Monday, 3 July 2017

Gestures in Literature



In what has over the years become my favourite Roland Barthes book, his theoretical autobiography Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975), the great French critic notes his fondness for a phrase from Charles Baudelaire: ‘la vérité emphatique du geste dans les grandes circonstances de la vie’ (p.121).  It is a formulation that might make us tot up some of the most memorable gestures across Morris’s literary works, from Guenevere’s ‘passionate twisting’ in the early poetry onwards.

I’m particularly taken by Ellen’s unusual gesture as she stands on a bank of the upper Thames in News from Nowhere, ‘one hand laid on her bosom, the other arm stretched downward and clenched in its earnestness’ (ch.XXIX); for that clenched fist is a powerful statement of how much reforming political passion there may still be at work in Morris’s apparently settled utopia.

But the most spectacular gesture – or rather, series of gestures – in all Morris must surely be that enacted by Ralph in The Well at the World’s End, which thoroughly lives up to what Barthes terms an ‘excès de pose’: ‘he drew himself up, and his brows were knit a little ... He half drew the sword from the scabbard, and sent it back rattling ... he upreared his head and looked around him on this and that one of the warriors of the aliens, and he sniffed the air into his nostrils as he stood alone amongst them, and set his foot down hard on the floor of the King’s hall, and his armour rattled upon him’ (Bk 4, ch.9).  'Excès de pose' indeed: I shall have to try this myself next time I attend a William Morris Society AGM.