13 March 2011

Silvio Berlusconi and Virginia Woolf

That headline posits an unlikely pairing.

Silvio Berlusconi, of course, is the Italian Prime Minister now in a good deal of trouble over ... well, a lot. He is currently defending three trials -- two involving standard-issue corruption charges, the third involving sex with an underage prostitute.

The child-prostitution thing plays into a broader reputation Berlusconi has of participating in orgies, which he and the world press have agreed to call bunga-bunga parties.

What does that have to do with Virginia Woolf? Simply that she and the Bloomsberries in general are cited now and then to give an air of historical depth to stories about the Italian sex scandal. Woolf and other members of the Bloomsbury group pretended to be visiting dignitaries from Abyssinia in 1910, and received a red-carpet tour of a naval installation, including the famous battleship Dreadnought.

They used the meaningless phrase "bunga bunga" in the course of pretending that they were speaking their own mysterious language to one another in admiring the battleship.

Woolf tells the story in her memoir, and scholars such as Camille-Yvette Welsch have picked it up from there making it a regular part of the repertoire of Bloomsbury anecdotes.

There is no causal connection between the Bloomsbury use of "bunga bunga" and Berlusconi's. The latter use seems to come from a crude joke that the prime minister enjoys. Still, it is not a coincidence. The joke requires the phrase to sound like it could be some remote exotic tribe's phrase for some terrible system of torture. The same exoticism of the sound is why the same phrase worked for the Bloomsbury-ist prank.

Since I've gotten this far in my ramblings, allow me to include (though not necessarily to endorse) a well-known quote from the favorite philosopher of the Bloomsberries, G.E. Moore. It is a nice summation of his views (and perhaps theirs) on morality: "By far the most valuable things, which we can know or imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects."

He was speaking of intrinsic value there. Instrumental value is another matter. For the sake of those intrinsic values we accept certain instrumental values, many of them far from pleasant. Like the instrumental value of keeping one's hands off overly young girls, and of punishing old men who don't.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.