Saturday, 23 March 2019

Working Group on Morris’s Poetry

I’ve been making handouts and gathering my thoughts for a mini-course on Thomas Hardy’s poetry which I start teaching on Monday.  I have my various themes and categories broadly sketched out for the four weeks of the course: the notion of ‘the neutral’ (shades of late Roland Barthes there, perhaps!), post-Romanticism, Wessex, London, class, return (as in ‘return of the native’), religion, elegy and, if we have time, perhaps other traditional forms.  Let’s see if I can enthuse our first-year students with detailed immersion in particular Hardy lyrics around those topics.

I’ve been struck, while knocking this mini-course together, by how little attention the William Morris Society currently devotes to Morris’s poetry.  One could imagine a Society working group – I’d be very keen to enlist Rosie Miles of Wolverhampton University to it, if she were willing – that met regularly to look at such issues as how adequately Isobel Armstrong’s analysis of Morris’s verse in the light of the concept of the ‘grotesque’ holds up today, or whether we would still agree with Frederick Kirchoff’s judgement that ‘The Earthly Paradise was at least a partial success.  Indeed, its major sections – ‘The Wanderers’, ‘Cupid and Psyche’, ‘The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon’, ‘The Lovers of Gudrun’, ‘The Hill of Venus’ – are among the most important (and least fully appreciated) narrative poems of the late nineteeth century’.

Thomas Hardy’s verse to teach first, though – and then a Morris Society poetry group as a project for my retirement years, perhaps!  If anybody else is interested, please get in touch and we can try and make this happen.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Utopia to the Second Power

Re-reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed for my Utopias half unit, I come again across Takver’s rousing statement late on in the book that ‘we’ll go and make an Anarres beyond Anarres, a new beginning’.  If the anarchist utopia she inhabits on the barren planet Anarres has indeed given way to conformity and bureaucracy, then she and her husband Shevek, together with their Syndicate of Initiative, will have to reignite the revolutionary flame that gave birth to that Odonian-anarchist society in the first place.  They will have to fight the actual Anarres in the name of the ideal Anarres it once claimed to be (and perhaps genuinely was).

Takver’s slogan – an Anarres beyond Anarres – has always seemed to me the best way to think about Ellen in Morris’s News from Nowhere.  For we should see her as a figure who could build a Nowhere beyond Nowhere.  If Morris’s neighbourly Thames valley utopia is indeed too pastoral, anti-intellectual and static, as many critics have alleged, then the text invents the enigmatic figure of Ellen to potentially remedy that situation.  Unlike the other younger Nowherians, immersed as they are in the sensory pleasures of the present, Ellen shares the longer historical and political perspectives of old Hammond in the British Museum.  She knows that if a utopia does not remember the bloody political struggles out of which it was born, then it may slide unconsciously backwards towards the very capitalism it thought it had left forever behind. 

What Ellen will actually do in Nowhere, once she is reintegrated with the other utopians at Kelmscott, Morris’s text of course does not show us.  I wager she’ll form some kind of Syndicate of Initiative of her own and thereby reactivate the communist energies of Nowhere, perhaps intervening politically in pre-revolutionary societies elsewhere, as Shevek himself does in travelling back to Urras in The Dispossessed.  Thank God for Ellen, anyhow, without whom News from Nowhere would be a much lesser thing than it actually is.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Surprises on a Utopias Half Unit

There is always something striking and unpredictable about teaching an undergraduate utopias course.  What has astonished me over the last couple of years is that students have enjoyed Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), which I’ve always found a grindingly dull read because of its placid, gentlemanly and systematic social exposition; and they have been deeply troubled by Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), which I had assumed that they would find exhilaratingly disorientating in contrast.  Disorientated, yes; but exhilarated, certainly not!  One member of last year’s seminar even admitted that he’d been reduced to consulting the Wikipedia plot summary for the novel. 

So I suppose we need some aspects of Tom Moylan’s definition of a ‘critical utopia’ in place before I send my trusty band of readers to wrestle with Russ this year.  There are three key dimensions here, it seems to me.  First, far from a visitor from the bad old world visiting utopia, we have a visitor from utopia, Janet Evason of Whileaway, visiting the bad old contemporary world, i.e., the traffic runs the other way round.   We therefore learn much more about the bad old world than we do in the classical utopias, and the visitor has some sort of politico-narrative mission there.  In fact, in The Female Man, there are actually two contemporary realities – one being the author’s own, the ‘Joanna-reality’, the other a slightly dystopianised present belonging to Jeannine Dadier.  The third aspect of Moylan’s definition is that critical utopias are unusually formally self-conscious, hence disorientating; I don’t suppose anyone will disagree that that’s the case with Russ’s book.

There is, however, one final narrative and political twist in The Female Man which Moylan’s generic concept does not allow for; and this is the fact that Janet Evason’s mission to the present, and indeed Whileaway itself, are both disturbingly undercut by what we might term the ‘Jael-reality’ of the text.  I don’t want to say too much about that – after all, some readerly surprises should be left somewhere in this weird and wonderful book.  May this year’s group do better with it than last year’s!

Monday, 18 February 2019

Splitting the Labour Party

William Morris was no stranger to the splitting of political parties, having broken away from the Social-Democratic Federation to found the Socialist League in late 1884.  But unlike the seven Labour MPs who have split from their party this morning, he was in the majority rather than a minority (which suggests that his decision was a mistake in the first place) and, crucially, he split to the Left, not like Chuka Umunna and colleagues to the Right.

There is always something utopianly appealing about the push towards a new centrist politics, whether with the ‘gang of four’ leaving Labour in 1981 or Emmanuel Macron in France much more recently.  Who could be immune to the rhetorical appeal of “leaving the old tired, tribal politics behind for a fresh start”?  Except, of course, that you never actually do get such a pure, disinterested new politics emerging.  To stick to the two English examples for the moment, the objective function of such splits from Labour (whatever the subjective intentions of their originators) is to secure Tory rule, to destroy a genuine challenge from the Left to capitalist hegemony.  And we have seen with Macron that the rhetoric of transcending the old politics just leads, inevitably, to ruthless neo-liberal policies against which, as I noted in an earlier blog post, the gilets jaunes are now welcomely rebelling.

Whether Luciana Berger, Umunna and friends can do as much damage to Corbyn’s Labour as the gang of four did to the Party in the early 1980s, we shall have to see.  We know in advance that they will get massive publicity from the British media of nearly every political stripe; they have the powerful rhetorical weapon of ‘anti-semitism’ at their disposal, and Labour is itself deeply divided over Brexit issues. So Project Corbyn remains as menaced today as it has been from the very day of his leadership victory, and needs every ounce of effort and support we Morrisians can give it.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

High Steet, Oxford

In A Dream of John Ball Will Green asks the time-travelling narrator, ‘Hast thou seen Oxford, scholar?’, at which ‘A vision of grey-roofed houses and a long winding street and the sound of many bells came over me’.  That long street is Oxford’s High Street – or the High, in the old discredited class-argot of the university – winding its way from Magdalen College in the east to Carfax in the west.  Nikolaus Pevsner once described it as ‘one of the world’s greatest streets’, and a favourite Oxonian pastime has been to locate the precise spot at which the long gracious curve of the road and its buildings can be seen to best advantage. 

Thomas Hardy played this little game in June 1923 – his local guide on that occasion being the Queen’s College Fellow in History Godfrey Elton, who notes in his 1938 autobiography Among Others that, after touring Hardy around Queen’s itself, ‘Next day … I was escorting him to look for the exact point from which the curve of the High looks loveliest’; alas, he does not reveal the precise point of vantage they chose on that occasion.  So it now in retrospect strikes me as slightly odd that, when working on my book on William Morris in Oxford (2007), I did not seem to come across any references to Morris and his friends indulging in this local practice, either in their undergraduate days – of which there are so many colourful anecdotes - or after.  Or did I just somehow carelessly miss them, I wonder?