I haven’t been back to Ruskin College in Headington since the William Morris Society held its 1990 conference there to mark the centenary of the publication of News from Nowhere, so it was good to return yesterday, with Merlin Gable, for the Raymond Williams memorial lecture given by Susan Watkins, editor of New Left Review. We admired some of the beautiful traditional houses of Old Headington on the way there, and enjoyed the glorious view across the Oxfordshire countryside from the room in which the lecture was delivered. Its title: ‘Social Perspectives in Hard Times: Re-reading Modern Tragedy’.
‘Our present social conditions have an undeniable tragic aspect,’ Susan Watkins kicked off, adding that she ‘turned to him [Raymond Williams] more, rather than less, as the years go by’. She offered a fine account of Williams’s critique of the 1960s Cambridge academic ideology of tragedy, whereby suffering caused by work, war, poverty or unemployment would be mere ‘accident’, too drained of ‘ethical substance’ to merit the paradoxically approving term ‘tragedy’. And she offered, as Terry Eagleton has also been doing recently, a spirited case for Left thinking including tragedy as a major category of analysis of its own.
For in a period in which capitalism confronts ‘no structural opposition at the global level’, it produces tragic economic, social and military disintegration across the globe, which then, as we saw with last week’s appalling Paris attacks, unleashes ‘tragic blowback’ too. The magnitude of the post-2008 capitalist crisis was, as one would expect from the editor of New Left Review, powerfully and synoptically evoked. But what might count as ‘action’ against all this – ‘action’ being in Watkins’s view a central but insufficiently clarified term in Modern Tragedy itself – remains problematic. Many forms of opposition arise, from Occupy through Syriza to Jeremy Corbyn, but whether they can consolidate themselves seems quite another matter. Susan Watkins enjoined upon us the task of ‘measurement of the prevailing forces’, necessary without a doubt, but hardly in itself amounting to ‘resources for a journey of hope’, to borrow another of Williams’s own memorable phrases.