Friday, December 9, 2011

Home Alone

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.  

The second thing I learned is that if you ask a simple question, no matter how good your analysis of a text or how careful your observation of human nature, you get a simple answer.  So ask complex questions, because that too matters.  As the Occupy Movement has suggested, there aren't simple answers to the most important questions--questions about equality, freedom, opportunity, justice.

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.


  1. Hi Kathleen, this is Sally Ito; I met you at last year's CCWWP gathering in Banff/Calgary. I saw this post linked to by someone on FB, and loved reading it! Thanks for this bit of wisdom today.

  2. "Thinking is fighting". . . Could Woolf be building a community of resistance word by word? Are we all called to be builders? Wonderful words for one 'home alone'.

  3. Yes, a wonderful post. From one also "home alone"...

  4. I wish I had a source text to pull a quote, but the idea of being home alone in our creative worlds reminds me of something I learned about John Donne. Donne had written advice to a friend, suggesting that to be creative and critical we needed to live like snails... if I remember it correctly, Donne drew the metaphor to say that like the snail, poets also need to live independently if they are to speak freely and think critically. Sometimes, I sense that being creative also requires us to burrow deep into that snail shell.

  5. Donne, once again, was before his time. The theories of the autonomous work of art that I'm working with in my book on Virginia Woolf also suggest that creative people need to--or choose to--live independently. Perhaps living on the margins gives us an important perspective. Poets, I suspect, have always burrowed deeply, but perhaps in an age of tweets and consumer capitalism it's particularly important to keeping our humanity alive.

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful words, Michelle.

  6. Lowrie Warrener was my great-uncle (great, in so many more ways than the obvious)and I spend most every summer until my mid-teens at Lake of Bays surrounded by family that included Uncle Lowrie and Aunt Rachel.

    He loved to paint - and to experiment with textures. He continued through his life to create the most exquisite lino cuts (every year's Christmas card was a new and splendid creation of his) - sent out to each family member with a heartfilled greeting.

    He and my wife became fast friends (she adored his wicked sense of humour) and his unassuming nature.

    I don't think he really gave up at age 31 (so I will vote for less rather than more) - although I understand the sentiment. No, he took his role of husband and father very seriously and went about providing for those who so depended on him for the necessities of life. Along the way, however, he continued to evolve into an artist of rare individuality and ability who could express his creatvity in awe inspiring and simply unique depictions of the rugged natural beauty he saw in this Country.

    There was a gentle and simple nature to this man which, for me, reaches out from his paintings and creates a sense of calm and serenity.