Thursday, 24 July 2008

The Old Man Who Knows Everything

Early on in News from Nowhere Old Hammond declares to William Guest, 'I am old and perhaps disappointed' (ch IX). Nothing seems to me more important in the interpretation of Morris's text than establishing exactly what the 105-year-old Hammond means by this. If the Old Man Who Knows Everything (to borrow H.G. Wells's fine phrase for the utopian expositor), the figure who more than anyone else is the keeper of utopia's flame and conscience - if he is 'disappointed' with the way things have turned out, then you surely know you're in trouble!

So, what Hammond means is one key question; but what he might do about it is another. And here we might need to turn to contemporary utopian writing to give ourselves some possible narrative models. In Kim Stanley Robinson's fine ecological utopia, Pacific Edge (1990), the elderly Tom Barnard, who has retreated from the activism of his earlier years into a depressed, silent, detached existence on the top of Rattlesnake Hill after the death of his wife, will painfully have to descend that hill, reintegrate himself in society, return to the political struggle as capitalism begins to reassert its ugly head behind disputes about local zoning and water laws.

Can we write a future narrative for Old Hammond along such lines? Can we imagine him as having dispiritedly shut himself away from Nowhere in the dusty and claustrophobic vaults of the British Museum? Why is he worried, in chapter XV, about 'how ... you prevent the counter-revolution from setting in'? To what developments elsewhere in the text does this anxiety correspond? Will he accordingly need to sally forth again, imparting his long historical perspectives to a culture of younger Nowherians who seem dangerously oblivious to them? And in so doing will he, like Robinson's Tom Barnard, recapture the fire and fervour of his early political days, inspiring a younger generation of activists in the process?

News from Nowhere declares itself on its title page 'some chapters' from a utopian romance. Clearly, there are others to be written...


Owlfarmer said...

In some ways, Old Hammond must be echoing Morris's own "disappointment," don't you think? As we age, we expect wisdom, and we expect that wisdom to bear some fruit. But Hammond's really the only one who's still in touch with the past, and maybe he misses the notion of historical consciousness.

Although I live in what I often describe as a dystopia (north Texas), I still (at 60) expect my acquired wisdom to be appreciated by my students, and that they might still get something out of knowing about what has gone before. But we live in ahistorical times, and Hammond's lament resonates.

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