Thursday 16 September 2010

Nature vs Culture

The excellent ‘Calligraphic Masterpieces’ exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow contained some intriguing surprises as well as many of the familiar treasures of Morris’s calligraphic phase in the 1870s. A Winsor&Newton ‘Illuminating Kit’ - an elaborate folding wooden box with compartments full of colours, brushes and gold leaf - reminded us what a popular middle-class pastime calligraphy was in the mid-Victorian period; it certainly wasn’t a stray discovery of Morris’s own. And a delightful embroidered book bag made by Jenny and May for their father was nice testimony to the closeness of the Morris family circle in the 1890s.

As for the Morris decorated books in the exhibition, one could not help but be astonished at the intricate craftsmanship they displayed; but it was the tension between the elegantly formed letters and the rich floral decoration, between Culture and Nature as it were, which intrigued me most. May Morris describes her father’s Rubaiyat as ‘a flower garden turned into a book ... wonderfully harmonious’, but I’m not so sure about that harmony; often the vigorous vegetation breaks into the frame of the writing and even at times threatens to engulf it. Splendid floriated initials in the Odes of Horace and the Story of Howard the Halt are so intertwined with stems and vine decoration that they are nearly overwhelmed; and one remembers those unsettling late Kelmscott Press initials in which the flamboyant capital letters are actually stabbed through by alarmingly active tendrils of vegetation.

Nature thus subjugates Culture in the end, and perhaps the play of floral decoration against writing in these painted books gives us in miniature a version of that post-apocalyptic image that Morris so relished in Richard Jeffries’s After London (1885): the great city, i.e. Culture, reduced back to a miasmic swamp by the resurgent forces of Nature itself.

Thursday 2 September 2010

The Theological Turn

There has been talk recently of a ‘theological turn’ in literary and cultural studies, just as there has been a resurgence of the ‘God debate’ in our culture more generally. Questions of religion seem back on the agenda in ways they have not been for a long time; and no wonder, given the extraordinary roles of the US Christian Right and of Islamic insurgencies and terrorism in shaping world history over the last decade or so.

How might such a theological turn affect readings of Morris’s News from Nowhere, which has surely seemed to so many of its readers one of the most resolutely secular utopias in the entire tradition (it refers dismissively to the Bible as ‘the old Jewish proverb-book’, after all) ? We can predict, I suspect, that more weight will begin to be given to the fact that Morris’s masterpiece ends, not at Kelmscott manor as we lazily assume, but at Kelmscott church, where William Guest fades into invisibility on the threshold of the utopian feast and plunges back into the class-ridden nightmare of his own nineteenth century.

Why should utopia end thus at a sacred site? Can it be that such buildings, and the religious values that have attached to them for centuries, cannot be so briskly secularised as Morris, the Nowherians themselves and we as readers would all like to think? Is it possible to elaborate a reading of News from Nowhere beginning, not with the Socialist League meeting or the new Hammersmith Guest House, but with Kelmscott church itself, which might then radiate back retrospectively into the text in surprising ways and alert us to religious significances we had not previously fully picked up (bathing in the Thames as baptism, for example)?

I am not going to offer such a reading myself, but I feel sure that, under the weight of today’s ‘theological turn’, we will be seeing them come through in future years.