Sunday 17 January 2010

Earthquakes in Utopia

The devastating consequences of the earthquake in Haiti have been in all our hearts and minds these last few days, though the international relief operation is now beginning to get into gear, thank goodness.

I found those harrowing television images reminding me of that curious moment in News from Nowhere, where Walter Allen, explaining to Dick and Guest the love tragedy in his neighbourhood that has so depressed him, suddenly announces: ‘And all this we could no more help than the earthquake of the year before last’ (chapter XXIV). Nothing, surely, could be more incongruous in the genial, sunlit, placid Thames Valley world of Morris’s utopia than this reference to an earthquake!

England does have occasional earth tremors, of course (I’ve experienced one or two myself over the years); and even more rarely it has the odd minor earthquake, which sometimes does some limited structural damage to buildings. There were a few of these in Victorian times and Morris may have known of them, though I can’t actually recall any such references in the Collected Letters.

But what, anyway, is an earthquake doing (albeit at second hand) in his utopia? I’m not sure that there has been any scholarly commentary on that remark of Walter Allen’s, so we are left free to speculate here. Is it, as with the earlier road-building episode in London, to show that socialist utopians can rise to tough physical challenges when they need to, that they are not always in upper-Thames holiday mode?

Possibly: the one thing we can say for sure is that utopia, which surely won’t be exempt from natural disasters, will be ready for them in a way that the desperately impoverished, dictator-blighted, crime- and violence-ridden society of contemporary Haiti so tragically isn’t.

Friday 15 January 2010

Terry Eagleton on Utopia

‘Actually, I’ve not done enough thinking about utopia’, remarks my former supervisor Terry Eagleton in his genial new book of interviews (The Task of the Critic, Verso, 2009, p.228). The volume, which has a strong biographical as well as literary-theoretical dimension, vividly recalls Terry’s long stint at Oxford University from 1969 to 2001 and our shared ‘Oxford English Limited’ campaign to get some radical reforms to the very conservative version of English studies taught there in the 1980s. See my blog entry for 21.02.09 for details of our journal, News from Nowhere (nos 1-9). Bliss was it in that dawn to be an Eagleton postgraduate!

‘Well, do some more then!’ Matthew Beaumont, who so skilfully conducts the series of interviews, might well have retorted to Eagleton’s remark on utopia. I’ve pressed Terry myself in the past to write in detail on Morris’s News from Nowhere, so far without success; and now that he has turned up on the doorstep as a Visiting Research Professor at my own institution, Lancaster University, I shall continue to do so. No one’s thoughts on Morris’s great socialist utopia could be more worth having, in my view.

But has the William Morris Society itself done 'enough thinking about utopia’, Terry’s remark prompts me to ask. In its celebration of the amazing range of Morris’s writings and activities, has it given the issue of utopianism, where to me the most enduring thrust of his work lies, enough weight and centrality? I suspect not. We have various academic societies devoted to the study of utopias and utopianism, and there’s certainly some overlap of membership between them and the Morris Society; but I would like to see the latter put utopianism at the very core of what it does, in a firmly socialist context, perhaps even setting up an official ‘Utopian Studies Sub-Group’ to formally acknowledge the fact.

If we set our own house in order, with the Morris Society in some sense serving as a utopias think-tank for a wider Left culture, then we will have the moral and political authority to badger Terry Eagleton about the question of utopianism even more than we have done so far.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

T.S. Eliot's Lost Lecture

On 12 September 1917 T.S. Eliot wrote to his mother about the new adult education classes he was preparing to teach: ‘I have begun to be very busy the last few days preparing my lectures. One set covers very much the same ground as my lectures at Southall last year, but more broadly, beginning with “The Makers of 19th Century Ideas”, lectures on Carlyle, Mill, Arnold, Huxley, Spencer, Ruskin, Morris – then the poets, and then the novelists’.

Six weeks later, on 24 October, he wrote to her again, about a farm in Surrey at which he and his wife Vivien had been staying: ‘It is four miles from a village, completely in a forest … We had beautiful weather too. I took down books and prepared my lecture on William Morris. I no longer write them – I set down about three pages of notes. Vivien says I am getting better and better as a lecturer’.

Alas, that lecture, which would have been the most extended encounter between the greatest of all Anglo-American modernists and the greatest of all the Victorian prophets or Sages, has not survived. Instead, all we have are snippets, such as Eliot’s famous (and unfavourable) contrast of Morris’s ‘Nymph’s Song to Hylas’ with Andrew Marvell’s ‘bright hard precision’ in his seminal 1921 essay on Marvell’s poetry.

We can therefore only hope that Eliot’s three pages of lecture notes on Morris might still linger in some dusty attic or unconsulted archive somewhere and might one day blessedly resurface - a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Friday 1 January 2010

New Year's Message

One of the central ideas of recent literary and cultural theory is that language has a determinacy of its own, that it is always in excess of conscious authorial intention, that it bears meanings and values that neither the author nor the literary text itself can fully master; and over the couple of years that I have been working on this blog I have myself found this to be so too.

The title of this blog, ‘William Morris Unbound’, was suggested to me by my good friend Lucy Morton back in autumn 2007, when she may or may not have had Shelley’s Romantic epic Prometheus Unbound in mind. It sounded a lively enough slogan to me, though I had little idea at that point what its particular semantic force might be, so I adopted it and have worked under its rubric in my seventy entries since then. But in writing those entries that title has come – as if under its own momentum! - to have a specific and illuminating intent, one which I am now glad to find myself working within.

As a nineteenth-century figure, Morris is, naturally enough, intensively studied within relevant Victorian contexts: the social criticism of Carlyle, Kingsley and Ruskin; Pre-Raphaelite art and poetry; the 1880s socialist revival. Such historical work certainly has its valid and valuable place, and I have on occasion tried to contribute to it in this blog (my William Morris in Oxford book is a more extended contribution in this vein). But we inhabit the twenty-first century, not the twentieth. The nineteenth century is no longer breathing immediately down our necks; it is, rather, receding fast, and if we only allow Morris to be a nineteenth-century figure, however important, he will inevitably recede with it too.

We need therefore to liberate him from such well-meaning historicism; for he is also, and crucially, a utopian author, writing boldly and speculatively about worlds which have not yet come into being. And we ought, I suggest, to be true to this impulse in him, blasting him out of the continuum of history (to adopt Walter Benjamin’s dramatic phraseology) so that he becomes our contemporary, engaging our own politics, our own utopias, our postmodern hopes and dreams.

‘William Morris Unbound’, then – unchained from the rock and dragon of retrospective Historicism by the Perseus of a politically forward-looking hermeneutic violence. I hope that this blog, whose title has thus gradually revealed its latent implications to me over the last two years, will continue to contribute to this project through 2010 and beyond. My sincerest thanks to all those who have shown their continuing support for it over that period – you know who you are.