Today’s theme song in ENGL 203-04 is “Blewu,” performed here by Beninese singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo during this past Sunday’s events in Paris marking the centenary of the armistice ending World War I.
On her Facebook page, Kidjo wrote
Today Nov 11th 2018, I sung Bella Bellow’s beautiful song “Blewu” to celebrate Peace and the memory of the fallen African soldiers of World War One in front of the leaders of this World under the Arc De Triomphe.
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway takes place not long after the end of the war. In the novel, Septimus Warren Smith has survived the war but suffers from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder but was then called shell shock, a term first recorded in 1915.
Historians commonly cite growing nationalism among the European powers as one factor that led to the war. Hence French president Emmanuel Macron’s decision to use Sunday’s gathering of world leaders for a vigorous repudiation of nationalism, which he called the exact opposite of “patriotism.” The repudiation was also a pointed jab at Donald Trump, whose open embrace of the label “nationalist” has been seen by many as an instance of dog-whistle politics designed to signal support for the explicitly racist ideology white nationalism.
As this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes clear, nationalism is an idea with a complicated history. In Mrs. Dalloway, it’s the particular type of nationalism historically connected to nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century imperialism that’s most relevant. This type of nationalism brought together militarism, territorial expansionism, and assertions of racial and national superiority in a single complex of attitudes; in Wool’s novel, that complex finds expression most clearly in the characters of Millicent Bruton (whose name evokes Brut, the mythical founder of Britain) and Sir William Bradshaw, to whom Lucrezia turns for help with her husband Septimus’ depression.
Unsympathetic to Septimus’ plight, Bradshaw suggests that Septimus simply needs to regain a sense of “proportion.”
Worshipping proportion, Sir William not only prospered himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalised despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion — his, if they were men, Lady Bradshaw’s if they were women…(Mrs. Dalloway, Modern Library, 1922, p. 150)
The political correlative of Bradshaw’s one-size-fits-all conception of mental health, which Clarissa Dalloway describes to herself as “forcing your soul” (p. 281) is imperialism:
But Proportion has a sister, less smiling, more formidable, a Goddess even now engaged — in the heat and sands of India, the mud and swamp of Africa, the purlieus of London, wherever in short the climate or the devil tempts men to fall from the true belief which is her own — is even now engaged in dashing down shrines, smashing idols, and setting up in their place her own stern countenance. Conversion is her name and she feasts on the wills of the weakly, loving to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace. (p. 151)
The spirit of imperialist aggression embodied and symbolized in Bradshaw proves, in the end, more consequential for Septimus Smith than anything he encountered in the war itself.