AT first glance, it may seem surprising to encounter a book today entitled The Value of Virginia Woolf. Although Woolf’s work has experienced a complicated reception history, the value of her legacy is hardly contested at present. Woolf’s novels are at the heart of the modernist canon, books about her work and life are regularly published and she is the subject of blogs, films, TV series, and major museum exhibitions. In this monograph Madelyn Detloff reiterates the accepted view that Woolf’s work and the legacy of her example are worthy of admiration. But for Detloff, they also serve a crucial stimulating function for Woolf’s readers by raising and exploring universal questions that are central to the human condition: ‘How is one to live? What makes for a good life? A free life? What is my responsibility to others? What is love and how ought I practice it?’ (101). Detloff’s ambitious task therefore reaches beyond Woolf’s work—in fact, Woolf, both as a writer and as a cultural icon, constitutes a useful example for Detloff to develop her larger argument, namely that great literature remains relevant and necessary to our contemporary ‘twittering world’ because it reminds us that ‘the generative life of the mind matters’ (11). Detloff’s methodological approach is centred on four organizing concepts: happiness, incandescence, interdependence, and civilization—all of which she sees as central to Woolfian thought. As such, they provide a roadmap through which Detloff navigates Woolf’s work, carefully exposing its values. The first chapter addresses the concept of happiness, for which Detloff chooses to use the Greek term ‘eudemonia’. Derived from Aristotelian philosophy, the term is centred on an idea of human (or civic) flourishing, rather than on our modern sense of individual fulfilment. With this meaning, it can be conceived as an ethical imperative to find ways to live more fully, a value Detloff identifies as central to Woolf’s work. As evidence of this, Detloff examines the endings of The Voyage Out and To the Lighthouse arguing that they ‘provide insight into eudemonia as a desirable end and a corrective to the dehumanizing instrumentalization foisted on us by the imperatives of capitalism, militarism, (hetero)sexism, and (implicit or explicit) theocratic dogmatism’ (23–4). The second framing term, incandescence, used by Woolf in A Room of One’s Own to describe Shakespeare, is interpreted as a form of ‘disinterestedness’ (29). Detloff associates this usage with Iris Murdoch’s description of seeing the world with ‘careful and just attention’ (29), for it conveys an interest in the world outside the self. Detloff values this as ‘a form of radical openness to the world’ (45). Orlando, with its historical breadth and gender changes, naturally constitutes the prime example of this value which seems to correlate with a capacity for open mindedness. The third chapter centres on the concept of ‘interdependence’ which Detloff sees at the heart of Woolf’s oeuvre as expressed through the metaphor of the ‘pattern’ hidden ‘behind the cotton wool’ in A Sketch of the Past (46). Highlighting the emphasis on interconnectedness in such different novels as The Waves and The Years, Detloff illustrates how Woolf’s work emphasizes the value of establishing connections with others—‘another key Woolfian insight’ (45). The final chapter centres on the concepts of civilization and barbarism, both clearly present in Woolf’s work and thought. For the first time in the book, Detloff exposes a failing in Woolf’s position and invites us to ‘be humbly honest about the aspects of Woolf’s prose that disappoint and hurt’ (71). To overcome this, Detloff suggests we read her work ‘reparatively without reading defensively’ (73) so that we do not overlook ‘the insights that she can offer’ (88). In a somewhat conventional reading of Three Guineas and Between the Acts, Detloff isolates those ‘insights’ as Woolf’s call to ‘the action of thinking’ (89) in the former and her use of the pageant for national reparation in the latter. An epilogue then brings us back to Woolf’s legacy. On the premise that ‘Literary work survives because it does something necessary for its culture’, Detloff posits that the importance of Woolf’s work lies in its ability to change us as readers: ‘Of primary significance was her insistence that words matter, not just for what they say to us, but for what they do to us and through us’ (94). Anyone interested in Woolf’s legacy will profit from Detloff’s attentive interpretation of her novels and critical writing. The Value of Virginia Woolf is perhaps particularly useful for those pedagogically engaged with Woolf’s work, for in focusing on those ideas that remain relevant to twenty–first-century readers, it highlights points of contact that might draw students to Woolf’s novels. Detloff is evidently reading Woolf’s work in a contemporary context with an anxiety over the devaluation of literature and a conviction that great literature, and Woolf’s in particular, can benefit the modern world by communicating certain fundamental values. Contrary to W. H. Auden’s dictum that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, Detloff contends that ‘all powerful art … has the capacity to change us—not because of what it says or means, but because of the habits of mind that it cultivates as we experience it’ (13). The drawback of using Woolf to further such claims is that the novelist occasionally comes across as a convenient prop to sustain an argument. And in Detloff’s defence of literature as a means through which readers can improve themselves, Woolf’s work can at times seem reduced to a self-help offering for what is lacking in our twenty-first-century world. That being said, with concerns over the future of the humanities in university teaching and the devaluation of the arts in general, this book articulates the kinds of arguments in defence of the value of literature that seem necessary to many today. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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