I have to admit that I've never seen the whole movie "Home Alone,"--just clips on airplane screens. But working on my book on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics last Friday made me feel as if I were home alone. I have never felt so profoundly that a chapter--in this case on Woolf's final novel, Between the Acts, which I see almost as her artistic manifesto--was thin and trivial, and that there was no one there (like my thesis supervisor) to help me do a reality check. I was home alone. So I came in on Monday to take a second look and discovered that I was right: thin and trivial it was. Back to the sources. I re-read Woolf's diaries and essays from the period (as a scholar you don't even write the name "Virginia Woolf" without reading the five volumes of diaries and the six volumes of essays. Reading the five volumes of letters would also be a good idea.) to see what she was thinking about the role of art as she watched the rise of Fascism across the channel. Her husband Leonard was Jewish, so they had extra petrol and plans to commit suicide together if Hitler invaded England. They also listened to his broadcasts, hearing his hysterical voice and the crowd's equally hysterical response. Wonderfully, the essays from the time, "Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid," and "The Leaning Tower" as well as her diaries from the time reveal her profound ambivalence. She sometimes felt that "Thinking was her fighting." At other times she felt that the reader's inattention to art during times of chaos made it impossible to write. Taking my time, reading and re-reading, I wrote this paragraph about Woolf's biography of the great art critic Roger Fry who was one of the first people to begin to articulate a theory of the autonomy of art:
Society may make “statements and send…forth instructions, edicts, laws, definitions,” but the autonomous work of art, through its use of formal strategies that are a declaration of independence from the exigencies and discords of life can send forth “counter-statements” (Donaghue 114). Certainly, Woolf’s diaries reveal a tense awareness of Hitler’s “instructions, edicts, laws,” of his anti-Semetic policies, and of his pursuit of dominance and war, made all the more dramatic and intense because the well-informed Woolfs could hear Hitler’s voice—sometimes “mere violent rant,” other times “a savage howl”—on the radio (Diary 5 169). At the same time, however, Woolf thinks of her work on Fry’s biography as a reasonable (if inadequate) antidote to Hitler’s and Fascism’s unreasonable behavior. As early as September of 1938, when events in Europe suggested that “Hitler meant to slide sideways into war,” Woolf wrote in her journal that “To oppose this with Roger my only private position. Well thats [sic] an absurd little match to strike” (Diary 5 170). In September of 1939, shortly after Hitler had taken Dantzig, Woolf wrote that “this is bosh & stuffing compared with the reality of…writing, & re-writing one sentence of Roger. So this experiment proves the reality of the mind” (Diary 5 233). Three days later, having felt demoralized, horrified, and rebellious, she reflects “And the only contribution one can make—This little pitter patter of ideas is my whiff of shot in the cause of freedom” (Diary 5 235). Writing Roger Fry, a kind of meditation upon the man who both understood and advocated the formal qualities of art, qualities that guaranteed art’s autonomy, and upon the man whose lectures represented “the best way of checking Nazism” (Letters 6, 414-415), might seem like a small gesture in the face of the events leading up to the war, but these comments suggest she believed that such a gesture was perhaps one of the most significant one could make because the autonomy of art, boldly put, guarantees the critical independence and freedom of both the artist and the reader.
I had asked a simple question of Between the Acts and I'd gotten a simple answer. Once I asked a more complicated question and had found the evidence of Woolf's ambivalence, I could begin to write a much stronger chapter. I share this experience here for a couple of reasons, mostly because I suspect that many of my regular readers are also writers or creative people of one sort or another. My first lesson is to listen to your own critical inner voice. It's easy--particularly when your words look so nice and finished on the computer screen--to silence that voice and be unwilling to ditch a lot of material and start over. But Woolf's sense that art mattered at this horrific moment is something we should all remember. There may be no Hitler in the wings, but your ideas, perspective, viewpoint, queries and questions matter. So when you know that you're cheating, when you're pretending with every tap of your fingers on the keyboard that you're being profound but part of you knows this is a lie, listen to that inner critical voice.
Finally, once you've asked your complex and important question, keep going. The paintings I'm using to illustrate my post are by Lowrie Warrener and are now on display at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. Veronica and I went to Saskatoon this week for our annual Christmas shopping trek, and yesterday morning after she went off to her library meeting I went to the Mendel. If Warrener isn't a name that you know, don't feel that your visual literacy is in question. He worked with the Group of Seven, particularly Lismer, but he more or less gave up when he was 31 because he wasn't achieving success--whatever that is. When I saw "The Happy Cottage," the painting at the top of the post, I couldn't help smile. I don't think Warrener is asking complicated questions: who can, at 31? But he's working on the technique and vision to capture a mood that would stand him in good stead if he hadn't decided instead to sell pencils for the Eagle Pencil Company.
So listen to your critical voice, ask complex questions, and keep going. You know, even if an extraordinary work of art or criticism doesn't come of this practice, you'll be a better, more creative thinker because of it. And heaven knows, in this historical moment, we need critical and creative thinkers.
All creative people are "home alone" in some respects. It isn't a very comfortable feeling, but the result is something your community needs.