Unveiling "The Dialectic of Culture and Barbarism" in British Pageantry: Virginia Woolf's 'Between the Acts.'

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In what he calls the "dialectic of culture and barbarism," Russell Berman suggests that an anti-fascist stance, artistic or political, which rejects fascism as the crime of an absolute other behaves according to the same logic as fascism (xii). Fascism would blame all social ills on the "other," the Jew, the homosexual, the outsider; an anti-fascism which explains that evil as the unimaginable barbarism of a German or Italian consciousness enacts a similar absolute foreclosure on any critical examination of its own history: thus, it becomes fascistic.(1) In both A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf presages Russell Berman's contemporary argument when she asserts a connection between gendered British cultural traditions and "Hitlerism."(2) Further, in her treatise, "Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid," she explicitly excoriates tyrannical instincts "fostered and cherished by education and tradition" (246). Throughout the 1930's, as she examined the sources of tyranny, Woolf grew to see herself in the battle against Hitler as the one who reveals fascism at home: "... my natural reaction is to fight intellectually: if I were any use, I would write against it: I should evolve some plan for fighting English tyranny" (qtd. in Lee 685).(3) One finds such a plan in action in Woolf's final novel, Between the Acts, where she reveals the "native origins of fascism" (Berman xvii) in British cultural traditions by experimenting with a venerable genre which has fostered tyranny throughout British history: the British pageant. To unveil the dialectic of fascism and art, Woolf chose a genre which had served the dual tyrannies of Church and State in Britain well before it served a similar role for the modern fascist state.

In La Trobe's pageant staged in the novel, Woolf subtly suggests a parallel between the nationalist themes and overt symbolism of the British pageant and contemporary fascist spectacle. Woolf's examination of a history of tyranny inscribed within the pageant reveals the ancient roots of "barbarism" within British culture and yet avoids becoming another text in that history of art complicit with tyranny. Her experimental pageant plays with the didactic conventions of pageantry which lead an audience to celebrate a theme or leader, affording us an opportunity to see how such literary conventions have traditionally legitimized church-state hegemony and led to tyranny and war. Thus, my main concern in this essay is with the way the experimental pageant in Between the Acts allowed Woolf to, at once, draw her readers' attention to the dialectic of art and fascism, and to create a text which did not engage in that dialectic. To delineate her process of creating a pageant which achieves these conflicting aims, I will briefly review the history of the pageant in British literature, examining parallel descriptions of an Elizabethan pageant and a Fascist pageant. I will conclude by applying this history of pageantry to my close reading of La Trobe's subversions of pageant traditions in the novel.

Mistakenly, I believe, certain critical readings of Miss La Trobe's pageant have directed inquiry away from the pageant genre per se and have focused instead on Elizabethan drama. Noting that Woolf referred to the novel as her "Elizabethan play poem," David McWhirter, for example, takes his lead from Woolf's praise of the Elizabethan's "radically inclusive attitude toward life," and suggests that Elizabethan drama was the "closest approximation" to the new form Woolf sought in her novel (791). While Mcwhirter is most insightful in his reading of this novel when he reminds us that Woolf resists using any one genre in creating her fiction, his portrait of her high estimation of Elizabethan drama is too simple and overlooks the importance of her critique of that drama.

Alternately praising and condemning Elizabethan writers, Woolf ultimately rejected the possibility that the Elizabethans could be useful, either philosophically or formally, in helping her discover the new form of fiction she sought. …