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Friday, September 18, 2015

the casualties of utilitarianism

“ I could write the history of every mark and scratch in my room…” Virginia Woolf

Both John Stuart Mill and Virginia Woolf were products of families prominent in the history of utilitarianism. In fact, Woolf’s uncle, James Fitzjames Stephen, wrote a book against what he took to be  Mill’s apostosy from utilitarianism, which you can’t be more ultra than that, while her father, Leslie, whose eminence in the Victorian world was as unimpeachable as the Queen's, made time from during his vast labors to write the canonical history of the English utilitarians.

Famously, John Stuart Mill, educated according to his father’s, James Mill’s, notions, suffered a great breakdown in his youth, which he attributes, in a way, to the creed in his autobiography:
“For though my dejection, honestly looked at, could not be called other than egotistical, produced by the ruin, as I thought, of my fabric of happiness, yet the destiny of mankind in general was ever in my thoughts, and could not be separated from my own. I felt that the flaw in my life, must be a flaw in life itself; that the question was, whether, if the reformers of society and government could succeed in their objects, and every person in the community were free and in a state of physical comfort, the pleasures of life, being no longer kept up by struggle and privation, would cease to be pleasures. And I felt that unless I could see my way to some better hope than this for human happiness in general, my dejection must continue; but that if I could see such an outlet, I should then look on the world with pleasure; content, as far as I was myself concerned, with any fair share of the general lot.
This state of my thoughts and feelings made the fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time (in the autumn of 1828), an important event of my life.”

Woolf’s breakdowns, at the end of the century, are well known as well, although less often connected to the Stephen family’s place in English thought. In Virginia Woolf’s memoir of moving to Bloomsbury from her father’s house in Hyde Park in 1904, the year her father died, she uses the move as a way of symbolizing the end of the Victorian era – the “shadows of Hyde Park” – and the beginning of a new era. During the transition, she was mad. It was the second time she was mad.
“While I had lain in bed at the Dickinsons’ house at Welwyn thinking that the birds were singing Greek choruses and that King Edward was using the foulest possible language among Ozzie Dickinson’s azaleas, Vanessa had wound up Hyde Park Gate once and for all. She had sold; she had burnt; she had sorted; she had torn up. Sometimes I believe she had actually to get men with hammers to batter down – so wedged into each other had the walls and the cabinets become. But now all the rooms stood empty. Furniture vans had carted off all the different belongings. For not only had the furniture been dispersed. The family which had seemed equally wedged together had broken apart too.” –Old Bloomsbury.

Now, a philosophy by itself doesn’t often cause people to hear birds singing Sophocles. But I would claim that there was something in utilitarianism that was connected to both of these breakdowns. It was, in part, the contradiction at the heart of the utilitarian synthesis of 18th century hedonism and the calculation of self-interest. While that hedonism was the starting point, the massive industrial structure of the calculation of self-interest that was flung across the 19th century rather buried it. At the very least, in the dialectic, the douceur de la vie was distorted beyond recovery. There was, of course, a line of Victorian intellectuals who recognized this very well – and mostly they fell on the right. Mostly, reactionaries. From Carlyle to Dickens to Ruskin, there was a great, screaming sense of the sacrifice made to the calculus of rational self interest. And yet, it had the effect that it became hard, if not impossible, to recapture what the 18th century meant by hedonism. Dickens, for one could only, at the furthest reach, imagine happiness as owning a house free and clear with a pretty housewife to occupy it (and sneaking around with one’s mistress to make it tolerable). Carlyle imagined fascism, and Ruskin a return to the era of the Gothic.

Interestingly, at the time that Woolf was having her second attack of madness, she’d been reading one writer who was very much on the quest for a more 18th century version of happiness: Walter Pater.
I’ve been reading Jacob’s Room, and thinking about these things,  which I think converge in that novel. But I’ve also been thinking about what it meant for Woolf to move out of Hyde Park – out of the Victorian era – and into the modern era. In Jacob’s Room, at least, I think the complexities of the end of utilitarianism as a creed are taken into an opposition that runs through the narrative between the room and the wave.  

I think I’ll pick at this thread tomorrow.

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