Civilized and Content

I’m reading Christine Froula’s Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Avant-Garde. It’s really wonderful, brave, smart, opinionated, and informed; it works its way through Woolf’s novels, one by one, tracing the development of Woolf’s thinking (especially about aesthetics and feminism) through the plot. Reading it, one gets the sense of how lucky it would be to sit in on a lecture course of hers. But then, reading it is like being in that course—and perhaps better, because I can set it down and stare out the window on the train as we hurtle through the Bronx. (I come by “little excursions around the room” honestly: Woolf herself was an obsessive documenter of her own distractions and the fruits they bore.)

Christine writes unabashedly about the Bloomsbury project of civilization. Such a lovely word, civilization. And then, well, lots of really brilliant people whom I respect tremendously pointed out all the flaws with the idea of civilization—its patriarchal bent, its racist perspectives, its tremendous elitism, its dependence on the oppression of others, its emphasis on the mission of civilizing others—and the word, the idea became taboo. I love projects of recuperation, though, and this seems worth thinking more about. Tentatively, then, it might make sense to look to the Bloomsbury Group, those Londoners who welcomed Freud, the author of Civilization and Its Discontents, when he was exiled, as a movement in which one might find a way to reconsider the idea of civilization as something revolutionary, positive, and valuable. What do you think? Is civilization still a dirty word? If it is, how would you describe the society you seek?

For more news from the heights of the civilized, you might want to check out this post from if:book which includes a clip from a silent film of Hamlet (!). It seems the BBC is gradually making bits of its archive available. That’s cause for celebration.