Loathsome Labours

“For who can doubt that once writers had the chance of writing what they enjoy writing they would write on any other terms; or that readers once they had the chance of reading what writers enjoy writing, would find it so much more nourishing than what is written for money that they would refuse to be palmed off with the stale substitute any longer. Thus the slaves who are now kept hard at work piling words into books, piling words into articles, as the old slaves piled stones into pyramids, would shake the manacles from their wrists and give up their loathsome labour. And now “culture”, that amorphous bundle, swaddled up as she now is in insincerity, emitting half truths from her timid lips, sweetening and diluting her message with whatever sugar or water serves to swell the writer’s fame or his master’s purse, would regain her shape and become, as Milton, Keats and other great writers assure us that she is in reality, muscular, adventurous, free. Whereas now, Madam, at the very mention of culture the head aches, the eyes close, the doors shut, the air thickens; we are in a lecture room, rank with the fumes of stale print, listening to a gentleman who is forced to lecture or to write about Keats, while the lilac shakes its branches in the garden free, and the gulls, swirling and swooping, suggest with wild laughter that such stale fish might with advantage be tossed to them.”

A tremendous rant from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas. My immediate thought is how much more impoverished our culture has become in the eighty years since this was published. Is it now even possible to conceive of a culture stripped of money, power, promotional and vanity motives? The only consolation to be found is that it is perhaps once again possible to take in everything genuinely worthwhile in contemporary culture. Assuming one is fortunate enough to find what is worthwhile amid the din.

8 thoughts on “Loathsome Labours

  1. Interesting excerpt! It reminds me of Woolf’s essay “How it Strikes a Contemporary”. Perhaps a similar dynamic is at play here when one looks at the old (‘how much more impoverished our culture has become in the eighty years…’ and the contemporary.

  2. Alas, yes, you are right. Although I suspect there has always been an element of ego and self-promotion in academia as well as the obsessive search for ‘truth’ or ‘greater learning’.

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