A Meditation inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway on Upper Class Snobbery and its influence on economic competitiveness
“The Prime Minister”, said Peter Walsh. (…) One couldn’t laugh at him. He looked so ordinary. You might have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits – poor chap, all rigged up in gold lace. And to be fair, as he went his rounds, first with Clarissa then with Richard escorting him, he did it very well. He tried to look somebody. It was amusing to watch. Nobody looked at him. They just went on talking, yet it was perfectly plain that they all knew, felt to the marrow of their bones, this majesty passing; this symbol of what they all stood for, English Society. (…) Lord, lord, the snobbery of the English! thought Peter Walsh, standing in the corner. How they loved dressing up on gold lace and doing homage!
Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway, Harcourt Publishing, 1953, p. 172
We swear to God, that it was neither Boris Johnson, nor Brexit, nor “The Crown” (a Netflix series) nor even the 100th anniversary of the Signing of Versailles Treaty that had us turn our attention to Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway. It was the simple fact that the delivery (by regular mail) of the 3rd volume of Marcel Proust’s 7-part series “In Search of Lost Time” from one NAFTA-country to another took so ridiculously long (- 7 Weeks! Listen up Brexiteers! This is what you are in for once you have successfully pivoted your economy away from the EU towards the ominous, oh so fast growing Pacific-Rim countries! – ) that it felt like a good alternative to supplement our Proust study with a dash into the literary work of Mrs. Woolf. Little did we know that we would find in her yet another formidable, systemic risk researcher. And, yes, little did we suspect that both, Mrs. Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway, would take us right back into the Brexit-/Boris Johnson- trap which we had originally planned to leave aside for a while.
But, alas, the topic of English snobbery and (male) portentousness is just as much at the heart of the novel as is the question of existential loneliness and despair as such.
Let us, however, advance our analysis step by step here. Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1923, i.e. a mere 4 years after the signing of the Versailles Treaty. So the novel naturally echoes the traumas which WWI left behind in brave war veterans like Septimus Warren Smith and in society at large as it proved painfully inapt in treating subject traumas adequately. (Supposedly our post-modern societies are better equipped to handle mental disorders and depressions now. One cannot help but wonder though whether the Sir Bradshaw’s of our time celebrate their expertise with a little less pomp and self-assuredness than they did in Mrs. Woolf’s days.) Mrs. Dalloway, nevertheless, does not contend itself with just denouncing the medical profession from back then. It also reflects on the growing emotional alienation, isolation and disconnect that people start to experience in the emerging modern society of the early 20s. Clearly, this weird silence, this strange inability to have the brunt of one’s ruminations being echoed by others has always been an inevitable feature of social community. Just imagine what it would be like if this were otherwise. (Wouldn’t one then be eternally drowned in the incoherence of manifold human expressions that pop up here and there without any prior reflection whatsoever?) Nevertheless, modernity with its globalization (Peter Walsh, for instance, is just coming back from Burma), its urbanization and its technological advances (airplanes, radio, telephone) is taking the disconnect between people to new heights. And if you add the decidedly decorum-oriented/stiff upper-lip culture of the post-Victorian age into the mix then you end up with a social reality that pretty much confirms Sally Seton’s observation according to which one “knows nothing (…) even of the people on lives with every day”. (Mrs. Dalloway, p. 192)
It is hence somewhat natural that the narrative stream-of-consciousness technique would have been pioneered in England and on the British Isles. After all, what else would there be to talk about other than what is not being talked about?
Now, there is probably very little that can be done about the basic trend towards more alienation and social disintegration that modernity carries with it. The question, that, however, hovers over the lecture of Mrs. Dalloway is, whether the English stiff-upper-lip culture has meanwhile subsided somewhat so that the its society is now better equipped to psychologically deal with the emotional challenges which an even more individualistic digital reality tends to produce?
In other words, do the Milton-experts of our time (Prof. Brierly) demonstrate their “prodigious learning” with less timidity, their “wintry charm” with more cordiality and their innocence with less snobbery (p.176) nowadays than they did in Mrs. Woolf’s time? Would Lady Bradshaw’s smile meanwhile be less “sweet”, her submission be less swift and her lying less “smooth and urbane” than it was back when (p.100f)? And would Lady Bruton be less consumed today with performing her social “mystery or grand deception” (p.104) t that hostesses in Mayfair were so good at in the early 20s?
Noah denkt™, of course, does not have the intimate knowledge of English society that Mrs. Woolf had. So it is hard for us to say whether “the Goddess of Proportion” (p. 100), or better the Religion of Appropriateness, is being worshipped nowadays in English society with a lesser sense of self-congratulating devotion than it was in Mrs. Dalloway’s time.
What we can say though, judging from afar, is that the ruling class culture does no longer seem to be the same it was in 20s. The Tommy Lascelles have by now been substituted with younger surprisingly amenable royal courtiers, the Governing Body at Eton College is proud of its diversity and even some members of the European Research Group (Mark Francois comes to mind here) look more as if they have only recently stopped touring with The Ramones and donned an MP suit instead.
If there is still a whiff of Lady Bruton around it England, it would probably come from a handful of MPs like the much maligned Jacob Rees-Mogg or John Redwood. From our very remote vantage point, however, it is hard to tell whether their particular brand of stealthy and immaculate smugness is one of conviction or whether it is first and foremost a marketing ploy to stand out from the crowd.
Whatever it is though, it is clear that such a show of lofty inaccessibility is playing with fire. After all, it is unavoidable that any lordly performance of invulnerability will tell others that their personal despair is quite unacceptable and that nothing is to be gained from it. Propagating this sort of message, however, profoundly misreads the challenges which the digital world imposes on us. Because not only does such positioning deny the inevitability of human despair in a lonely and fractured digital society, but it also fails to grasp that subject despair, at this point in the turbo-competitive world, may very well be the last and only reserve left where truly unique and majestic market solutions can still be found.
In other words, the “wintry charm” faction continues to this day to discourage the Virginia Woolfs of our time from believing that any worthwhile market propositions could be found in the depth of their near-suicidal despair. And so the Teflon snobs are still not doing enough to ‘make Britain great again’. Because too little have they understood the nature of the innovation challenge at hand that they could now still hope to benefit from it.
The sad truth simply is that meanwhile cutting-edge innovation has become a Champions-League team effort which can ill afford that some members of the national economy squad take pride in not breaking sweat. Because what makes innovators succeed in this hyper-competitive environment isn’t just the personal genius they can bring to the table but the degree in which their personal soul-wrenching geniality effort is being supported collaborative national desire to participate convincingly in the emotional sacrifice.
It is therefore difficult to underestimate the damaging and counterproductive effect which Hugh Whitbreads have in this digital day and age. And for the sake of the English economy we can only hope that the band of icy snobs will eventually realize that. After all, Virginia Woolf has been telling them this for quite some time now.