Sunday 22 March 2009

William Morris, Communist

George Bernard Shaw forcefully reminds us that ‘Morris, when he had to define himself politically, called himself a Communist … He knew that the essential term, etymologically, historically, and artistically, was Communist; and it was the only word he was comfortable with’ (William Morris: Artist Writer Socialist, vol 2, p.ix).

We can assume, therefore, that Morris would have been deeply committed to Slavoj Zizek’s recent conference ‘On the Idea of Communism’. This three-day event at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London (March 13th-15th) attracted a huge audience of over 900 people, who listened to such luminaries of the Left as Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Toni Negri, Jean-Luc Nancy and Terry Eagleton discussing the viability of the concept and politics of Communism for our times. In the midst of a global capitalist economic crisis, the conference attracted great press interest and had an immensely timely feel to it.

At the same time, however, the BBC’s Saturday evening series on ‘The Lost World of Communism’ has been vividly reminding us of the history of the actually (well, formerly) existing Communist states of the East. Yesterday’s programme, on Czechoslovakia, gave a potent feel of how genuinely liberatory in some respects, but also how brutal and oppressive in others, and also just how plain dour and humourless, such regimes could be. To re-boot the idea of Communism after all that will certainly take some doing!

Morris, then, was a Communist, as Shaw reminds us, and to be committed to his work is also to take an interest in the fate of the ideal of Communism today. But you’d never guess as much from 'News from Anywhere', the official blog of the William Morris Society, which rarely lets a whiff of even 1880s socialism contaminate its focus on Pre-Raphaelitism, the Book Arts, Aestheticism and Decadence, Tennyson, Victorian Art in general, and so on. One can understand Morris being de-politicised by his enemies; but if his friends – indeed, his most devoted contemporary supporters – are doing this too, then he and his legacy to us are truly in trouble.

Saturday 21 March 2009

Darwin, Morris, Utopia

In this, the bicentenary year of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin and his evolutionary theory weigh mightily on our collective mind; and one can hardly turn on the radio or television, or open a broadsheet newspaper, without stumbling upon some commemorative programme or article.

One finds no mention of Darwin in Morris’s own voluminous writings, though Darwin was certainly a significant presence in the Marxist intellectual milieu in which Morris immersed himself from 1883 onwards. For the first fullscale impact of Darwin’s thought upon the utopian tradition we have to wait until the publication of H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia in 1905, which argues forcefully that ‘the Utopia of a modern dreamer must needs differ in one fundamental aspect from the Nowheres and Utopias men planned before Darwin quickened the thought of the world ... the Modern Utopia must be not static but kinetic’ (ch. 1). Amen to that, surely, which takes us at a stroke decisively beyond the frozen perfectionist geometries of the classical utopian tradition from Plato to Edward Bellamy.

But it may be that, with or without an explicit theoretical encounter with Darwin’s work, Morris in News from Nowhere has in fact taken this kinetic emphasis on board anyway, fifteen years before the publication of Wells’s fine meta-utopia. For such, at any rate, I take to be the impact of Ellen in the last third of Morris’s text. After the genial but perhaps too leisurely and pastoral tour of garden-city London and the lower Thames, Ellen erupts dynamically into the text, ‘troubling’ it as intensely as she has her own earlier lovers.

There are no doubt many interpretative frames in which one could construe Ellen’s extraordinary intervention, but a Wellsian-Darwinian one will do well enough in this bicentenary year. We may then fittingly see her as the pure principle of evolutionary kineticism, who will turn Nowhere upside down and inside out in due course; and thus Morris’s utopia, just as much as the rest of us, pays its respects to the great Victorian biologist.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

Festival of Unfinished Works

May Morris notes that ‘many times our poet [i.e. her father] said he could never forgive Dickens for dying before he had finished Edwin Drood. We used to have endless fireside discussions over the Mystery, each one bringing a different solution, to which objections were raised and argued out - all in vain’ (Collected Works, vol XXII, p.xxi).

Adopting the very same principle, we ought not to forgive Morris himself for dying before he could complete such intriguing late romances as ‘Kilian of the Closes’, of which he wrote forty-two pages, and ‘The Story of Desiderius’ (his Roman tale), of which he completed a mere ten. And we could surely ourselves adopt the Morris family practice of having spirited discussions about where such works might be tending, of formulating our own detailed narrative solutions to them, and of subjecting these to comradely critical debate in relation to Morris’s known critical principles and the models afforded by his other late romances.

How would Kilian acquit himself as he joined the men of Whatham in their struggle against the vicious Baron of the Seven Towers (who gelds his captives)? How would his relationship with the mysterious lady of the wild-wood develop, after she has given him the magic ring that lets him see the Fountain of Thirst; and why does his new friend, Michael of Higham, seem oddly jealous of Kilian’s connection with her?

Of the Desiderius story, May Morris lamented that ‘it is to my lasting regret that this tale of the encounter of Barbarian and Roman was not worked out to the end’. It would certainly have been fascinating to see how Desiderius’s relationship to his unsavoury mother, father and uncle might have developed, and to find out why his mother’s new thrall has such an aura of mystery around her from the start. Whether the enunch, Felix, might in the end have proved a trusty mentor to Desiderius is anybody’s guess.

Indeed, I would like to see the William Morris Society organise a ‘Festival of Unfinished Works’, which would encompass Morris texts beyond the two I have just mentioned, and which would offer the opportunity of eventual publication to those speculative completions of Morris which won most collective favour on that occasion. If the Morrises could attempt to complete Dickens, it should not be beyond us to try to complete Morris!