Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays is as fluid and beautiful as it is poignant and thought-provoking. Now published under Penguin Classic‘s Great Ideas imprint, Woolf’s deep literary prowess pulls her compelling ideas off the page, making them as fresh as if they were written yesterday.
And indeed, her essays could have been; today, Woolf’s take on war, conflict, gender and consumerism remain as potent and compelling as the day she penned them. Her criticisms and praise towards the quirks of her time remain relevant today.
The titular essay, Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid was written while Woolf experienced the immediate force of an air raid. “The Germans were over this house last night and the night before that. Here they are again,” she writes. Although difficult to consider peace amidst these harsh conditions, Woolf argues that it is absolutely necessary.
Woolf’s writing is immediate, perfectly transcribing the sounds of the fighter planes: “pop pop pop.” Amidst the “drone of the planes,” the sounds remind us of the permanency of violence, of its resoluteness to stay with us. The sounds, “like the sawing of a branch overhead,” cut into the minds of the people beneath, imploring us to act.
Here, Woolf presents a gendered call to action, positioning men as the locus of conflict. As they are trapped inside the metal fighter planes, men are trapped in their masculinity, compelling their “desire for aggression; the desire to dominate and enslave.” Men’s strong drive towards conflict, according to Woolf, allows them to determine the shape of war. They hold immense political power.
In contrast, women “must lie motionless” beneath, thoroughly paralysed in their ability to fight against danger. The stagnant gendered hierarchy makes passive women, with “not a word to say in politics.” The women are also prisoners, here trapped by their passivity and inaction. Although they mentally oppose the violent, they have no power to translate their thoughts to actions. Women thus remain trapped in their entrenched passivity.
However, Woolf implies that to remove the violence, we must adopt the new way of thinking that stems from women. To strive for peace, we must engaged in a “mental fight [which] means thinking against the current, not with it.” Peace must be gained through non-violent mechanisms, to “fight for freedom without firearms.”
On the surface, Woolf seems to argue on a gender binary which I found problematic; many men are averse to physical violence, and many advocate diplomacy. However, it seems Woolf does not actually believe the binary. Her essay could be read without the gendered distinction, and still carry the same weight and message. The traditional gender categories, and the stereotypical behaviour they carry, could be read as metaphors for the privileged versus the powerless. Woolf could be wielding the binary to implore the powerless and the unheard to rebel against the established hierarchy. She wishes those who are passive and unable to act to subvert the engrained need for violence.
Woolf vehemently promotes the ability for thought to attain peace, however her words never come across as haughty. Instead, her optimism, her genuine writing drive her thesis towards peace.