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.

1 comment:

Elrond said...

In Oscar Wilde's 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' Sybil Vane declares cheerfully that 'Our proverbs want re=writing. They were made in winter, and it is summer now' (ch.V). This might be a good slogan for the post-revolutionary society of Nowhere; for proverbs will have to change as well as economic, legal and political systems.