Here and there – Mrs Dalloway


Virginia Woolf

Grafton Books, 1976.

Virginia Woolf was very bright but she led a very tough life, which she ended herself.  How much of her found its way into Mrs Dalloway?

Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct, she thought, walking on. If you put her in a room with some one, up went her back like a cat’s; or she purred. Devonshire House, Bath House, the house with the china cockatoo, she had seen them all lit up once; and remembered Sylvia, Fred, Sally Seton — such hosts of people; and dancing all night; and the waggons plodding past to market; and driving home across the Park. She remembered once throwing a shilling into the Serpentine. But every one remembered; what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?

Reading Virginia Woolf is like reading poetry in prose – the stream of consciousness of Joyce wrought by the acrid chisel of T S Eliot.  This book came out in 1925.  (Ulysses and The Waste Land were both published in 1922.)  All three flourished at the same time, although hardly with a hymn to happiness.

A car carrying a very important person behind blinds passes before Mrs Dalloway and her florist on the day she is giving a party.

Gliding across Piccadilly, the car turned down St. James’s Street. Tall men, men of robust physique, well-dressed men with their tail-coats and their white slips and their hair raked back who, for reasons difficult to discriminate, were standing in the bow window of Brooks’s with their hands behind the tails of their coats, looking out, perceived instinctively that greatness was passing, and the pale light of the immortal presence fell upon them as it had fallen upon Clarissa Dalloway. At once they stood even straighter, and removed their hands, and seemed ready to attend their Sovereign, if need be, to the cannon’s mouth, as their ancestors had done before them. The white busts and the little tables in the background covered with copies of the Tatler and syphons of soda water seemed to approve; seemed to indicate the flowing corn and the manor houses of England; and to return the frail hum of the motor wheels as the walls of a whispering gallery return a single voice expanded and made sonorous by the might of a whole cathedral. Shawled Moll Pratt with her flowers on the pavement wished the dear boy well (it was the Prince of Wales for certain) and would have tossed the price of a pot of beer — a bunch of roses — into St. James’s Street out of sheer light-heartedness and contempt of poverty had she not seen the constable’s eye upon her, discouraging an old Irishwoman’s loyalty. The sentries at St. James’s saluted; Queen Alexandra’s policeman approved.

My edition has White’s, not Brooks’s.  No matter – any writer who knows either knows the English upper class.  I have never been invited to either (and an American spell-check questioned this rendition of the latter.)

This is a curious novel.  It is a sustained meditation on the state of England after the Great War.  We see the nation through the eyes of many people other than Mrs Dalloway – whose lot does not appear to be any more happy or defined than that of her nation.

The author may or may not have been assured socially, but she was not shy politically.  The ‘rights of women’ (‘that antediluvian topic’) were right in vogue just then. I remarked elsewhere on the consequences of the German execution of Edith Cavell.

Now, here you had a hero, a real hero, the kind of hero that a nation can sustain its faith on.  It was open to the Germans to say to Edith Cavell that if it was good enough for you to aid our enemy then it is good enough for you to be executed under the laws of war.  So could the women of England say to their government that if it is good enough for us to die to see that the country is run properly, it is good enough for us to vote to see that the country is run properly?  That argument is unanswerable; it was unanswerable even by those inbred fops out of Eton who had been sheltered from girls by mummy and daddy, but to whom exclusion came naturally, and who believed that old fairy tale about the battle of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton. 

That aside, it was the girls who armed the nation.  In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf said:

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

This book is great read, but it can be dense as well as dark, and I was reminded that someone said of Paradise Lost that no one ever wished that it was longer.  And is it possible to be a little too clever?  Sensible lawyers say that it is.


Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880

Folio Society, 1964; bound in illustrated boards with slipcase; drawings by Nigel Lambourne

Wagner and Dostoevsky had a lot in common.  Neither was ever at risk of underestimating his own genius, and the behaviour of neither improved as result.  Both were prone to go over the top.  You can find forests of exclamation marks in the writings of both.  And both could and did bang on for far too long for some of us.  They both badly needed an editor. But if you persist with either of these men of genius, you will come across art of a kind that you will not find elsewhere.  The Brothers Karamazov, is a case in point. In my view, it could be improved by being halved – but you would be at risk of abandoning diamonds.

The most famous part of the novel comes with a sustained conversation between two brothers, Alyosha, who is of a saintly and God-fearing disposition, and Ivan, who is of a questing and God-doubting outlook.  The conversation comes in Part 2, Book 5, chapters 4 and 5, Rebellion and The Grand Inquisitor.

Ivan gets under way with ‘I must make a confession to you.  I never could understand how one can love one’s neighbours.’  The author probably knew that Tolstoy had written a book that asserted that the failure of civilisation derived from our failure to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount.   We are familiar with Ivan’s biggest problem.

And, indeed, people sometimes speak of man’s ‘bestial’ cruelty, but this is very unfair and insulting to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so ingeniously, so artistically cruel.  A tiger merely gnaws and tears to pieces, that’s all he knows.  It would never occur to him to nail men’s ears to a fence and leave them like that overnight, even if he were able to do it ….The most direct and spontaneous pastime we have is the infliction of pain by beating.

Well, that attitude is not completely dead in Russia.  Ivan is objecting to the unfairness, and the random nature, of cruelty, and he comes up with a phrase that so moved Manning Clark.

Surely the reason for my suffering was not that I as well as my evil deeds and sufferings may serve as manure for some future harmony for someone else.  I want to see with my own eyes the lion lay down with the lamb and the murdered man rise up and embrace his murderer.  I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it has all been for.  All religions on earth are based on this desire, and I am a believer…I don’t want any more suffering.  And if the sufferings of children go to make up the sum of sufferings which is necessary for the purchase of truth, then I say beforehand that the entire truth is not worth such a price….Too high a price has been placed on harmony.  We cannot afford to pay so much for admission.  And therefore I hasten to return my ticket….It’s not God that I do not accept, Alyosha.  I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.

That is very strong stuff.  There may be answers, but Alyosha doesn’t have them.

‘This is rebellion,’ Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.

‘Rebellion?  I’m sorry to hear you say that, said Ivan with feeling.  One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live.  Tell me straight out, I call on you –imagine me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?  Tell me the truth.’

‘No I wouldn’t said Alyosha softly.

Nor would any other sane person.  So much for rebellion – now for the Grand Inquisitor.  Ivan said he wrote a long poem about this functionary.  He had set it in Spain during the Inquisition.

The Cardinal is very old, but in fine fettle.  He has just supervised the public execution by fire of nearly one hundred heretics.  But his peace is disturbed by the arrival of a holy man.  ‘In his infinite mercy he once more walked among men in the semblance of man as he had walked among men for thirty-three years fifteen centuries ago.’  The crowd loves him.  A mourning mother says ‘If it is you, raise my child from the dead.’  The only words he utters are in Aramaic, ‘Talitha cumi’ – ‘and the damsel arose’.  And she does, and looks round with ‘her smiling wide-open eyes.’  The crowd looks on in wonder, but the eyes of the Cardinal ‘flash with ominous fire.’

He knits his grey, beetling brows….and stretches forth his finger and commands the guards to seize HIM.  And so great is his power and so accustomed are the people to obey him, so humble and submissive are they to his will, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and amid the death-like hush that descends upon the square, they lay hands upon HIM, and lead him away.

That sounds like the Saint Matthew Passion – doubtless, deliberately so.  The Cardinal visits the prisoner in the cells.  ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’

Do not answer, be silent.  And, indeed, what can you say?  I know too well what you would say.  Besides, you have no right to add anything to what you have already said in the days of old.  Why then did you come to meddle with us?  For you have come to meddle with us and you know it……Tomorrow, I shall condemn you and burn you at the stake as the vilest of heretics, and the same people who today kissed your feet will at the first sign from me rush to take up the coals at your stake tomorrow.

Ivan, brought up in Orthodoxy, explains that that in his view the fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism is that ‘Everything has been handed over by you to the Pope, and therefore everything now is in the Pope’s hands, and there’s no need for you to come at all now – at any rate, do not interfere for the time being’.  Ivan thinks this is the Jesuit view.  The Cardinal went on.

It is only now – during the Inquisition – that it has become possible for the first time to think of the happiness of men.  Man is born a rebel, and can rebels be happy?  You were warned.  There has been no lack of warnings, but you did not heed them.  You rejected the only way by which men might be made happy, but fortunately in departing, you handed on the work to us.

Then comes the bell-ringer.

You want to go into the world and you are going empty-handed, with some promise of freedom, which men in their simplicity and innate lawlessness cannot even comprehend – for nothing has ever been more unendurable to man and to human society than freedom!….Man, so long as he remains free has no more constant and agonising anxiety than to find as quickly as possible someone to worship.  But man seeks to worship only what is incontestable, so incontestable indeed, that all men at once agree to worship it all together….It is this need for universal worship that is the chief torment of every man individually and of mankind as a whole from the beginning of time…

Ivan comes again to the problem of freedom which is discussed in conjunction with the three temptations of Christ.  It’s as if the Church has succumbed to the third temptation and assumed all power over the world.

There is nothing more alluring to man than this freedom of conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either.  And instead of firm foundations for appeasing man’s conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was exceptional, enigmatic, and vague, you chose everything that was beyond the strength of men, acting consequently, as though you did not love them at all…You wanted man’s free love so that he would follow you freely, fascinated and captivated by you…..But did it never occur to you that he would at last reject and call in question even your image and your truth, if he were weighed down by so fearful a burden as freedom of choice?….You did not know that as soon as man rejected miracles, he would at once reject God as well, for what man seeks is not so much God as miracles.  And since man is unable to carry on without a miracle, he will create new miracles for himself, miracles of his own, and will worship the miracle of the witch-doctor and the sorcery of the wise woman, rebel, heretic, and infidel though he is a hundred times over…

How will it end?

But the flock will be gathered together again and will submit once more, and this time it will be for good.  Then we shall give them quiet humble happiness, the happiness of weak creatures, such as they were created.  We shall at last persuade them not to be proud….We shall prove to them that they are weak, that they are mere pitiable children, but that the happiness of a child is the sweetest of all ….The most tormenting secrets of their conscience – everything, everything they shall bring to us, and we shall give them our decision, because it will relieve them of their great anxiety and of their present terrible torments of coming to a free decision themselves.  And they will all be happy, all the millions of creatures, except the hundred thousand who rule over them.  For we alone, we who guard the mystery, we alone shall be unhappy.

The Grand Inquisitor does not believe in God.

A swipe at one church by an adherent of another?  A reprise of the fascism latent in Plato’s Republic?  A bitter denunciation of the Russian hunger for dominance by a strong man like Putin?  A frightful preview of 1984?  It could be some of all of those things, but it is writing of shocking power that gives slashing insights into the human condition.  It is for just that reason that we go to the great writers.  They may not have the answer, but they ask the big questions.

Passing Bull 272– Jefferson’s Bible

Thomas Jefferson prepared a version of the gospels that was confined to what Jesus was said to have said and uncontroversial allegations of fact – no divine participation or miracles.  He had been much affected by the writings of Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke.  Here are three extracts that fairly state some of my difficulties in part with scripture but more in what the clergy have done since with that scripture, Greek philosophy, and large imaginations – like the Trinity (which, in common with Newton, Jefferson, and Keynes I could never understand).

There are gross defects, and palpable falsehoods, in almost every page of scriptures and the whole tenor of them is such as no man who acknowledges a supreme, all-perfect being, can believe it to be his word.


If the redemption be the main fundamental article of the Christian faith, sure I am that the account of the fall of man is the foundation of this fundamental article.  And this account is, in all its circumstances, absolutely irreconcilable to every idea we can frame of wisdom, justice, and goodness. 


Can any man now presume to say that the god of Moses, or the God of Paul, is an amiable being?  The god of the first is partial, unjust and cruel; delights in blood, commands assassinations, massacres, and even exterminations of people.  The god of the second elects some of his creatures to salvation, and predestinates others to damnation, even in the womb of their mothers. 

Jefferson said:

….I am a real Christian, that is to say a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists [followers of Plato, the Greek philosopher after Socrates] who call me infidel, and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogma’s from what its Author never said nor saw.

I do not know the answer to that last clause. In my view, the notion of original sin is as objectionable as that of predestination.  Since we know that the events in Genesis could not have occurred as alleged, why don’t we take our myths from Richard Wagner? 

Finally, the U S claims God.  Where does he stand with their current horror?

Passing Bull 271– Identity politics – says Alice

People who call themselves ‘conservative’ are wont to say that what they call ‘identity politics’ is bad for us politically – that is, they say that people who practice identity politics are damaging the way our democracy operates.  I have not understood what they mean by ‘identity politics’ or how such behaviour causes us harm.

The term is defined in Wikipedia as follows.

Identity politics is a term that describes a political approach wherein people of a particular gender, religionracesocial backgroundclass or other identifying factors, develop political agendas that are based upon theoretical interlocking systems of oppression that may affect their lives and come from their various identities.  Contemporary applications of identity politics describe peoples of specific race, ethnicity, sex, gender identitysexual orientation, age, economic class, disability status, education, religion, language, profession, political party, veteran status, and geographic location.  These identity labels are not mutually exclusive but are in many cases compounded into one when describing hyper-specific groups, a concept known as intersectionality.  An example is that of African-Americanhomosexualdemi-boys with Body integrity dysphoria, who constitute a particular hyper-specific identity class.

There appear to be three characteristics: (1) shared political beliefs; (2) a shared sense of grievance that members of this group are unfairly treated or of aspiration that they may be better treated; and (3) something other than their shared political belief that sets them apart – such as race, age, sex, faith or sexuality.  The sense of grievance – point (2) –is what drives those of a shared belief – point (1) – to become politically active.  But those two factors are indistinguishable from what drives the members of the two parties that are the foundation of our parliamentary democracy.  They also underlie trade unions and feminist groups – or our system of class actions.  You might turn your nose up at that, but more than twenty years ago, a lecturer at Harvard said these accounted for most of the progress in civil rights in the past half century.  So, people with just the first two characteristics are not just harmless, but essential parts of our body politic.  And that is before you even get to career ideologues – like the IPA or the devout relics of the DLP on The Australian.

That raises two questions: How does this kind action become bad just because the members of the group have something in common apart from their shared belief?  And, who says so? 

The Prime Minister says ‘identity politics’ are dangerous.  ‘Throughout history, we’ve seen what happens when people are defined solely by the group they belong to, or an attribute they have, or an identity they possess.’  He said this while identifying with the life and teaching of a Jewish son of a carpenter and a group whose presence is as mystical as that of the Trinity – ‘quiet Australians.’  Well, if people are not just free to but encouraged to see that their political aspirations are met, what does it matter if in addition to their shared beliefs, they have in common that they are black, white, female, hungry, desperate, exiled, Catholic, Muslim, atheist, deist, physically or mentally handicapped, wine growers, sheep farmers, trade union members, returned service men or women, the filthy rich or desperately poor? 

And if the PM’s escape valve is the word ‘solely’ in the passage quoted – so that he is talking about only those who define themselves ‘solely by the group they belong to, or an attribute they have, or an identity they possess’ – then he is confessing to another straw man.  Such people are away with the birds – or, better, with Alice in Wonderland.  When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’  ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’  ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’ 

And while you are at it, you might wonder how you might go if after take-off for London, you are sipping on your Scotch, and the man in the next seat puts down his bible and says ‘Would you excuse me for not joining you?  You see, I am a Pentacontelist.  May I ask what identity you possess?’

It’s like that time we said we would jail any Australian trying to come home – remember our other anthem ‘I still call Australia home’?  This was thought to be a far too literal reprise on the First Fleet, which might impair the natives’ enjoyment of Australia day, so we then said that no bastard would be silly enough to believe us.  And that’s like what another dude said – fair suck of the sauce bottle, Mate.  Twice. 

No – all this blather about identity politics is bullshit – brought to us by the usual suspects.

Here and there – Foreign policy in Hamlet

The commentary on Hamlet is oceanic, but very little of it touches on foreign policy issues which this playwright thought were worth putting into what has become his most famous play

In the beginning, we are told that Fortinbras (‘strong arm’) of Norway, from an excess of pride, had challenged the king of Denmark to combat – just one on one it seems – with the winner taking some territory of the loser.  This compact was made to have the force of law.  King Hamlet of Denmark killed Fortinbras and occupied the territory that then became forfeit to Denmark. 

Now, at the start of the play, the son of Fortinbras, also called Fortinbras, has formed an army with a view to recovering the lands lost by his father.  This would look to us to be an unjustified war of aggression.  In response, Denmark is arming itself with arms forged at home or bought from abroad.  (We know that Danes go to Germany or Paris and stay there for some time to further their careers – as we would call it.)  The present king of Denmark sends envoys to Norway to ask the uncle of Fortinbras to call the young Fortinbras off.  That uncle is ‘impotent and bedrid’ and had thought that Fortinbras was getting ready to attack Poland.  But after listening to the Danish envoys, the uncle gets young Fortinbras to vow never to attack Denmark.  Instead, he is to use his aggression against Poland.  (It was not the first time and would not be the last time than Poland got caught between two warlike states.)  The envoys return to Claudius with this news and a request from Fortinbras for permission to be able to cross over parts of Denmark for the purpose of enabling them to attack Poland. 

Then Claudius is troubled by the apparent madness of Hamlet – a loose cannon is the last thing this fratricide needs at home in Elsinore – and he resolves to send Hamlet ‘with speed to England for the demand of our neglected tribute.’  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have in effect being spying on Hamlet at the request of Claudius.  They will accompany Hamlet to England.  It is a form of undeclared house arrest – and Hamlet puts no trust in either of them. 

After Hamlet kills the courtier Polonius, Claudius thinks that he could have been the victim – and so does Hamlet.  Claudius then asks England to kill Hamlet – without apparently telling the two envoys going with Hamlet.  The soliloquy Claudius gives about this speaks of England with ‘free awe’ that ‘pays homage to us’, and implores England not to ‘coldly set our sovereign process’.  Well, whatever may have been the kind of submission that the author contemplated between England and Denmark, it could hardly require England to commit murder at the mere request of the Danish king – not least when the proposed victim is the son of the queen and the heir to the throne.  (Despatching a couple of courtiers would be another matter.)

The connections to Norway and England come together when Hamlet, en route to England with the two courtiers, runs into the army of Fortinbras.  He seeks the promised licence to cross Denmark to confront Poland ‘to gain a little patch of ground’ not worth five ducats.  Hamlet is ashamed that this young Norwegian prince is going to war on a point of honour, while he weakly vacillates about avenging the murder of his father.

Hamlet discovers the secret request of Claudius to England to execute him and substitutes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the victims.  In the letter he forges for this purpose, he describes England as the Danish king’s ‘faithful tributary.’

So, when the house of Denmark lies desolate and headless under the mark of Cain, Fortinbras ‘with conquest come from Poland,’ is on hand to clean up the mess.  He can ‘embrace my fortune’ since ‘I have some rights of memory in this kingdom’ and which he is now in a position to claim.

The wheel has turned full circle.  It is hardly surprising that a royal house that devours itself, as grossly as some did in Greek tragedies performed two thousand years before, leaves its people prey to another nation.

There are some oddities of time here.  Trial by single combat to determine boundaries of sovereign nations has an early medieval if not fantastic air about it.  We know that this Denmark subscribes to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth and that the Danes go to other European cities for advancement.  The atmosphere feels like the Renaissance.  It must have been a long time after England paid any kind of tribute to Denmark – to hold off the Vikings?  And the ‘conquest’ of Fortinbras in Poland must have broken the land speed record.  But they are trifles. 

It is at best impertinent and at worst impious to second guess a genius, but the significance of the international background may be found in the soliloquy where Hamlet compares himself to Fortinbras. 

Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!  (4.4.4ff)

There you have the madness of all Europe in August 1914.  It does not take Waterloo, the Somme, Hiroshima, or Nui Dat for those words of Hamlet to die on our lips. 

Nor should we be surprised that our understanding of a great work of art alters with changes in the way that we see the world.  Many of us now would prefer the remark of a statesman who could not be regarded as a soft touch speaking on behalf of a weak nation.  In an address to the Reichstag in 1876, Otto von Bismarck said that German intervention in a Balkan war was not worth the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier.  Thirty eight years later, his successors did not apply that wisdom, and millions were slaughtered in the worst war that mankind had known.

For a hero who is said to have been weak and indecisive, Hamlet has racked up quite a score by the end.  He has directly killed Polonius, Laertes and Claudius.  He has procured the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  He is morally responsible for the death of Ophelia, and we may doubt whether Gertrude could survive many more nights with her deranged son like that after he had killed Polonius.  (The performance of Penny Downie in that role against David Tenant in the Doran RSC film is thrilling in a way that Freud would have found positively electrifying.)  The poisoning of Laertes was accidental.  On any view, the killing of Claudius was warranted.  But, it is hard to see a defence to a charge of murder against Hamlet for his role in the deaths of Polonius – ‘I’ll lug the guts into a neighbour room’ – or the two courtiers.  He was downright cruel to Ophelia, and in his treatment of his mother, he would nowadays risk being branded as a misogynist on national television.

And while it may be true that there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow (5.2.220), it is also true that when it comes to matters of state between sovereigns, the writ of the Sermon on the Mount is banished from sight as a kind of curious relic whose reach has been long since passed.