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Impersonal, impure

May 10, 2012

Viginia Woolf’s account of a dinner conversation with Bertrand Russell:

If you had my brain you would find the world a very thin, colourless place, he said.
But my colours are so foolish I replied.
You want them for your writing, he said. Do you never see things impersonally? . . .
But I have a feeling that human affairs are impure.
God does mathematics. That’s my feeling. It is the most exalted form of art.
Art? I said.

Apparently they were friends; I hadn’t realized they even knew each other. I rather like both sides of this exchange. Note that Woolf isn’t speaking out of ignorance; she didn’t take philosophy seriously, but she would attend university lectures, including those Russell gave, given the opportunity.

I find interesting the role universities played in Woolf’s life. She disliked them for reinforcing patriarchy of course, but also because she envied the education she never received, so of course there was something she liked about them as well. I wonder if one could live the life Woolf did today–going to lectures, being friends with professors–without being affiliated with a university. Probably, but one would need to be independently wealthy. But I suspect Woolf would have jumped at the chance to be a professor-novelist. Not that we need more of those.

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