday life that is; another for poets; Saturday or Sunday; the life of contemplation, of dusk and stars. Then again, what meaning do we attach to the word ‘reality’? In what sense is a brothel more real than a pink carnation? Is it not as foolish to limit ‘reality’ to the indecent, and to endow that with superior intensity, as to limit reality to what can be said to Lady Violet Greville at breakfast?
All that we can justly ask whether as reader or writer is that the writer shall have free run of all experience. The harm is done when through suppression, the brothel becomes more real than the carnation - more desirable, more of a luxury…
—VIRGINIA WOOLF, Notes of a Day’s Walk
(A transcript of Virginia Woolf’s typescript ‘Notes of a Days Walk’, a version of ‘The Truth-Tellers’ section of ‘Phases of Fiction’… — Stuart N. Clarke)
"In June 1938 Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, her brave, unwelcomed reflections on the roots of war. Written during the preceding two years, while she and most of her intimates and fellow writers were rapt by the advancing fascist insurrection in Spain, the book was couched as the very tardy reply to a letter from an eminent lawyer in London who had asked, “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” Woolf begins by observing tartly that a truthful dialogue between them may not be possible. For though they belong to the same class, “the educated class,” a vast gulf separates them: the lawyer is a man and she is a woman. Men make war. Men (most men) like war, since for men there is “some glory, some necessity, some satisfaction in fighting” that women (most women) do not feel or enjoy. What does an educated—read: privileged, well-off— woman like her know of war? Can her recoil from its allure be like his?
Let us test this “difficulty of communication,” Woolf proposes, by looking together at images of war. The images are some of the photographs the beleaguered Spanish government has been sending out twice a week; she footnotes: “Written in the winter of 1936-37.” Let’s see, Woolf writes, “whether when we look at the same photographs we feel the same things.” She continues:
This morning’s collection contains the photograph of what might be a man’s body, or a woman’s; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig. But those certainly are dead children, and that undoubtedly is the section of a house. A bomb has torn open the side; there’is still a bird- cage hanging in what was presumably the sitting room…
The quickest, driest way to convey the inner commotion caused by these photographs is by noting that one can’t always make out the subject, so thorough is the ruin of flesh and stone they depict. And from there Woolf speeds to her conclusion. We do have the same responses, “however different the education, the traditions behind us,” she says to the lawyer. Her evidence: both “we”—here women are the “we”—and you might well respond in the same words.
You, Sir, call them “horror and disgust.” We also call them horror and disgust…War, you say, is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped at whatever cost. And we echo your words. War is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped.
Who believes today that war can be abolished? No one, not even pacifists. We hope only (so far in vain) to stop genocide and to bring to justice those who commit gross violations of the laws of war (for there are laws of war, to which combatants should be held), and to be able to stop specific wars by imposing negotiated alternatives to armed conflict. It may be hard to credit the desperate resolve produced by the aftershock of the First World War, when the realization of the ruin Europe had brought on itself took hold. Condemning war as such did not seem so futile or irrelevant in the wake of the paper fantasies of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, in which fifteen leading nations, including the United States, France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and Japan, solemnly renounced war as an instrument of national policy; even Freud and Einstein were drawn into the debate with a public exchange of letters in1932 titled “Why War?” Woolf’s Three Guineas, appearing toward the close of nearly two decades of plangent denunciations of war, offered the originality (which made this the least well received of all her books) of focusing on what was regarded as too obvious or inapposite to be mentioned, much less brooded over: that war is a man’s game—that the killing machine has a gender, and it is male. Nevertheless, the temerity of Woolf’s version of “Why War?” does not make her revulsion against war any less conventional in its rhetoric, in its summations, rich in repeated phrases. And photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.
Invoking this hypothetical shared experience (“we are seeing with you the same dead bodies, the same ruined houses”), Woolf professes to believe that the shock of such pictures cannot fail to unite people of good will. Does it? To be sure, Woolf and the unnamed addressee of this book-length letter are not any two people. Although they are separated by the age-old affinities of feeling and practice of their respective sexes, as Woolf has reminded him, the lawyer is hardly a standard-issue bellicose male. His antiwar opinions are no more in doubt than are hers. After all, his question was not, What are your thoughts about preventing war? It was, How in your opinion are we to prevent war?
It is this “we” that Woolf challenges at the start of her book: she refuses to allow her interlocutor to take a “we” for granted. But into this “we,” after the pages devoted to the feminist point, she then subsides.
No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.
WHO ARE THE “WE” at whom such shock-pictures are aimed? That “we” would include not just the sympathizers of a smallish nation or a stateless people fighting for its life, but—a far larger constituency—those only nominally concerned about some nasty war taking place in another country. The photographs are a means of making “real” (or “more real”) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore.
"Here then on the table before us are photographs," Woolf writes of the thought experiment she is proposing to the reader as well as to the spectral lawyer, who is eminent enough, as she mentions, to have K.C., King’s Counsel, after his name—and may or may not be a real person. Imagine then a spread of loose photographs extracted from an envelope that arrived in the morning post. They show the mangled bodies of adults and children. They show how war evacuates, shatters, breaks apart, levels the built world. ‘A bomb has torn open the side," Woolf writes of the house in one of the pictures. To be sure, a cityscape is not made of flesh. Still, sheared-off buildings are almost as eloquent as bodies in the street. (Kabul, Sarajevo, East Mostar, Grozny, sixteen acres of lower Manhattan after September n, 2001, the refugee camp in Jenin …) Look, the photographs say, this is what it’s like. This is what war does. And that, that is what it does, too. War tears, rends. War rips open, eviscerates. War scorches. War dismembers. War ruins.
Not to be pained by these pictures, not to recoil from them, not to strive to abolish what causes this havoc, this carnage—these, for Woolf, would be the reactions of a moral monster. And, she is saying, we are not monsters, we members of the educated class. Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy: we have failed to hold this reality in mind.
But is it true that these photographs, documenting the slaughter of noncombatants rather than the clash of armies, could only stimulate the repudiation of war? Surely they could also foster greater militancy on behalf of the Republic. Isn’t this what they were meant to do? The agreement between Woolf and the lawyer seems entirely presumptive, with the grisly photographs confirming an opinion already held in common. Had the question been, How can we best contribute to the defense of the Spanish Republic against the forces of militarist and clerical fascism?, the photographs might instead have reinforced their belief in the justness of that struggle.
The pictures Woolf has conjured up do not in fact show what war, war as such, does. They show a particular way of waging war, a way at that time routinely described as “barbaric,” in which civilians are the target. General Franco was using the same tactics of bombardment, massacre, torture, and the killing and mutilation of prisoners that he had perfected as a commanding officer in Morocco in the 1920s. Then, more acceptably to ruling powers, his victims had been Spain’s colonial subjects, darker-hued and infidels to boot; now his victims were compatriots. To read in the pictures, as Woolf does, only what confirms a general abhorrence of war is to stand back from an engagement with Spain as a country with a history. It is to dismiss politics.”
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others