Listing entries tagged with Woolf

Allegation that Atheism Is a Male Thing? -- 2

posted on 06.12.2006 at 11:16 PM

Women atheists:
Ernestine_Rose.jpgErnestine Rose (who will be one of the major characters in this book)
Frances Wright
Harriet Martineau
George Eliot: "God, immortality, duty -- how inconceivable the first, how unbelievable the second, how peremptory and absolute the third."
Virginia Woolf
Simone de Beauvoir: "I cannot be angry at God, in whom I do not believe."
Madalyn Murray O'Hair
Barbara Ehrenreich: "As an adult I found out that there was a big tradition of blue collar atheism in America..."

Nevertheless, there remains that startling gender imbalance in my cast of characters. Who am I forgetting?

JM has just recommended : "Jane Ellen Harrison, one of the Cambridge myth critics at the turn of the century," and "the real or imagined character of Diotima in Plato's Symposium."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:16 PM | Comments (6)

Poets and Prophets

posted on 05.14.2006 at 1:30 AM

Kierkegaard (quoted by Carlin Romano):

"Muhammad protests with all his might against being regarded as a poet, and the Koran as a poem. He wants to be a prophet. ... I protest with all my might at being regarded as a prophet, and want only to be a poet."

Either would be fine by me.

Actually haven't been that many atheists in either category. At least one world-class poet: Shelley. Some fine writers: Baron d"Holbach, Thomas Huxley, Robert Ingersoll, Nietzsche. At least one great writer: Virginia Woolf. Prophets? Odd term to apply to an atheist. Meslier? Nietzsche?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:30 AM | Comments (3)

Thinking Through Disbelief (Teleology -- 3)

posted on 04.24.2006 at 11:40 PM

Woolf222.jpgDostoyevsky.jpgIn To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf plays with the notion that human thought can be measured on a scale like the letters in the alphabet -- that some get to P or Q but few if any make it all the way to Z. Were there such a scale, it might be possible to say that Dostoyevsky in Karamazov, with his post-God nihilistic nightmare, is one letter behind Woolf's ruler-less universe, where "we perished each alone" and "loneliness" often seems "the truth about things," but where there is no shortage of love, art and even kindness.

What might take us to the next letter?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:40 PM | Comments (4)

To the Lighthouse

posted on 04.20.2006 at 11:13 PM

If the question is what, post religion, might satisfy the human need for meaning without itself becoming a form of religion -- and that may very well be the question -- then Woolf.jpgwe have yet another reason for reading Virginia Woolf's resplendent To the Lighthouse. Woolf, as has been noted here, was the daughter of Leslie Stephen, an early and important agnostic, and the model, we assume, for Mr. Ramsey in this novel.

To the Lighthouse seems a post-God novel. Mrs. Ramsey, perhaps its most compelling character, finds herself thinking, at one point, "We are in the hands of the Lord. But instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that.... She had been trapped into saying something she did not mean." And Mrs. Ramsey sets about "purifying out of existence that lie."

Woolf certainly doesn't downplay the tug of religion:

It was impossible to resist the strange intimation which every gull, flower, tree, man and woman, and the white earth itself seemed to declare (but if questioned at once to withdraw) that good triumphs, happiness prevails, order rules; or to resist the extraordinary stimulus to range hither and thither in search of some absolute good, some crystal of intensity, remote from the known pleasures and familiar virtues, something alien to the processes of domestic life, single, hard, bright, like a diamond in the sand, which would render the possessor secure.

The parenthesis in the above quote is, perhaps, key. Does Woolf discover any such diamond in the sands?

What is the meaning of life? That was all -- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with the years. The great revelation had never come. the great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark... In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here....

Are these pint-sized revelations little diamonds, little pieces of the absolute? Is this "stability" a religion-like attempt to find a place to stand, a solid foundation for constructing meaning? Is this "shape" amongst "chaos" a metaphysics? Or are we safely in a scientific, naturalistic universe of ebb and flow? Is Woolf just, as one of her characters acknowledges:

Telling herself a story but knowing at the same time what was the truth.

Might the "lighthouse" represent meaning? Or rationalism? Being in a novel, not in one of the essays her father wrote, we don't get clear answers; the matters aren't reduced to clear answers. In any case, the emphasis here is on the dream of the "lighthouse," the story of it. Does that enable Woolf to escape the fall back into religion?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:13 PM | Comments (1)

Atheist or Agnostic?

posted on 01.01.2006 at 11:41 AM

The word "agnostic" was coined by Darwin's friend and defender Thomas Huxley in 1869 to describe their less aggressive, less certain (and safer?) version of doubt.

"In matters of the intellect," Huxley wrote, "do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith."

And here is Leslie Stephen, who also prefered this "a" word to the other one: "State any one proposition in which all philosophers agree, and I will admit it to be true; or any one which has a manifest balance of authority, and I will agree that it is probable. But so long as every philosopher flatly contradicts the first principles of his predecessors, why affect certainty?"

Stephen's daughter Virginia Woolf, though occasionally prone to emitting vague mystical noises, seems more of the atheistic persuasion: "Certainly and emphatically there is no God."

This schism (Is Huxley to Atheism what Luther was to Catholicism?) makes most sense to me in terms of the two versions of Greek, Roman and then European skepticism: The Academic school believed it wasn't possible to really know anything. The Pyrrhonian school believed it wasn't even possible to know that.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 AM | Comments (7)

Pain or Liberation?

posted on 12.28.2005 at 10:17 PM

Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf's dad, suffered two major crises in his life: one -- a subject of To the Lighthouse -- when he lost his wife; the other when, while a tutor at Cambridge, he lost his faith. "I now believe in nothing, to put it shortly" he wrote in his journal in 1865. Stephen, according to a friend, contemplated suicide.

Does loss of faith have to be a crisis? Does it have to hurt?

Salman Rushdie is among those who have found freedom in the evaporation of religion: "Imagine there's no heaven," he has written, "and at once the sky's the limit."

Is it easier to feel that now? Is Rushdie right?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:17 PM | Comments (5)

Religion and Happiness, continued...

posted on 12.23.2005 at 8:03 PM

"Who would not be glad if he could say with confidence: 'the evil is transitory, the good eternal: our doubts are due to limitations destined to be abolished, and the world is really an embodiment of love and wisdom, however dark it may appear to our faculties'? And yet, if the so-called knowledge be illusory, are we not bound by the most sacred obligations to recognize the facts? ...Dreams may be pleasanter for the moment than realities; but happiness must be won by adapting our lives to the realities" -- Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf (who is said to have contemplated suicide with the fading of his belief)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:03 PM | Comments (0)