Archive for the ‘war’ Category

With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine 13 days old, I can’t get Virginia Woolf’s August 1940 essay “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” out of my mind.

In it, she writes:

Unless we can think peace into existence we — not this one body in this one bed but millions of bodies yet to be born — will lie in the same darkness and hear the same death rattle overhead (173).

As I write this, the Ukrainian people are lying in that same darkness. They are hearing that same death rattle.

One Kyiv woman’s story

This week, I read of a 74-year-old woman who emerged from the basement of her home after 10 days to find everything in sight destroyed and dead bodies lying in the street.

For most of that time, Katerina Oleksiivna had survived without heat, electricity, or water. She had existed on canned vegetables and stale bread while listening to explosions overhead and feeling their reverberations beneath the ground.

A bomb drops. All the windows rattle. The anti-aircraft guns are getting active. Up there on the hill under a net tagged with strips of green and brown stuff to imitate the hues of autumn leaves guns are concealed. Now they all fire at once.

Echoes of Woolf

That could have been Katerina Oleksiivna’s description of her ordeal. But it is not.

Instead, those are some of Woolf’s words written 82 years ago in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid.” They recall the fear she experienced during the Second World War as she heard German planes fly over the Sussex countryside. One plane flew so close that she and Leonard were forced to shelter under a tree in their garden at Monk’s House.

It was not Woolf’s first go-round at war. She had already lived through four years of the Great War, listening to bombing from across the English Channel and hiding under a basement kitchen table in Richmond during air raids (D1, 123-4). From 1939 until March 28, 1941, when she committed suicide by walking into the River Ouse, she lived through the trauma and deprivations of a second.

Is the war everywhere? – Katarina Oleksiivna, 74, of Kyiv, Ukraine

Repeating history

As the brave Ukrainian people defend themselves against the Russians, my heart aches. It aches at the memory of my maternal grandparents, who emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1923, bringing their Ukrainian culture with them and sharing it with me. It aches at the repetition of some of our modern world’s bleakest history. It aches at our failure to spend the last 82 years thinking — and acting — peace into existence, as Woolf wished. And it aches at the thought that we may never do so.

A display at the “People Power Fighting for Peace” exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London in July 2017.

For as Woolf says, war perpetuates itself, rippling infinitely outwards in time and space, unless we stop it by turning our minds and our energy towards creating universal peace.

Thinking peace into existence

For Woolf, that means thinking peace into existence by thinking against the current, by thinking against the nationalism that dictators and autocrats like Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin promote through propaganda and force.

And in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” Woolf maintains that the primary requirement for fostering peace among all peoples of our world is the act of artistic creation. It is, she maintains, the antithesis to war’s destruction.

For her, “the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order.” Artistic creation helps to make sense of the world, a world that in the midst of war makes little sense at all.

Woolf certainly did her part to think — and write — peace into existence. May each of us do ours as well. #StandWithUkraine

Post-It notes written by visitors became part of the peace symbol display pictured above at the “People Power Fighting for Peace” exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London in July 2017.

Read Full Post »

This Christmas day, I unwrapped a present from my landlady and, completely unexpectedly, a small purple hardback book with gold lettering and a beautiful portrait of Virginia Woolf fell onto my lap. I was delighted, and proceeded to read it cover to cover amidst wrapping paper and ended up holding back tears to prevent myself being utterly embarrassed in front of my in-laws.

virginia woolf life portraits

© Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford

Virginia Woolf (Life Portraits) by Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford poetically weaves the story of Woolf’s life with Alkayat’s considered text and Cosford’s illustrations, a fresh response to the Bloomsbury aesthetic. It opens with the following quote from Mrs Dalloway:

She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was on the outside, looking on.

This liminality, both the relation between work and life and Woolf’s psychological flux, is represented thoughtfully throughout the biography.

street haunting in life portrait

© Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford

Alkayat focuses on the personal details of life: how Vanessa Bell’s sheepdog Gurth accompanied her “street haunting”, how Leonard and Virginia Woolf spent nights during the First World War in their coal cellar sitting on boxes, and that they later named their car “the umbrella”. She also puts us on a first name basis with Virginia, Vanessa and Duncan, et al. – a choice which made me feel closer to their world.

charleston in woolf life portrait

© Nina Cosford

Cosford’s illustrations are both sensitive to the Bloomsbury style and offer a fresh perspective. Her bold lines and patterns used to illustrate the pages about Vanessa Bell’s cover designs for Virginia Woolf’s novels, for example, are edged with mark-making in the mode of Bell. Her use of colour also seems emotive, following the waves of high and low that punctuate the narrative. Her illustrations capture the paraphernalia of every-day life, from the objects atop Woolf’s writing desk – diary, hair grips, photo of Julia, sweets – to the plants in the garden at Monks House, bringing Virginia’s life closer to home.

monks house plants

© Nina Cosford

Illustration and text come together beautifully in this miniature autobiography and would provide any reader with a poetic and surprising escape into the life of Virginia Woolf.


Read Full Post »

The Things They CarriedWho’d have figured? Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is a classic, the title story in a collection of linked pieces that I’ve long heard is a “must read” for writers. So it caught my attention when I noticed it at the library recently, and I plucked it off the shelf. Finally, I thought.

Virginia Woolf wasn’t on my mind when I opened the book—for obvious reasons, I’d say—but there she was, on the first page:

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha…. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure. She was an English major at Mount Sebastian, and she wrote beautifully about her professors and roommates and midterm exams, about her respect for Chaucer and her great affection for Virginia Woolf.

The surprising Woolf sighting made me think about Septimus Smith and his wartime experiences, the horrors that haunted him for the rest of his brief life. Different war, same horrors—it never ends. I read a few more stories—they’re compelling and well written—but soon I’d had enough and returned the book to the library.

Read Full Post »

sample of dataStudents find the most interesting things online.

A grad student of Elisa Kay Sparks of Clemson University found a new website, The Bomb Sight project, that shows where German bombs fell in London from Oct. 7, 1940, through June 6, 1941, the period of time known as the Blitz.  Visitors to the site can zoom in and out to see individual city blocks, including the Bloomsbury and Tavistock Square area.

Previously available only for viewing in the Reading Room at The National Archives, Bomb Sight is making the maps available to citizen researchers, academics and students. They will be able to explore where the bombs fell and to discover memories and photographs from the period.

Read Full Post »

It’s D-Day in Conneaut, Ohio. And as I sit here at my kitchen table under a sun-drenched window, I can hear — and feel — the loud drone of airplanes overhead and the gunfire nearby.

The invasion, complete with a beach landing, explosions in the sand, shots fired by opposing forces and airplanes flying low overhead, started promptly at 3 p.m., right on schedule.

The D-Day reenactment has been staged in Conneaut since 1999. The location was chosen because the township park’s 250-yard-long public beach and adjacent sloping terrain are said to closely resemble Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.

As I sit just four blocks away from the battle site and listen to the sounds of make-believe war, I wonder: What was it like for those who actually lived through World War II and experienced the sounds of a real war overhead?

Virginia Woolf described it this way in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (1940):  “It is a queer experience, lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet, which may at any moment sting you to death. . .The drone of the planes is now like the sawing of a branch overhead. Round and round it goes, sawing and sawing at a branch directly above the house…A bomb drops. All the windows rattle.”

I could walk down to the park bluff to get closer, to see the “invasion” myself. But it’s easier to imagine the reality here in my kitchen than at the actual site.

From past experience, I know that the crowd of spectators sipping cold drinks and licking ice cream cones makes it difficult to imagine a real battle, where people kill and are killed. And the uniformed volunteers who portray the German and Allied soldiers of June 6, 1944, take so much obvious enjoyment in the weekend’s events that they prevent me from suspending my disbelief in the proceedings.

Last night, for example, we saw a man in full uniform riding through town in an open military Jeep. His posture, his heavy wool uniform on a hot summer afternoon, the jaunty tilt of his cap and the expression on his face as he suavely steered the vintage vehicle, said it all. He was so puffed up with the importance of his imaginary role in the upcoming “battle” that my companion and I turned to each other and laughed. Out loud.

Under the laughter, though, I recalled Virginia Woolf’s statement in Three Guineas (1938) that “wearing pieces of metal, or ribbon, coloured hoods or gowns, is a barbarity which deserves the ridicule which we bestow upon the rites of savages.”

My fear that some of those watching the events today may think that war is exciting, glorious, even fun, also prevents me from attending. I remember that in Three Guineas Woolf recognizes that “war is a profession; a source of happiness and excitement.”

And I read with dismay that as part of the event, children will build their own miniature Omaha Beach in the sand. I am not sure what to make of that.

It is true that veterans are recognized and honored at the events of this weekend in our small city. And a few remaining WW II vets in town have been interviewed for a commemorative DVD.

But I remember Woolf’s response to war, and I am forced to stop and think again. I recall the fear she shared in her diaries as she heard — and sometimes watched at close proximity — German planes fly over the Sussex countryside during the second World War. And I recall her plea for peace in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid.”

Those thoughts sound more loudly in my head than the airplanes. Or the gunfire. Or the explosions on the beach. And Woolf says such thoughts are more powerful than all three.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »