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Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a prolific writer primarily known for her novels To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and Orlando, and the feminist essay A Room of One’s Own. I was introduced to these novels in college and returned to them after certain cinematic excursions into the material. Dalloway and Woolf were central the novel and film The Hours. Sally Potter made a film of Orlando in the 1990s starring Tilda Swinton and featuring Quentin Crisp in the roll of Queen Elizabeth I.

Orlando (1928) is an outlier in that it’s in many ways a love letter to Woolf’s erstwhile lover, Vita Sackville-West. It’s comic, and light-hearted, which aren’t generally words associated with Woolf’s work. I picked it up again last night after a long time away from it. I try to find emotionally light reading for that half an hour at 2AM when I’m generally awake these days and don’t want anything too involving. Wodehouse often fits the bill, for example. However, I’d forgotten the opening paragraphs and was rather shocked by the sheer racism of those passages.

He…was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair on a cocoanut. Orlando’s father, or perhaps his grandfather, had struck it from the shoulders of a vast Pagan who had started up under the moon in the barbarian fields of Africa; and now it swung, gently, perpetually, in the breeze which never ceased blowing through the attic rooms of the gigantic house of the lord who had slain him.

Of course I have no idea why this passage never previously struck me, but it’s the nature of these times to question our assumptions, or lack thereof. The terms Moor, pagan, and barbarian to describe a single person, dead long before the action of the book began, but obviously a source of the titular character’s emotional (and probably financial) inheritance. Woolf follows this statement with fairly glowing terms about the Orlando’s beauty, poetry, and outlook. But I return to those opening sentences and wonder at that casual approach Woolf takes.

1928 or no, it surprises me, and raises again the question of how one interacts with historical texts – do I say this person whose insights into the human condition are some of the most incisive in literature is no longer someone I’ll read, for the political reasons that we use to take other artists out of our personal spheres of influence?

It’s a casual racism in which shorthand is used to make up for characterization. Similar to the Jews in J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companions, and possibly all of the non-Europeans in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.

In The Trouble with “Heart of Darkness”, David Denby offers this opinion submitted by Edward Said: ‘Most imaginative writers of the nineteenth century…failed to connect their work, their own spiritual practice, to the squalid operations of colonialism. Such writers as Austen, Carlyle, Thackeray, Dickens, Tennyson, and Flaubert were heroes of culture who either harbored racist views of the subject people then dominated by the English and the French or merely acquiesced in the material advantages of empire. They took empire for granted as a space in which their characters might roam and prosper; they colluded in evil. Here and there, one could see in their work shameless traces of the subordinated world…

Woolf, though writing 30 years after “Heart of Darkness”, seems to fall squarely within the canon Denby and Said are citing. Her hero is an heir to the fortunes of Elizabethan colonialism just as much as the characters in Austen and Dickens.

Denby’s essay is a counterpoint of sorts to Achebe’s An Image of Africa: Racism in Heart of Darkness. ‘Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality..’

I’m pretty sure a reread of “Heart of Darkness” is in order right now. One of the thrusts of Achebe’s argument against Conrad is that he reduces the natives of the Congo to caricatures with neither language nor art. The excuses made for Conrad include an argument that this wasn’t the story he was writing. Denby addresses this – that arguments against HoD are often that he should show the same modern sensibilities towards the non-European elements of his story as he does to the European. This isn’t Conrad’s job, but the shorthand he uses to compare the savage internal world of Europeans with a non-existent savage external world of Africa is similar to the shorthand with which Woolf opens Orlando. And there is most definitely a conscious or unconscious racial/racist aspect to this shorthand.

Denby suggests that Achebe, as a novelist and not an academic, doesn’t bring the necessary rigor to this discussion. And it’s easy to write off some of what he says as unsupported assertions about Conrad’s racism in general (actually well sourced by Achebe) and the racism in “Heart of Darkness” in particular. I think I’ll run with my initial take on the matter which is that the racist tropes that both Conrad and Woolf employ are in service to easy analogies. The stories of the Africans, pagans, or Moors aren’t the stories either are telling. On the other hand, Conrad’s ‘dog in breeches’ comparison (cited by Achebe) is simply sloppy writing – Woolf using the terms Moor, pagan, and barbarian interchangeably to describe the same severed head is also sloppy writing.

Neither Conrad nor Woolf (who thanks no fewer than 20 fairly illustrious literary contemporaries for their feedback) are careless writers. But I think both writers are relying on a European readership to recognize the tropes and to play along with how these tropes define and refine the portrayals of their main characters.

In this way it’s easy to contrast with dark using these tropes, in the same way that Kurtz’ fall has to do with his adoption of the local nature and culture and his submersion in the native, dark part of the world, and his collusion in the enslavement and killing of the natives. The Grove of Death sequence is essential to the story of Kurtz’ fall because it shows how the colonials used the natives to death in their trade. Orlando, like Woolf and Sackville-West herself, is a product of these activities – the wealth of the west is based on this kind of exploitation top to bottom and so is the exploitation is pointed out in that opening paragraph.

I don’t know what to make of the fact that Woolf’s father was a prolific writer on ethics, science, and humanism and that her paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were prominent abolitionists.

Given how much input Woolf accepted regarding the history covered in Orlando, and how much she left in place, it’s hard to deny that the views expressed in the novel are her own, or those shared with Sackville-West, or those of the first readers. How else to explain the shorthand?

Later, Orlando compares the exploits of his ancestors (who killed individuals of different nationalities) with those of one particular poet. The poet, not the murderous ancestors, is immortal, and Orlando, too, ‘[perceives], however, that the battles which Sir Miles and the rest had waged against armed knights to win a kingdom, were not half so arduous as this which he now undertook to win immortality against the English language.’

Is Woolf saying that as Orlando grows, he grows from the limited mortality of his murderous ancestors into the immortal poet? It’s possible, but doesn’t reduce the shock of those opening lines. There’s a lot more to say on this subject as I continue with my reading. Watch this space.

In recent news, employees at the Hachette publishing group staged a walkout over the publication of Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing. Last year, Hachette imprint Little, Brown published Catch and Kill, a work by Allen’s son Ronan Farrow (by actress Mia Farrow, Allen’s partner for 12 years) about the Harvey Weinstein scandal and how powerful mean escape accountability. Farrow has also been public about his support for his sister Dylan who claims that Allen molested her when she was 7. The internal Allen/Farrow family dynamic doesn’t interest me so much as the fact that someone at Hachette felt that the house could sidestep that dynamic. They could take the kudos for publishing Farrow’s work and also have financial dealings with Allen without taking an internal or external PR hit.

Yesterday, Hachette decided to back out of the Allen contract and pulped all copies of his book, appeasing that opposition to Allen. Farrow himself was surprised at the Allen deal because no one at Hachette had informed him it was happening.

I wish I could be surprised that a large business would engage in this kind of having cake/eating it too activity. Was it really possible that no one in the organization spoke up to say, No, the Allen deal is lousy, that it just doesn’t look good, that we have to stand by a principle in this matter? No, the principle was still let’s make money on this as long as we can get away with it. After the walkout, one executive admitted to the conflict of interest and stated that the decision to cancel the Allen contract was difficult. It’s worth noting that according to Wikipedia the Hachette group is one of the Big Six publishing houses (along with Penguin Random House and HarperCollins) and publishes approximately 2000 titles per year.

Stephen King, an author who has had his own censorship issues, released a pair of tweets. The first said ‘If you think he’s a pedophile, don’t buy the book…Vote with your wallet…In America, that’s how we do it.’ He followed up by stating my point, ‘Let me add that it was fucking tone-deaf of Hachette to want to publish Woody Allen’s book after publishing Ronan Farrow’s.’

I’d say that Allen is free to get his book out there any way he can. He’s wealthy enough to publish the thing himself if he wants to. The fact that his name is toxic in entertainment circles is not the fault of Hachette (or of any of the other publishers who passed on Apropos of Nothing). The fact that nothing came of the investigations into the charges against Allen doesn’t mean he’s innocent, first of all. It also doesn’t mean he’s guilty. But at a certain point you can look at his public behavior (his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter which began when Previn was 19 and Allen 56, and while Allen was still in a relationship with Farrow) and his movies (Manhattan for a prime example) and not just be creeped out a little bit. It’s a separate matter that over and over again in his movies he shows what little use he has for middle-aged women. Since noticing it, this has always left a bad taste in my mouth.

Another thing to note about the Hachette Group is their Center Street imprint of conservative titles. Authors who have found a home on Center Street include Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump, Jr. Recent titles include Michael Savage’s Scorched Earth: Restoring The Country After Obama. It’s not a bastion of liberalism by any stretch, and if the issue was just about authors or subjects with marital issues, then the Center Street imprint would be dragged into the discussion too.