Thoughts of Peace During an Air Raid



Thoughts on Virginia Woolf's Newly Edited Book

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), British writer, essayist and editor, participated in and influenced London literary groups during the interwar period. Her father, Leslie Stephen, a professional biographer, scholar and editor; her beautiful mother, Julia Stephen, from a traditional Victorian family, posed as a model at the time. Both, widowed and in the second marriage, provided him, since childhood, with an education that involved living with the artistic and literary world.

At the age of 13 Virginia lost her mother and suffered her first nervous breakdown, an illness that would manifest itself at different times in her life as a depressive condition that today could be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf with whom she founded, in 1917, the publishing house Hogarth Press who played a pioneering role and revealed several experimental writers (Katherine Marisfield, TS Eliot), translated Russian writers (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov), as well as texts by Freud, among others.[1]

Along with Saxon writers Sydney-Turner, David Herbert Lawrence; historians and economists Lylton Strachey, Leonard Woolf; painters, Mark Gertler, Duncan Grant, Roger Fly, critics Clive Bell and Desmond McCarthy, and scientists John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell; Virginia and her sister Vanessa made up the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of intellectuals who, after the First World War, took a stand against the literary, political and social traditions of the Victorian Era and took up critical positions against the shackles of a society strongly anchored in a moralist education.[2]

The micro book Thoughts of peace during an air raid, measures 14 x 10 cm, has a green cover, tonsurton, with a photo of Virginia sitting on the porch, wearing a floral dress, an open wool pullover, a necklace, a hat and holding something like a book, paper and pen in her hands. She looks to the left, as if waiting for something, a feeling, an idea.

The cover of the book introduces Woolf to the reader and says: “She is one of the most important writers of the XNUMXth century and one of the most relevant names in Modernism. beyond Mrs. dalloway (1925), her most popular novel, the British author also wrote short stories, autobiographical texts, essays and children's stories. Known for her unique style, Woolf found a language to represent the conscience of her characters, scrutinizing their interiority. The writer actively participated in the debates of her time, both literary and social, giving lectures, writing articles and being part of the famous Bloomsbury Group. Alongside her husband Leonard Woolf, she also founded the publishing house Hogarth Press”.

Next, follow the Presentation of the essay by Ana Carolina Mesquita, indicating that it was “written in 1940 and published posthumously” as one of “the most vivid reflections on war” through which Virginia reflects on “the conditions that give rise to violence and the role of women in conflict” (p. 5).

Mesquita clarifies that in the summer of 1940, the Woolfs’ house, in Rodmell, “was more exposed to air attacks than London”, as it was located “six kilometers away from where the German army was moored” (p. 6). In this scenario, Virginia's reasoning unfolds during a situation of terror, violence and unpredictability.

She writes about war, but “does not give in to desolation or despair, on the contrary, she clings to the idea of ​​peace as a reality – and perhaps this paradox “makes this essay poignant” (p. 7) because, in the midst of an attack aerial, Virginia exercises other forms of struggle that she considers more relevant, such as, for example, the struggle of thought, domestic space and education that takes place at the tea table.

From page 13 to 30, we find the essay in Portuguese, followed by a note about the translator who attests to her expertise in the analysis of Virginia Woolf's work, since she was a visiting researcher at Columbia University and at the Berg Collection, in New York, where she worked with the author's original manuscripts and diaries.

On pages 32 and 33 we come across the same cover photo, however, now in black and white, and with the field of view expanded, which allows us to see that Virginia was on the porch with her father, Leslie Stephen, sitting in another chair to his left, legs and hands crossed over the knee, wearing shoes and social pants, shirt with pullover and tie, suit and hat. To Leslie's left, you can see a bowl of water on the floor, suggesting the presence of pets in the house: cats, dogs? On the porch, the arrangement of the furniture, the position and expressions of the two characters appear relaxed and cosy. From page 35 to 58, the content is replicated in English.

I will now transcribe excerpts from the essay on peace that was produced, luckily, because that night the bomb did not fall on its roof, but it was necessary to write quickly, dragging us to the moment when “reasoning is suppressed by terror during an extreme situation where the batteries go off, ta…ta… ta…” (p. 6).

Virginia says: “The Germans flew over this house last night and the night before. Here they are again. It's a strange experience, lying in the dark listening to the buzz of a wasp that at any moment could sting you to death. And yet it is a sound that – much more than prayers and national anthems – should move us to think about peace. If we don't think of peace as a reality [...] – with the millions of bodies that are yet to be born – we will lie in the same darkness and hear the same screeching sound of death above our heads” (p.13).

Virginia wonders what can be done to create a truly effective air raid shelter that avoids the batteries, machine guns, planes and searchlights of war in the hills and says: “Defenders are men and attackers are men. The English woman is not given weapons (p. 14) […]. How can she fight without firearms to defend freedom? […]. We can conceive of ideas that will help the young Englishman who is fighting in the skies to defeat the enemy. But for ideas to become effective, we must be able to trigger them. We must put them into action. Thus, the wasp in the sky awakens another wasp in the mind” (p. 15). “Because there are other negotiating tables besides the officers' tables and the war conferences […] and other weapons” (p. 16)

Virginia highlights the valuable weapon of intimate reflection that takes place at the tea table and highlights the human capacity to resist excesses and hatred. She points out, “Mental struggle means thinking against the current rather than with it. The current flows fast and angry. It brings with it words from speakers and politicians […]. They tell us that we are a free people, fighting for freedom. It was this current that carried the young aviator high into the sky and keeps him there, spinning... shooting... Down here, with a roof over our heads... it's our job to discover the seeds of truth. It is not true that we are free. We are both prisoners – he boxed in, gun in hand; us lying in the dark with a gas mask in hand” (p. 17).

“If we were free, we would be out there dancing, in the theater or sitting at the window talking. What stops us? “Hitler!” Who is Hitler? What is he? Aggressiveness, tyranny, insane love of power made manifest, – reply the English. Destroy it, and you will be free” (p. 18).

“We are equally prisoners tonight – the English men in their planes, the English women in their beds. But if you stop to think about it, he could end up dead; and we too. Let us then think for him. Let us try to drag the unconscious Hitlerianism that hampers us into consciousness. He is the desire for aggression; the desire to dominate and enslave” (p. 19).

“Even in the dark we can see it clearly […]. The women looking at the splendor in the shop windows […] painted women, groomed, with crimson lips and fingernails. They are slaves trying to enslave. If we could free ourselves from slavery, we would free men from tyranny. The Hitlers are fathered by female slaves. A bomb drops. All the windows rattle” (p. 20).

“There are wasps awake in the chambers of our brains that tell us: – “Fighting a real enemy, conquering immortal glory for having slaughtered unknowns […] returning with a chest covered in medals… To this I dedicated my life, my education, my training , everything” – these are the words of a young Englishman who fought in the last war” (p. 21)

“[…] it's not just the voices from the loudspeakers that move the young aviator high in the skies; they are the voices within himself – ancient instincts fostered and acclaimed by education and tradition” (p. 22). “Should we blame him for such instincts?” (p.23).

“[…] We must help young English people to get out of their hearts the love for medals and decorations. We must create more honorable activities for those who try to master in themselves their fighting instinct, their unconscious Hitlerianism. We must compensate the man for the loss of his weapon” (p.24).

“A bomb could fall into this room at any moment. One, two, three, fourth, five, six… the seconds pass. The bomb did not fall. But during those suspenseful seconds, thought stopped. All feelings except that of numb terror ceased. […] So it is sterile, infertile, the emotion of fear and hate. As soon as the fear is gone, the mind expands and instinctively revives, seeking to create. […]. It expands to other Augusts - in Beirut, listening to Wagner; in Rome, walking through the Campagna; In London. The voices of friends return. They return fragments of poems” (p. 25).

“Each of these thoughts, even in memory, was much more positive, uplifting, therapeutic and creative than this dormant terror made of hate and fear. Therefore, if we want to compensate this young man for the loss of his glory and his weapon, we must give him access to creative feelings. We must generate happiness, free him from his machine. Bring it out of its prison into the open air. But what is the use of freeing the young Englishman if the young German and the Italian remain slaves?” (p. 26).

“The other day one of the pilots landed safely in a field nearby. He said to his captors, in very reasonable English: – “What a joy that this fight is over!”. Then an Englishman offered him a cigarette and an Englishwoman made him a cup of tea. This seems to demonstrate that, if we can free man from the machine, the seed does not fall on pure stone soil. The seed can be fertile. And finally all the shooting ceased. All the spotlights went out and the normal darkness of a summer night returned” (p. 27).

“Again, the innocent sounds of the countryside are heard. An apple falls to the ground […]. A hooting owl, flying from tree to tree. […]. Let us then send these fragmentary notes […] to men and women […] in the belief that they will rethink them generously and charitably, and perhaps turn them into something useful” (p. 28).

The upbringing of Virginia and her sister Vanessa was affected by themes and values ​​of the Victorian Era: rigidity of mores, social and sexual moralism, religious fundamentalism, capitalist exploitation, colonialist conflicts, strict precepts, severe prohibitions, submission of women and their restriction to the domestic space, the home and the education of children. Thus, they were responsible for serving daily, at 17 pm, afternoon tea for the whole family. This was an obligation of female daughters.

Perhaps his writing method of representing life as a modernist project of overcoming the shackles of moral education, seeking intimacy, an emotional plot, a routine narrative based on the reflective capacity of his characters, was an attempt to overcome traumas, imbalances, pains, aiming to release in the stream of consciousness the many layers of meaning caused by a terrifying reality. The astonishing lightness and impersonality of his writing brings the reader's eyes closer and further away from human temporality and touches the vast texture of human and non-human time that passes beyond individual life in an inescapable way.[3]

Carlos Drummond de Andrade will say in a poem entitled Fragility that “the verses, the words are unattainable arabesques” that play with uncertain movements; thus, the multiple words in a bundle, much more than the desire to explain, are music, purification of purification, delicate modeling, “arabesques that embrace things, without reducing them”.[4]

In this perspective, we can apprehend this essay by Virginia as an arabesque that, in a purification movement, manages to revert a place of subservience to a place of power and propose that the tea table becomes a space for the creation and education of other forms of struggle, perhaps more relevant, therefore, it is at the tea table and in the domestic space that ideologies are created and recreated. There, women and education can enhance the impulse of life, creation, art, literature, playfulness as human values, suffocate the impulse of slavery, domination and death and cut at the source the principles that generate the new Hitlers.

They can sow life in fertile soils, promote the extinguishing of spotlights, planes and machine guns and create honorable activities for those who control their unconscious Hitlerism. They can encourage listening to the sounds of the field, the apple that falls, the bird that chirps and the owl that flies from tree to tree. This is a task that women and education, at the tea table, can do for children, young people and men. These are thoughts of peace that swarm during an air raid.

I thank Afrânio Mendes Catani, the present in the present.

* Deborah Mazza Professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Faculty of Education at Unicamp.



Virginia Woolf. Thoughts of Peace During an Air Raid. São Paulo, Editora Nos, 2021.



[1] See MESQUITA, Ana Carolina de Carvalho. The Tavistock Journal: Virginia Woolf and the Quest for Literature. Doctoral thesis. Department of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature. USPS, 2018.

[2] Cf. Same, same.

[3] Same, ibidem.

[4] DRUMMOND DE ANDRADE, Carlos. The People's Rose. 36th. Ed. Rio de Janeiro, Record, 2006, p. 65.


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