Sunday, 19 April 2015

Images for Utopia

We are all fond of the woodcut of Kelmscott Manor from C.M. Gere’s design which served as the frontispiece of the Kelmscott Press edition of News from Nowhere in 1893 and which now often graces modern paperback editions too. But is it really the best image to introduce Morris’s utopia? Does not the Manor, as a completed architectural artefact, imply that the effort of actually making utopia is over, that once we’ve rowed up the Thames to get there we can just lie back and enjoy it? Indeed, as a building that hugely predates the book’s own narrative present, does it not effectively take us outside the realm of utopia altogether?

What might serve as a better image here then? Well, couldn’t we have a building from the utopian present in which William Guest finds himself? Why not a woodcut of the Hammersmith Guest House, say, or of that architecturally exuberant nearby Mote-House which embraces ‘the best qualities of the Gothic of northern Europe with those of the Saracenic and Byzantine’ (ch.IV)? Or better still, why not an image of a building in process rather than already completed, which might semiotically signal to us, as frontispiece of the book, that utopia is itself always in process and never complete, that it is constantly self-transformative or 'kinetic', in H.G. Wells’s term?

And we do indeed have just such a scene available to us in the ‘Obstinate Refusers’ chapter later in the book, where Philippa and her building team are eagerly engaged on a new house on the upper Thames: ‘at work in the shed and on the scaffold about half a dozen men and two women, blouse-clad like the carles’ (ch.XXVI). A woodcut based on this episode would have had the further beneficial effect of reminding feminist critics of Morris’s utopia that women are not confined to the rather subservient roles they do indeed occupy in the earliest chapters. So do we have a woodcut artist out there venturesome enough to have a go at such an illustration?

Thursday, 2 April 2015

William Morris on the Syllabus

As an undergraduate in English Literature at Bristol University between 1975 and 1978, I never encountered any William Morris at all on my degree scheme. We did plenty of Victorian poetry, including Browning, Tennyson, Arnold and Hardy, but Morris’s Defence of Guenevere poems, which certainly had all the qualities of edge, concretion and irony to appeal to the Empsonian predilections of my tutor Moira Megaw, never got a look in. And though the Department as whole did have a culturally militant stance towards ‘technologico-Benthamite civilisation’ (Leavisite codeword for capitalism), since it was staffed by second-generation Scrutineers like Roy Littlewood, that certainly did not extend to having a socialist utopia like News from Nowhere on the syllabus.

Do undergraduates today, in either English or Politics departments, get any better exposure to Morris? There is certainly more interest in Gothic than in literary realism these days, which might make a space for him; but on the other hand, a whole series of new areas has come into focus – literary theory, science fiction, African literature, women’s writing, and so on – which now take up a good deal of the undergraduate’s time in English studies. I think the honest answer is that we simply do not know how much attention Morris’s work gets on the university syllabus in the early twenty-first century. So we need a national and international survey of Victorianist colleagues in literature departments and Left-leaning colleagues in Politics or Sociology to see which Morris texts are getting taught, and, in the longer-term, to encourage more of them on to the syllabus.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

The Philip Webb Centenary

How does - or should - one honour the dead? The centenary of the death of architect Philip Webb is giving rise to a cluster of activities that all look appropriate enough at first glance. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings is organising a tour of Red House in May and other related events; Tessa Wild will be speaking to the William Morris Gallery, again in May, about Webb’s work and ‘his deep friendship with Morris’; the V&A will have a Philip Webb display in November, which will encompass his furniture designs as well as his buildings. There are many other similar things going on elsewhere and they all look – and no doubt will be – genial, informative and entertaining (I might even go to one or two myself); but oh dear, how relentlessly historical and therefore ultimately low-key they all are into the bargain!

The pull of a personal name always draws us back to anecdote and history in this manner. To truly honour the dead – our dead, i.e. socialists and communists like Webb and Morris – we are well advised to move from names to themes, from the past to the present, from nostalgia to struggle. So to celebrate the Webb centenary let the William Morris Society organise for later this year (it is still not quite too late to do so) a series of high-profile speakers on the general topic of ‘Architecture and Society Today’, which might recapture for the present some of the centrality and excitement that architecture had in cultural and political debate in the postmodern 1980s (of which Fredric Jameson’s analysis of the Bonaventura Hotel in Los Angeles might stand as an exemplary instance). Sign up Owen Hatherley, Will Self, Jonathan Glancey and others, call these talks the ‘Philip Webb Centenary Lectures’, publish them subsequently as a book, and let us look boldly forward rather than back.

Friday, 6 March 2015

The Great Morrisian Bake Off

I can enjoy Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood in the BBC TV show The Great British Bake Off in small doses, but want to point out that, in terms of the celebration of baking, William Morris in his later works got there first – though it is bread rather than fancy cakes that is the object of culinary skill in his writings.

In The Water of the Wondrous Isles no sooner has Birdalone buried the body of her terrifying Witch-mistress than ‘she went about the house, and saw to the baking of bread’, as if this were the most natural thing in the world to do at such a fraught moment. And perhaps it is; for when Arthur the Black Squire turns up at the cottage after their five years of anguished separation from each other, Birdalone celebrates with ‘fine bread made for that very occasion’. In The Well at the World’s End after Ralph and Ursula have made their way through the alarming mountain passes they come into a beautiful valley and rejoice because the Sage of Swevenham has told them ‘that there they should winter, because of the bread which they could make them of the chestnuts’. In News from Nowhere we see the delicious products of baking – thin pipe-stems of wheaten crust, big, dark-coloured, sweet-tasting farmhouse loaves – but not, a little disappointingly, the act of baking itself.

Baking bread is thus a decidedly positive value in Morris, just as it has become once more in our own culture, as when Satish Kumar of the magazine Resurgence & Ecologist extols the slow, meditative virtues of home-baking – an altogether more attractive paradigm, to my mind, than the often hectic, unnecessarily competitive format of the Berry/Hollywood TV programme.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Consider this and in our time: on W.H. Auden's birthday

Makiko and I will be opening a bottle of red wine tonight to celebrate the birthday of W.H. Auden (on whom I shall be teaching undergraduate seminars in a few weeks time). Auden’s attempt at a politically committed poetry in the 1930s still seems worth our attention, even if he never achieved anything quite as forceful as Hugh McDiarmid’s first ‘Hymn to Lenin’. Even so, ‘A Summer Night’ still strikes me as an effective attempt to break out of the narrow enclosures of traditional English poetry – that middle-class ‘garden’ of so many 30s poems – and to range illuminatingly across the ‘European sky’ of contemporary class politics. ‘A Communist to Others’ certainly has problems, but I none the less admire the poetic project underlying it. And the famous ‘Consider this and in our time’ remains, in its terse Freudo-Marxist authority, both enigmatic and diagnostically impressive.

It’s sadly true that Auden ends up, poetically and politically, somewhere else altogether. ‘In Praise of Limestone’, beautiful though it is, returns to the meditative tradition of English landscape poetry he began by rejecting; and ‘The Shield of Achilles’, which so powerfully registers the traumas of twentieth-century history – Stalinism, Nazism, US nuclear bombing of Japan - ends up somewhere beyond politics altogether. But still, for that brief moment of engagement in the 1930s, and the poems it produced, a bottle of red wine seems apt enough – though for the poetic career as a whole, perhaps it’s a Forsterian two cheers rather than three.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Gossip on an Old Barn

We all enjoy Morris’s genial account of Kelmscott Manor in his ‘Gossip on an Old House on the Upper Thames’, published in The Quest in November 1895 and reprinted by May Morris in 1936. But this appears not to have been the article he originally intended to write. For in Edmund New’s ‘diary’ of his visit to Kelmscott in October 1895 he notes, on Wednesday 9th, that ‘much rain had fallen during the night; we therefore decided not to drive to the Coxwell barn as we had intended, but that I should draw inside the house and Mr M. should write an article on it instead of on the barn’. To the long list of Morris’s unwritten works we can therefore add his ‘Gossip on an Old Barn near the upper Thames’.

I have often argued in this blog that in the case of works that Morris intended to write but either didn’t start or couldn’t finish, we should now write or complete them for him – or at least speculate in some detail as to how they might go. Could we do this, then, with the non-existent Coxwell Barn piece? We certainly have much testimony as to his intense admiration for this thirteenth-century structure; and we also have what I regard as May Morris’s own attempt to reconstruct the unwritten article, which she does by quoting Thomas Hardy’s evocation of the Shearing-barn in Far from the Madding Crowd in volume XVIII of the Morris Collected Works: ‘I know no writer’, she there remarks, ‘who has understood and interpreted so keenly the past and present spirit of these majestic buildings’ (p.xxix). We might also note that critics have occasionally been so irate that we don’t have a detailed Morrisian account of Great Coxwell Barn that they have even proposed a trip there as a desirable new episode in News from Nowhere itself!

Sunday, 1 February 2015

William Morris and Cultural Theory

The proceedings of Michelle Weinroth and Paul Leduc Browne’s 2011 Ottawa symposium on Morris’s work are now in print. At a weighty 372 pages, To Build A Shadowy Isle of Bliss: William Morris’s Radicalism and the Embodiment of Dreams is a handsomely produced volume and constitutes an important event in Morris studies. But the great surprise of this volume, to those of us who were at the symposium, will be Michelle’s Introduction, which embarks on a stimulating reading of Morris in the light of Jacques Derrida’s concept of ‘spectrality’ from his 1993 Spectres de Marx; for this framework of interpretation was not at all visible at the event itself.

This Introduction is exactly the kind of sophisticated writing on Morris of which we need so much more, and of which we get so little. We should be trying out all the major interventions in recent philosophy and cultural theory on Morris’s work, in order to see what they can illuminate in him but also what he, as communist utopian, may tell us about them, by way of challenge and emendation; the traffic will certainly not be all one-way. Efforts in this direction are rare indeed. Long ago, as we emerged from the 1980s, I tried out a consciously ‘postmodern’ reading of News from Nowhere; Weinroth herself evoked the Kantian sublime in her 1996 Reclaiming William Morris; Marcus Waithe used some aspects of Derrida on hospitality in William Morris’s Utopia of Strangers in 2006.

But where is the Deleuzian Morris, the Žižekian Morris, the Badiouvian Morris, the Kristevan or Cixousian or Irigarayan Morris, the Bloomian or De Manian or Hartmanian Morris, even a Benjaminian, Jamesonian or Eagletonian Morris, or the Morris of current animal studies or political theology or the Lacanian Real? There are so many powerful paradigms from literary and cultural theory, or from philosophy and political theory, which we should be trying out on his texts. Since the existing Morris institutions are of so little use here, we probably need a new Morris Society that will actively encourage such work and a new Morris Journal that will publish it. So little has yet been done in this field. As with Adam and Eve leaving Milton’s Paradise, the world is all before us where to choose.