“But what are the objects of human desire? Physical pleasure, no doubt, in part. But the mere appetites which we have in common with the animals would be gratified almost as cheaply and easily as those of the animals are gratified, if nothing were given to taste, to ostentation, or to the affections. How small a portion of the income of a gentleman in easy circumstances is laid out merely in giving pleasurable sensations to the body of the possessor! The greater part even of what is spent on his kitchen and his cellar goes, not to titillate his palate, but to keep up his character for hospitality, to save him from the reproach of meanness in housekeeping, and to cement the ties of good neighbourhood. It is clear that a king or an aristocracy may be supplied to satiety with mere corporal pleasures, at an expense which the rudest and poorest community would scarcely feel.”
This anthropological protest against the utilitarian apriori was greatly expanded by Veblen at the end of the 19th century. It is certainly not a comprehensive critique, but it speaks to a “lowness” in the utilitarian world view that was certainly felt by almost all the Victorian sages.
But those sages also saw that, indeed, the era of the satiety of mere corporal pleasures was on the horizon. From the sugar that sweetened the tea of the poorest laborer in England in the 18th century to the new department stores that Zola and Dreiser wrote about, a sort of synthesis was being enacted in which the great social purpose was not to satiate desire but to arouse it.
The result, in its critics eyes, was that a utilitarian culture slowly dissolved the belief that there could be any larger purpose, or that desire was anything but a tool to profit. Simmel, in the Philosophy of Money at the end of the 19th century, saw that this was an insistent characteristic of a society in which the social nexus seemed to have been supplanted by the cash nexus: rationality becomes less about reason as a living, dialectical entity – an open spirit of inquiry - and more about the best strategy for making a money, for playing the angle, a strategy to which all creativity is subordinate. Simmel’s sociology may have enormously exaggerated the inroads of rational self-interest: Europe was still a continent that was majority peasant in 1900, and larger purposes, ominously, were everywhere. But there was something inexorable about the social logic that Simmel lays out, something that could be felt, like a chill, on ever street of every city. It was not only among intellectuals that the idea that humans were reduced to their use in a machine that was felt to be an insult to humanity, and a source of suffering. On the other side of Simmel’s money-bound society were the many critiques and utopias, all of which were meant to solve it, or transcend it, or roll it back. It was certainly felt by Mill, in the 1860s, that something had gone wrong with both the social logic of utilitarianism and with happiness itself, as it was currently interpreted. Woolf and the people that she knew all felt that something had gone badly wrong. But the difference between 1850 and 1922 – the difference that Woolf had dated, famously, to 1910, in her essay on Arnold Bennett – was that the failure of the larger purpose was not seen as a bad thing, but rather as a stone that had been lifted from off our breasts. At least in Woolf’s own writing, this becomes an aesthetic principle of loose ends. The word about Woolf is that she is always psychological. However, one cannot get very far reading Jacob’s Room in this way. In a sense, Jacob’s Room is a rubican novel – once she wrote it, she could not go back. What she does in it is suggest that the novel need not be tied to the fate of the character. Instead, fate could be put to one side, and a certain looseness, a certain concantanation of life paths, can be thrust into the foreground.
Myself, I am continually thrown back on a persistant binary in Woolf’s writing between the room and the wave. Jacob’s Room, evidently, stakes itself on the room – but it is a book filled with waves. In an early scene in the book, when Jacob is boating with his Cambridge friend Timmy Durrant, the wave is thrust into literature itself – or, rather, literature is thrust into the wave.
“The seat in the boat was positively hot, and the sun warmed his back as he sat naked with a towel in his hand, looking at the Scilly Isles which--confound it! the sail flapped. Shakespeare was knocked overboard. There you could see him floating merrily away, with all his pages ruffling innumerably; and then he went under.”
“… all his pages ruffling innumerably”! This is such an intelligent adverb that I myself go under it, bow to it, sink beneath it. This must be said. But to return to my point, this is not the only place where the wave becomes the great universal solvent in which all things are dissolved and resolved.
I’ll do more, I hope, with the room and the wave later.