Monday 19 May 2008

Old Saws and New Insights

Has anyone yet published the study we need of the use of proverbs in Morris's writings? Have I just missed this in the welter of Morrisian analyses coming out every year?

For evidence of strong interest in the form on Morris's part we need only look at the index of 'Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings' at the end of his translation of Grettir's Saga. Yet there is already a contradiction here between the index and the text to which it is attached: proverbs are a lapidary encapsulation of collective wisdom, distilled memorably from a shared past as a guide to the future wiser than any whimsical individual choice, whereas the Saga itself is the celebration of as intransigeantly asocial a being - Grettir himself - as you could possibly imagine, a truculent anarchistic outlaw by nature long before he ever actually becomes outlawed legally. But then, this is a familiar contradiction within Romanticism itself, not just Morris: between its organicist-collectivist tendencies and its equally irrepressible extreme individualism.

News from Nowhere at one point describes the Bible as the 'old Jewish proverb-book', as if to announce its own interest in this theme. It contains a good number of 'old saws' and 'maxims', and during the civil war we can almost sense new proverbs coming into being in the course of the conflict. But here too a deep structural ambivalence pertains: if the 'old saws' can benignly articulate the settled cooperative wisdom of the new socialist culture, the anarchists at the Socialist League meeting on the first page of the text announce a quite different socio-semantic impulse, away from what they would see as the claustrophobically communal towards the experimental, the daring new edges of experience, that which hasn't yet been said (and perhaps cannot) rather than that which has been been fixed in linguistic amber - or Roland Barthes-style doxa - once and for all.

So the study of proverbs in Morris is likely to be a rich field: as linguistic forms in their own right, as proto-narratives themselves and in relation to the wider Morrisian narratives in which they are embedded, and in terms of their social implications which I have just crudely sketched here. And if we want a theoretical starting point for such a study we could do no better than to turn to Andre Jolles's Einfache Formen ('Simple Forms', 1930), an invigorating study of many oral speech-forms (including proverbs) which still, bafflingly, has not been translated into English.

Monday 12 May 2008

Convalescence, Rainbows, Utopia

In a brilliant paper delivered at the ‘Victorian Street Lives’ conference at Kings College, London, on May 9th Matthew Beaumont showed just how much literary-critical mileage there is in the notion of ‘convalescence’ in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Convalescence can provoke the frantic, irrational curiosity of the narrator of Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ or the beautifully refreshed sensory perceptions of Giorgio de Chirico sitting in a square in Florence (among Beaumont's many other fine examples).

But can it do more than this? Can it perhaps not just revivify the already existing, but also allow the radically new to break through? Take, for instance, Ursula Brangwen, convalescing after her miscarriage at the end of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow: ‘As she grew better, she sat to watch a new creation … She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture’. This is not just a Russian-Formalist defamiliarisation of what is already present (but automatised), but rather a break-through to the utopian, to a fleeting glimpse of a new, benign social order beyond her own industrial-capitalist one.

Can we even extend this sort of account to Morris himself? Could we say – elasticating the concept, admittedly – that William Guest is ‘convalescing’ at the start of News from Nowhere from a particularly gruelling and dysfunctional meeting of the Socialist League, and that this is one of the factors that in some strange way allows him to open himself radically to utopia, to genuinely new intimations from the far future, the next morning?

There has been a good deal of discussion of the external historical factors that make utopian speculation possible in particular periods; but do we not also need a theory of the internal textual factors that, in any specific utopia, make possible the opening or break-through to the startlingly new? And among such factors it might well be that the notion of convalescence, as so fruitfully developed by Matthew Beaumont, may play an unexpectedly significant part.

Friday 2 May 2008

New Approaches to Morris

Things move fast in the world of academic nineteenth-century studies, and we can safely predict that two of the latest trends sweeping through the field will very soon find their detailed application to William Morris.

‘Thing theory’ may sound like an oxymoron (since the brute actuality of things is conventionally opposed to the highfalutin, wiredrawn speculations of theory), but is actually an important new trend that we are surely going to see much more of. It is succinctly defined in a complex, challenging essay entitled, precisely, ‘Thing Theory’, by Bill Brown in Critical Inquiry 28 (Autumn 2001), pp.1-16. Of its relevance to Morris and his work there can be no doubt, since it has been a truism of Morris studies since J.W. Mackail’s 1899 biography that (in Mackail’s own words) ‘with him the love of things had all the romance and passion that is generally associated with the love of persons only … He was interested in things much more than people’ (I, 225; II, 93). We thus eagerly await work - probably already in the pipeline - on Morris and the complex ‘thinginess’ of things.

The other new fashion in Victorian studies – and indeed, in literary and cultural criticism much more generally – is ‘food studies’. Anthropology has always been interested in comparative eating practices, but we are now witnessing a much more general ‘alimentary turn’ in cultural studies; and even philosophy, that most disembodied of all disciplines, is getting in on the act!

Of the relevance of food studies to Morris there can, as with thing theory, be no doubt at all. We might cite his own abundant gustatory appetites (which produced that portly figure in the first place), his interest in cooking, the famous post-SPAB dinners at Gattis or post-socialist lecture dinners at Kelmscott House, his stress in the political lectures on us being ‘good animals’ before we are anything else, his contributions to debates around vegetarianism in Commonweal, his own fascination with anthropology as evident in his Germanic romances, and the revealing attention to food and eating habits in News from Nowhere. After all, as every utopian writer since Thomas More (who banished butchers outside the city) has known, food preparation and eating habits are a crucial index to the quality of a civilisation. We already have books on Shakespeare and Food, Jane Austen and Food, etc. Is there enough material, one wonders, for an entire volume on William Morris and Food? Quite possibly: Morrisian gastroaesthetics is likely to prove an ample field.

So, thing theory and food studies … aspiring PhD students, dig here!