Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Waking up from Dreams

One issue that has divided critics of News from Nowhere over the years is whether William Guest returns as a more effective fighter for communism as a result of what he has experienced in Morris’s utopia.  Norman Talbot had no doubt about this, informing us in 1990 that ‘Guest is back among us, more resolute than ever’.  But there are dissenting voices too, for example Barbara Gribble, who in 1985 announced sternly that ‘one expects him to take up once again his former and ineffectual habits’.  Closer inspection of the text won’t necessarily resolve this dispute.  If Guest does indeed appear rejuvenated on the upper Thames (which lends itself to the Talbot reading), he also gets hopelessly infatuated with a girl 36 years younger than himself and still loses his temper – ‘damned flunkies ... damned thieves’ (ch.XXIII) – just as he did at the Socialist League meeting – factors which suggest that Gribble may be right after all.

Is it an appropriate interpretive procedure to turn to related moments in other Morris works for guidance here?  In the 1857 poem ‘Spell-Bound’, for instance, the speaker tells us that ‘when the vision from me slips,/In colourless dawn I lie and moan,/And wander forth with fever’d blood,/That makes me start at little things’.  One can be so traumatised by the loss of dream-vision, whether that be of a romantic or a political nature, that one stumbles round distraught and disconsolate thereafter.  ‘Starting at little things’ isn’t entirely negative, since much of the strength of Morris’s early poetry comes from its attention to intense, fragmented perceptions and details.  But it hardly sounds like a very effective way of organising a political movement, which is presumably what Guest ought to be doing when he gets back home.  I’ve suggested in earlier posts that we might use material from Morris’s late romances to interpret details in News from Nowhere; and it may be that his early poetry can come to our assistance in this respect too.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

What is the Contemporary?

With the Trumpian counter-revolution underway at breakneck speed in the United States and proto-Fascist populist movements highly active across Europe too, this question, which was the title of a symposium held yesterday at Lancaster University, is certainly the right one to be asking.  But how might one approach an answer – if indeed there is such a thing?

Mike Greaney gave an intriguing reading of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 dystopia Never Let Me Go, in which human clones grow up towards a grim future of having their organs reaped.  Chinese postgraduate Muren Zhang did not speak about China, as I had thought she might (no account of the contemporary which ignores it, and Trump’s planned war against it, will be worth the paper it is written on), but instead reflected on neo-Victorian fiction as a tool for approaching the contemporary in its subtle reworkings of the past.  This is a topic I’ve pondered painfully myself, wondering how my treasured notion of writing a political sequel to Morris’s News from Nowhere might avoid just becoming neo-Victorian kitsch.

Lynne Pearce addressed issues of driving, day-dreaming and mobility, through a focus on the vexed topic of driverless cars – strange to hear Ernst Bloch and Gaston Bachelard brought into this framework!  And visiting speaker Professor Mark Currie gave a subtle paper on contingency and narrative theory, reflecting on the fraught relations between the apparent moment-by-moment freedom of narrative and the ‘always-already’ necessity under which it actually operates.  Extreme contingency, as he argued, is indeed now one of our pervasive self-understandings, a Raymond Williams-style ‘structure of feeling’, one might say.

I greatly enjoyed this event, though I also wanted some sharper politics to enter its mostly literary register.  It is the kind of occasion that the William Morris Society – or perhaps some splinter group within the Morris Society – should surely be running.  Owen Holland has valuably organised a print symposium on Kristin Ross’s recent Paris Commune book in the Society Journal, but even this remains too historicist, despite Ross’s efforts to link the Commune to early twenty-first-century political struggles.  To address the contemporary – or perhaps, more complexly, what Ernst Bloch used to call the non-synchronicity of the present – should be the prime task of a Morris Society worthy of a man who threw himself into his own contemporary crisis with unique energy and utopian hope. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

I call myself a Communist: Alain Badiou at 80

Why should William Morris enthusiasts concern themselves with the work of French philosopher Alain Badiou, who is eighty years old today?  Well, with his more technical philosophical work, such as his magnum opus Being and Event (1988), perhaps they needn’t and shouldn’t; it is the kind of foundational and systematic project that we thought the Derridean moment of French philosophy had done away with for good, and it can be forbiddingly mathematical too into the bargain (yet let us recall that Morris put a lover of mathematics, Bob the weaver, into the early chapters of News from Nowhere).

But with Badiou’s political thinking (which is not, after all, in the end divorced from his philosophy), Morrisians in my view definitely should take a lively interest.  For he is the major advocate in our time of what he terms the ‘communist hypothesis’, and if you regard Morris, at his strongest, as a communist thinker – ‘I call myself a Communist, and have no wish to qualify that word by joining any other to it’, he declared in May 1889 – then there is a nominal continuity here which may be worth exploring.  Moreover, since Badiou calls for a post-Leninist, non-party communism (whatever this might mean), then there may be more specific parallels with Morris’s own, pre-Leninist, utopian communist thinking that should be looked at.   The attempt to revive communist thinking today, in people like Badiou and Slavoj Žižek , may offer an opportunity for making Morris’s work current and suggestive in new ways.

So ‘joyeaux annniversaire’ to Alain Badiou – may he have many more years of pathbreaking thought and active militancy!  And if, in the age of Donald Trump, we seem further than ever from the reinvention of communism as a utopian social goal, then we shall need all the intellectual resources that we can draw on to that end, past and present.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Birds of Winter

I’ve always liked that early sentence in Mackail’s Morris biography which reads: ‘The redwings and fieldfares which they [Morris and his brothers] shot on winter holidays they were allowed to roast for supper’.  Fiona MacCarthy reproduces it almost exactly: ‘the boys with their shotguns would kill redwings, fieldfares, rabbits.  They were then allowed to roast the birds for supper’ (p.8).  It isn’t so much the shooting and eating which excites me here, as the ornithological precision: the overly familiar generic category of ‘thrush’ gets finetuned down into these much more interesting sub-categories.

These birds continued to fascinate Morris in his adult years.  One of the Wanderers in the first volume of The Earthly Paradise muses that ‘Five years had passed since the grey fieldfare sung/To me a dreaming youth laid neath the thorn’.  In the entry for July 29 in his 1871 Iceland Journal Morris writes of ‘a very good birch-wood, among which it is pleasant to see the thrushes (or redwings?) flitting about’.  In a letter from Kelmscott of October 1872 he notes that ‘The fieldfares, which are a winter bird and come from Norway, are chattering all about the berry trees now’.  And it has been suggested that the thrushes which inspired the famous ‘Strawberry Thief’ design of 1883 may themselves have been fieldfares.
It is certain, at any rate, that Morris’s interest in fieldfares has inspired some contemporary artists.  Jane Kendall has done a fieldfare linocut which is loosely based on the Strawberry Thief design; it is 15cm square, and handprinted in white ink on handmade lokta paper.  Jane Tomlinson’s ‘Berry Seeker’ painting is, in its slightly unsettling way, still more evocative of this extraordinary winter bird.  Images of both follow this post.  If only Morris had worked a fieldfare or redwing or two into his fine early poem ‘Winter Weather’ to enhance its already impressive seasonal local colour!

Here is the Jane Kendall image: 

And here the Jane Tomlinson:

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Reading Tips

As the working-class protagonist Richard commits himself to political militancy in Morris’s narrative poem ‘Pilgrims of Hope’, he remarks: ‘When I joined the Communist folk, I did what in me lay/To learn the grounds of their faith.  I read day after day/Whatever books I could handle … ‘.  Sadly, the poem doesn’t actually specify what volumes our hero turns to at this point.  But what book or books might we want to put into the hands of a contemporary Richard who sought to give him or herself a good grounding in socialist theory in the early twenty-first century?

There are many candidates, naturally.  But a strong favourite, in my view, would be David Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital (Verso, 2010).  I read his Condition of Postmodernity when it first came out in 1991, and found it a powerful materialist regrounding of the cultural debates around postmodernism current at the time.  As an extraordinarily productive Marxist geographer, Harvey was part of that crucial ‘spatial turn’ in the humanities of which Edward Soja’s Postmodern Geographies (1989) might be regarded as the manifesto.

Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital, which is based upon his lecture series on Marx’s magnum opus, is a lucid, thoughtful and eminently approachable guide to the great tome itself; and is given a contemporary edge by being written in the wake and light of the capitalist crash of 2008.  As Harvey puts it early on, Marx’s ‘scientific method is predicated on the interrogation of the primarily British tradition of classical political economy, using the tools of the mainly German tradition of critical philosophy, all applied to illuminate the mainly French utopian impulse in order to answer the following questions: what is communism, and how should communists think?’  Plenty there, then, for new militants to cut their teeth on, and no guide could be more genial and searching than David Harvey.  Anyone who wants to sample the original lectures can find them at:

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Love in Utopia

Why, in literary utopias, do women from the good new society so consistently fall in love with men from the bad old non-utopian one?  Thus, in the transfigured future Boston of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Edith Leete falls in love with the visitor from the past, Julian West; thus Ellen and William Guest begin to fall in love on the upper Thames in News from Nowhere; thus the utopian forester Ellador marries Vandyck Jennings from the bad old world in Herland; all the way through to Ernest Callenbach’s Marissa Brightcloud, who has an intense sexual relationship with the investigative US journalist William Weston, which by the end of Ecotopia (1975) has clearly become permanent.  Thomas More could have enlivened his own Utopia no end if he’d had the young mother who instructs her child about the Anemolian ambassadors fall in love with Raphael Hythloday during his sojourn on the island. 

We might be inclined to attribute such recurrent amatory narratives either to the dire generic necessities of utopia and/or to the literary clumsiness of individual practitioners.  Classical utopias, you might argue, are such desperately dull affairs, narratively speaking, all anodyne geographical tour and turgid sociological disquisition, that they desperately need some plot sweeteners to keep the poor reader turning the pages; and it is then a sign of the ungiftedness of the individual writers that they cannot come up with anything better than this tired old romantic story-line: not ‘boy meets tractor’ of the old socialist-realist novels, but ‘utopian girl meets dystopian boy’.

Well, there may be something in this; but I think that Tom Moylan’s postmodern generic concept of a ‘critical utopia’ might give us pause and prompt us to look for more meaning here than first meets the eye.  It may be that even the classical utopias have more in common with contemporary ‘critical’, i.e. self-critical and self-problematising, utopias than we like to think; and the hackneyed old plot device of utopian girl falling in love with the visitor may be a pointer in that direction.

For in turning to the visitor, is not the utopian woman in some sense (and perhaps unconsciously) looking for qualities which are no longer at work in the utopian men of her own time and society?  Is she not thus implicitly criticising her own society, pointing to its absences and limits?  For it may be after all that new Boston or Nowhere or Ecotopia needs something of what West or Guest or Weston represents, that utopia is not so finished, not so complacently self-sufficient, as we first thought, that, in short, all utopias are ‘critical utopias’ in some way, shape or form.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Where are you, President Sanders?

The US Democratic Party establishment has now paid the highest of all electoral prices for previously sabotaging the candidacy of veteran socialist Bernie Sanders in favour of such a deeply compromised neo-liberal insider as Hillary Clinton.   At moments of deep national crisis and self-division, if you do not offer working-class voters a leftwing populism, you will tend to get a populism of the right –  and sometimes the far right – instead, as we ourselves recently saw with the Brexit vote.  Donald Trump appealed to an American working class which has lost out so deeply to globalisation, with many of its traditional manufacturing jobs exported overseas, and waves of mass immigration undercutting its grasp on the remaining low-wage service jobs at home. 

Can left-liberalism, or even the metropolitan Left itself, simply not see the truth in such arguments, or how deeply they accord with the experience of the US “rustbelt” or of our own working-class neighbourhoods?  Good as he is on many other policies, Jeremy Corbyn clearly doesn’t have a clue on this, as when he announced recently, of EU immigration to London, “I don’t think too many have come”.  Until we have a Left politics that can actually tap into contemporary working-class anxieties, as Sanders in his campaign to be Democratic presidential nominee did indeed seem to be doing, it will be the Right – Trump in the US, the Tory hard-Brexiteers or UKIP over here – that capitalises on the very profound disaffection with the current world economic system that so clearly exists.  

No William Morris link worked in here, I admit; but today's political events are so momentous I feel I can justifiably do without one for once.