Friday, March 2, 2012

A little light culture: Virginia Woolf's attack on middlebrows

The first time I read Virginia Woolf I was eighteen and it was to to impress a girl. She said she was a big fan of the Bloomsbury group and especially Virginia Woolf. I figured out later that this girl had actually never read Woolf herself, she'd only read about her. That's what most people who claim to like Virginia Woolf do. Unfortunately, I had already wasted a huge chunk of my life reading two of her novels. There were moments when I thought I might actually die of boredom.

Over the years, I have revisited Woolf several times on the theory that maybe I'd be able to see something I missed the previous times with a little more life experience and maturity. Instead the opposite happened. She now seems not only boring but impossibly trite, smug and a pompous twit.

The odd thing is that a lot of people see her as some sort of moral beacon. Here's a powerful hint, if the person committed suicide they were either a moral failure or mentally ill. Neither of those categories qualify someone as a moral guide. I can see pitying Woolf, I can't see admiring her.

But I want to focus on her attack on middlebrow culture today, not because there is anything intelligent about it, there isn't, but because it's stupid in an important way. Some kinds of stupidity are worth study and this is one of them.

So what does Virginia Woolf consider to be highbrow:
Now there can be no two opinions as to what a highbrow is. He is the man or woman of thoroughbred intelligence who rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea. 
You'll notice right away that that isn't much of a definition. That is typical of Woolf, she was shallow. (I'm getting all this from a letter that Woolf had the sense to never actually send but not quite enough sense to burn as she ought to have done.) Anyone could gallop across the country in pursuit of an idea and lots of people do, some of them very intelligent and lot more not so much. The key expression is "thoroughbred intelligence" but we don't really know what that is.

Not to worry, however, for highbrow has always been a class term and not anything that permits precise definition. It's a term that people who want to be in the elite but have neither the political nor social stature to be there adopt. Ironically, while Virginia Woolf is now a writer who now makes some people's highbrow list, during her life she was often considered middlebrow; that is why she was so sensitive about the issue, he wanted to be highbrow.

The important thing to grasp however is that there is not, and, as far as self-declared highbrows are concerned, should not be any objective measure of what is highbrow. And this for a rather embarrassing reason that Woolf lets out of the bag:
I need not further labour the point that highbrows, for some reason or another, are wholly incapable of dealing successfully with what is called real life. That is why, and here I come to a point that is often surprisingly ignored, they honour so wholeheartedly and depend so completely upon those who are called lowbrows.
Or to put it in a rather blunt, un-highbrow way, they aren't particularly good at doing anything you could objectively assess. So it all gets to be like "art", which is stuff produced by "artists" and you can tell they are "artists" because they produce "art". Highbrows are highbrows because they are highbrows. Lather, rinse, repeat until you die in the shower.

But highbrows, whatever they are, aren't actually much good at any practical stuff so they need lowbrows who are, rather neatly, the mirror of Woolf's definition of highbrows:
By a lowbrow is meant of course a man or a woman of thoroughbred vitality who rides his body in pursuit of a living at a gallop across life.
Of course! It's pretty obvious, then, that highbrows need lowbrows, well, that they need someone to drive the big trucks, unplug the toilet, do the jobs that actually require math, make sure that practical stuff actually gets done.
I love lowbrows; I study them; I always sit next the conductor in an omnibus and try to get him to tell me what it is like — being a conductor. In whatever company I am I always try to know what it is like — being a conductor, being a woman with ten children and thirty–five shillings a week, being a stockbroker, being an admiral, being a bank clerk, being a dressmaker, being a duchess, being a miner, being a cook, being a prostitute. All that lowbrows do is of surpassing interest and wonder to me, because, in so far as I am a highbrow, I cannot do things myself.
What a condescending jerk! It's a pity Jane Austen never got to write about Woolf as the portrait would have been merciless and very funny. Lady Catherine DeBourgh was a humble and deferential woman with great sensitivity for the feelings of others by comparison.

The remaining question, however, is who needs highbrows? Well, that is where it gets weird because Virginia Woolf is under some weird impression that lowbrows need people like herself:
You have only to stroll along the Strand on a wet winter’s night and watch the crowds lining up to get into the movies. These lowbrows are waiting, after the day’s work, in the rain, sometimes for hours, to get into the cheap seats and sit in hot theatres in order to see what their lives look like. Since they are lowbrows, engaged magnificently and adventurously in riding full tilt from one end of life to the other in pursuit of a living, they cannot see themselves doing it. Yet nothing interests them more. Nothing matters to them more. It is one of the prime necessities of life to them — to be shown what life looks like.
And the problem here is not just that she is such a pompous twit that you want to slap her, although she certainly was that, but rather that she is stealing a base here because those movies that people lined up for on the Strand weren't produced by highbrows. Woolf herself certainly never produced any worthwhile popular entertainment during her lifetime, unless she inadvertently amused some of those "lowbrows" who so fascinated her by giving them an excuse to laugh at her. And it's very far from clear that anyone ever went to a movie to "see what their lives look like". If anything, movies have succeeded by being a distraction from what people's lives looked like.

Woolf is saying something immensely stupid here. So stupid that you don't want to try measuring it on your stupid-o-meter for fear of breaking it. Just thinking about the depth of the stupidity, the sheer cluelessness displayed by Woolf here is not advised for fear you might get so depressed you will fill your pockets with rocks and walk out into deep water.

One of the reasons that "highbrow", however we define it, is not easily definable is that it sits in a weird no-mans-land between two kinds of social organization. For highbrow always goes with art and art has never adapted itself to capitalist culture; art that likes to call itself "art" hasn't in any case. At the same time, art doesn't like to be too closely linked to the idea of political class. That's a bigger problem than you might think for, historically, art has had much more success from patronage than it has from actually appealing to significant numbers of people.

The only solution, and it is probably only a temporary solution, has been to have governments step in and replace the patrons and this is meant to be different on the argument that governments represent the interests of the people. Which is why you see great long lines of people lining up at the art gallery to see, well, this is where it gets tricky. There will be a Van Gogh exhibit here in town this summer  and the crowds for it will be huge but highbrows aren't very fond of Van Gogh. Liking Van Gogh or Renoir is hopelessly middle brow (I revere the me both.) Highbrows think people who like this stuff are attracted for sentimental reasons. And they are of course correct but what is so wrong about sentiment? They'd rather you liked Cezanne and Picasso more and a certain number of people will go to a Picasso show but not nearly as many as will go to Van Gogh.

That's why it's necessary to hate the middlebrows. They push higher culture too but they insist on doing so for reasons that threaten the high brows.
The middlebrow is the man, or woman, of middlebred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that, in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige. 
Why is Woolf so sure of the "middlebred intelligence" of middlebrows? Unlike her they can probably run a business, meet a payroll, manage accounts and have the emotional stability and maturity that you might actually depend on them. Which is why they have to be kept out of the art world because if you let people with actual skills and abilities into that world, there would be no need for Virginia Woolf and her friends any more.

And the really weird thing is that one of the things that middlebrows tend to be particularly insistent upon is that culture should be improving. And that is a threatening idea because, if you admit the thought that culture is meant to make us better people, then you might actually start asking whether a lot of it actually does any such thing.

A final thought from a rather good essay that popped up in GQ last year:
People tend to hate the middlebrow because of its embarrassingly earnest desire to be liked, its scientific and successful approach to hitting people's pleasure buttons. It points out the obvious fact that you're not as much an individual as you'd like to think, that human beings are designed to like chocolate and potato chips and Jack Purcells.
Imagine pointing out to someone "the obvious fact that you're not as much an individual as you'd like to think". Virginia Woolf would hate that.


  1. Really funny post. This one and the one about Someone Like You both made me laugh out loud.

    I've never read Woolf before, but I´d always read good things about her. I must say I'm kind of amazed by how bad her writing seems, based on these excerpts. Not only is it astoundingly condescending (it reminds me of the part of Freakonomics where the U of Chicago grad student goes out to the projects and surveys people on "how does it feel to be black and poor?"), but the prose tone is really weird, and of course the content is unimpressive.

  2. To give her her due, Woolf writes better when she is spinning meditative/poetic prose rather than when she is trying to make an argument or tell a story or show some human interaction. One of the most moving things she ever wrote, odd as this may sound, is a long section of To the Lighthouse that is set in an empty house with no characters, just the house.

  3. Yes, it's true: Virginia Woolf can be highly annoying at times. On the other hand, I do not consider it to be 'good form' to hold her suicide against her.

    I try to ignore her snobbish attitudes and to concentrate on her sometimes quite deep insights into processes of the human mind; and then, she was such a keen critic at times - vide her "Phases of Fiction".

    Kind regards

  4. Thanks for the comment. Virginia Woolf seems to have suffered from depression and that no doubt explains the suicide. In such a case, we should not, as you say, hold it against her. At the same time, if she was suffering from depression of that severity, it seems to me that we should be free to discount much of her critical judgments as the product of a disturbed and diseased mind.

  5. "We should be free to discount much of her critical judgments as the product of a disturbed and diseased mind."

    Well, I doubt that. A critical judgment should be valid whoever utters it, don't you think so?

    But I don't want to argue.

    Thanks for your great blog! I enjoyed your posts on James, Wharton and Waugh quite a lot.

    Kind regards

  6. Thank you for your kind words.

    You're right. A sound argument is a sound argument no matter whose mouth it comes out of.

    What I was trying to get, and not saying very well, is that with people like Virginia Woolf and Nietzsche there are three kinds of moments in their lives:

    1. moments when their brains were clearly functioning normally.
    2. moments when they clearly were not functioning clearly, and
    3. moments when you can't be so sure.

    And I think it's reasonable to wonder exactly what is going on at each stage. And I think it can very difficult to separate what is challenging from what is maybe a little crazy in both Nietzsche and Woolf.

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  8. Yes, I see your point, and I think it's a good one.

    I have always felt uncomfortable with Nietzsche's elitism which is probably just a reflection of his deep-felt anxiety. The same may be true of Woolf though I would argue that with her it's more a case of snobbery very typical of her time and class.

    But that's not why I read Woolf (or Nietzsche though I hardly read him nowadays).

    You find in Woolf - more than in most other writers - a probing into the depths of the psyche, an expression of mostly unnoticed ongoings, which is quite intriguing.

    And though her style is sometimes overblown and descending into bathos, you'll find passages of an unsurpassed beauty, too.

    Kind regards

    PS: Please, bear with my English; I'm not a native speaker, not even a fluent one.

  9. "...Over the years, I have revisited Woolf several times on the theory that maybe I'd be able to see something I missed the previous times with a little more life experience and maturity. Instead the opposite happened. She now seems not only boring but impossibly trite, smug and a pompous twit." Amen!