Archives for posts with tag: atheism

Angelica Garnett, by her father, Duncan Grant, 1940.

Angelica Bell, by her mother, Vanessa Bell.

Angelica Garnett, 2010.

Princess of Bloomsbury, its last eyewitness.

Born Christmas Day at Charleston, the country house nexus of the early 20th century modernists and their influential, socialist Omega Workshops decorating style. Third generation atheist and Bohemian. The beloved one scion of many non-breeders. Niece of Virginia Woolf. Keynes used to throw bath salts in her tub as a child and later tried to warn her off marrying her father’s lover. Keynes had been her father’s lover too. They never told her until it was too late.

She won a prize for her memoir, Deceived with Kindness. Her niece, named after Virginia,  wrote the best book on how hipster libertarians cheat their children.

Angelica Bell and her aunt, Virginia Woolf.

Apropos the Vanity Fair Hitchens memorial this week I am reposting this  September 2010 piece, de-libellized, from my private blog.

I. Hitchens and Atheism

I am thinking about Hitchens and his courageous atheism.

One problem. He is not an atheist, he has a higher power to which he has devoted his life and which is probably the cause of his esophageal cancer. If he were less a daily practitioner of belief, in other words, if he were not, like many libertarians, basically arguing for permission to act out in a way harmful to himself and others, I would admire his non-atheism more.

Now Virginia Woolf was an atheist, for sure, and probably one of the most courageous that there have been. Still, she has a kind of Hegelian or Bergsonian belief in the eternal moment which is, as everyone can understand, a mystic’s sense of God.

You don’t have to call it God, I do it to annoy my atheist friend, who insisted on being an atheist long after they gave up drinking the good part of a gallon of vodka a day and writing poetry at the Admiral Benbow, a Connecticut Avenue hippie dive (last seen in its incarnation as a yuppie bagelry) to become a salesman and a devotee of the belief that cashmere protects you from death.

The thing, as one of their comrades once pointed out to me, about atheists is not that they believe in nothing, but that they believe anything.

I’m kind of with I.B. Singer, aka Gimpel the Fool. He said,  Whatever happens to me after I am dead, I can be sure of one thing. I will have nothing to do with it.

I think I stopped being an atheist when my father, the atheist, died. I remember sitting in a sun-filled room and thinking that as a law of physics, it was almost impossible that such a hard-forged personality should dissipate after death. It occurred to me that the idea that his soul survived his death and still existed somewhere was just as plausible as what I believe. That what you believe is just as plausible as what I believe is, I believe, agnosticism. It is the only possible ethical basis for atheism.

I am now an agnostic who has made a pragmatic decision to believe.

I know scores of atheists, all of them refugees of a God who doesn’t love queers, basically, or freaks or kinkazoids or Protestants or the godless Chinee. This, one understands, reading the excellent genocide theodicy book, God After Auschwitz, by Zachary Braiterman, is less the fault of any God worthy of worship and rather more the fault of theologians. Who are, in case you forgot, men, and men inclined to exclude from the elect because it is our nature to form gangs.

I know the work of two public domain atheists fairly well — William James and Virginia Woolf — neither of them alcoholics, as is Hitchens, the atheist who was recently under discussion. I would add here that the subject is how atheism is used to privilege alcoholism and other sociopathies, not the value of atheism. Alcoholism as a victimless crime is not an argument either an atheist or an alcoholic is going to win. You could start by asking Hitchens’ first wife, Eleni, whom he left shortly after she became pregnant, because “she lost her spontaneity”. What that means is she couldn’t go out drinking with him any more.

Tracing Hitchens’ atheism is interesting, and he has done so himself. The suggestion is that the 1989 fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie impelled his manifesto, God Is Not Great, and his subsequent support for intervention against fascist Islam in Iraq. That took real stones for a leftist to do. Like most people, I have made a similar journey.

I don’t support the war in Iraq, but I am not a pacifist, which is a big deal for someone of Hitchens’ and my Vietnam protest generation. With Hitchens, and, privately, most of the lefties of my generation, I oppose what he rightly calls fascism in Islam. According to Wiki, “the new atheism” is a 21st century response to the jihadist assault on New York’s World Trade Center. I want to oppose fascism everywhere it exists, since its key tenet is the oppression of women (see Eco’s 14 Signs of a Blackshirt, Items 10 and 12). The God who massacres civilians is not great; that God is the invention of cruel and frightened men seeking backup for the creation of their national myth. Certainly someone as smart and well-educated as Hitchens, who uses the puerile argument that war is caused by belief in God, understands this to be true. No person of good will – and in a democracy, people of good will may disagree — would chose a such a god. This is the cheap shot ethical atheists who claim to be, oh, let’s say, Marxist humanists, or socialists, as Hitchens is, must extirpate.

And if one, as a member of what Marshall Berman calls the Used Left, is going to do something truly blasphemous, something that will enrage every twinkie from Cambridge, MA to Cambridge, England, like support the war in Iraq or take up the study of Christian New Thought, it behooves the twinks to observe at least one precept their elders have espoused, however drunkenly, which is the open-minded humanism, respect for the right to bona fide beliefs of one’s brothers, that Marx based on his study of Rousseau and Diderot.

II.  Atheism as Class Privilege or Cultural Capital

You could join the herd and call Hitchens, or me, a sell-out. I won’t put words in Hitchens’ mouth, but when I think of what his finest response might be I come up with Marxist humanism. It was E.M. Forster, who as a queer and a conscientious objector, said If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. Unfortunately, Hitchens is as famous for betraying his friend, the Clinton bootlick Sidney Blumenthall, as he is for becoming an American citizen late in life. While retaining his British citizenship.

As for me and my esoteric studies, I will go with my friend, the agnostic William James, and ask you merely to judge my decision to believe in God by what it has enabled me to continue to do, which is, step up to bat privately and publically. One of the things the Used Left thinks privately about, as we turn our attention from the public sphere to Vanaprastha fathering and mothering, is where is the revolution? Who is stepping up to bat?

Both William James and Virginia Woolf, about whom I know more, were ethical atheists who courageously weathered fearful tempests of mental illness. They were sustained by cultural capital, mainly, unlike, for example, the poet John Clare, who spent his last 25 years in a 19th century mental institution. A kind jailer gave him paper and pencil, and he wrote some of his most beautiful poetry there:

I Am

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below–above the vaulted sky

— John Clare

I didn’t know, before I cut and pasted that poem in here, what Clare’s disposition on God was. I knew he had been illiterate, for all intents and purposes; that he is the poet’s poet, read and loved by everyone from Shelley to Neruda; that he was a landless peasant disenfranchised by the enclosure of the common grazing areas in early 19th century England; that, born with nothing, he died with even less.

No cultural capital, in a word, sustained Clare in his fearful tempests of insanity.  This is the true atheism, and John Clare – with King Lear and the survivors of the concentration camps – may be its purest avatars.

It is quite possible that cultural capital alone kept the geniuses Woolf and James out of Clare’s loony bin and at the high table of high culture. For this, less privileged critics have excoriated Woolf, and I’m sure there’s a school of thought which impugns James’ demotic and pragmatic achievement in The Varieties of Religious Experience as the work of a godless Harvard snot. You could say that. But it may well be that atheism — and its dieties, free love, ethics, aestheticism, iconoclasm, socialism, unorthodoxy and Bohemianism — is a class privilege, and that those who like Clare find themselves possessed of nothing, poor, forked, bare, unaccommodated man, alone in a mental institution for life, might wish to turn both to a quietist stoic philosophy and to the God of their understanding, since no other accommodation is forthcoming. Can you live your life unaccommodated? Poor, bare, forked? Alcoholism – like God and other amenities of civilization – is the great accommodation.

III.  Hitchens’ Atheism Discounts Experience

It is alleged that James found the impetus to analyze religious experience in his own episode of sensing a malignant presence during a psychotic break. He used cultural capital, his father’s fortune, Swedenborgian legacy and James’ own access at Harvard, to write what could be the very pinnacle of everything that is good about atheism — his survey of religious experience as people across time and space universally have felt it, criteria by which to judge its value, and the open-minded empathy with which to investigate it all as true because people feel it. This is, not incidentally, one of atheism’s best iconoclasms, that is, the emphasis on eyewitness accounts — experience — over the narratives, documents and events —  history — promulgated by a hundred white boys in Paris.

In one of democracy’s last great documents — the varieties  of religious experience — James strikes a blow against another puerile argument used by atheists, that religion is neurotic, and for matters of the spirit:

In the natural sciences and industrial arts it never occurs to anyone to try to refute opinions by showing up their author’s neurotic constitution. Opinions here are invariably tested by logic and by experiment, no matter what may be their author’s neurological type. It should be no otherwise with religious opinions. Their value can only be ascertained by spiritual judgments directly passed upon them, judgments based on our own immediate feeling primarily; and secondarily on what we can ascertain of their experiential relations to our moral needs and to the rest of what we hold as true.

Immediate luminousness, in short, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness are the only available criteria.

Saint Teresa might have had the nervous system of the placidest cow, and it would not now save her theology, if the trial of the theology by these other tests should show it to be contemptible. And conversely if her theology can stand these other tests, it will make no difference how hysterical or nervously off her balance Saint Teresa may have been when she was with us here below.

IV. The Opiate of the People, Alcoholism, and Marxist Humanism

Let’s discuss religion as the opiate of the people. Marx is not immaculate in this conception, though he was familiar with depressants. As I recall, he himself literally lived off the wages earned by Engels’ labor in Engels’ daddy’s dark Satanic mill. And his wife Jenny’s small fortune. And his daughter Eleanor’s devotion. And, not to put too fine a point on it, many many many bottles of wine a day. Red, to be sure. All purchased with first, Jenny’s, and then Engels’, money. You could call this cultural capital, or accommodation.  I think I’ll just leave it at that, since Marx’s humanism, more and more  as western society implodes, still does meet all three of James’  religious criteria of luminousness, reasonableness, and helpfulness. I don’t think any of the other atheists we’re discussing here achieved Marx’ stature as a humanist, prophet, ethicist, and a thinker. Unlike them, Marx was a parasite who ruined the lives of everyone near him; it is not too far-fetched to say that Eleanor’s suicide was the result of her upbringing. This may be the problem at the heart of Marxism — hippie chicks fuck, in Joan Didion’s epochal observation, and wash the dishes, go to work, raise vegetables, clean house, take care of the children, and the boys lie around getting stoned and making revolution. And it is this pound of flesh, or cultural capital, atheists use to argue for unethical freedom which causes generations of human misery. The hideous suspicion that The Communist Manifesto itself, or God Is Not Great, were built on the bones of women like Eleanor Marx or Eleni Meleagrou-Hitchens by atheists, whose freedom from tired old canonical ethics caused the women’s misery or death, persistently argues its case. Hippie chicks fuck, for sure. But only atheists, and that may well be the secret of atheism’s persistence. It has nothing to do with ethical godlessness.

What if I want something else? What if I want egalitarian romantic partnership? I can see how the ethics of polyamory — its endless negotiations — are contributing to this millenial project. I can see too how the feral aestheticism of queer cruising inevitably creates hierarchies of body dysmorphia instead of a romance in every pot. But the egalitarianism is the ethical fulcrum here, and my observation of the free love that atheism espouses is full of fatherless children and seriously impoverished women, that is, the creation of generations of people without any cultural capital at all — non-distribution of the wealth. It would be worth thinking through just exactly how many forms of capital that free love deprives women and children of.

The nut of Hitchens’ argument for the new atheism is, he writes:

…above all, we are in need of a renewed Enlightenment, which will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man and woman. This Enlightenment will not need to depend, like its predecessors, on the heroic breakthroughs of a few gifted and exceptionally courageous people. It is within the compass of the average person. The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected. The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and the availability of new findings to masses of people by electronic means, will revolutionize our concepts of research and development. Very importantly, the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse. And all this and more is, for the first time in our history, within the reach if not the grasp of everyone.

Enlightenment humanism and social justice of the kind espoused by Marx, I impute, with ethical aestheticism, unchurched science, and sex without consequence for all — these are Hitchens’ claims for the new atheism, or, perhaps, socialism. There is the well-worn pacifist note struck, too, when Hitchens describes religion as “[v]iolent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”

But these are old friends. These are the sins of the patriarchy, which naturally has co-opted religion to the purpose of building national myths and nation-states. Patriarchs of religion, not spiritual experience, created the notorious settler states — the United States, South Africa, Israel — whose practice has been genocide of the indigenous people and capitalism. Hitchens’ critique of religion has nothing to do with peoples’ eyewitness experience of spiritual states,  which, as a journalist, he should respect, and everything to do with a critique of history, which is not what is on the table for discussion. Socialism is a critique of history, but atheism must not be a critique of human beings’ experience, states of being, even if they are caused by neurosis, alcoholic psychosis, identifiable neurochemistry, anal probe by aliens or the terrible swift sword of the archangel Michael himself.

V. Atheist Genocides of the 20th Century

Hitchens is making a political argument here which can quickly be set aside by noting that the 20th century political achievements of the atheist patriarchy are no more humanist and no less imperialist, violent, sexist and genocidal than the theist patriarchy. Aand, since the genocides were achieved by famine, a great deal cheaper and more effective than fascist, capitalist ones. Keeping in mind Amartya Sen’s Nobel-Prize-winning discovery that famine is always man-made, Stalin starved an estimated 7 to 10 million, Mao Tse Tung an estimated 20 million, Pol Pot about a million and Kim Jong Il 2 to 3 million. In one half-century, with one ideology, or perhaps two: government control of the means of production of food, and atheism. While a genocide of one person matters, so do the needless deaths by famine, of more than 30 million non-combatant citizens of their own atheist government. This is abuse of privileged access, the kind Dante – if no other human power — places at the pit of the Inferno.

The point is not that size matters, as it does not in genocide, but that the accomplishments of atheist patriarchs are quite impressively low-tech and monstrous for the brief amount of time and space it required to commit them. The point is that the death machine is the patriarchy, not God, and not peoples’ spiritual experience. This is really not too subtle a distinction for someone who claims, as Hitchens does, to be a humanist. Unless, of course, the domineering phallocentrism which seems inevitably to arise in each succeeding generation of nihilism, anarchy, socialism — the girl-stomping ethos of the mosh pit, if you will, the femme-dissing in the butch bars — has somehow, once again, clouded one’s discernment about the integrity of the peoples’ actual experience. Or maybe it was the Johnnie Walker Black Label.

VI. Virginia Woolf, Bohemianism and Bloomsbury as Ethical Atheism

Virginia Woolf, the atheist about whom I know the most, suffered five serious nervous breakdowns and committed suicide as a sixth seemed inevitable. The Nazis were poised to invade England, she and her husband, a Jewish socialist, were on Hitler’s extermination list, everyone in her family had laid by pills provided by her physician brother to commit suicide should Hitler invade. With real courage, she elected to spare her husband and family the burden of a violently insane patient during a Hitler invasion, and drowned herself.

She has written, I forget where, that she found the inspiration for almost everything she wrote, in the ghosts she saw and heard, the sense of being a disembodied observer, and the sensual experiences she underwent, during her manic-depressive psychotic breaks. These ghosts included her mother and King Edward, whom she heard spouting obscenities in the bushes outside the window, while the birds sang choruses in Greek. This sense of another world, as well as of a numinous sense of history as one space in which the living and the dead were equally beloved and present, and absent, of the most electrifyingly-rendered lacunae in haunted and empty houses, of a supra-reality, in other words, of things as they are when we are not present to observe, all this, she learned, in psychotic breaks. Like James, Woolf regarded these episodes courageously, as inspiration, without real medication, and even as her sixth and last psychotic break enveloped her, with enough sanity to make the decision to kill herself. Like James, the other public domain atheist we are regarding, the impetus for Woolf’s greatest work came from psychotic breaks in which she experienced reality differently. Alcohol, as James noted in his chapter on mysticism, provides humans with an experience that comes close to those experienced by mystics. I would argue that for atheists who are not alcoholics, like Marx and Hitchens, the mystical experience which provides all the gnosis they require can be a psychotic break. In other words, the strictures of logic or humanism on which atheism prides itself are of no inspiration to the most creative and productive atheist thinkers. They require superhuman stamina provided by alcohol, or specially vouchsafed visions of reality provided by psychotic breaks. You could call it cultural capital but you would be wrong. It is actually outside help.

Suicide — as with drinking yourself to death and all other unorthodox or bohemian behavior — may be considered another of the privileges of atheists with cultural capital. Unorthodox behavior — and the kind of secession from family, civic and communitarian obligation that atheism privileges — truly is male privilege at its most aristocratic. Nothing is more coercive to children and society (as Hitchens, whose mother committed suicide, should know) than deadbeat dads, a parent’s insisting on his or her right to exit the scene at will, whether by adultery, drowning or drinking themselves to death.

Woolf was a second generation atheist, and a third generation Bohemian. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, had been a lecturer at Cambridge and a beloved teacher when the time came for him to take orders in the Anglican church as all Cambridge dons then were required to do. Stephen would not, and gave up a career as a don, having proclaimed himself an atheist. This, in 1862, took courage. Not as much as it would have for someone whose family had not been of the highminded upper middle classes for 100 years, Clapham sect abolitionists and judges, as Stephen’s had been. He made a distinguished career for himself as a literary journalist and the editor of the Dictonary of National Biography. So prominent was Stephen that his fourth child, Virginia, though born a little atheist was provided with an atheist godfather in the form of James Russell Lowell, the American poet. Her father’s cultural capital as the gatekeeper of all the biographies of the canonical British luminaries, as the widower of Thackeray’s daughter, is what most certainly opened the doors of the Times Literary Supplement when it became time in her turn for Virginia Stephen to make her living, which she did,  for 40 years as a literary journalist. It certainly was not a splendid education of the kind her brothers enjoyed at Cambridge, or Hitchens at Oxford. It was the sort of education upon which she once calculated that a Victorian patriarch had spent maybe 20 pounds. She had been educated “at home”. What made her life possible as a working woman was her family connections, not least to Thackeray.

As for Bohemianism, Virginia Stephen’s mother, Julia Jackson, was firmly embedded in the artistic households of her two aunts, one Little Holland House, where artists and models of the pre-Raphaelite era mingled at Sarah Pattle Prinsep’s salon, and the other, the home of the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Pattle Cameron. Cameron persuaded Tennyson and other rockstars to pose for her. When she was not posing at the Prinseps’ house for the painter G. F. Watts, the beautiful Julia Jackson was being draped for modeling at the Camerons’. Cameron asked her to pose for her on numerous occasions. It is as much as a model for these early photographs that Woolf’s mother is remembered as the monument her daughter built for her in To the Lighthouse, and, arguably, A Room of One’s Own — which Julia Jackson never did have.

VII. The Virtues of Atheism as Cultural Capital

Thus sustained — unlike the equally damaged, and equally influential, John Clare — with immense privilege against an immensely difficult life, what were the virtues of atheism as practiced by Virginia Woolf and her revolutionary modernist social circle, known collectively as Bloomsbury?


Almost word for word the same as Hitchens’. Except that in 1904, as it had in 1862, it took actual courage, not Dutch, actual contact teaching working class women about venereal disease, actual contact with colonials of color, actual years of debate about ethics and The Good, actual conscientious objection, actual testimony in court on behalf of queers accused of violating fearsome obscenity laws, actual formulation of economic and socialist and feminist and aesthetic theory, and it changed the world. The only colonial of color of whom I am aware Hitchens has made the acquaintance is Salman Rushdie. His actual contact with lesser life forms takes the form of stunts , for example,  having himself waterboarded — actually pretty interesting but tending to trivialize his twin credos of atheism and socialism as rockstar music videos.

Do note the difference in outcomes,  precisely the differences in the height of the barricade one is storming, between being waterboarded on video for your Vanity Fair column and testifying in obscenity court in 1928, at the height of your power as both a novelist and founder of the Hogarth Press, in favor of a very badly written Lesbian novel. The first is a reality television stunt with no consequences and the second is an act of generosity with one’s own work and livelihood on the chopping block. Woolf was careful to note that neither she nor anyone else was prepared to testify without perjuring themselves that it was a good novel.

Sexual Freedom

Bloomsbury, it has been said, was a group of writers, painters and Fabian socialists all of whom were in love with Duncan Grant. This suggests the sexual freedom at the heart of Bloomsbury, which combined with generations of cultural capital, families with a hundred years of interlocking association, two beautiful orphan sisters free, once their tyrannical atheist father had died, to run their own salon in a not-quite-respectable new neighborhood called Bloomsbury, and the nucleus of a secret Cambridge debate society who began attending the Stephen sisters’ Thursday nights in 1904. They were to be friends for life, with Keynes the economist and Virginia Woolf as the crown of their communitarian creation.

The terms of the association were set by the Cambridge Conversazione Society, founded in 1820 for 12 undergraduates to meet weekly to discuss a paper read by one of their members. Thoby Stephen, the brother of Virginia Woolf, caught the eye of one aggressively homosexual member, Lytton Strachey, who with another so-called Apostle, the future economist John Maynard Keynes, argued within the cloister of the society that homosexuality was the highest state of being.

Iconoclasm in Art and Social Relations

Handsome Thoby died young, in 1906. Strachey, Keynes, Leonard Woolf and other Apostles of the turn of the 20th century remained friends with each other and with Thoby’s beautiful sisters for life. Strachey is probably most important for a classic in revolutionary iconoclasm, his biography Eminent Victorians, which literally broke the icons of Britain’s age of empire by carefully chosing specimens to profile — among them, a chilling portrait of Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp, and Cardinal Newman, who was beatified by the Pope last month in England. I suspect Hitchens — who is familiar with Strachey’s work on buggery in British public schools — was inspired by Strachey’s jaw-dropping example to write scathing portraits of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana.

This iconoclasm of Bloomsbury’s was firmly established in the long and excruciating discussions of Principia Ethica, the 1903 book by the Apostle G. E. Moore which, according to Wiki, with Wittgenstein, has informed the 20th century discussion of meta-ethics, and was chosen as one of the top 100 non-fiction books of the 20th century. The young men argued all their lives about The Good, and about beauty, when not emulating the famously silent Moore. This lifelong engagement with carefully considered verity was fostered first by the Apostles and then kept alive by the friends of Thoby Stephen at his sisters’ salon. Virginia Woolf, who married apparently the only heterosexual and Jewish Apostle of his era, recalls those first Thursday salons in the new household liberated of Victorian parents, atheists though they were, and of all other restraint, in her essay, “Old Bloomsbury”. The house was white and green, not black and red. The conversation took place over whisky, not the tea table. She, who had never been sent to school, argued with one young man, the mathematician H.T.J. Norton (another lovely, to whom Strachey dedicated Eminent Victorians) about the Good and beauty all night long and went with him at dawn to the flower market at Covent Garden. She didn’t run into George Bernard Shaw, whom she knew, or Eliza Doolittle, but she remembered forever how Mr. Turner, Mr. Strachey and Mr. Bell transformed themselves into Saxon, Lytton, Clive, how she matched wits with the cream of Cambridge, and how, in the dawn over Covent Garden, the tyranny of her father and step-brothers and respectable aunties and marriage itself dissolved as she witnessed Norton,  representative of all Cambridge, “scowling in his pince-nez – yellow and severe against a bank of roses and carnations”. (“Old Bloomsbury”).

Henry James, perhaps the fussiest old auntie who was a friend of the family, complained about the young ladies’ new friends. “Deplorable! Deplorable! ,” he told a comrade. “How could Vanessa and Virginia have picked up such friends! How could Leslie’s daughters have taken up with young men like that?!” (“Old Bloomsbury”)

Modernist Aesthetics

Thus established in humanist, if not precisely atheist philosophy, Bloomsbury did as much to postulate and discover a new modernist aesthetic. Keynes put his ever-increasing fortune to the subsidy of Duncan Grant and the post-Impressionists, as  the beautiful Vanessa Stephen, by 1907 married to Thoby’s old friend Clive Bell, conceived a baby with Grant and lived in a menage a trois with Bell and Grant for the rest of her life. Vanessa and Grant lived active painters’ lives together, as Grant pursued an independent homosexual love life and their joint studio attracted the attention of the modernist art critic Roger Fry. Soon Vanessa and Roger Fry were lovers. Bloomsbury’s art theory division sponsored the first exhibit of post-Impressionist paintings in London in 1910, and the second in 1912. Virginia and Vanessa attended the post-Impressionist ball dressed at Gauguin Tahitian girls. For the second show, Leonard Woolf had by then returned from the Sri Lankan jungle, where he’d been a civil servant, and worked as secretary to the exhibition. Newly married to Virginia, Leonard, famous among the Apostles for the violence and purity of his thought, sat at the Grafton Galleries day after day and wrote:

It was a strange and for me a new experience. The room was filled with Cezanne water-colours…life-size figures by Matisse and three or four Picassos. There was also a Bonnard and a good picture by Marchand. Large numbers of people came to the exhibit, and nine out of ten of them either roared with laughter at the pictures or were enraged by them. The British middle class — and, as far as that goes, the aristocracy and the working class — are incorrigibly philistine, and their taste is impeccably bad….The whole business gave me a lamentable view of human nature….I used to think, as I sat there, how much nicer were the Tamil or Sinhalese villagers who crowded into the veranda of my Ceylon kachcheri than these smug, well-dressed, ill-mannered, well-to-do Londoners.

— Beginning Again

Can you see Hitchens, or anyone else who prides himself on the refinement of his irascibility, mounting any barricade so epochal and so unpleasant?


While also, apparently, an atheist, Roger Fry came from a long line of Quakers and as World War One rolled around, Bloomsbury struggled to express its pacifism. Leonard decided that he could not be a conscientious objector, but was rejected for service; Duncan Grant and his new lover, David Garnett, did their CO service as fruit farmers in Sussex. It is a mark of Bloomsbury’s liberation of the bastion of queer theory, perhaps, that Grant’s daughter with Vanessa married this same David Garnett some 24 years after Garnett had attended her birth. Both Grant and Vanessa were horrified; their daughter has written a memoir which may be the one riposte to the romance of high Bohemian Eden that Virginia Woolf studies promulgate. As one of Bloomsbury’s very few children — they were not breeders —  her testimony about her upbringing in an atheist menage a trois must serve as a sobering critique.  Her brother, Quentin Bell, and her niece, Virginia Nicholson, have since contributed less bitter but equally observant studies of growing up in atheist households.

No Love: Children and Bohemianism

Bell writes, in Bloomsbury Recalled, of growing up in a household formed on the principle of atheism’s prime mover, free love. His  father’s girls and Duncan Grant’s boys showed up regularly in the family beds and at the dinner table. Without complaint, he notes his father’s absence most especially when present with a new woman. Of Grant’s considerably rougher taste, Bell writes, “They were the most unappetizing male tarts I ever saw, filthy with a dirt which was moral rather than physical.”

The first attribute of God, or the patriarchs, that atheists like to jettison is the concept of justice, merciful justice as practiced by a loving, if not God-like, parent. Thus, after 60 years, the only thing Bell notes about his mother’s liberated parenting is her helplessly unjust worship of his elder brother. He writes:

There was a meal at Charleston eaten by Vanessa, we three children and, I think, Duncan. Vanessa served a pudding; she gave half to Julian, the rest of us divided what remained. Vanessa herself realized that there was something more than a little absurd about this method of displaying affection and said something like: ‘You see, I have to.’ My own feeling was: ‘how hideously embarrassing for Julian.’ Luckily he liked the pudding and ate it all up with an unembarrassed grin.

Handsome Julian died young, in 1937, driving an ambulance in Spain for the anti-fascists. Virginia wrote most of her 1938 pacifist polemic, Three Guineas, as an argument with Julian. It remains his finest monument. His mother, perhaps on account of her unprincipled love, was never happy again. His brother, of the smaller portion, named his own son Julian.

Virginia Nicholson, a granddaughter of the household, was no less observant  than her father Quentin two generations after his  Bloomsbury upbringing. Her book, Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living, 1900-1939, is reviewed as even-handed in the chapter on its assessment of the cost to women and children of the revolution against the patriarchs of God. In sum, the testimony of Vanessa’s two children and grandchild is that girls in Bohemia are fearfully under-educated and exploited as maternal “instincts” are privileged. Sexual or physical abuse by drug- dealing Daddies or Duncan’s boyfriends or Clive’s groupies is the undocumented specter of pestilence for all children in liberated households.

I first became aware of this legacy of American commune living on LiveJournal, and was curious to see if any real documentation of growing up at Walden Two had been attempted. Last I checked, the book Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counterculture,  was the only attempt to inventory the range of experience, an unsuccessful one. Bloomsbury’s Calvinist work ethic — another theism that dares not speak its name — lives on in Nicholson, who has made a fair attempt – perhaps the first – to address the persisting question of whether or not atheism and its lifestyle, Bohemianism – along with The Communist Manifesto — are built on the bones of Jenny and Eleanor Marx.

Children are conservative. They require commodities, including fresh vegetables, vaccinations, capital and cultural capital, which need conservation. The question is, whether or not the revolution in queer theory, iconoclastic biography, literature, painting, economics, pacifism, publishing (Leonard and Virginia went on to publish T. S. Eliot and Freud, among others), marriage, international cooperation and Fabian socialism (Leonard’s day job), promulgated by Angelica Garnett’s parents, family and friends, was worth the long years of unhappiness it brought to her. I’d say it was, as Angelica Garnett is the last surviving holder of Virginia Woolf’s copyrights. She has four daughters by Garnett, and with their cousins Julian Bell, and his sisters — all grandchildren of Vanessa’s — they are the inheritors and keepers of the flame.


So atheism – combined with Dionysian creativity and a brutal Calvinist work ethic — was remarkably productive for Bloomsbury. It created as many icons of modernity as it smashed. I attribute this to the exacting tradition of speculative conversation, as opposed to arguing or debate, night-long excruciating discussions of Principia Ethica.  Clive Bell suggests the snobbery with which Bloomsbury viewed the sort of debate which Oxford and Cambridge have fostered for a thousand years to promote parliamentary democracy. Non-aristos like Hitchens have  always used the Oxford Union to rise to the pinnacle of British society, and Bell, the least aristocratic of the Bloomsberries, was well aware of it.  “Philosophically we were dominated by Moore,” the aesthete heir to a coal-mining fortune wrote, “and politics we despised. Let politicians sport themselves  at the Union, where such small fry looked big; we liked them well enough in a patronising way.” (Old Friends).

Vanessa’s painting brought the plastic arts to the attention of Bloomsbury, as Clive Bell’s coal fortune and Keynes’ financial speculation increasingly subsidized both art and artists. Leonard Woolf’s socialist political work meshed with Keynes’ interests; Keynes wrote his famous “Economic Consequences of the Peace” in which he predicted World War Two as the result of the punitive Versailles peace negotiations he attended, as a paper for Bloomsbury’s extraordinary Memoir Club.  Keynes was the “cleverest man” Bell had ever met. He conveys a sense of Keynes’ conversation – “he possessed that ingenuity which turns commonplaces into paradoxes and paradoxes into truisms” —  his arrogance – “Maynard laid down the law on all subjects” —  his affectionate nature and the universe which the Memoir Club alone represented to the mighty Lord Keynes. At dinner before one Memoir Club meeting, Keynes said, “If everyone at this table, except myself,  were to die tonight, I do not think I should care to go on living.”(Old Friends)

Private Speculative Conversation

In contrast to the public and pugilistic styles of political debate at the Oxford and Cambridge Unions, conversation first among the Apostles and second in the Stephens’ living room in Bloomsbury was private, communitarian and speculative. Virginia Woolf has described it carefully as a kind of boot camp for ethics and aesthetics in which even uneducated young women, like herself and her sister Vanessa, were cordially invited to take part. It may have been due to the predilection of the Apostles toward pretty boys – Strachey once proposed to a meeting of the distinguished society that they all should write sonnets to A. J. Robertson, one especially pretty pink undergraduate – that the lovely young ladies were permitted to speak. It was also their house, run by young people for young people, much to the concern of the surviving dinosaur of their parents’ household, Sophie Farrell the cook. She complained that Duncan Grant stole food.  One of the things a working woman needs to run a salon is servants. Get over it.

Starting in 1905, Thursday nights the young Stephens invited Thoby’s Cambridge friends over to their house at 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, to talk. And talk they did; in those conversations and the famous silences, a good portion of 20th century modernity – second and third-generation atheism and Bohemianism — was defined. My sense is that inclusive Victorian courtesy and conviviality, scrupulous attention to the good, to the ethics of aesthetics, the gender diversity and fluidity of the discussants, and the communitarian nature of their conclusions, are what Bloomsbury forged as the credible analog – you could call it a new God for a new generation (in James’ rubric of pragmatic religious iconoclasm), this one worthy of worship — for the God of Queen Victoria.  Bloomsbury was also forged by the death, one year later, aged 26, of Thoby Stephen, when all the intellectual pretenses and formal good manners of the bright young men were swept away and they came to sit and mourn with his sisters. Virginia Woolf, sensing all this, carefully described in 1921 or 1922 the nature of their talk at the dawn of the 20th century.

In this age of rant – how indeed, is Hitchens not showboating to be the Limbaugh of the left? – it is worth quoting Virginia Woolf extensively on the process of speculative, atheist, communitarian conversation:

Naturally then, when the bell rang and these astonishing fellows came in, Vanessa and I were in a twitter of excitement. It was late at night; the room was full of smoke; buns, coffee and whisky were strewn about; we were not wearing white satin or seed pearls; we were not dressed [in evening clothes] at all. Thoby went to open the door; in came [the oddly masochistic, brilliant undergraduate, lifelong bachelor and bureaucrat Saxon] Sydney-Turner; in came [Clive] Bell; in came [Lytton] Strachey.

They came in hesitatingly, self-effacingly, and folded themselves up quietly [in] the corners of sofas. For a long time they said nothing. None of our old conversational openings seemed to do. Vanessa and Thoby and Clive, if Clive were there – for Clive was always ready to sacrifice himself in the cause of talk – would start different subjects. But they were always answered in the negative. “No,” was the most frequent reply. “No, I haven’t seen it”; “No, I haven’t been there.” Or simply, “I don’t know.” The conversation languished in a way that would have been impossible in the drawing room at [their parents’ house in Kensington] Hyde Park Gate. Yet the silence was difficult, not dull. It seemed as if the standard of what was worth saying had risen so high that it was better not to break it unworthily. We sat and looked at the ground. Then at last Vanessa, having said perhaps that she had been to some picture show, incautiously used the word “beauty.” At once all our ears pricked. It was as if the bull had at last been turned into the ring.

The bull might be “beauty”, might be “good”, might be “reality”. Whatever it was, it was some abstract question that now drew out all our forces. Never have I listened so intently to each step and half-step in an argument. Never have I been at such pains to sharpen and launch my own little dart. And then what joy it was when one’s contribution was accepted. No praise has pleased me more than Saxon’s saying – and was not Saxon infallible after all? – that he thought I had argued my case very cleverly. And what strange cases those were! I remember trying to persuade [Apostle and mathematician Ralph] Hawtrey that there is such a thing as atmosphere in literature. Hawtrey challenged me to prove it by pointing out in any book any one word which had this quality apart from its meaning. I went and fetched Diana of the Crossways. The argument, whether it was about atmosphere or the nature of truth, was always tossed into the middle of the party. Now Hawtrey would say something; now Vanessa; now Saxon; now Clive; now Thoby. It filled me with wonder to watch those who were finally left in the argument piling stone on stone, cautiously, accurately, long after it had completely soared above my sight. But if one could not say anything, one could listen. One had glimpses of something miraculous happening high in the air. Often we would still be sitting in a circle at two or three in the morning. Still Saxon would be taking his pipe from his mouth as if to speak, and putting it back again without having spoken. At last, rumpling his hair back, he would pronounce very shortly some absolutely final summing up. The marvelous edifice was complete, one could stumble off to bed feeling that something  very important had happened. It had been proved that beauty was – or beauty was not – for I have never been quite sure which – part of a picture. (“Old Bloomsbury”, Moments of Being)

The careful construction stands out. So does the private iconoclasm, in which another incident in Vanessa’s living room liberated relations between the genders. It also brought to the society of men and women the Apostles’ cloistered undergraduate creed of inhuman frankness and honesty in naming things in the brave new world, an Edenic gift which Forster, Virginia Woolf, Strachey, the art critic Roger Fry, Leonard Woolf and Keynes fully deployed in their realms of influence. How this private iconoclasm takes place,  in “Bloomsbury Chapter Two”, and its seismic effects, again deserves the full quotation from Virginia Woolf.

The Sargent-Furse age was over. The age of Augustus John was dawning. His “Pyramus” filled one entire wall. The [G. F. ] Watts’ protraits of my father and my mother were hung downstairs if they were hung at all. Clive had hidden all the match boxes because their blue and yellow swore with the prevailing colour scheme….At any moment, Clive might come in and he and I should begin to argue – amicably, impersonally at first; soon we should be hurling abuse at each other and pacing up and down the room. Vanessa sat silent and did something mysterious with her needle or her scissors. I talked, egotistically, excitedly, about my own affairs no doubt. Suddenly the door opened and the long and sinister figure of Mr Lytton Strachey stood on the threshold. He pointed his finger at a stain on Vanessa’s white dress.

“Semen?” he said.

Can one really say it? I thought and we burst out laughing. With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of the sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation. The word bugger was never far from our lips. We discussed copulation with the same excitement and openness that we had discussed the nature of good. It is strange to think how reticent, how reserved we had been and for how long. It seems a marvel now that so late as the year 1908 or 9 Clive had blushed and I had blushed too when I asked him to let me pass to go to the lavatory on the French Express. (“Old Bloomsbury”)

Socialist Political Activism and Radiant Stoicism

While the Bloomsberries produced an edifice of ethics and aesthetics, as well as an epistemology of iconoclasm privately, their political activism was also of a back room kind. Polemics they did write – Virginia Woolf’s on feminism and pacifism foremost among them. Clive Bell’s contempt for politicians – and for Leonard Woolf, who he thought was a buzzkill — may be nouveau riche. Among Bloomsbury’s virtually unnoted achievements – aside from mere buggery and talk of revolution — are Leonard Woolf’s 50 years as publisher of the Hogarth Press, and his 60 grinding years of Fabian socialist and Labour Party advisory committee meetings, work on the structure of the League of Nations, encyclopedic volumes on International Government and Empire and Commerce in Africa, countless Labour Party committee reports and pamphlets on foreign policy, and his work against racism, both as a Jew and a friend of South Asia. (Virginia was entirely guilty of casual anti-semitism;  Clive Bell , who had come out as a pacifist in World War One, grew more and more proto-fascist as Hitler came to power.) In 1931, Woolf met with Gandhi.  In 1936, with Nehru. At the end of his long life, of his decades of labor “at the cost of infinite boredom and much mental torture” in the grey halls of socialism, Leonard wrote with sober ascetic equilibrium that he had achieved almost nothing:

Looking back at the age of eighty-eight over the fifty-seven years of my political work in England, knowing what I aimed at and the results, meditating on the history of Britain and the world since 1914, I see clearly that I achieved practically nothing. The world today and the history of the human anthill during the last fifty-seven years would be exactly the same as it is if I had played pingpong instead of sitting on committees and writing books and memoranda. I have therefore to make the rather ignominious confession to myself and to anyone who may read this book that I must have in a long life ground through between 150,000 and 200,000 hours of perfectly useless work.

— The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, 158.

This radiant stoicism may be the medal for valor of humanism, if not precisely atheism, and Leonard Woolf was one of the last great scholars of the humanist and stoic Montaigne, who loved Seneca as much as Leonard did. Compare and contrast with Hitchens’ political work on stoicism, which must include the waterboard stunt as well as having his scrotum waxed at the expense Vanity Fair, on which he duly reported. Again on the principle that Hitchens cannot lead a private political life any more than he can have a private conversation, he can make no such claim as Bloomsbury’s to any kind of substantive socialist political work.

Hitchens’ Lack of Cultural Capital

It would be unfair to blame Hitchens for not being Bloomsbury. He did not have the hundred years’ family friendships the Stephens, Grants and Stracheys shared. His mother determined Christopher and his brother were going to be upper middle class and made sure he went to the right schools to make it happen. He did not have the cultural capital and it is to his credit that his talent and perseverance opened  the doors for him which have made him, at the end of his life, one of the world’s top five public intellectuals.  He felt he could pursue his life as a professional writer only in America, where, I suspect, no such salon or communitarian intellectual community as Bloomsbury could find a purchase, given the anti-nomian, atomic and individualistic nature of the society founded here.* He is ill, for which I am truly sorry, but Virginia Woolf was sicker longer, like John Clare, and Woolf produced masterpieces of polemical pacifism (Three Guineas), feminism (A Room of One’s Own), literary theory (“Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown” in The Common Reader), thousands of letters documenting the rise of modernity from 1895 to her suicide notes of 1941, the best literary gossip and London-loving flaneuse diaries ever written, as well as the fiction she considered her life’s work. She would be immortal for the criticism or the diaries alone, diaries written privately, in private, for her own possible use in writing the memoir she did not survive to do.

It might not even be fair to speculate how much better Hitchens’ prodigies of production would be if he had not clouded his judgment by drinking. Would he be a journalist of the first rank? A Labour Lord? Garcia Marquez? Richard Pryor? Jason Epstein? Jon Stewart, who actually is the Limbaugh of the Left? It is entirely fair to point out that alcoholics carefully nurture arguing, anger, and iconoclasm as an entitlement to drink, since it is logical that actuality is prima facie a terrible place.  This is a quasi-religious argument; many religious people, the Mennonites, for example, secede from a creation they earnestly feel is Satanic. Mennonites notably practice superhuman feats of forgiveness. Alcoholics absolutely must not. It is harder to get an alcoholic to stop arguing and building slights by people who never think about him into a Taj Mahal of revolution than it is to get him to stop drinking. For an alcoholic, the arguing entitles the drinking. Without the one, the other cannot exist. It is in this ballpark that my argument that alcoholism is a quasi-religious higher power must stand. Hitchens is not an atheist. If he were, if he were a poor, naked, forked, and unaccomodated atheist, the record of John Clare and Bloomsbury suggest, then argument and waterboarding video stunts would fall away like chaff and reality — luminous existential substance — would be revealed, despite the largeness of the sky and the smallness of the I am.

VIII. Alcoholism Privileges Bogus Atheism

The questions which inspired this examination of precisely what it is atheism can produce were related to Hitchens. There are two or perhaps three questions. Does atheism privilege alcoholism? Can an alcoholic be an atheist? And vice versa? What atheism privileges is everything a bloodthirsty and unloving deity privileges, all the crimes of the patriarchy and the astonishing malefactions of what I’ve called elsewhere tiger moms, like Vanessa Bell. I think it tends to privilege alcoholism because a kind of logic – “right thought” — is substituted by those impelled to justify sociopathy. They call it atheism, but it is garden-variety alcoholic rhetoric. There are a number of threads in alcoholic rhetoric – disenfranchisement and megalomania combined are two of them: I am a piece of shit the universe revolves around – of which arguing is the number one symptom. The argument is always meant to prove that the alcoholic leads a deprived existence, and deserves to drink. This perpetual engagement has much in common with fascism — Life is permanent warfare is the ninth of Eco’s “Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt”.  The alcoholic so-called atheist is neither free nor iconoclastic, as sober atheists are, because he is totally owned by the three icons of argue, justify, and drink. The discernment and the stamina it takes to do 60 years’ work on those icons of injustice and ignorance which deserve to be smashed will elude the alcoholic atheist as they do not elude the ascetic atheists, or even the completely unaccommodated theist, like John Clare. Anyone who is accommodated and totally owned by not one, but three, deities – argue, justify, drink — cannot claim to live by the felicities of atheism —  ethics, aesthetics, Marxist humanism, courage, stoicism, communitarianism — or anything else. Thus, Hitchens is not an atheist, not free, no iconoclast. Right impulse, the theist snark would judge, wrong higher power.

Hitchens has argued more and produced far less of significance than even Bloomsbury’s two most obscure members — Clive Bell, the bon vivant, avant-garde art critic, and pacifist, on whose fortune, love of beauty, and conviviality, Vanessa founded the salon in which Bloomsbury’s agenda was formed and actuated, and who raised as his own Duncan Grant’s child; and Desmond MacCarthy, the old Apostle, brilliant talker and literary critic.

IX. Bloomsbury’s Memoir Club: Cultural Capital and Atheist Communitarianism

It was to get MacCarthy to write his long-awaited, and never forthcoming, novel that his wife founded the Memoir Club which produced such monuments of modernism as Keynes’ “Consequences”, Woolf’s “Old Bloomsbury”, Strachey’s “Monday June 16 1916”, and E.M. Forster’s “My Books and I”. There is suggestive evidence that MacCarthy, like Hitchens, was an alcoholic, albeit with friends so loving and so distinguished they took time, for MacCarthy, to set down their epochal tales simply to get him to shut up and write. The essays they contributed to the Memoir Club, whose only criteria for membership were immense cultural capital, and telling the whole truth, most obviously form a Rashomon-like collage of the concerns of the most accomplished atheist society since the Enlightenment. Most touchingly, the Memoir Club’s accomplishments stand as a tribute to the power of friendship for MacCarthy, the least among them, and to the memory of the absent friend who had brought them all together, Thoby Stephen.

But this was their secret, what separates them from the practice of James, Marx and Hitchens. All their Bastilles were first stormed in Vanessa’s living room, in private speculative conversation with each other. They were communitarians; they each made the other’s life a better thing. Bell said Keynes would never have looked at a painting were it not for loving Grant. Strachey could not have written Eminent Victorians without Virginia, to whom he dedicated his next book. Without Strachey’s cataclysmically frank query of  Semen?, Virginia could never have written the last lines of The Waves: Against you will I fling myself, undaunted and unyielding, O Death.

She wrote them on February 7, 1931, thinking of Thoby, who had died of typhoid a quarter century before:

I wrote the words O Death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity & intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad). I was almost afraid, remembering the voices that used to fly ahead. Anyhow it is done; & I have been sitting these 15 minutes in a state of glory, & calm, & some tears, thinking of Thoby & if I could write Julian Thoby Stephen 1881-1906 on the first page. I suppose not.

— The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. Four 1931-1935.

Those words of unaccommodated courage are the words Leonard had engraved on her grave marker. Over and over again, Hitchens asserts that arguing has the same form-conferring virtue. Looking at the New York Times slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print”, enrages him. He writes, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, “If I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do they insult me and what do they take me for and what the hell is it supposed to mean unless it’s as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be, then at least I know that I still have a pulse.”

But Hitchens does not converse. He argues. And he cannot stop. As with the Ancient Mariner, there can be only one conclusion to his garrulity, his endless iteration of the story of Hitchens. After a New York City debate on the war, the Guardian reporter Oliver Burkeman followed Hitchens out of the debate backstage where Hitchens kept talking, outside into the street where Hitchens could not stop talking. Wrote Burkeman:

Hitchens swears that if he attacked his critics on the same level  [as those who impute his pro-war stance to alcoholism], the details he knows about their personal lives might ruin them. But he gives little indication of wanting to ruin them. Instead he exhibits an almost desperate need to persuade them to agree with him. No debating opponent is too inconsequential to escape his efforts. At a debate on the war in New York the week we met, he responded one by one to a mainly hostile audience, then followed them outside to continue the conversation. He stayed glued to the sidewalk, deep in argument, until only a handful remained. Forty-five minutes later, the number outside the debating hall had shrunk to five, not including me: a janitor who seemed about to lock up, three students and Hitchens – enshrouded in cigarette smoke, arguing and insisting and asserting into the night.

Making your enemies and strangers agree with you is solitary work if not suicidal. And the solitaries, as the survivors of the concentration camps all knew, were the ones who died first. Eugen Kogon,  the seven-year-survivor of Buchenwald who was chosen  in 1945 by the allies and his surviving colleagues to write the history of the concentration camps, puts it bluntly. “…lone wolves here were always especially exposed to danger,” he wrote (The Theory and Practice of Hell). The survivor Eugene Weinstock wrote, in 1947, “survival…could only be a social achievement, not an individual accident” (Beyond the Last Path). Terrence Des Pres  documents this universal phenomenon of communitarianism as a survivor strategy in his landmark existential, if not precisely atheist, history, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. More recently, and without reference to genocide, Rebecca Solnit has touched rather more anemically on the subject in A Paradise Built in Hell: the Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

Concentration camp survivors are, of course, the ultimate atheist communitarians. The jury is still out on whether or not it was God who died in the camps, or the Aristotelian tragic hero, from whose aesthetic narrative, the sacrificial aspects of Isaac, Jesus and Mohammed were confected into theologies. There is good evidence that it is this hero who died in the camps, not God. The anti-hero and altruism as the basic human impulse emerged from the camps conclusively as the victors over fascism. The beloved community is the only survivor strategy, be it theist or atheist. God and all his arguments, equally plausible, were pretty much a luxury if not an actual liability in extremity.

X. Love Remains

It was the well-beloved Duncan Grant who was Bloomsbury’s last survivor. He died aged 93 in 1978, at the home of his devoted companion of 30 years, the defrocked priest Paul Roche.

You could call it getting by with a little help from your friends. Or outside help. You could call it love. And leave it, very gently, at that.

Amor manet. Love remains.

The Memoir Club, by Vanessa Bell, 1943.
L to R, Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf, Vanessa and Clive Bell, David Garnett, Maynard and Lydia Keynes, Desmond and Mollie MacCarthy, Quentin Bell and E.M. Forster. On the wall, portraits by Grant of Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, and of Roger Fry by Vanessa


*The possibility of an American Bloomsbury that is not a glittering Manhattan dinner party, or drunken gatherings at the Cedar Bar, which it’s not, is worth thinking through.  That is, private speculative conversation about aesthetics and ethics. Do the Ivies have conversation clubs or even a tradition of parliamentary debate? I always think of de Kooning and Gorky arguing all night in the automat about Ingres’ handling of the grey satin skirt of the Countess D’Haussonville. This is not Bloomsbury, it’s more like John Clare, artists so poor they can’t afford to hang out at the Cedar Bar, getting together to discuss the masterful painting they could see for free at the Frick. Cultural capital – and an Automat of one’s own — is required, even if, like de Kooning, you start out with none.

(c) Jeannette Smyth, 2012-2017, all rights reserved.

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