© William Pryor 2003
delivered at the 2003 International Virginia Woolf Conference at Smith College, Massachusetts, USA

Let me be clear: I am not an academic, nor a Woolfian scholar. I have slunk into these proceedings as a living relic of Bloomsbury and Neo-Paganism, an aging beatnik-publisher-author and I stand before you in a blatant and shameless act of self-advertisement. I am one of 32 great-great-grandsons of Charles Darwin and one of 3 grandsons of Gwen and Jacques Raverat, who were friends of Virginia Woolf and founder members of Rupert Brooke’s Neo-Paganism. The memes of Bloomsbury, Neo Paganism, beatnikery and bohemianism have shaped my life, the tea leaves of which can maybe demonstrate my theme: that the ideas that are memes, have us, not us ideas. (The City of Cambridge, England, has begun to redress the university’s poor record apropos women by unveiling a Blue Plaque for Gwen, its first for a woman, next to the front door to her birthplace, Newnham Grange, now Darwin College.)

This paper is a shameless act of self-advertisement in that it revolves around the first two books published by what is my homage to Hogarth Press, Clear Books. They are: The Survival of the Coolest, a memoir of my sixties neo-dadaist, beatnik, addiction madness, and Virginia Woolf and the Raverats, a portrait of the friendship between Jacques & Gwen Raverat and Virginia Woolf in their letters, diary entries, other writings, paintings, photographs and wood engravings.

Back to memes – I owe you an explanation: it is a word that the Oxford Dictionary has only recently welcomed onto its hallowed divans, defining it as: an element of a culture or system of behaviour that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation. They’re like viruses, you catch them. I caught Bloomsbury and Neo Paganism from my grandmother – she made her wood engravings, her art was her life and I was infected. I didn’t understand the memes, you don’t have to, but I had the illness. Because memes are dangerous – they got me addicted, and here in the United States of Ascendancy, though my great-great-grandfather’s star may be bright, the evolutionary meme has had people arrested.

Like genes, memes are selfish. Daniel Dennett has an interesting way of looking at them: “A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library.” A human being is a meme’s way of making more memes. I could add: Virgina Woolf is Nicole Kidman’s nose’s way of making another film. If you weren’t infected by the meme meme when I started, you should be by now and there’s nothing you can do about it. We are doomed to do what our memes determine. Any success we may claim lies solely in the grace and elegance we bring to the memetic dance; not in the contents of the memes, which are not us, though they determine how we are.

Since we cannot shape our lives, it is up to us to find our art in exquisite and articulate expressions of our memes. They would speak – it is us who gives them voice. As Virginia wrote in a letter to my grandfather: Is your art as chaotic as ours? I feel that for us writers the only chance now is to go out into the desert & peer about, like devoted scapegoats, for some sign of a path. I expect you got through your discoveries sometime earlier. (Letters of Virginia Woolf Vol 2, Letter 1330) This paper is me peering about – as a scapegoat I am certainly devoted.

Memes need hosts in which they can work out their evolutionary purpose. If those hosts also bear genetic determinants of outré behaviour then the effects of Neo Pagan memes are doubly strong. Not only was my grandfather, Jacques Raverat, a close friend of Rupert Brooke and therefore a Neo Pagan, but he was deeply infected by the Bloomsbury memeplex through his and Gwen’s friendship with Virginia Woolf. Which allows my favourite self-reference meme to have an outing  the Bloomsbury memeplex needs to reject itself so that it can be the truly revolutionary meme that it is.

“We will now discuss in a little more detail the Struggle for Existence,” wrote Charles Darwin in The Origin of the Species. Only here it is the struggle for the existence of meaning, of purpose, of clarity as against madness (what is called ‘insanity’ does seem to be an ingredient of the bohemian meme pudding), the struggle for the overthrow of encrusted order and academic enstranglement – sorry, we were told to avoid long words, let me rephrase: the struggle for the existence of creativity, which is bohemianism. It is my contention that Bloomsbury and Neo-Paganism were simply two species of a meme for Bohemianism, as were its later variants: beatnikery and hippiedom.

By “simply” I in no way impugn their importance, but merely stress the inevitability of the process of becoming bohemian. I couldn’t help be a beatnik myself, so how could I impugn that holy state. As Kerouac said: It’s a kind of furtiveness… Like we were a generation of furtives. You know, with an inner knowledge… a kind of beatness… and a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world.

The followers of the church of meme (founded by Richard Dawkins, that devout disciple of Mr Darwin) would have us believe that we don’t have ideas (or memes); rather, ideas have us. We are mere vehicles in which ideas, memes, can work out their evolutionary destiny. However wrong the theory may be – and no one is too sure yet (nor will ever be) – the meme meme is attractive. It is our memes that are clever, brilliant, not us. Attractive because it hints at a spiritual reality, the hegemony of interior authenticity (what a phrase! – it would have made a great title for a paper at such an august gathering), above and beyond the vast memeplex that is the mind and also thus helps develop more radical views of madness – two conditions that are not wholly disconnected. As Ginsberg wrote: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.”

Virginia Woolf was a most successful meme generator – if volumes published, films made and conferences organised are any measure. Not quite as successful as my great-great-grandfather’s Darwin meme which has gone as far as getting his face on the British ten-pound note. We are marinaded in the mimsy of such memetic marvels, swimming in a Darwinian and Woolfian meme-pool.

What is it like to be a reliquary of such memes and genes, you might ask. My grandmother wrote: Of course, we always felt embarrassed if our grandfather were mentioned, just as we did if God were spoken of. In fact, he was obviously in the same category as God and Father Christmas. (1952; Period Piece, p.153)

In my memoir, The Survival of the Coolest, I wrote: The Darwin genes for observation and enquiry were to be put to the one-pointed service of my addiction. In March 1792, Charles’ grandfather Erasmus Darwin wrote in a letter: A fool…is a man who never tried an experiment in his life.

Charles Darwin was ours after all; we were of him. But Darwinian dogmas do not encourage any challenges being made to the dysfunction endemic in his own family. Everything must fit their ideology, which has little to say about the joys and pains of being evolved or of the illuminations of art… Ah! That lack of a family myth, of intimacy! We had no religion but Darwin and Bloomsbury, the gods of science and art, no structure of the heart.

When sitting in the bath, with the steam around my ears, I would debate with myself why I, William, was not someone else. What on earth (or in heaven) determined that I should be ‘I’? It was so lonely being William. Why wasn’t I someone else? (2003; The Survival of the Coolest, p10)

My Bloomsbury memes were developing that particular sixties, Camus-esque alienation in me such that I would become fertile ground for the counter-culture, beatnik, dadaist memes that were to have their wicked way with me. Also a strong Woolfian meme this: how can we know who we are? You’ll have to read my book to find out who I was, but am no more.
In 1916, my grandmother Gwen Raverat, no doubt influenced by Virginia’s success as a writer, began a novel of her own that drew on her experiences as a Neo Pagan. I use this excerpt to set the scene in Virginia Woolf and the Raverats. The hero, Hubert, is clearly Rupert Brooke, while George is modeled on Jacques. She writes: I remember those first two years as long days and nights of talk; talk, lying in the cow parsley under the great elms; talk in lazy punts on the river; talk round the fire in Hubert’s room; talk which seemed always to get nearer and nearer to the heart of things. It was best of all in the evenings in Hubert’s room. He used to lie in his great armchair, his legs stretched right across the floor, his fingers twisted in his hair; while George sat smoking by the fire, continually poking it; his face was round and pale; his hair was dark. We smoked and ate muffins or sweets and talked and talked while the firelight danced on the ceiling, and all the possibilities of the world seemed open to us.


For a time we were very decadent. We used to loll in armchairs and talk wearily about Art and Suicide and the Sex Problem. We used to discuss the ridiculous superstitions about God and Religion; the absurd prejudices of patriotism and decency; the grotesque encumbrances called parents. We were very, very old and we knew all about everything; but we often forgot our age and omniscience and played the fool like anyone else.
(2004, Virginia Woolf and the Raverats)

In 1909 this was, no doubt, shocking stuff, the direct equivalent of my smoking a joint at the age of 15 in 1960 with Syd Barrett who was later to start that epitome of hippie entrepreneurship, The Pink Floyd. In The Survival of the Coolest I wrote: The Darwinian authority I had inherited, peering through an upper middle class desert of assumptions and muddled priorities, got me, at a very early age, questioning the mores of the Darwin-Bloomsbury nexus itself. They seemed such hypocrites. So much didn’t make sense. I was, unconsciously, applying the principles they held most precious: question everything.

All male Pryors since gentry were gentry had been to Eton and Trinity Cambridge. To break the tradition would be to tempt the wrath of the gods and to suggest we didn’t have domain over a reasonable chunk of the empire. To get into Eton you had to take the common entrance exam (common, you understand, only in that all public schools used it). A key paper in the exam was Divinity: you had to demonstrate a fundamental understanding of the Bible to enter the ruling elite.

At one of my first enforced readings of the New Testament – I was eleven – I noticed that on one page this guy they were wittering on about was called Saul and on the next he was Paul. Obviously a misprint! I took my biro and corrected all the ‘Paul’s, to ‘Saul’s. If a Darwin can’t know how to edit the Bible, what can he know? (2003; The Survival of the Coolest, p13)

Nothing was sacred, not even the memetic gospel according to Saint Darwin. Bohemianism is about overthrow and rejection of the past. Virginia Woolf re-invented the novel, we beatniks adopted bebop and performed happenings. As Tristan Tzara said in his Dadaist Manifesto, we were new men: rough, bouncing, riding on hiccups. Behind them a crippled world and literary quacks with a mania for improvement. I say unto you: there is no beginning and we do not tremble, we are not sentimental. (1924; Seven Dada Manifestos)

The evidence of the existence and power of the Bloomsbury meme in my life is not just my part in the first British poetry and jazz performances and the largest British poetry reading ever: Wholly Communion at the Albert Hall, when 7,000 people paid to share the beat poesy muse. No, it is that I am now starting a publishing venture, Clear Press, whose avowed aim is to create a direct, Internet-developed relationship with a new audience, memetically empowered by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press.

Without Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins would not have been able to develop the concept of the meme. Without Darwin’s granddaughter, Gwen Raverat, and her connections with Neo-Paganism and the Woolfs, I would not have been infected by the Bloomsbury memeplex.

A subject we have no time for: the relationship between the memes of bohemianism and maturity, or, what happens to old rebellion? In 1925, just before Jacques’ death, Gwen Raverat wrote about NeoPaganism to Virginia: Anyhow it’s all over long ago; it died in 1914 I should think, though it was sick before — Neo Pagans, where are they? Here’s Jacques & me very old in Vence, & Ka so pathetic & lost in Cornwall; & do the Oliviers exist or not? Frances [Cornford] I believe carries on the tradition in the fields of Cambridge — at least as far as neo-paganism can be combined with evangelical christianity, (which I think any one but Frances would find difficult.) And all the others are dead or have quarrelled or gone mad or are making a lot of money in business. It doesn’t seem to have been a really successful religion, though it was very good fun while it lasted. And what about Bloomsburyism? From here the front looks still firm; but is it solid behind? Is it only a front, concealing earthquakes & chasms? You must tell me. (2004; Virginia Woolf and the Raverats)

From the heights of my old age I would say bohemianism in the 21st century is far from solid behind, but is riddled with earthquakes and chasms. There’s a sense that the memes of art as business and as academic endeavour have devoured the beatnik counter-culture memeplex. Look at Brit Art!

Virginia wrote back to Gwen: One could say anything to Jacques. And that will always be the same with you & me. But oh, dearest Gwen, to think of you is making me cry — Why should you & Jacques have had to go through this? As I told him, it is your love that has forever been love to me — all those years ago, when you used to come to Fitzroy Square, & I was so angry: & you were so furious, & Jacques wrote me a sensible manly letter, which I answered, sitting at my table in the window. Perhaps I was frightfully jealous of you both, being at war with the whole world at the moment. Still, the vision has become to me a source of wonder — the vision of your face; which, if I were painting, I should cover with flames & put you on a hill top. Then, I don’t think you would believe how it moves me that you & Jacques should have been reading Mrs Dalloway, & liking it. I’m awfully vain I know; & I was on pins & needles about sending it to Jacques; & now I feel exquisitely relieved; not flattered; but one does want that side of one to be acceptable — I was going to have written to Jacques about his children, & about my having none — I mean, these efforts of mine to communicate with people are partly childlessness, & the horror that sometimes overcomes me.

There’s very little use in writing this. One feels so ignorant, so trivial, & like a child, just teasing you. But it is only that one keeps thinking of you, with a sort of reverence, & of that adorable man, whom I loved. (Collected Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol 3, Letter 1541)

I will be holding memetic counseling sessions straight after this.

Works Cited
Pryor, William. The Survival of the Coolest. Bath: Clear Press, 2003
Pryor, William (editor). Virginia Woolf and the Raverats. Bath: Clear Press, 2004
Raverat, Gwen. Period Piece (new Hardback). Bath: Clear Press, 2003.
Tzara, Tristan. Sept Manifestes Dada. Geneva. 1924.
Woolf, Virginia (Edited by Nigel Nicolson & Joanne Trautmann). Collected Letters Volumes 2 and 3. London: Chatto & Windus, 1977

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