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Rags. Petrol. Matches.
By Ed Driscoll · March 25, 2006 09:27 AM · Bobos In Paradise · Radical Chic · The Return of the Primitive

On the flight out to New Jersey, I read Theodore Dalrymple's superb essay (that's a redundant phrase, isn't it?) on Virginia Woolf:

Mrs. Woolf’s ideal college—the kind that would prevent rather than promote wars—would not be in any way elitist. It would “not [be] parcelled out into the miserable distinctions of rich and poor, of clever and stupid.” It would, rather, be a place “where all the different degrees and kinds of mind, body and soul met and co-operated.” It would be entirely nonjudgmental, even as to intellect. For her, the urge to compete does not inhere in man’s nature, nor does it result in anything other than violent strife. Henceforth, there is to be no testing oneself against the best, with the possibility, even the likelihood, of failure: instead, one is perpetually to immerse oneself in the tepid bath of self-esteem, mutual congratulation, and benevolence toward all.

Of course, it is a mistake to suppose that a hypothetical future state of perfect toleration means toleration in or of the present: far from it. Mrs. Woolf would not let her opponents, or those who think differently, live in peace: on the page after the last marked by Michel Leiris, she gives full expression to her slash-and-burn concept of cultural renewal: “No guinea of earned money should go to rebuilding the college on the old plan. . . . [T]herefore the guinea should be earmarked ‘Rags. Petrol. Matches.’ And this note should be attached to it. ‘Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows [before, presumably, being burned to death] and cry “Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this education!”’”

This incendiary passage, Mrs. Woolf insists in her very next sentence, is not mere empty rhetoric: though she subsequently retreats a little from her incitement to arson by pointing out the self-defeating nature of that crime, insofar as the college she was proposing to burn down was necessary to train women to be able to earn the guinea of discretionary income with which to buy the materials to burn it down in the first place. What a dilemma! The passion, if not the logic, of her argument is clear and perhaps casts a new light on the deliberate destructiveness of the motives that lay behind her literary innovations. She was nothing if not a great hater of all that had gone before her.

But Woolf was far from alone in this; hating all that had gone on before was one the themes of the 20th century, as a Wolfe of an entirely different coat (white garbadine, typically) once wrote:
“Start from zero” was the slogan of the Bauhaus School, a tiny artists’ movement in Germany in the 1920s that swept aside the architectural styles of the past and created the glass-box face of the modern American city during the twentieth century. I should mention the soaring exuberance with which the movement began, the passionate conviction of the Bauhaus’s leader, Walter Gropius, that by starting from zero in architecture and design man could free himself from the dead hand of the past.

The hippies sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes of restraints of the past and start out from zero. Among the codes and restraints that people in the [hippie] communes swept aside—quite purposely—were those that said you shouldn’t use other people’s toothbrushes or sleep on other people’s mattresses without changing the sheets or, as was more likely, without using any sheets at all.

And in 1968 they were relearning…the laws of hygiene…by getting the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot. This process, namely the relearning—following a Promethean and unprecedented start from zero—seems to me to be the leitmotif of the 21st century.

In politics the 20th century’s great start from zero was one-party socialism, also known as Communism or Marxism-Leninism. Given that system’s bad reputation in the West today, it is instructive to read John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World—before turning to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Well before the sudden breaching of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the relearning had reached the point where even ruling circles in the Soviet Union and China had begun to wonder how best to conquer Communism into something other than, in Bernard Henri-Levy’s memorable phrase, “barbarians with a human face.”

The great American contribution to the 20th century’s start from zero was in the area of manners and mores, especially in what was rather primly called “the sexual revolution.” In every hamlet, even in the erstwhile Bible belt, may be found the village brothel, no longer hidden in a house of blue lights or red lights or behind a green door but openly advertised by the side of the road with a thousand-watt backlit plastic sign. But in the sexual revolution, too, a painful dawn broke in the 1980s, and the relearning, in the form of prophylaxis, began. All may be summed up in a single term requiring no amplifications: AIDS.

The Great Relearning—if anything so prosaic as remedial education can be called great—should be thought of not so much as the end point of the 20th century as the theme of the 21st. There is no law in history that says a new century must start 10 or 20 years beforehand, but two times in a row it has worked out that way.

Of course, western civilization isn't the only culture that could benefit from the Great Relearning.

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