A few months ago friend Cath sent me a copy of Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid. It is a collection of Virginia Woolf essays in the Penguin Great Ideas series. I was expecting all the essays would somehow be related to the first and titular essay but they aren’t. The overriding theme of the collection is literature and I will get to those tomorrow. Today I want to just focus on the essay “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid.”
It is a beautiful and profound essay I don’t recall having ever read before. As the bombs fall overhead, Woolf wonders what can be done to create the only efficient air raid shelter. That shelter involves not needing a shelter at all. But it is hard to think in the middle of a war and Woolf turns to mental fights. Fighting with the mind is another way to fight for freedom. “There are other tables besides officer tables and conference tables,” declares Woolf. And I can see her sitting at kitchen tables and cafe tables, tea tables and writing tables.
Woolf concludes that we are prisoners of “aggressiveness, tyranny, [and] the insane love of power made manifest.” We are slaves. “Hitlers are bred by slaves.” How do we obtain our freedom? We must root out from our young men the love of medals and decorations, but most of all,
We must compensate the man for the loss of his gun.
Yes, I thought, yes. This is true not just for war. Our politicians in Washington, DC are fighting over gun control laws. It is Democrats against Republicans, the National Rifle Association against citizens who think tighter laws will make our children safer. It is insane twists of logic that say only people with guns can stop people with guns while people still mourning their murdered children wonder why there have to be guns at all.
And I think, yes, Woolf has made an important insight, those who hold so tightly to their guns need to be compensated for their loss. Not compensated with money. A few extra dollars is only a temporary compensation. We must get beyond fear and hate, those sterile emotions, and provide the compensation of
access to creative feelings. We must make happiness. We must free him from the machine. We must bring him out of his prison into the open air.
Woolf is not naive about any of this for as soon as she names the compensation she asks what good is it to free Englishmen if the Germans and Italians remain slaves? It does no good at all of course. How does one go about making changes on a global scale? Woolf does not say, but it seems to me it all circles back to the beginning of the essay, to fighting for freedom with the mind, resisting the easy way out–shooting the person you disagree with. Woolf kind of lays this in the lap of women which is understandable given the time she wrote the essay. But these days I think it is the responsibility of women and men together. Sadly, it seems like the politicians are going to battle with weapons of money and power and very little brain and it is up to the rest of us to come up with a real solution.