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The Woolfs and other pleasures

A rare and generous student quite unlike any other I have taught in my long life made me a gift of his copy of the latest issue of The New Yorker today, and I spent the next hour (while he and his fellow students labored over essays on Whitman) delighted by some fine writing about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas but completely arrested by an article on Leonard Woolf. I was surprised to notice that I’d never given much thought to Leonard, having devoted considerable attention to Virginia. I thought of him, if at all, simply as Virginia’s caretaker and the co-editor of the Hogarth Press. So this opening quotation from Leonard took me by storm: “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.” He continues, “I must have in a long life ground through between 150,000 and 200,000 hours of perfectly useless work.” Oh God, yes. Leonard Woolf was much more a counter than I am; I have not calculated the number of hours I have spent in perfectly useless work; but I can say without question that it feels to me as though I have ground through 200,000 hours of it, and it lifts my spirits to know that Virginia’s husband felt that way too. There is something perversely cheering about this. So much of what we all do is perfectly useless, which gives us permission to have a much better time doing it, or doing less of it, or escaping from it. If I hadn’t been doing what I was doing, what would I have done? Read all of Proust, perhaps. I still want to do that, and I was reminded of it just today by someone who has not wasted so many years in regular salaried employment as I have. The other thing that delighted me in that article is that Virginia decided to marry this man without knowing how to spell his name. She wrote to a friend, “I’ve got a confession to make. I’m going to marry Leonard Wolf.” How many times have I corrected my students’ misspelling of Virginia Woolf’s name? I find it hilarious that she misspelled it too, and that dovetails with the pointlessness of correcting my students’ spelling, and that leaves me with this pile of Whitman papers to grade: another eight hours of pointlessness, at least. Oh, why did I ask my students to write them? Whitman would have preferred me to send them out to play in the rain. But if I just sent them out to play in the rain, how would I grade them on that, and how would they earn these credits they need to earn in order, they think, to get better jobs and make more money, doing perfectly useless things? I just can’t get the veil of Maya to stay in place today.


One response to “The Woolfs and other pleasures”

  1. stephenbrody says:

    As you seem pretty well qualified perhaps you could teach them to live without the ‘credits’? If they can’t learn that they’re not worth the trouble. I don’t think Leonard Woolf is worth much trouble either, a sheep in wolf’s clothing if ever there was one, latching onto someone too good for him in order to ‘save’ her, or himself …

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