Anonymous asked: I must say I really enjoyed your blog and in particular your more recent posts when you talk about social justice warriors and wokedom. I know your blog is about celebrating the aesthetics of beauty and high culture and so you’ve made clear that you try to avoid getting involved in spats. But I would say your ferocious intellect is badly needed to shine a light on how wokedom is poisoning our modern culture. I know you are a fan of Nietzsche and so what would Nietzsche the philosopher have made of woke culture today?
I should have bit my lip and not made those posts about the dangers of wokedom because that’s not really the purpose of my blog as I said before in answering such hot button cultural issues. But like everyone else I am increasingly alarmed at how fast these pernicious ideas are being mainstreamed into society without any critical thinking or reflection. It’s disheartening to see it increasingly in well meaning friends. So often these discussions get lost down the rabbit hole of personalities rather than principles. But such issues are no reason to break friendships or even not to engage in ideas with seriousness and sincerity.
Funnily enough I have finally been catching up on my reading of Tom Holland’s latest majestic book Dominion: the making of the Western Mind. It’s essentially a history book that surveys how the West owes more to its Christian roots than its Greek or Roman heritage - which for Tom Holland, as a brilliant classicist, is at first a hard pill to swallow, but as a widely admired historian with scholarly integrity is happy to come to that conclusion because he has no axes to grind.
I was most intrigued by what he said when the subject of Nietzsche and wokedom came up, “I read Nietzsche years ago, but now - because we've come to live in a woke world, and wokeness, as Nietzsche himself would doubtless have pointed out, is so palpably derived from Christianity - he seems infinitely more shocking than he did.”
I think there is a plausible discussion to be had on what Nietzsche would have made of the current faddishness with woke culture if indeed it mirrors Nietzsche’s probing of the Christian religion.
Of course, for more than a century, Nietzsche, one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted philosophers, has been appropriated by a plethora of disparate groups: anarchists, feminists, religious fanatics, Nazis, Marxists, socialists, vegetarians, avant garde artists, modernist writers, to mention just a few - and his iconic firepower has now been turned on 21st century society.
What Nietzsche would think of our woke age - our identity politics, therapy culture, ‘safe spaces’, religious fundamentalism, virtue-signalling, Twitterstorms, public emoting, ‘dumbing-down’, digital addiction the politics of envy, the racial politics of BLM and above all the political purity of the social justice warrior?
If he were here today he would probably despair that, fundamentally, nothing much had changed in human nature since his time, and in many respects had worsened with technological advance.
Nietzsche’s view, or vision, of the human situation, or predicament - his psychological critique of 19th century values and culture (he lived from 1844–1900) - was that we are always out of sorts, suffering from a kind of malaise for which the complexity of the civilisation we have created has to take a share of the blame.
This is from his famous Also Sprach Zarathustra (1884) - widely viewed as the most poetic expression of his thought, and extraordinarily influential in 20th century European literature, but (frankly) no easier read than his more conventional expositions.
He wouldn't have been surprised by the academic lynching of controversial speakers on university campuses such as Jordan Peterson’s denial of a fellowship at Cambridge University because of a woke led mob or the scrubbing of past historical icons from the canon such as that of Edinburgh University's treatment of one of the great Scottish philosophers, David Hume.
Some passages need no contextual explanation for their force and astuteness to jump out at us. His coinage for the cancel culture woke warriors and 'intersectionalists' of his time is the ‘tarantulas.’
"That the world may become full of the storms of our revenge, let precisely that be what we call justice" - thus the tarantulas speak to each other. "We will wreak vengeance and abuse on all those who are not as we are" - thus the tarantula-hearts promise themselves. "And 'will to equality' - that shall henceforth be the name of virtue; and we shall raise outcry against everything that currently has power! You preachers of equality - from you the tyrannical madness of impotence cries out for ‘equality’: thus your secret desire to be tyrants disguises itself in words of virtue.”
It’s hard not to see a similarity to wokism, which contends that society is grotesquely unjust and, in fact, white supremacist. Those with power are privileged and perpetuate systemic racism, while those who are indigent and/or without social status are noble victims of the oppressive order. In the woke narrative, though, god has been replaced by the secular justice of the anti-racist crusader. Their efforts, not the intervention of a deity, is what will usher in an era of justice, overturning the corrupt world now inhabit.
Although the puzzle Nietzsche sought to solve in ‘Genealogy of Morals’ was not, of course, the origin and rise of wokism, his analysis of the triumph of Christianity is illuminating and quite useful. It is here one can see parallels to how Nietzsche would look at the perils of Wokism.
According to Nietzsche, the weak were bitterly envious of the powerful, but incapable of actually conquering them physically. Therefore, they created the conception of a deferred justice, one in which the wrongs of the world would be righted and turned the concept of “bad” into “evil.” They were not actually weak and impotent, but noble and oppressed. And the powerful were not righteous and aristocratic, but brutal, evil, and exploitative.
We see here the basic narrative of the believer of the apocalyptic and the basic outline of a psychological explanation for its appeal. People who have low status, whatever the cause, are generally reluctant to confess that they deserve their lowly position in society. And they will be attracted to narratives that claim that, in fact, they are not lowly because of they deserve to be, but rather because of some fundamental corruption in the universe, some deviation from the “right.” Wokism, like other apocalyptic narratives (e.g., some strands of Judaism and Christianity, communism), thus attracts people who are or were low in status because it explains that they would/should be more elevated.
Today’s social justice warriors are morally puritanical, motivated by a quest for moral and political purity that is indicative of their god-fearing forebears. But unlike their Christian forebears, they are godless. As a result, they lack some of the saving graces of their antecedents, not the least of which is the humility that comes with the awareness that we are all flawed or, to speak more like a Puritanical Christian, that we are all sinners.
In the minds of the woke, it is the system, the patriarchy, the man (white, straight, and cisgendered, no doubt) - call it what you will - that is flawed; the woke are merely innocent victims, who, had they control, would right the wrongs that riddle their age and rid the world of them (and, if history is anything to go by, those held responsible for perpetuating them as well). What the woke also lack is moral and intellectual honesty or consistency, owing to the corrupting- or enlightening, depending on one’s view - influence of their unholy father. But what they lack in honesty, they more than make up for with certitude.
Thus, for example, that elemental quandary that bedevilled Socrates and his companions one wakeful night in the Piraeus some two and a half millennia ago is no longer open to question. If nothing else, the woke know what justice is.
But it turns out the Wokists know many things - the very things of which Socrates professed, and his interlocutors often proved, to be ignorant. It is not moral relativism that they display but supreme moral confidence (you and I might call it insufferable arrogance of youth). That confidence is reflected in the dogmatism and often fanaticism with which they espouse any number of positions on matters that ought to invite a good deal of skepticism and leave ample room for debate.
It is also reflected in their aversion to debate. We know this because they simply lack the courage to debate their ideas under a critical examination of its key claims. They prefer to shut down the debate by throwing out a tantrum of false accusations that to question them must make you a racist or an enemy. When you know you are right and your opponents wrong - and not just (or at all) factually wrong, but morally so - why debate them? Better to cancel, de-platform your critics, silence them forever - forcefully, if need be.
What the woke inherited from Nietzsche is force; or rather, an understanding of the part that power plays in human interactions.
Nietzsche posited that the fundamental drive of all life is will to power, which might better be understood as the will to overpower. Life is a struggle not for survival or existence (as Darwinists would have it), but for power; a struggle that manifests itself not simply on the plains of the Serengeti but in less overtly brutish matters such as religion, philosophy, and morality.
If power lies at the heart of all human affairs, then appeals to truth, reason, forbearance, and so forth are themselves nothing more than power grabs, mendaciously and - for a long time - efficaciously garbed. But that time has past. The woke have awoken; the jig is up. Hence their penchant for protesting and their want of compunction about doing so violently. In the struggle for power, intimidation is more effective than persuasion.
But it is a nilhistic struggle without rhyme or reason. Life has no teleology and history no directionality. We are but ephemeral beings of chance aimlessly adrift in a cosmic void hemmed in by eternities that have known and will know nothing of us. However, this part of Nietzsche’s teaching the woke have studiously and conveniently neglected, which helps to explain their moral and intellectual dishonesty.
As Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov inferred, if God is dead, everything is permitted. And lo and behold, Nietzsche informs us, the Christian God is dead. But, it turns out, at least in the sanctimonious minds of the woke, everything is not permitted.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the absurdity of the social justice warrior’s ethos more effectively (and comically) than the safe spaces that they routinely demand, where, instead of everything being permitted, very little is permitted, lest the occupants of those spaces be discomfited.
God is dead. Life is will to power. Do no harm. The syllogistic ratiocinations of a social justice warrior.
The demand for safe spaces and ‘trigger warnings’ - by which certain ideas and books are quarantined - is a sign of emotional and mental fragility. Nietzsche no doubt would agree. Long before such spaces and warnings existed, Nietzsche claimed that,
“we moderns, with our thickly padded humanity, which at all costs wants to avoid bumping into a stone, would have provided Cesare Borgia’s contemporaries with a comedy at which they could have laughed themselves to death. Indeed, we are unwittingly funny beyond all measure with our modern “virtues.” (Twilight of the Idols, “Skirmishes of an Untimely Man” #37)
But the risibility of those virtues did not blind Nietzsche to their danger. Modern virtues, which the woke at once emblematise and bastardise, are inimical to life understood as will to power. Those virtues prioritise fragility over fortitude and aim to do away with the very conditions that life requires to flourish and advance. We may lament the emotional and mental fragility of the woke, but they are children of modernity, not its negation, to say nothing of its transcendence. Their longing is consistent with the modern longing, itself an outgrowth of the Christian longing, for a world without suffering,
“Whoever examines the conscience of the European today will have to pull the same imperative out of a thousand moral folds and hideouts—the imperative of herd timidity: “we want that some day there should be nothing any more to be afraid of!” Some day - throughout Europe, the will and way to this day is now called “progress.” (Beyond Good and Evil #201)
In this regard, the worst excesses of the original Christian Puritan than Nietzsche may be found in today’s social justice warrior.
It is a point that bears stressing that the fractious multitudes menacing the West are of the West’s own making and that in combatting them, those who would seek to defend the West must combat something of themselves, of their shared heritage. That is what Nietzsche calls for. Nietzsche did not create the nihilists at and within our gates, though he did welcome them; nor, for that matter, did he kill God. We - who live off the fruits of that heritage - did, even if we fail to acknowledge as much.
What Nietzsche meant by the death of God is that ‘the idea’ of God was no longer plausible. What renders that idea untenable is what we know, or accept to be true, about ourselves and the ever-expanding universe into which we find ourselves thrown.
Case in point: according to one of those verities, one that Nietzsche himself qualified as true but deadly, there is no “cardinal distinction between man and animal” (On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life). How can that truth be reconciled with “faith in the dignity and uniqueness of man, in his irreplaceability in the great chain of being?” (On the Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay #25).
Nietzsche’s answer is, so long as we are being honest, it can’t. Once the earth has been unchained from the sun (The Gay Science #125), the value of man cannot be sustained - unless a new horizon is discovered (or given), which is precisely what Nietzsche set out to do.
Why would Nietzsche himself write books that seek to alert his readers to the creeping malady of Western society? Isn’t that an act of altruism and generosity rather than an assertion of power? An answer to that question is decisive not only for understanding what Nietzsche was after but what he meant by power. Something the wokists keenly understand and wish to exploit to the hilt.
Yes, Nietzsche was critical of Plato and the tradition he engendered, including (and especially) Platonism for the people (i.e., Christianity), but he was not oblivious to the peerless wonders that had been born from it. By virtue of it, the human animal has become much more interesting, the human soul much more profound. The problem, in Nietzsche’s mind, is that that tradition has run its course. It has become nihilistic - its “highest values devalue themselves” (Will to Power #2). New values are needed; new goals are needed.
But that does not entail that the past two and a half millennia should be dispensed with. A tradition that boasts Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Montaigne, Mozart, Aristophanes, da Vinci, Spinoza, Beethoven, Heine, and Plato (yes, Plato), to name but a few of the civilisational titans whom Nietzsche esteemed, has a good deal to celebrate.
There is much in Western Civilisation that is worth preserving, including the very wellsprings of it, as evinced by Nietzsche’s extraordinary image of the overman: “the Roman Caesar with the soul of Christ” (Will to Power #983).
That image should help dispel the conceit that Nietzsche’s teaching on the will to power amounts to nothing more than an exaltation of brute force.
But such ghastly meditations aside, a more sensitive reading of Nietzsche reveals that not all wills to power are equal. A person who takes a life is not necessarily more powerful than a person who spares one. A mob that tears down a civilisation isn’t more powerful than the genius who founds one. The Athenians who condemned Socrates deprived him of his life, but ultimately, it was his will, not theirs, that proved triumphant.
Why would Nietzsche alert his readers to the creeping malady that afflicts the West? Because he fathomed, as deeply as anyone, the grandeur that was within it; but he also described, again as well as anyone, the rot that coursed through that civilisation, a rot reflected in the levelling and nihilistic inclination to discredit all grandeur.
One need not be a Nietzschean to recognise that something is rotten in the states of the Western world more broadly. It was Nietzsche’s view that the civilisation could not be saved, even if pieces of it could be salvaged. The rot had run too deep and spread too far.
It is in this regard that Nietzsche might have welcomed to undo the civilisation that had reared him. Western civilisation’s destruction sets the stage for a new creation: “If a temple is to be erected a temple must be destroyed—that is the law” (On the Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, #24).
In the end, social justice warriors may be little more than Nietzsche’s useful idiots. At best they are soulless in their nihilistic pieties which are doomed to intellectual incoherence and must be a source of perpetual frustration and social unrest.
I don’t want to push the Nietzschean parallel of equating Christianity to our modern day wokism too far. I think there is a crucial and important factor that can never be overlooked.
Wokism, unlike early Christianity, is an exclusively an elite phenomenon. And this is where Nietzsche’s analysis, I think, only goes thus far.
Many hyper-educated people are also attracted to and ardently articulate and defend the doctrines of wokism. Surely, they aren’t bitter about their lack of status?
Instead, I think they are attracted to wokism for two reasons: One, because it functions as as a status system to distinguish educated elites from hoi polloi and two, because, like other religions, is provides a powerful justification for distinctions in status.
I’ve discussed the signaling component in detail elsewhere in my past posts, so I’ll conclude by focusing on the justificatory function.
Status disparities cause tension in society. This, in fact, is the chief observation behind the appeal of apocalypticism for those low in prestige: It satisfies their grievances by suggesting that they will, in a just world, be elevated over the corrupt who now have status. Therefore, those who have status need to justify it to others and perhaps especially if they are egalitarians to themselves.
Wokism serves this function by suggesting that their status is cosmically just because it is congruent with their righteousness. This happy thought also likely soothes their own vexatious reflections on the massive disparities between hoi polloi and themselves. No reason to feel guilty if status is earned through spiritual purity.
Like any good man-made ideology, wokism appeals to multiple factions in society at the same time. It appeals to those who have low status because it contends that the poor, the lowly, the “last” are actually noble victims of an intolerable evil. And when the just world of the future arrives, those who are now last will indeed be first. And it appeals to educated elites because it provides a rich signaling vocabulary that they can use to distinguish themselves from relatively uneducated whites while also justifying their status to others and to themselves.
Wokism, therefore, is both a philosophy of ressentiment and an elitist apologetic. No wonder it has proliferated so rapidly.
Essentially, Nietzsche was a thinker wrestling with his own fate. Perhaps more clearly than any other, he exemplifies the existential truth that a philosopher who endeavours to make himself representative but creates a (literary) persona to assuage his own deepest needs cannot really offer an enclave for others but can greatly enrich the resources which others might use to build.
In our times, Nietzsche is a tonic against rage, certitudes, intolerance and idealism, against both the elites and the herd, against resentment, envy and selfishness. He exhorts us to live with doubt and be free of grand ideas imposed by others, to live our lives to the full and without fear.
For me, Nietzsche remains invaluable because he demands bravery and honesty and integrity in a digital world of echo-chambers, one evermore divided into conformist and righteous tribes. Ultimately, we are asked by Nietzsche to live life with courage and sincerity.
Through readings of Nietzsche we can help liberate ourselves from ideology and group-think, to be fearless in our thoughts, actions and words. New words and challenging ideas won’t kill you - they might make you stronger. Nietzsche would have recognised how the politics of identity leads to self-obsession and self-aggrandisement, and from there to belligerence and intolerance.
Thanks for your question.
34 notes · View notes
I think of something I read about Sargent: how in portraiture, Sargent always looked for the animal in the sitter (a tendency that, once I knew to look for it, I saw everywhere in his work: in the long foxy noses and pointed ears of Sargent’s heiresses, in his rabbit-toothed intellectuals and leonine captains of industry, his plump, owl-faced children).
- Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
John Singer Sargent’s reputation among art critics has risen, fallen, and risen again. He was once among the most celebrated painters in Europe and America. He scandalised Paris with his painting Madame X, helped inspire The Picture of Dorian Gray, and was made the official artist of World War I. But when he died in 1925, artistic trends were already turning against representational art, and lush paintings of wealthy industrialists’ wives had become politically incorrect. In 1931, Lewis Mumford called him a mere “illustrator,” whose work was characterized by “contemptuous and cynical superficiality.”
Madame X by John Singer Sargent
Born in Italy to American parents, Sargent lived most of his life in Europe. He studied in the Paris studio of Carolus-Duran, and his major influences were Velazquez and the French impressionists. The latter were personal friends, particularly Claude Monet and Paul Helleu, with whom he often painted. But his style was distinct, especially his use of dark contrasts. According to one revealing story, Sargent once ran out of black paint and asked to borrow some from Monet, only to find that the Frenchman didn’t carry any.
He adapted from the impressionists his characteristic style of bold brushstrokes and tricks such as the glob of white paint that gives the necklace in Lady Agnew of Lochnaw a glimmering 3D effect. Examined up close, Sargent’s paintings appear like streaks of colour that couldn’t possibly make up the more-than-real images one actually sees when one steps back. And he combined this deceptive precision with a mastery of shading, which he enjoyed demonstrating by painting white-on-white - a demanding trick that under his brush seems like hardly any bother. As is usually the case, such apparent effortlessness was the product of painstaking discipline. His 1886 Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose took months to complete, because he could paint only for a few minutes each evening when the light was perfect.
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent
Sargent was also skilled at selecting poses that bring his subjects to life. Instead of forcing Homer St. Gaudens into a stale, statuesque position, he captured the boy’s candid, slouching boredom. Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron sit like they’re about to disclose some haunting secret. And Pamela, the middle Wyndham Sister, fiddles idly with her ring like the flirtatious dynamo she was. Yet his works don’t descend into bland, documentary naturalism. On the contrary, these realistic touches amplify the glamorous, sometimes otherworldly beauty that Sargent drew out of real people.
His skill at abstraction often makes his portraits more like windows into an ideal world than faithful depictions of his models. Consider Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter Rachel, now on display at the Gardner alongside a photo of the two posing. They’re by no means ugly, but on canvas, they become what they no doubt wished they were. “Women don’t ask you to make them beautiful,” he wrote, “but you can feel them wanting you to.”
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent, National Galleries of Scotland
Or consider his greatest portrait, Lady Agnew. The real Gertrude Vernon was a moderately attractive noblewoman who was ill much of her life, including when the artist was working. But the painting, finished in just six sittings with no preliminary sketches, transcends reality. She vibrates with a liveliness only thinly veiled with nonchalance, just as the translucent sleeves of her gown shield the arms beneath. Her leisurely pose, on one hip diagonal with the chair, contrasts with the hypnotic attentiveness of her gaze, giving the impression - to borrow a line from Sargent’s contemporary, Joseph Conrad - of “the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” Lady Agnew goes beyond formal portraiture, and transports the viewer into a realm of elegance and intrigue.
Despite efforts by later critics to marginalise his work, Sargent influenced generations of painters - from John White Alexander to Daniel E. Greene to Ariana Richards. Perhaps his finest admirer in recent years was Pino Daeni, whose sensual oils adapted Sargent’s sweeping brush strokes and lively poses to a more exotic color palette. One can only hope that more people can give Sargent his artistic due. As the master of elevated grace, his legacy will forever be cherished by those who long for an art that expresses life as it could and ought to be.
90 notes · View notes
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
- W.B. Yeats, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Yeats one of my favourite poets. I often turn to him on a rainy day for soulful reflection with a steaming cup of tea looking out of my Parisian apartment window.
This short famous poem was written for Maud Gonne, the woman Yeats loved for many years and viewed as his chief muse. They never married, although Yeats asked her on several occasions. Joseph Hone, one of Yeats’s best biographers, records that Yeats once commented in a lecture that another of his poems, ‘The Cap and Bells‘, was the way to win a woman, while ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ was the way to lose one.
Although many readers have responded positively to Yeats’s poem – which places romantic dreams and ambitions over material riches – it appears that, at least in terms of his own love life, the poem didn’t have the effect Yeats desired.
Interestingly, when the poem was first published in Yeats’s third volume of poems, The Wind among the Reeds, in 1899, it appeared under the title ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, Aedh being the speaker of the poem – a pale, sensitive, Keatsian, Romantic figure of a poet.
This suggests that we are supposed to view the poem itself as slightly tongue-in-cheek, a somewhat over-the-top declaration (which casts Aedh as a sort of Sir Walter Raleigh of poetry, figuratively spreading his cloak of dreams beneath the female addressee, as Sir Walter was supposed to have laid his cloak over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth I).
Even with the later change in title to ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, there is something in that title – with the use of the present tense and third-person pronoun suggesting something of the stage direction – that renders it slightly ironic.
The message is straightforward, and a perennial one in poetry (and, indeed, song lyrics). The speaker, addressing his lover or would-be lover, says: if I were a rich man, I’d give you the world and all its treasures. If I were a god, I could take the heavenly sky and make a blanket out of it for you.
But (he goes on) I’m only a poor man, and obviously the idea of making the sky into a blanket is silly and out of the question, so all I have of any worth are my dreams. And dreams are delicate and vulnerable – hence ‘Tread softly’.
This is a rather old idea, but what helps to make the poem striking and memorable is its use of repetition of key words: cloths (three times), dreams (three times), light (three times), spread (twice), tread (twice), under your feet (twice). (And, if we include the title, you might add an extra ‘cloths’ and count ‘heaven’ as one of the repeated words.) The rhyme of the poem supports this repetition: technically, there are no rhymes as such, merely the same words repeated at the end of lines: cloths, light, feet, dreams.
This gives the words of the poem a simplicity but also a sense of familiarity, even banality: the poet is reduced to finding slightly different ways of saying the same thing. But playing off this rhyme-that-is-not-rhyme at the end of the lines is the internal rhyme: ‘Of night and light and the half light‘, ‘I have spread my dreams under your feet; / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’.
Because this involves words which are themselves repeated, it shifts the expected rhyme (e.g. night and light at the end of the lines) to the middle of the lines, highlighting that things are not as the poet would wish them to be.
Perhaps its brevity and simplicity is one reason why this Yeats poem is so loved; but on reflection it brings home some of the subtler things at work in it.
18 notes · View notes
Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.
- Dame Edith Sitwell DBE, poet, critic, eccentric.
Sitwell’s writing life began around 1912, when she was 25. Poetry slipped into the space previously occupied by music, though another spur seems to have been other people. The extent of Sitwell's acquaintance is astonishing: her address book, if ever she was in possession of such a bourgeois item, would read now like a roll call of early 20th-century artistic life. Sickert, Walton, Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Woolf: she knew them all. With her Saturday-night salons, and her editorship of the journal Wheels, Sitwell established herself as an enemy of the old (specifically of the Georgian poets) and a cheerleader of the new; her own work, especially Facade, first performed in 1923, reinforced this impression. It wasn't long before her peers were swooning at her feet.
She was known for being a larger than life fashion horse with flamboyant eccentric taste as much as her poetry and literary critques. Contemporary critics accused her of overambition; might she not, they wondered, be better off limiting herself to a smaller canvas? Sitwell, though, was convinced that modesty was death for the woman poet. "There was no one to point the way," she told Stephen Spender in 1946, at the peak of her success. "I had to learn everything – learn, amongst other things, not to be timid." Her clothes, then, were a weapon in the war against timidity – and in this sense are as much a part of Sitwell's brand of modernism as her fondness for reciting poetry through an upturned traffic cone.
Then again, Sitwell was in need of armour long before she knew she wanted to be a writer. A neglected child and, by modern standards, an abused one, her parents, Sir George and Lady Ida (George was the fourth baronet Sitwell), were distant and, in the case of Ida, feckless (in 1915, when Edith was in her 20s, Lady Ida stood trial for fraud and, having been convicted, served a short prison sentence). Their daughter was a mystery to them and, possibly, a shock, being curved of spine and crooked of nose (Ida was famously beautiful). Their cruelty began with their refusal formally to educate their daughter (Sir George read Tennyson's "The Princess" and promptly decided that university made girls "unwomanly"), and ended with their decision to straighten both her spine and nose with the aid of metal braces ("my Bastille", Edith called her back brace).
Later, during her coming out, Edith asked a man at dinner whether he preferred Brahms or Mozart, and was hastily withdrawn from the circuit. When she left home – she lived for many years with her old governess, Helen Rootham, though they were not lovers – George paid her rent, but meagrely. He seemed not to mind that while he languished in fine houses in Yorkshire (Renishaw is near Sheffield) and Italy, his daughter inhabited shabby rooms in grubby parts of London and Paris. No wonder Sitwell was so close to her writer brothers, Sacheverell and, in particular, the repulsively selfish Osbert.
Sitwell had angular features resembling Queen Elizabeth I and she stood six feet tall. She often dressed in an unusual manner with gowns of brocade or velvet, with gold turbans and many rings; her jewellery is now in the jewellery galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Her unusual appearance provoked critics almost as much as her verse, and she was the subject of virulent personal attacks from Geoffrey Grigson, F. R. Leavis, and others. She gave as good as she got, describing much feared and highly influential Cambridge literature professor, F.R. Leavis, as "a tiresome, whining, pettyfogging little pipsqueak".
Sitwell treated her enemies with aristocratic scorn. Noël Coward wrote a skit on her and her two brothers as "the Swiss Family Whittlebot" for his 1923 revue London Calling!, and she refused to speak to him until they were reconciled after her 70th birthday party at London's Royal Festival Hall.
In a correspondence featured in the Times Literary Supplement in 1963, she participated in an ongoing debate on the value of the work of William S. Burroughs and the nature of literary criticism, initiated by critic John Willard. Sitwell stated that she was delighted by Willard's wholly negative review of Burroughs' work, despite claiming not to know who Burroughs was. In the same letter, she described Lady Chatterley's Lover as an "insignificant, dirty little book", and rounded out her letter with the statement that she preferred Chanel Number 5 to having her nose "nailed to other people's lavatories".
Sitwell died in 1964, a paranoid alcoholic and her poetry forgotten. Her fans blame its neglect on her class (the upper-class woman as dilettante), her gender (the misogyny of critics such as Geoffrey Grigson), and the austerity of a new generation of poets (Larkin, Kingsley Amis) allergic both to symbolism and complexity.
Sitwell is important: a modernist pioneer; a glorious example of the outsider life well led; a passionate champion of other writers (she was Wilfred Owen's first editor). Above all, a chastening example of the way literary fame can vanish almost overnight.
14 notes · View notes