Commentary Is Afraid of Virginia Woolf (and Intermarriage)

You’re a smart Jew. You go to a prestige college and hang out with a bunch of cool gentile guys. One of them has a fancy sister. You marry her because you want to be in the cool gang. She turns out to be a vicious anti-Semite, but you can’t face it. Your life is a horrible lie.

This vision of intermarriage is offered by Commentary in its December issue, in a piece about Leonard and Virginia Woolf (based on the new biography of Leonard by Victoria Glendinning).

John Gross writes that Leonard Woolf’s marriage was a sham of Jewish self-hatred. Virginia, he states flatly, “did not like Jews.” The article catalogs every anti-Semitic thing that Virginia Woolf said (most of them apparently in journals and letters). She was marrying “a penniless Jew.” She didn’t like her mother-in-law’s “Jewish voice” or “Jewish laugh.” His family were “nine Jews, all of whom with the single exception of Leonard, might well have been drowned, without the world wagging one ounce the worst.” Then there is “The Jew having a bath” in the shared bathroom of a lodging house, who leaves “a line of grease around the bath” (That from the novel The Years).

These statements are not “casual ‘drawing-room’ anti-Semitism.” Gross can halfway excuse that. They reflect Virginia’s hatred for her husband, Gross says; for she suffered from the racist view that “all Jews are interchangeable.” And when Leonard married Virginia, he “was made to feel like a true outsider.”

Thereby dismissing Leonard Woolf’s claims that he never experienced anti-Semitism. Brother, you was living in the tiger cage of anti-Semitism!

The first response is that Commentary should maybe change its name to Chronicles of Anti-Semitism, as this is now a central aspect of its chosen function. It is as if all the goyim must be tested regularly for anti-Semitism; and most of you will flunk the test. Only EM Forster passes here. All the other Bloomsburyites made a crack about Jews once or twice.

Such sensitivity (I know, an anti-Semitic word; Hemingway used it) is unbefitting a proud race and religion. Yes Virginia Woolf obviously made anti-Semitic statements; but the dour judgment of her as a Jew-hater is overwrought and particularist. Can we take a joke? Has a Jew ever made a crack about gentiles? I guess not. A few years ago an editor at the New Republic said he wanted to “Jew me down” on a fee—a Jewish editor, of course. Can I write an article about him for Commentary?

The second response is that Gross grossly misreads Virginia Woolf’s psyche, her artistry and her marriage. She was a deeply troubled person, and socially uncomfortable; she contained multitudes, and a need for expression; she made a lot of sharp comments about a lot of people. Hanging her up on the anti-Semitic ones, most of them trivial, is legalistic and pettifogging. Does intermarriage present cultural challenges, of mutual suspicion and prejudice? Absolutely. And people say stuff, and also work their way through stuff.

Also, I have noticed, marriage is a tough thing for a lot of people; and some of them have even made nasty comments about their in-laws.

The Woolfs’ was an artists’ marriage, full of strains and freedoms, and evidently a successful one till Virginia’s suicide. Leonard Woolf was motivated in part by a sense of service, the understanding that he was serving his wife and society by being a resolutely stable husband to a troubled genius. As for Virginia, does her marrying a Jew and deriving tremendous strength from that marriage, in a tortured life, amount to nothing? Gross does not quote a statement that the (far more thoughtful) review in the latest New York Review of Books does, a statement that mitigates far more anti-Semitism than Virginia gave into.

Asked what the happiest moment in her whole life was, Virginia responded “with a shining face…. ‘I think it’s the moment when one is walking in one’s garden, perhaps picking off a few dead flowers, and suddenly one thinks, ‘My husband lives in that house, and he loves me.’”