Friday 18 September 2009

Slavoj Žižek on Jane Morris

It isn’t often that the leading cultural theorists of our time turn their attention to Jane and William Morris, but Slavoj Žižek does briefly do so in his 1994 volume, The Metastases of Enjoyment. A chapter on ‘David Lynch, or, the Feminine Depression’ offers us a defamiliarising opening sketch of ‘Lynch as a Pre-Raphaelite’ which transforms the ways in which we see both the contemporary film-maker and the nineteenth-century painters themselves. ‘How was it,’ Žižek provocatively asks, ‘that the Pre-Raphaelites became “readable” only retroactively, through the postmodernist paradigm?’ (113).

He then moves on to a discussion of Lynch’s classic film Blue Velvet. This in his view centres around Dorothy’s depression, which is to be understood, however, not as the effect of Frank’s sexual terrorising of her, but rather as a primary datum which Frank is ‘therapeutically’ trying to jolt out of itself, into some renewed relation to the world. This is a disturbing revaluation of Lynch’s film, from which Žižek at once generalises out historically:

‘The tradition of a deadened, lethargic woman aroused from her numbness by a man’s call was well under way in the nineteenth century: suffice it to recall Kundry from Wagner’s Parsifal who, at the beginning of Act II and Act III, is awakened from a catatonic sleep (first through Klingsor’s rude summons, then through Gurnemanz’s kind care) – or, from “real” life – the unique figure of Jane Morris, wife of William Morris and mistress of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The famous photo of Jane in 1865 presents a depressive woman, deeply absorbed in her thoughts, who seems to await a man’s stimulation to pull her out of lethargy: this photo offers, perhaps, the closest approximation to what Wagner had in mind when he created the figure of Kundry’ (121-2).

With his scare quotes around the adjective in ‘”real” life’ Žižek neatly hedges his bets here, of course; is this just a clever literary recontextualising of the famous Rossetti/Parsons image, or does the Wagnerian paradigm sketched here genuinely map out the contours of the Morris marriage itself?

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Morris and Detective Fiction

In her 1940 memoir of May Morris, Una Fielding notes that May would relax in the evenings at Kelmscott Manor by curling up with a Dorothy Sayers detective novel. This curious fact reminds us that May’s father himself displayed similar literary enthusiasms on occasion, with the nineteenth-century French detective novelist Emile Gaboriau standing in for Dorothy Sayers.

In his 1884 review of the Royal Academy exhibition Morris makes reference to Gaboriau’s novel, L’Argent d’Autrui; May Morris, as she lists his ‘heterogeneous reading’ in the Collected Works introductions, refers to ‘a Gaboriau story of gilded crime hard on Elton’s “Origins of English History”’ (vol XXII, xxv); and Hilary Sparling confirms the catholicity of Morris’s literary tastes: ‘I have seen him read the Gesta Romanorum and Gaboriau’s Monsieur LeCoq with what appeared to be equal absorption’. Edward Burne-Jones was also enthusiastic about the French author: ‘There’s one writer who hasn’t had justice done to him – that’s Gaboriau ... he’s the most wonderful inventor of detective business that has ever been’.

Interesting though such references are, they remain mere antiquarian information unless we can put them to active interpretative work, unless, that is to say, we can use them to frame new generic hypotheses about Morris’s own writing. Would it, for example, be possible to read News from Nowhere as some kind of detective fiction rather than as a utopia pure and simple? William Guest would then become an active investigator, a kind of rudimentary Sherlock Holmes in the making, rather than just a passive visitor to the brave new world.

But where is the ‘crime’ he might be taken to be investigating? Well, the world of Nowhere has its crimes passionels, as we know, but they are transparent enough; so it is some more general conundrum that we must see Guest, newly equipped with an imaginary Holmesian lens and deerstalker hat, as investigating. I would suggest that he must seek for clues as to why Old Hammond, the utopian expositor, is ‘disappointed’ in the new society, or why Ellen should be so concerned about its fading historical consciousness. Nowherian culture is, I would argue, in danger, is subject to degeneration as well as celebration in Morris’s utopia; and William Guest’s role as detective is both to find out why this should be so and, if he can, to do something to prevent it. The ‘crime’ hasn’t yet been committed in Nowhere, but it is brewing; and William Guest comes into being to detect and stop it.