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.


Matthew Beaumont said...

Leaving aside the extremely generous comments on my paper, I wanted to agree with the suggestive comment that a utopian impulse is bound up with the moment of convalescence. There is a glimmering sense of this in 'Useful Work versus Useless Toil', where Morris writes about the idea of a holiday, in which we 'note the course of our lives amidst all the little links of events which connect them with the lives of others' - a description that is surely related to the renewal of vision portrayed in the trip up the Thames in News from Nowhere.

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