Sunday, 29 March 2020

Coronavirus: Some Morrisian Hopes

A week into the UK lockdown, can we hope, however tentatively, for new progressive values to emerge from the current crisis?  Can people rediscover the new limits imposed on their lives as opportunities, as a sensory re-immersion in the present and its simple local pleasures?  Of course, for many, economic anxieties will be severe, but there is still a chance that we might partially move to that Morrisian ethos evoked in News from Nowhere: ‘they were eager to discuss all the little details of life: the weather, the hay-crop, the last new house, the plenty or lack of such and such birds, and so on; and they talked of these things not in a fatuous and conventional way, but as taking, I say, real interest in them’.

Could those local libidinal investments then acquire a degree of theoretical articulation?  Might they move towards a critique of the frantically fast-moving globalised economic system which allowed a disease outbreak in Wuhan to become a planetary disaster so very swiftly?  Will the renewed admiration for our National Health Service and other expressions of social altruism and self-sacrifice point towards a renewal of solidarity against neo-liberal austerity and individualism?  Will anger at the past decade’s underfunding of public services, which leaves us so stretched and vulnerable at a time of general crisis, emerge and take political shape?

Severe crises affect national ‘structures of feeling’ (to borrow Raymond Williams’s old term) in deep but complex and unpredictable ways.  They can benefit the Right as well as the Left, and no crisis has its political effects of itself, by its own inbuilt momentum.  Hence the Morrisian-utopian task that Alain Badiou has recently enjoined upon us: ‘As for those of us who desire a real change in the political conditions of this country, we must take advantage of this epidemic interlude, and even of the – entirely necessary – isolation, to work on new figures of politics, on the project of new political sites, and on the trans-national progress of a third stage of communism after the brilliant one of its invention and the – interesting but ultimately defeated – stage of its statist experimentation’.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Coronavirus in Utopia

‘For our sick, they were many, and in very ill case; so that if they were not permitted to land, they ran danger of their lives’.  But when ‘we … came close to the shore, and offered to land … we saw divers of the people, with bastons in their hands, as it were forbidding us to land … warning us off by signs that they made’.

These words, which might have been uttered by the captains of the cruise ships Diamond Princess and Grand Princess, which were recently moored off Yokohama and San Francisco respectively without being able to land, are in fact from the opening of Francis Bacon’s 1627 utopian fragment New Atlantis.  Eventually, the 51 passengers on Bacon’s ship (‘whereof our sick were seventeen’) are allowed on shore, but they are then effectively quarantined in the House of Strangers.  The utopians naturally do not wear our modern facemasks in dealing with them, but the first utopian official who greeted the visitors had used a richly smelling fruit ‘for a preservative against infection’.

Early utopias are deeply afraid of infection, both medical and ideological; for New Atlantis has ‘interdicts and prohibitions … touching entrance of strangers … doubting novelties and commixture of manners’ as well as transmission of illness.  To what extent is this true of their successors?  Is Morris’s Hammersmith Guest House in News from Nowhere perhaps a version of Bacon’s House of Strangers, an institution where visitors are vetted to see whether they can be safely allowed to explore the new realm more generally?

Well, it is certainly a place where Dick Hammond is trying to stamp out certain kinds of intellectualism (i.e. the historical interests of Bob and Boffin); and critics have sometimes seen William Guest as carrying an ideological virus into the Thames valley, as when Marcus Waithe refers to the possibility of him ‘contaminating Nowhere’.  Morris’s utopians know that infection can be a political issue, with old Hammond referring to the British Government sending ‘blankets infected with small-pox as choice gifts to inconvenient tribes of Red-Skins’; and this local textual reference presumably inspired Barbara Gribble in 1985 to wonder more generally ‘how Dick or Walter would react to a sudden epidemic’. 

Perhaps we are about to find out, just beyond the boundaries of the text, as it were.  For we never do discover the nature of Philippa the carver’s illness, though it was clearly quite debilitating: ‘I was ill and unable to do anything all through April and May’.  Is she perhaps Patient Zero of the epidemic that Gribble envisages?  And if it were to spread as rapidly as coronavirus is doing in Europe at the moment, then Morris’s Nowhere may be about to face one of the great challenges of its existence.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Flight by Water

I’ve always liked Carole Silver’s description of News from Nowhere as ‘the first of Morris’s final group of romances’.  That generic affiliation means that you can run the hermeneutic traffic between Morris’s utopia and his late romances in both directions: forwards from News from Nowhere, thereby exposing political implications in those otherworldly romances that we might not have supposed to be there; or backwards from the late romances, so that narrative elements of the utopia are revealed as having meanings in excess of their overt political ones.

Why, for instance, should William Guest leave London and head upriver?  Well, officially, because he’s seen the utopian city and now he needs to see the utopian countryside too, thus covering the whole social range.  But then we remember those early exchanges between Birdalone and Habundia in The Water of the Wondrous Isles.  The magical wood-wife informs Birdalone that ‘it is by way of the water that thou shalt fare to the land of men-folk’, and a few pages later the heroine ‘called to mind what Habundia had said to her, that it was by water that she must flee’.  So a journey by water releases you from the captivity of the evil witch-wife who had kidnapped you on the opening page of the book.  Can something like this be true of William Guest’s water journey too?

Well, we might think of Guest as being narratively trapped within old Hammond’s endless expositions in the British Museum.  After all, as readers, we probably feel ourselves shackled during those gruelling expository chapters too.  In a more important because political sense, we might regard Guest as trapped within a narrow, excessively static and pastoral utopia in the transfigured London, and as needing to break out of that to a wider, more challenging world and politics beyond.  He will meet Ellen on his river journey, after all, and she is indeed a dynamic new force in this otherwise too placid future.

Whether Guest’s upriver adventures can be paralleled in any precise way with Birdalone’s tribulations on her great lake, I’m not sure.  Could we think of the cottage at Runnymede as a version of the Isle of Increase Unsought, with the old Grumbler as its dangerous and short-memoried witch – politically short-memoried, in his case?  At any rate, the juxtaposition of The Water of the Wondrous Isles and News from Nowhere will have made us think of aspects of the latter in a new way.  For if a water journey breaks you out of stasis and captivity towards new challenges, then we will have to look at William Guest’s 130-mile trip up the Thames in a new light.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Morris in the OED

Ah, so now I know how many William Morris words are cited in the original Oxford English Dictionary, without the later Supplements: 1,359 words in 1,522 quotations.  But is that good or bad?  Is that an impressive tally, or is it not?  Well, a comparison with other Victorian writers reveals that he has fewer OED words than Charles Dickens (5,553 words in 7,512 quotations), John Ruskin (2,879 in 3,231) or George Eliot (2,430 in 2,618).  But he has more than Thomas Hardy (1,111 in 1,129), Matthew Arnold (1,064 in 1,139), Charlotte Brontë (807 in 840) or Dante Gabriel Rossetti (350 in 356).

Of course, such arithmetical tallies tell us very little about what it means, qualitatively speaking, that an author should be cited in the OED in this way.  For a splendid example of how such a philological analysis might be conducted, I refer you to Dennis Taylor’s Hardy’s Literary Language and Victorian Philology (1993), which is where I got that Morris figure from in the first place.  We’ve had useful analyses of Morris’s literary language here and there (particularly by Norman Talbot), but we could certainly do with a study of it as subtle and comprehensive as Taylor’s of Thomas Hardy’s.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Transfiguration of the Hero

When in Ursula Le Guin’s utopia The Dispossessed the hero Shevek embarks on a sexual partnership with the marine biologist Takver, the two of them take a room together at the northern end of the city of Abbenay: ‘The move was not complicated … Shevek brought a box of papers, his winter boots, and the orange blanket.  Takver had to make three trips.  One was to the district clothing depositary to get them both a new suit, an act which she felt obscurely but strongly was essential to them beginning their partnership’.

A similar sartorial moment befalls William Guest in News from Nowhere, on the morning after his return from old Hammond’s long lectures to him in the British Museum: ‘I dressed speedily, in a suit of blue laid ready for me, so handsome that I quite blushed when I had got into it, feeling as I did so that excited pleasure of anticipation of a holiday’.  Guest’s new clothes don’t have the happy sexual meaning of Takver and Shevek’s, but they too mark a significant new phase for him: departure from London and travel up the Thames.

In both these instances we are surely in the presence of what narratologist Vladimir Propp, in his pathbreaking book Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928), describes as Function XXIX: ‘THE HERO IS GIVEN A NEW APPEARANCE (Definition: transfiguration.  Designation: T)’.  Of the four variants there listed, we are in Morris and Le Guin dealing with number three: ‘The hero puts on new garments’.  That both utopias thus deliver function XXIX so neatly prompts a more general question: how useful would Proppian narratology be for the analysis both of particular utopias and of the genre of utopia itself?  Has anyone tried out a Proppian study of either The Dispossessed or News from Nowhere; and if not, why not?