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.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Project for a new Journal

So: the William Morris Society is advertising for a new editor for its journal. My feeling, however, is that matters are actually the other way round: it needs a new journal for its editor. So here is a proposal for a Society journal that would be contemporary rather than historical, political rather than antiquarian – and thus, in my view, much truer to the spirit of Morris himself.

Let’s borrow Morris’s title of his 1888 lecture collection and call the new journal, provisionally, Signs of Change: Journal of Contemporary Culture and Politics, to kick off in 2016. It would then divide up its field of concerns into three, roughly equally weighted sections. So 33% would address the issue of Morris in contemporary culture (currently, e.g., Deller’s Morris-Abramovich image and its political aesthetics, or the Oxford Morris-Warhol exhibition, as a way of posing questions about Morris and postmodernism). The second 33% would focus on contemporary utopianism and dystopianism, both practitioners (in literary, architectural, visual and cinematic arts) and theorists (Jameson, Bloch, Levitas, Moylan).

The third 33% tranche would tackle concerns of the contemporary Left, broadly conceived (i.e. green, feminist and anti-globalisation as well as socialist): analysis of changes in capitalism, exposition of important theorists (return of communist thinking in Badiou and Zizek, say), transformations of working practices, survey of important international political developments, examination of current initiatives in the UK (Left Unity, for instance) – so this section would be doing some of the work that Morris’s socialist newspaper Commonweal used to do.

The reviews section of the new journal would be organised on a similar tripartite model. The only way historical work on Morris would get in is if someone used his writings or activities to draw cultural and/or political lessons for our twenty-first-century present. I’d be inclined to cap essays at 3000 words to ensure both a range of coverage and that they don’t become too academic. A recomposition of the editorial board, with some more overtly political people, would be necessary to make this work. I commend the idea to you!

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Is William Morris Enough?

Love is Enough, Morris confidently tells us in his over-elaborate poem of that title in 1872; but is William Morris himself enough, I wonder? Enough for what or for whom, you ask. Well, for culturally-minded socialists in the early twenty-first century, let us say. Much as I love Morris and his works, I feel that he is, alas, not enough, not quite; and I therefore need to complement him with Raymond Williams and his work.

It was indeed a ‘river of fire’ that Morris had to cross in 1883 from Victorian middle-class comfort to revolutionary socialism; and that undoubtedly required a degree of courage which it is hard for us to gauge accurately now. Doggedly though he laboured for the working-class cause, however, Morris didn’t thereby simply cease to be a Victorian gentleman and, as Fiona MacCarthy has suggested, in his last days he was ‘more or less reclaimed by his class’ (p.669).

Morris went to Oxford University in 1853 as a matter of course, given his family and class background. But for those of us from working-class families who got to the elite middle-class educational institutions, there was a ‘river of fire’ of a rather different nature to cross; and it is Raymond Williams, son of a railway signalman in a Welsh village who went to Cambridge in 1939, who helped us make sense of that. Morris’s river of fire is Williams’s ‘border country’ (the title of his first and finest novel), less something you cross definitively than a difficult liminal space you have to inhabit, strung out between the working-class neighbourhood to which you remain loyal and the expanded intellectual horizons that have been opened to you.

I remember the shock of recognition when I first read Williams’s chapter on Thomas Hardy in his book on The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence when I was twenty-one years old; for so many of Hardy’s own characters inhabit just such a border country between class identities, none more so than Clym Yeobright, the returning native. Nothing in Morris’s work, formative though it too has been, has ever moved me quite as deeply as that Williams chapter– though Morris makes a brave stab at ventriloquising something like working-class experience in Pilgrims of Hope. So there it is, then: William Morris is very nearly enough – but not quite.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast; or, How to have a Fake World War One Centenary

I suppose it was inevitable that, in a broadcast on the theme of ‘reconciliation’, the Queen would celebrate the informal truce that spontaneously broke out in the trenches between British and German soldiers in the First World War at Christmas-time 1914; and we have had the Sainsbury’s television advert over the last month or so to give some vivid visual imagery to this evocation (with football thrown in too, which the Queen did not mention). It’s good that there was such a truce, of course; at least it stopped the industrial-scale carnage for a few hours.

But if only it had gone much further. In his 1914 pamphlet ‘Common Sense about the War’, George Bernard Shaw recommended that the troops on both sides should shoot their own officers and go home and get the harvest in. Lenin knew that you had to go one stage further still and shoot your political leaders too. For him, you should take the weapons the ruling class gave you and turn them, not against each other, but against those ruling classes themselves, turning international wars into civil wars. So never mind cheery Christmas football, it would have taken uprisings on this scale by ordinary troops to bring down the capitalist elites whose competing imperialisms caused the unprecedented mass-slaughter.

As I've noted previously in this blog, my grandfather Henry Smith Pinkney fought with the Royal Artillery in France in the Great War, and though he didn’t actually turn his guns on officers or rulers, he did later join the Communist Party of Great Britain, which I take it was his way of saying that you had to hate and fight the entire economic system that had sent working men out to die in their millions to protect its imperialist super-profits. If you do not name, hate and fight that system, if you only mourn the deaths of so many individuals – the ‘fallen’ or the ‘warriors’ who ‘made the ultimate sacrifice', in that repulsive late-Victorian rhetoric - then you can have an enjoyably poignant emotional wallow, as did all those who admired the great flood of poppies at the Tower of London, but you show no real respect at all to those who have died in capitalism’s wars, then or since. I guess we are going to have to repeat these points frequently over the next three or four years!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Teachers of Lore 2: John Goode

In June 1978 John Goode interviewed me for a place on the MA in Literature course at Warwick University, where I met my wife Makiko Minow, and at the end of that academic year he sent me down the road to Oxford to work with Terry Eagleton, so he certainly played a major role in shaping my personal, professional and political life. He co-taught literary theory to us on the Warwick MA course, and I did not then fully grasp what an important nineteenth-century scholar and critic he was. It was only later at Oxford, as my own thoughts turned to William Morris, that I began to take the measure of Goode’s significance as a Morris scholar in particular. His work mattered so much because – unusually among that generation of Morris critics – he brought the lessons of the ‘theory revolution’ of the 1980s to bear upon News from Nowhere and other key works. Under the impact of Louis Althusser and Pierre Macherey, he had moved from a ‘reflectionist’ to a ‘productionist’ concept of the literary text, and he produced his most important work on Morris in the light of the latter.

I attended John Goode’s inaugural professorial lecture at Keele University in February 1992, and learnt of his death in January 1994 at the age of fifty-four with great sadness. I heard later from Keele colleague Charles Swann that on his death-bed John had been reading, in such moments of respite as he had, Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove and volume two of Jürgen Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action, both immensely formidable texts in their different ways even if you were in the very best of health. So he leaves us not only an important body of writing about Hardy, Gissing, Clough, Morris and other Victorian literature topics (partly gathered in the Collected Essays of 1995), but also that moving example of intellectual dedication even in the face of great adversity.