Monday, 31 May 2021

Wilde versus Morris

Listening to Terry Eagleton’s online Lancaster classes the other day, I heard him develop a contrast between Oscar Wilde and William Morris that he has set out in print elsewhere.  In Terry’s view, Wilde’s argument that labour should be reduced as much as possible so that we can cultivate varied interests and capacities in our then much enhanced leisure time is closer to Marx than Morris’s demand that labour should be made creative and sensuously pleasurable as opposed to the dehumanised rote that it mostly is under capitalism.

Not that these two cases completely contradict each other.  You can run both of them at the same time – labour should be reduced as much as possible, and what little of it remains should ideally become creative too - though it would then become a matter of where the emphasis is placed between those two requirements.   Wilde is not only closer to Marx on the question of work, on the Eagletonian view, but also, one can’t help feeling, closer to Terry’s own sympathies in this matter.

For much of the utopian tradition, from Thomas More through to Edward Bellamy and H.G. Wells, the Wildean position dominates.  Labour is a mechanical physical drudgery which, by a variety of social devices (equitable distribution, simplification of needs, technical innovation, longer-lasting materials, etc), we should reduce to a bare minimum, so that real human value can flourish elsewhere.  Morris’s view, however, in contrast to all this, is radically non-dualistic: labour can and should be the place where human value is realised, not some dull inert chore that must be got out of the way first.  And this is why – being a literary person for whom form and content are always mutually imbricated, in necessarily non-dualistic ways – my sympathies remain on the Morrisian side of Terry’s Wilde-Morris contrast.

 

Friday, 30 April 2021

Utopians in Oxford

Let us try to recall our very first reading of Morris’s utopia where, as William Guest, Dick and Clara set off by boat from Hammersmith Guest House, we were not yet sure of what the final destination of this upriver journey may be.  The only critic I know who has ventured at all in this direction is Norman Talbot, who observes that ‘we feel certain the destination must be either Oxford or his beloved Kelmscott’.  Let us suppose, as a thought-experiment, that it were Oxford, that Morris’s characters disembark in the university city and do not travel further upriver. 


Would News from Nowhere be a better utopia if it had ended in Oxford, a place, we must suppose, of continuing mental energy rather than of the outdoor harvest work of Kelmscott itself?  Morris would then have had the chance to show us in detail what a communist university looks like, just as Ernest Callenbach sketches the lineaments of an ecological research institute in his Ecotopia of 1975.  We might have met some of the scientists who had developed those enigmatic but technologically advanced ‘force-vehicles’ that Guest and his fellow-travellers have seen on the Thames.  A post-revolutionary Oxford certainly might have suited Ellen nicely, given her own intellectual liveliness and taste for long historical perspectives.  She might successfully have reintegrated herself into Nowherian life here, after the spell of isolation with her grandfather at Runnymede.


 We may even speculate as to whether the time-travelling William Guest might not have been able to remain in utopia if the book had ended in Oxford rather than Kelmscott.  Might not the transfigured university have afforded him the chance of becoming a lecturer in Victorian history in the way that Edward Bellamy’s narrator Julian West does in Looking Backward, where he ends up teaching in the Historical Section of Shawmutt College in the future Boston of that socialist utopia?  Ellen notes that Guest is too wrapped up in his endless past-present contrast to fully belong to the younger utopians in the Kelmscott fields, but this might have been the very quality that would make him a vividly firsthand history lecturer at Oxford.


Indeed, the benefits of ending in Oxford might have been felt not just by Guest, but by News from Nowhere itself.  For one recurrent objection to Morris’s utopia is that it is excessively pastoral, too placid and idyllic, too dismissive of intellectual debate and scientific innovation.   To have closed in a university city rather than among the fields of Kelmscott would have made that charge against the book much harder to sustain.  Someone should surely write a new version of News from Nowhere in which Oxford is its terminus.

 

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Air Quality in London

Clean air is among the earliest pleasures of Morris’s transfigured socialist London in News from Nowhere.  ‘My first feeling was a delicious relief caused by the fresh air,’ remarks William Guest soon after waking at the Hammersmith Guest House; and he quickly grasps the social cause of the vastly improved air quality around him: ‘The soap-works with their smoke-vomiting chimneys were gone’.

You might have thought that, in the hundred and thirty-years since the publication of Morris’s utopia, British capitalism would have got its environmental act together as regards London air quality.  In some ways, yes; we don’t have Victorian ‘pea-soupers’ in the capital any longer.  But in others, very definitely not.  

So we must be grateful to Philip Barlow, the coroner at the inquest into the death by air pollution of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah.  For he has pointed out that UK pollution limits for particulate matter are currently twice as high as the levels recommended by the World Health Organisation, and has demanded that they be reduced down to those WHO levels (which themselves may well not be safe).  Fortunately for London’s children, mayor Sadiq Khan, himself an asthma sufferer, does seem inclined to act to reduce car use and traffic pollution in the metropolis.

The wager of Morris’s utopia is that reformist impulses of this kind will never ultimately be enough, and that only major systemic social change can bring about an economically and environmentally just future.  However, until then, air quality is one of a host of London-specific issues (Thames water or the quality of new housing developments would be others), which the William Morris Society could very readily be campaigning about without jeopardising its legal status as a charity.