The Air of Bloomsbury 2

The second part of an illuminating article found in a Times Literary Supplement from 1954 - a very lengthy anonymous review of J.K. Johnstone's The Bloomsbury Group. This part is good on the religious philosophy of the group and what gave them such strength and separateness. As the author says they enjoyed "..supreme self-confidence, superiority and contempt towards all the rest of the unconverted world." The Maharishi to the set was G.E. Moore and his Principia Ethica is still much in demand.


…still they were hardly a group, Mr. Bell maintains. Yes, they met often and were intimate friends. Yes, they did like each other; also they shared a taste for discussion in pursuit of truth and a contempt for conventional ways of thinking and feeling. But, he asks, is there anything specific in this? Could not as much be said of many collections of young people in many ages? Here Virginia Woolf seems to chime in with him. ln Jacob's Room there is a tenderly mocking glimpse of her hero as he sits reading in the British Museum. And Jacob surely suggests an early Bloomsbury figure ? Indeed, from the fleeting touches which convey so well the effect of his presence, those who can remember her brother Thoby,and a certain hewn grandeur in his appearance, are tempted to read him back into Jacob, thus giving Jacob an independent existence, which her characters rarely possess in their own right. "Life on the page," says Mr. Forster, she could always give her characters, "but rarely life eternal..She could seldom so portray a character that it was remembered afterwards on its own account as Emma is remembered for instance ... "

..All the same, Mr.Johnstone succeeds in showing that when they happened to live in Bloomsbury they shared a common mystique, which really does entitle him to call them a group. But still Mr. Bell will not have it. "..Undoubtedly the Bloomsbury mind was permeated by what Keynes called "the fundamental intuitions of Principia Ethica. And what were they? A reviewer can only extract unmethodically a few relevant passages from Mr. Johnstone's able summary.

The predicate good, Moore says, "cannot be defined in terms of something else, just as you cannot by any manner of means explain, to anyone who does not know it, what yellow is .... " It is therefore the business of ethics to declare "what things in what degree possess a simple unanalysable quality - which may be called intrinsic value or goodness"; and again: "By far the most valuable things, which we can know or imagine, are certain states of consciousness which may roughly be described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects . . . nor it we consider what things are worth having purely for their own sakes does it appear probable that anyone will think that anything else has nearly so great a value as the things which are included under these two heads.

The very italics here, it would seem according to Maynard Keynes,recall Moore's approach to his subject, "so sincere and passionate and careful," and even the tone of his voice in saying: "Do you really think that ? " . . . " with an expression of face as if to hear such a thing said reduced him to a state of wonder verging on imbecility.”

“ Moore‘s influence,” says Keynes," was not only overwhelming,it was the extreme opposite of what Strachey used to call funeste, it was. . . the beginning of a renaissance, the opening ot a new heaven on a new earth, we were the forerunners of a new dispensation." Also they enjoyed, he says, “supreme self-confidence, superiority and contempt towards all the rest of the unconverted world." To grasp this intimate exhilaration entirely, it is essential to remember how close nearly all members of the group still were to Victorian forebears, who had been dominant figures in their different ways, deeply concerned with morality and social progress, by whom the arts would have considered chiefly as a means to a fuller and better life of service. How wonderful, as Keynes writes, to realize that nothing really mattered except states of mind, our own, and other people's of course, but chiefly our own, and that these were not associated with action or achievement or consequences. ' They consisted in timeless passionate states of contemplation, largely unattached to " before" or "after." Not only had social action as an end in itself dropped out of our ideal, but the life of action generally, power, politics, success, wealth, ambition ; whilst the economic motive and the economic criterion were less prominent -in our philosophy than with St. Francis of Assisi, who at least made collections for the birds.

They had found in fact a new religion, though they would have been very angry at such a suggestion. They “regarded it all as entirely rational and scientific, nothing more than the application of logic and rational analysis to the material presented as sense data." Thus they were in the happy position of being able to reject all the beliefs of the older generation, including the Benthamite point ot view, but above all established Christianity. This last they regarded " the supreme representative of tradition, convention and hocus pocus." [part 3 to follow]

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