Saturday, 28 April 2012

Perfoming 'Rapunzel'

When schoolchildren visit the Kelmscott House Museum they now have the chance to participate in dramatisations of Morris’s early poem ‘Rapunzel’, which is based on the Grimm fairy-story; and since the available props for doing so include blonde pig-tailed wigs, cardboard crowns and plastic swords, one imagines that they very much enjoy doing so. May Morris alerts us to more adult and formal performances of her father’s poetry, when she notes of ‘Sir Peter Harpdon’s End’ that ‘a private performance some years back brought out in a surprising manner the fitness of this poem for the stage’.

I’m reminded by all this of the description of the Sunday meetings in B.F. Skinner’s strange utopia Walden Two (1948): ‘There’s usually some sort of music, sometimes religious. And a philosophical, poetic or religious work is acted out. We like the effect of this upon the speech of the community. It gives us a stock of common literary allusions’ (ch.23).

I can see how you’d act poems out, yes indeed, and I wouldn’t mind waving a plastic sword around myself (well, I was once the White Rabbit in a school production of Alice in Wonderland, after all). But it’s much more Skinner’s notion of acting out philosophical works that intrigues me now. So could we one day imagine meetings in the Kelmscott Coach House in which stretches from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Marx’s Grundrisse or Derrida’s Of Grammatology were acted out – with what props, for heaven’s sake - before an admiring audience?

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Pleasures of Biofiction

I’ve been reading some some chapters of a PhD-in-progress by my very talented Belgian student Kirby Joris which deals with recent first-person ‘biofictions’ about Oscar Wilde. We don’t yet have any good contemporary biofictions (as opposed to biographies) of Morris, so I am borrowing Kirby’s accounts of her Wilde novels to suggest how Morrisian equivalents might go:

1. On his sea-trip to Norway in July 1896, the physically ailing Morris (who will die in October) keeps a journal in which he ponders – in the first-person, naturally - the great unresolved questions of his life. Did Jane Burden ever really love me? Was daughter Jenny’s epileptic illness from 1876 onwards my fault, genetically speaking? Why did I tolerate the Jane-Rossetti and Jane-Blunt affairs? How did I arrive at socialism in the years up to 1883, and was my ‘Kelmscott turn’ of the 1890s a retreat from all that? Are my last romances the literary result of a mind going soft? (cf. Peter Ackroyd, Last Testament of Oscar Wilde).

2. In 2011 a young American Occupy activist who is working on a PhD on fin-de-siècle British culture at Berkeley starts writing and sending a series of postcards to William Morris. To his astonishment Morris replies, from the after-life, and a detailed correspondence ensues in which the spirit of Morris advises on the global capitalist crisis since 2008 and offers some startling new political strategies for the Left in the new century (cf. C.R. Holloway, The Unauthorized Letters of Oscar Wilde).

3. An arrogant and politically right-wing doctor treating Jenny Morris’s epilepsy through both physical and psychological means tries in the mid-1920s, with Jenny now in her 60s, to delve back through her fragmented memories into the Morris family background in the 1870s when her illness first manifested itself. To what extent, he wants to discover (in order to discredit Morris), did class and sexual tensions in the marriage enact themselves through the elder daughter’s sufferings. (Cf. Clare Elfman, The Case of the Pederast’s Wife).

4. J.W. Mackail, Burne-Jones’s son-in-law and Morris’s future biographer, is drafted in to help Morris as detective to solve the mystery of the murder of a number of prominent socialists: chiefly those of his Oxford mathematician friend Charles Faulkner in 1892 (made to look like natural causes) and Sergius Stepniak (staged to look like a railway accident) in 1895. Sherlock Holmes might even lend a hand here too. (cf. Gyles Brandreth, The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries).

Saturday, 14 April 2012

William Morris in China

Well, actually, not in China but Manchester; but there were so many Chinese academics over here for the ‘Marxist Aesthetics’ event at Manchester University this week that I really did feel as if I were in Shanghai for a couple of days. It proved invigorating indeed to be at a symposium where Marxism provided the basic terms of debate: Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and Herbert Marcuse were particularly prominent, but Raymond Williams, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and others featured too.

I was lucky enough to have two bites at the conference apple, first by introducing Morris’s 1880 ‘The Beauty of Life’ lecture, which seemed to chime in well with the Chinese delegates’ emphasis on the ‘laws of beauty’ from Marx’s Paris Manuscripts; but also by speaking on ‘Morris, Jameson, Utopia’, in which I tried systematically to apply Fredric Jameson’s thinking on utopia to News from Nowhere. I found myself – and perhaps Morris too – to be ambivalent about the term ‘beauty’. On the one hand, it is for him a crucial aesthetic critique of capitalist ugliness and philistinism; but on the other hand, it seems often to frustrate Morris, who aims to break beyond it towards the ‘sublime’ (Iceland, revolution, Ellen in his utopia).

Beyond all our local conceptual debates at the Manchester event was the formidable presence of China itself as a twenty-first-century geopolitical entity. I have written enthusiastically in this blog about Badiou and Žižek on ‘the idea of Communism’ (22 March 2009), but here, suddenly, we were in the presence of many genial academic representatives of the world’s most powerful Communist state, although, given the recent marketisation of its economy, a Marxist understanding of China would now be a very complex thing indeed. So I hope to get out there myself later this year and do my own modest bit to test out Chinese social reality against Morrisian criteria. Watch this space.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Salmon in the Thames

Travelling through London to visit my parents in Southend-on-sea, my son Justin and I often used to leave Tower Hill underground station and walk up to the viewing platform from which you can see the Tower of London (and, latterly, the Shard under construction). Built into the pavement is a metal circle on which are represented events from the history of the city; and we were always intrigued by a little detail tucked away between two early nineteenth-century dates:

1813-14 Thames froze over
Last salmon caught
1829 First London Police Force

Since salmon have so spectacularly returned to the Thames in Morris’s utopia, we can assume that he too would be interested in the question of when they disappeared from it. According to S.J. Hobson, Morris ‘told me that his grandfather had caught salmon’ in the Thames at Hammersmith, but can any amount of piscatorial detective work now really hope to establish the exact date of their disappearance?

If we split the two dates, our Tower Hill London history suggests 1821, though I do not know on what authority this is based. But in fact, already in Faulkner’s 1813 History of Fulham the author remarks of salmon that ‘only one was caught last season. They have abandoned the Thames since the opening of the docks’; and the building of gas works on the river banks after the introduction of gas lighting in 1807 was itself seen as having an adverse effect upon salmon stocks. So would it be the case with salmon in the Thames, as with the rural ‘organic community’ for Raymond Williams in his great study The Country and the City, that they are always just gone, that whatever date you come up with for their disappearance can, with enough research, be capped by one a few years earlier?