Bloomsbury, Beauty and After: Idealist Aesthetics in Materialist Times
'The Bloomsbury Group' are most often associated with the Cambridge philosopher G.E Moore's belief that 'one's prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge' (Principia Ethica, 1903). Wyndham Lewis caustically referred to the aesthetic world of Bloomsbury as 'Venusburg'. Beauty is at the heart of Bloomsbury aesthetics, but there are marked differences, however, in the ways that Moore, Roger Fry, Clive and Vanessa Bell, E.M. Forster , Bertrand Russell and Virginia Woolf, as painters, philosophers and novelists, engaged with the question of the relation between beauty and what Moore referred to as 'The Good'. This lecture will examine how Woolf, like Moore, often misguidedly portrayed as a kind of 'beautiful soul', in fact set out specifically to rewrite the soul and to rethink thinking, in the terms of the modern, and through the resources of fiction. Woolf saw modern fiction as most able to articulate a new soul for a world in which everything is 'part ugliness, part beauty' ('Fiction, Poetry and the Future', 1927). She uses the resources of literary art to resist an encroaching metaphysics of materialism, on the one hand, and to renegotiate the legacies of aesthetic idealism, on the other. The idea of beauty that emerges is passed onto and reworked by later philosophically inclined novelists, such as Iris Murdoch.
Pat Waugh is a professor in the Department of English Studies at Durham. She has written widely on modern literature, aesthetics and intellectual history. She is currently completing two books, The Naturalist Turn: Literary Moderns Rethinking Thinking, and Neo-Modernism: The British Novel After 1945.
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