Friday 21 August 2009

William Morris Society Activities: 2

In the very first issue of the Society Journal in 1961 there is a letter from John Purkis entitled ‘What I Expect of the William Morris Society’. In it he identifies certain dangers that threaten the fledgling Society: ‘first, mere historiography - the exploration of pleasant nineteenth-century by-ways … second, fragmentation [such that] the whole man disappears’ (p.21).

The historiographical danger is still a real one, I think. A glimpse at the Society’s programme for the current year shows a considerable focus on old things: old paintings (mostly Pre-Raphaelite), old stories, old buildings, old poems, old places. Even the emphasis on craftwork, which is creative activity in the present, at times shares this historic slant (‘using Kelmscott House and other designs as inspiration’).

All this focus on the past is certainly worthy and admirable, but I feel it needs to be counter-balanced by a stress on the future. After all, Morris’s greatest fictional work is a utopia set no less than two centuries ahead of his own time, so to celebrate him aptly we ourselves should be thinking about the twenty-third century (i.e. 200 years ahead of our own present) as well as about the nineteenth.

I therefore am minded to propose that the William Morris Society sets up a 'Utopian Futures Sub-Group'. It might start with a focus on literary utopias, but then broaden gradually outwards. Some very apposite literary anniversaries are coming up, after all. 2012 is the 50th anniversary of Aldous Huxley’s Island; 2014 is the 40th anniversary of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, surely the finest of all recent utopias; 2016 is a very big event in this field, in that it is the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, which was such an important text for Morris himself (hence his Kelmscott edition of it).

Analysis of the great utopias of the past could then lead to new ways of studying and supporting utopian developments in our own present. John Purkis hoped to head off academicist dangers in his 1961 letter on the Society’s future ‘without going to the other extreme and founding a new political party’ (p.21). But perhaps we should now begin to think about founding some such quasi-political grouping, or what Fredric Jameson, our own most important contemporary theorist of utopianism, has referred to several times in his work as ‘the party of Utopia’.