I’ve been wondering recently how to think – 100 years on – about Virginia Woolf’s attention-grabbing remark (from an essay written in 1923) that ''On or about December 1910 human character changed.''
Before we have time even to reflect on the apparent waywardness of her grammar – what is that curious ‘on’ doing, shouldn’t it be ‘in’? – Woolf goes on to explain as follows: “I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910.”
So ‘on or about’ December 1910 slides quickly from suspicious precision into the ‘arbitrary’ choosing of a date ‘about the year 1910.’ It inevitably makes us wonder: what is Woolf up to here? What is she pointing towards? And what is this alleged ‘change’ in ‘human character’? She roots this change in human relationships, personal relationships. Relations changed between ''masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children, and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature.'' (Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, 1923)
It is of course notoriously difficult - maybe impossible - to catch hold of deep and fundamental changes in our collective lives as they are happening. We know when something personal touches us that our lives can change, do change: a child is born, or a new relationship blossoms or a relationship breaks down, you lose your job or receive a diagnosis of cancer, or someone you love dies – all these mark changes in our lives, and may even have an impact on our character, sometimes in the short term (we may become more cheerful for a while, or more morose), and sometimes a life event can leave a deeper mark on our character, we might realize over time we have shifted from being sad or anxious towards becoming more reflective, or more at peace with life; or the change in our character may have been the other way round: we might have lived the first half of our life with cheerful optimism only for later years to cast a shadow on our hopes and moods. So we are use to thinking about changes in human character in a personal setting.
But Woolf was speaking of something else, something more elusive, something collective that she detected. Writing in 1923, she is of course looking back in time and trying to track something that she located – both precisely and yet ‘arbitrarily’ - at the end of the first decade of the century. She is looking back after the cataclysm of the Great War, and seeing that on or about December 1910, a definable world of Victorian followed by Edwardian morality and certainties was ending (Edward VII died in 1910), and a new, more chaotic era was emerging. In 1910 there were two General Elections in the UK and a Liberal government came to power as part of a decline in political consensus and the shared assumptions of the previous decades. There was violence on the streets – this was the era of the suffragettes and workers’ unrest – and the world was becoming more fragmented and anarchic. The smug certainties of the Edwardian era were giving way to something else.
In 1910 Stravinsky's ballet ‘The Firebird’ opened in Paris, and in London the critic Roger Fry assembled a controversial exhibition called ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ introducing to England what was already electrifying the Continent. The show included works by Cezanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso – the radicalism of Cubism was about to call into question the popular bourgeois idea of realism. As Woolf put it in her 1923 essay, the ‘change in human character’ that she was pinning on this arbitrary date of December 1910 – 100 years ago, from us – meant amongst other things that people were being forced to learn to “tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure.”
These were the years when Einstein dissolved the traditional notions of fixed time and space, Picasso deconstructed visual perceptions and James Joyce in Ulysses undermined the traditional narrative order and sense of the novel. In a word, Woolf is talking about the birth of modernism.
1923 also saw the publication of a book in German that I can’t imagine Woolf knew about - but represents for the Jewish world a work that radically subverted all the traditional pieties and assumptions of the time about Jewish religiosity. It was Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (I and Thou), which put personal relationships at the centre of Judaism rather than halachah (Jewish law). How one relates to other people, and to the environment around you – with care and attention and openness, or with manipulation and the treating of people as objects – this became for Buber the essence of Judaism.
To relate to the divine through the everyday, not merely through the traditional rites and practices – this was a radical message, and seen now through the lens of Virginia Woolf we can recognise that Buber was the first mystic modernist of 20th century Judaism.
When we look around us at the beginning of 2011 it might feel too early to say that ‘human character’ has again changed, or is in the process of changing; it may only be in another decade or so that we will be able to, like Woolf, look back and recognise a fundamental shift in consciousness that is happening. But I do sense it more and more - that something is shifting within us, within our minds and psyches, within our consciousness.
I think it has been brought on by the great technological revolution we are still living through, which combines this extraordinary inter-connectability and instantaneousness, where time and space are eliminated, when you can Skype across the world, and read a million books without leaving your house, and have the knowledge of the world literally at your fingertips - which includes following your children’s lives without them knowing it (just look on Facebook) – so there are all these possibilities opening up for us while at the same time there is a sense of out-of-controlness, a sense of unrest on the streets, a great surge of discontent about the ordering of society yet a sense of helplessness to effect real change.
Old economic ‘certainties’ have been exposed as fraudulent, but no new sustainable model is yet emerging; and there is a growing sense (or is it just me?) that we – as in 1910 – stand at the possible edge of a cataclysm and that our Great War might still be to come, a war this time against want and deprivation and lack of resources, in which the underlying ethnic tensions in Europe might still end up with blood being shed as people fight for survival. Who knows? But not knowing doesn’t mean we should give up looking hard at what is going on and scanning the ether for what is happening.
As so often, the Torah texts that we read in the Jewish cycle of weekly readings offer a partial illumination. Exodus chapter 6, that we have read this Shabbat, dramatises the way in which oppression makes a people metaphorically blind and deaf, unable to hear and respond to something new that could free them from their enslavement to the status quo. Moses receives a radical message about the divine - but when he goes to the Israelites to tell them that there is a power in the universe that will free them from Egyptian slavery, the people’s spirits are so crushed that they can’t take it in. They can’t hear what is being said to them. And the message Moses brings them is so remarkable that it is no wonder they can’t take it to heart: because the message includes the statement that ‘God’ changes through the generations; or rather, that the way that we experience the divine changes from generation to generation.
Moses comes to understand (Exodus 6:3) how the ancestral generations – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - had their own understanding of the divine (El Shaddai – ‘God who bestows benefits’), but that something else was now present, Adonai – ‘the One who was, is, will be...’
And it is this Presence, active in each moment, who in a sense is each moment, that has the capacity to free the Israelites from their toil and their misery. This Presence links history, past promises, with the security of a grounded future. But for this to happen, the people have to be open to listening in to this voice of hope – but because they are immersed in their present misery they don’t have the emotional or mental space to bear this radical alternative voice, a voice which says, ‘Don’t think of Me as I used to be in the past, in tradition - think of Me metamorphosing in response to what is needed now’.
How do you think about an evolving God? How do you live with the idea that God-images are constantly evolving? That the divine isn’t static and fixed - but is fluid and provisional?
So in one sense the plagues were not just for the Egyptians and Pharaoh to have a change of heart, but they were for the Israelites, who would see them and wonder about them: 'If these things happen, what can it mean for us?’ is the question the plagues pose for the Israelites. ‘If these irruptions into the natural order are possible, what does that mean for our ways of thinking about what is possible? Perhaps our image of God - and God’s possibilities, and the possibility of God - needs to change’. Isn’t this the sense that underlies our narrative? That this whole saga of the Exodus involves an education into a different reality, the reality of the divine as a Presence that unsettles the status quo on behalf of the liberation of the human spirit.
How is our human spirit liberated in our times? How is the divine manifesting within our troubled times? The Jewish task is to live and think in the spirit of Moses, keeping our antennae tuned, listening out for what is going on, listening in to what is going on: what is changing? what new possibilities for the human spirit are there? How do we liberate ourselves, and each other? Perhaps we have to learn again to tolerate, in Woolf’s words, ‘the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure’?
In a culture that worships success, and is mistrustful of complexity, and enslaves us to consumption and materialism, we are going to have to work hard to avoid having our spirits crushed by what we are exposed to each day. The dominant narratives of our time – about what makes for happiness, about what doing well in life consists of – these narratives may need to be called into question by the spirit of Adonai that lives in us. We all have a part of us that doesn’t want to hear, that can’t hear, an oppressed part of our selves that keeps our noses to the grindstone and our minds enslaved to fixed ways of thinking. But we also have a Moses within us, that is open to the Voice, the eternal voice that speaks always, and yet whose words can be hard to hear, hard to decipher, hard to translate.
In 2011 let’s listen out for the Voice, let’s find the Moses within who is open to the new, who can hear the spirit of the divine hovering, never settling, never capturable, never already understood, (or never already dismissed) - but whose truth is revealed in fragments, in obscure intuitions, in glimpses half-seen, in whisperings and echoes.
Revelation is no longer through ‘outstretched arms and terrible chastisements’ (Exodus 6:6). It’s through the still small voice within, half heard, half-remembered, wholly mystifying. That is our homeland, our security - let’s listen out for it, listen in to it.
I wish you all a good year.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue on New Year’s Day, January 1st, 2011]