Tuesday 27 December 2011

What do you think of it so far?: Comedy in Utopia

Took my Mum for a Boxing Day visit to the Eric Morecambe statue at Morecambe seafront yesterday. We always used to watch Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials at home in my teenage days, and we all remain fans, even so many years later. When I was a Lancaster city councillor there was some talk of developing a Museum of Comedy at Morecambe to build on the success of the statue, though sadly that has not happened. Not yet, anyway.

Our visit made me wonder about comedy and humour in utopia. One doesn’t think of utopia as a laugh-a-minute genre – indeed, quite the opposite, with those long turgid lectures we tend to get from the Old Man who Knows Everything (to borrow H.G. Wells’s phrase). None the less, there are jokes (as well as much generalised neighbourliness) in utopia; and Morris’s News from Nowhere does occasionally reflect on the nature of humour in an ideal society.

For it may be that the threshold of comedy will be very much lower in utopia. When William Guest complains that the remarks of Dick Hammond’s workmates are ‘not much of a joke’, Dick retorts that ’everything seems like a joke when we have a pleasant spell of work on, and good fellows merry about us’ (ch.VII). So perhaps, in utopia, you wouldn’t need a Museum of Comedy as such because social life in general will have been ‘Eric Morecambeised’. My Mum certainly hopes so!

Saturday 24 December 2011

The Ethics of Horse Riding

‘Up and away through the drifting rain!/ Let us ride to the Little Tower again’. These two lines, from Morris’s poem ‘The Little Tower’, constitute for me the most exciting beginning in all his poetry and make one realise how pervasive the experience of horse-riding is across it.

There are lonely horse-rides in Morris’s poetry, as when Lancelot makes his way dolefully across the Wiltshire downs in ‘King Arthur’s Tomb’; but the much more characteristic experience is of vigorous fellowship on horseback. ‘We rode together/In the winter weather/To the broad mead under the hill’; or ‘For many days we rode together/Yet met we neither friend nor foe’. The latter poem is even entitled ‘Riding Together’, which announces the ethic behind this series of texts clearly enough.

Morris had himself experienced such equine companionship on a brief riding holiday with Charles Faulkner in Wales in April 1875, and more extendedly on his two Iceland trips of 1871 and 1873. In News from Nowhere the children in the Kensington forest are ‘used to tumbling about the little forest ponies’ (ch.V), so one imagines that riding together counts for something in utopia too. That being so, I suspect that here is another new activity which the Morris Society should be promoting – Morrisian riding parties across the English countryside.

I am influenced in all this by that wonderful Edwin Muir poem ‘The Horses’ which I studied for A-level with my teacher Mr A.J. Webster. After a nuclear apocalypse humanity in that poem has to tentatively relearn its old, healthy relationship with horses; and in our own environmentally threatened epoch we surely have to do that too. Let us Morrisians lead the way!

Saturday 17 December 2011

Exploring Psychogeography

I enjoyed Radio 3’s programme on psychogeography the other day, though if you are going to delve into its origins in Situationism in Paris, you really ought to find a presenter with enough French to pronounce his subjects’ names properly (Guy Debord, not Des Bords). And from 1960s Paris we moved on to 1990s London, with interesting interviews with such recent practitioners as Iain Sinclair and Will Self. If this is a literary movement that eventuates in the intriguing concept of ‘magical Marxism’, then Morrisians certainly ought to know about it, and I shall investigate that term further and report back.

But I also found myself wondering whether the powerful reimaginings of city space we already have in the utopian tradition, such as Morris’s transfigured London in News from Nowhere or Callenbach’s new San Francisco in Ecotopia, aren’t themselves exercises in psychogeography. Surely only a ‘punk walker’ on an unusually intense dérive (or drift) could re-experience the House of Commons as a Morrisian Dung Market?

And I got very excited about one particular psychogeographical practice which seems to suggest a whole new hermeneutics for utopian writings. The Situationists, it appears, used to attempt such bizarre experiments as navigating Paris with a map of the Berlin Underground, defamiliarising their home city rewardingly in the process. So could we not cross utopian wires in a loosely analogous way? Suppose we read News from Nowhere as if it were Marge Piercy’s Woman at the Edge of Time (in which case Ellen might be a time traveller from the future), or insert bits of News from Nowhere and H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia into each other, as if they are aspects of a single complex utopian vision? The reading experiments that ensue would probably cover the whole spectrum of psychogeography itself, from the powerfully illuminating to the completely wacky!

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Tearing off Heads: the Animals of Ted Hughes

Lot of fuss being made about the poet Ted Hughes this week, as he finally gets his memorial in Westminster Abbey. As a keen fisherman, Morris might have approved of the piscatorial quote that graces the Hughes memorial slab, but what would a Morrisian approach to Hughes’s poetry look like? I was a keen fan of his early animal poetry myself once, and vividly remember a reading, in Bristol in 1978, at which this dark, charismatic figure deeply impressed my female friends who were present (masochistic Isabella Lintons to his rugged Heathcliff, perhaps).

All those formidable poetic hawks, pike, jaguars, foxes! ‘My manners are tearing off heads’. Nature, then, as a radical alternative to civilisation; but Hughes can alas only conceive Nature as aggressive, predatory, ruthless, which is to say that he projects on to it the rapaciously competitive values of capitalism itself. Far from being any alternative to the system, Hughes’s early vision of Nature is – irony of ironies - just the pure distillation of that vile system’s inner values. So perhaps it’s apt enough that he gets his memorial at its heart in the Abbey after all.

Sunday 4 December 2011

British Association of Literary Theory

‘The advantage of being old’, as F.R. Leavis remarks in his late writings, ‘is that you can say, “I was there”’. And in a more modest way middle age has that privilege too; for I can say that I was there, as a postgraduate student of Terry Eagleton’s at Oxford in the early 1980s, as wave after wave of newly translated work by Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Hans Robert Jauss and others came across from Europe and transformed the foundations of literary studies in this country. Thus the genre of ‘literary theory’ was born here – heady days indeed!

Now, however, we are more likely to hear of the ‘death of theory’ than of its birth, a slogan which means various things. First, that the exciting polemics of the early days are long since over, with literary theory now routinised as a core element of undergraduate English literature syllabuses. Second, that the grand projects of theory are seen as suspect and a ‘return’ to supposedly new versions of formalism or humanism is called for. Third, that many of the founding European and American theorists are indeed now dead or on their last legs.

Are we mourning literary theory, then? Well, perhaps; but as Freud argued, mourning is an active work not a passive condition, as nicely summed up in Samuel Beckett’s formulation: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’. So I suggest that we ‘mourn’ theory as actively as we possibly can, and one good way of doing this will be to establish a British Association of Literary Theory (BALT), a professional association to match those we already have for such academic fields as Romanticism, Victorian Studies and Modernism. And if we do set up BALT, we shall surely find that, as with Mark Twain, reports of literary theory’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Theory of Everything

200 posts already clocked up on this Morris-and-utopias blog, and with this item I start my next 200; so this perhaps constitutes a good moment to pause and take stock. I have previously wondered whether there is any topic which could in principle not feature here (31.03.2011). Dog shit, you might think, would be one such; but no, for it briefly features in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopia Herland: ‘when Jeff told them of the effect of dogs on sidewalk merchandise and the streets generally, they found it hard to believe’ (ch.5). But if you are a dog lover who would prefer your canine turds rather more thoroughly utopianised, you just have to turn to Aldous Huxley’s Island: ‘”Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! Even dogs’ messes.” She pointed at a formidable specimen almost at their feet’ (ch.14).

My good friend Pamela White, when challenged to suggest a topic I would be able to make nothing of, promptly uttered ‘doughnuts’; and I must confess that I am still struggling with that one, though there is a brief mention of ‘the underflannel-and-doughnuts mother’ in Herland (ch.12). My students at the University of Notre Dame always wanted to bring doughnuts along for breakfast at our early morning seminars, but I don’t suppose that can count here.

I used to think that it was the genre of the blog itself – nimble, opportunistic, serendipitous – which meant that it could potentially scoop up any kind of topic into its capacious maw; and I’m sure that’s partly true. But now I’m inclined to feel that it is just as much the focus of this particular blog, its Morris-and-utopias emphasis, which makes this greed-for-content possible. For the literary genre of utopia would seem to have an in-built encyclopaedism to it; it wants to map out every conceivable aspect of life in its perfect world, so that in principle no topic whatsoever, no detail however tiny, escapes its totalising ambitions, which are well symbolised by that giant index or ‘universal eye’ of utopia in central Paris in H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia. While this might in some ways be politically scary, it can also lead to an agreeable aesthetic quirkiness too. How often, for example, should you have your teeth checked by the dentist in utopia? Well, the answer is there for the taking in B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two (ch.22).

So I confidently predict that, though I haven’t come across it just yet, there will be some utopia out there somewhere in which doughnuts will turn out to be the main staple of utopian diet.

Monday 14 November 2011

The Dickens Reading Project

The William Morris Society is not, as far as I know, planning any particular event to celebrate the Charles Dickens bi-centenary next year; and yet given both Morris’s personal enthusiasm for Dickens’s novels and their appearance in some of our most memorable utopias, you would think it certainly ought to. So here is a Swiftian ‘modest proposal’ in that direction.

I suggest that the Society embark upon a long-term ‘Dickens Reading Project’ starting next autumn. It would devote one of its meetings per year to a particular Dickens novel, drafting in a Dickens specialist to lecture on it on that occasion, but also doing all it can to encourage widespread reading of the book among Society members by discussion across the year in the Newsletter. To pluck a novel out of the air as a starting point, let us take Barnaby Rudge, which Morris used to read aloud to Jane Burden as a significant part of his wooing of her in his Oxford days (not a tactic many of us would be inclined to use in our own relationships, perhaps).

Several years into this Reading Project, we would be reaching that happy position evoked in News from Nowhere where, in relation to Dickensian nicknames, Dick Hammond cheerfully observes to William Guest, ‘I see you take the allusion’ (ch.III); and perhaps a good few years further on we might even collectively rival that ‘exceptional familiarity with Dickens’ which Julian West claims in Edward Bellamy’s utopia (ch.XIII).

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Sequels to Utopia

‘You must take me there someday, darling ... I want to see your country’, remarks Ellador to Vandyck Jennings in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), which at once gives you the easiest of sequels. A utopian woman falls in love with the visitor to utopia (why they do this so regularly is matter for another post in its own right, perhaps); but instead of settling with her in utopia, as Julian West does with Edith Leete in Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the visitor now decides to take her back home to his own bad society. And there you have your volume two, With Her in Ourland (1916) in Gilman’s case.

Samuel Butler had already experimented with this narrative paradigm in Erewhon, where Higgins escapes from utopia in a balloon with Arowhena. In the sequel, Erewhon Revisited, written some thirty years later, we learn, however, that this hasn’t turned out too well. Arowhena has never really felt at home in London and she dies prematurely, a rather defeated and poignant figure. Gilman’s Ellador is made of sterner stuff, fortunately, and gets on well enough with Van in ‘Ourland’.

So I suppose the readiest model of a sequel to News from Nowhere, if Morris had ever been inclined to pen one, would have been to have Ellen return with William Guest to late-Victorian London as we see it in the opening pages of the book. Taking your utopian woman home, however, imposes more narrative problems for time-travelling utopias like Morris and Bellamy than it does for spatially-travelling ones like Butler and Gilman. If you can’t depend on an H.G. Wells-style Time Machine, then you must invent other temporal procedures – mesmerism or dream-vision – which work well enough in one direction but are not so easily reversed.

On the other hand, Morris’s Ellen shows so much interest in history in general, and in what she herself might have been in the nineteenth century in particular, to make us feel that a further dream-vision in which she woke up in 1890s Hammersmith alongside Guest might make a very lively book. Anyone out there fancy having a go at writing it on Morris’s behalf?

Wednesday 2 November 2011

The Crisis of the Humanities

I have just received the latest issue of the Oxford University alumni magazine Oxford Today, the front cover of which dramatically announces: ‘Whither the Humanities?: Uncovering a Global Crisis in our Midst’. Martha Nussbaum, Jonathan Bate and Colin Blakemore contribute articles on this crisis, which comes about, of course, as a capitalism lurching into deep economic trouble cuts back spending on what to it appear to be such merely decorative luxuries as History, Modern Languages, Literary Studies, Anthropology and so on.

What would the Morrisian angle on this lively current debate be? Three things, I think. First, that we in the Humanities should not, as the main focus of our energies, be trying to justify our activities to our capitalist pay masters; rather, we should be endeavouring to replace them. Which is to say that the ultimate function of the Humanities – the way in which they finally prove themselves to be humane, as it were - is not self-cultivation or the disinterested free play of the mind or to provide content for new creative industries, but rather to give oppressed groups intellectual resources with which to challenge their oppressors.

Secondly, that any contemporary practice of the Humanities which does not do this is as withered and dead as Morris believed the art and poetry of his own time to be; it is, that is to say, merely the privileged pursuit of a few in some leafy Oxbridge college garden with no invigorating wider social base. Political intellectuals (or ‘soldiers of the Cause’, in Morris’s own rousing phrase) will tactically support the ‘defence of the Humanities’ by the liberal-humanists, but their heart and energy will be elsewhere: in organising broader oppositional forces.

Thirdly, that the Humanities will one day – but now in a benign, indeed utopian sense - wither away, because the values they currently represent and protect will have become incarnated in everyday life itself. In a post-capitalist economy organised around mutuality, creativity and pleasure in work rather than private profit, the Humanities as a specialist preserve of aesthetic values banished from daily life will simply cease to be. No doubt intellectual enquiry and cultural expression will still continue, but the forms they then take are unlikely to be recognisable to dinosaurs of the old social order like us.

Saturday 29 October 2011

Gifts in Utopia

‘Doubtless the Utopia is a necessary part of every Socialist’s library’, writes Morris in his preface to the Kelmscott edition of Thomas More’s book. So we must read and re-read it, and perhaps it may even have lessons for how we approach Morris’s own utopia, not least in the question of the role of the visitor to the new society. We tend to think of the visitor to utopia as passively wondering at the marvels of the new world, but this is by no means simply the case for More’s Raphael Hythloday.

Raphael learns much from Utopia, no doubt about it; but he also brings gifts to it – Greek literature, the manufacture of paper, the art of printing, and a knowledge of Christianity. So he certainly has an active and not merely a receptive role. Moreover, it is not at all clear that these gifts will be simple boons to the Utopians. Already, before he got to the island, Hythloday had taught local mariners the use of the lodestone in navigation, which then tempts them into dangerously reckless voyages. So this first, pre-Utopia gift already proves decidedly ambivalent; and the gift of Christianity itself later causes dissension, when one new Utopian convert starts preaching violently against all the other existing varieties of faith on the island. The visitor’s gifts may thus contaminate and even disrupt the perfect realm he has entered.

Can we carry this model across from More’s Hythloday to William Guest in News from Nowhere? Can we think of Guest, too, not just as the passive recipient of Nowhere’s benign pedagogy, but as an active, even perhaps a dangerous participant in the new society? What gifts might he be imparting to it, knowingly or unknowingly, and what effects may they have on the host society? Might Guest be about to trouble Nowhere as disastrously as Ellen declares she disturbs men’s minds?

Thursday 20 October 2011

In Memoriam: Peter Preston

Peter Preston, who died on Tuesday, had been a senior figure in the William Morris Society for many years. He brought to the public side of that role a gravitas which made him a highly effective representative of the Society to the external world, but there was also a patience, close attention to detail and skilled diplomacy which made him a most able chair of the Society during some difficult times. Peter was always one of the most forward-looking of the ‘old guard’ on the Committee, and he was certainly open to the idea of the Society taking back the first-floor Coach House flat (which it currently rents out) for Morrisian purposes – which in my view is the next necessary big step forward for us.

Peter’s academic work across the decades falls into two categories: his writings on Morris, which many Society members will already know, and his work on D.H. Lawrence, which related more to his professional career at the University of Nottingham. I’m not sure that Peter himself ever fully brought these two areas into relation with each other, though if life had been kinder and granted him more years, he might have done. So perhaps we must regard his Morris and Lawrence interests, in Adorno’s great phrase, as the ‘torn halves of an integral freedom to which, however, they do not add up’. Certainly for us, wanting to honour Peter’s memory by extending his work, it is the difficult relationship between those two authors which will most concern us.

For at stake there, implicitly, is the great question of Morris and modernism – of whether Morris can in any useful way be seen as a modernist, whether and how his work influenced later modernists (from Yeats to the Bauhaus), of whether (beyond the question of conscious influence) Morris’s utopianism survives in modernist experimentalism in general; and – beyond even all of this – of how the Morris-modernism relation needs to be rethought in our own postmodern epoch.

I am deeply grateful for the personal support Peter Preston gave me in Morrisian matters over the years, and will endeavour to keep that flame burning in the decades to come (including his project to get Morris’s diaries into print). I recently reported back to him from the Ottawa conference and hope it gave him some comfort to know that Morris studies were in such good heart internationally. And I am grateful too for the stimulus to thought that his work at the Morris-Lawrence frontier gives us; for to keep Morris current, as Peter most wished, we shall have both to modernise and postmodernise him.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Pierre Macherey and Utopia

The very first time I heard Terry Eagleton speak was way back in Spring 1978 – not in person, but on the radio. My undergraduate flatmate Julian Pattison and I sat in a room in our house in Royal York Crescent in Bristol listening to Terry give an account of the work of French theorist Pierre Macherey on Radio 4. I have no doubt that Terry’s summary of Macherey was as beautifully lucid as he always is, but since Julian and I were part of a still militantly Leavisite English department, we didn’t have much grounding in literary theory with which to make sense of it. Indeed, for the Bristol University English department in 1978 literary theory just didn’t exist.

It now strikes me, decades later, that Macherey’s account of the relations of ideology and literary form, which may or may not be applicable to literature in general, is certainly apt enough – indeed inescapable – in relation to the genre of utopia. For any utopia (much more so than most works in most other literary genres) can be formulated in general ideological terms as a particular set of social values, preferences and customs: urban living, technological innovation and centralised organisation for Edward Bellamy, say; rural living, low-tech craft-work and general decentralisation for Morris.

But once you put such ideological values into literary form, into motion, into a narrative which you hope will embody them and make them more persuasive, then, as Pierre Macherey insisted, something very odd happens. Literary form has, as it were, a mind of its own, it internally distantiates the ideology it is supposed to be obediently embodying; narrative puts the skids under your ideological values in the very act of incarnating them, as Milton famously found in Paradise Lost. In my view, things are going wrong as well as right in Morris’s News from Nowhere, as narrative form puts even that work’s admirable socialist values into crisis.

So as Eagleton’s voice expounding Macherey comes nostalgically and hauntingly back to me across the decades, I’m grateful to him for that early introduction to such a key literary theorist.

Monday 10 October 2011

Morris and Son

In ‘The Man Born to be King’, the King remarks: ‘Though I had hoped to have a son/To help me get the day’s work done’ (Earthly Paradise, I, p.118). In ‘The Son of Croesus’, the wood-dwellers declare: ‘Dost thou not know, O King, how men will strive/That they, when dead, still in their sons may live?’ (EP, II, p.150). Georgiana Burne-Jones once applied this motif to William Morris himself, who of course had only daughters. She wrote to Sydney Cockerell: ‘Have you ever tried to imagine a son of Morris? I have tried to try, and failed!’ (MacCarthy, p.192).

Dombey and Son, Morris and Son: what Morris did not get in life, he bequeathed himself in fiction. For by making old Hammond in News from Nowhere the grandson of William Guest, the visitor to utopia (who is the Morris-surrogate in that text), which thereby also makes the hyper-athletic Dick Hammond Guest’s great-greatgrandson, Morris endows himself with the sturdy male progeny he did not achieve in life itself. And since Dick and Clara themselves have two children, this Morris lineage clearly continues well on into the 22nd century utopian future (if at the cost of a certain narcissism in his utopia).

Thursday 29 September 2011

The Deaths of Miners, The Idea of Communism

We in the UK thought we no longer had a mining industry, and it’s taken the deaths of four miners earlier this month at a Swansea Valley mine and of Gerry Gibson on Tuesday at the Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire (where three miners have now died in three years) to remind us that we do. William Morris’s family fortune itself came from mining, though of copper rather than of coal, and he would presumably have known of the great Victorian mining disasters: 361 dead at Oaks Pit, Barnsley, in December 1866; 209 dead at Blantyre Mine in Lanarkshire in 1877; 295 dead at the Albion Colliery in Glamorgan in 1894. And in April 1887 Morris was speaking as a Socialist leader to some 6000 striking miners at Horton in Northumberland.

As I’ve noted before in this blog, my paternal grandfather and his sons, my Uncles Harry, Jack and Bill were all miners; and Grandad, unlike my uncles, was an active member of the Communist Party into the bargain. Years ago when I took my Mum and Dad to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, Churchill’s birthplace, my father was rigid with anger and hatred because ‘Churchill wanted to shoot your Grandad’, i.e. had in 1942 wanted to turn the army on the striking miners at Betteshanger Colliery in Kent, where Grandad worked.

So this Communist family background gives a strange resonance to current attempts by philosophers like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zižek to reinvent ‘the Idea of Communism’. Some of Badiou’s formulations about the nature of personal political commitment are very stirring; and one can certainly understand why he wants to separate off a Platonic Idea of Communism from the Leninist party-form or the Stalinist State. The question is then what new organisational forms might become possible and appropriate (and, crucially, effective) when you do so; and that is an issue in which we shall surely find Morris’s own political thought – libertarian, decentralist and utopian but still emphatically socialist rather than anarchist (indeed, self-declaredly communist too) – as offering help and stimulus even today.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Jeremy Paxman on Morris

I’ve always enjoyed Jeremy Paxman as a famously tough presenter on BBC’s Newsnight programme (though also feeling that, in terms of class formation, he is too close to many of the politicians he deals with). But Paxman has other intellectual strings to his bow too. I possess his excellent anthology, Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life (1995), as a treasured fortieth birthday present from my good friend Robin Gable. His recent BBC series on Victorian painting was consistently interesting, as is the book that emerged from it. And his undergraduate studies in English Literature at St Catherines College, Cambridge, were put to good use in his genial tome on The English: A Portrait of a People (1998).

However, I want to challenge Paxman’s Morris scholarship in this latter volume, because the slip he makes here is not just his own. On p.170 of the book he quotes Morris as saying that, in England, ‘all is measured, mingled, varied, gliding easily one thing into another, little rivers, little plains ... little hills, little mountains ... neither prison nor palace but a decent home’. Morris does indeed say all this in his 1877 lecture on ‘The Lesser Arts’; and many other people cut the quote off at this very same point. But if we follow it through into the next paragraph we find this panegyric to gentle Englishness giving way to quite different feelings. For ‘it would indeed be hard if there were nothing else in the world, no wonders, no terrors, no unspeakable beauties’.

This is the Morris of Iceland rather than England, of the sublime rather than the beautiful, of the late romances at their most disturbing; and it is that Morris, in my view, that we have more need of today. For Morrisian gentle Englishness is too easily captured by nostalgic conservatism on one side of the political divide and by contemporary Green politics on the other. The Morris of the sublime, however, shakes those too easy identities up. He stands for, and enacts in his best work, disruption, upheaval, danger and challenge, breaks rather than continuities, the possibility of total transformation, not modest tinkering here and there.

Monday 19 September 2011

Ottawa Morris Conference

As for the Ottawa Morrisfest itself, it was entitled ‘Rethinking Morris, Rethinking Ourselves’, and comprised a weekend of intensive debate by Canadian, American and British scholars in the genial fifth-floor seminar room of the Ottawa University Arts Building. Michelle Weinroth and Paul LeDuc Browne were our indefatigable hosts; and the military presence outside our hotel on both mornings served as a reminder that that particular weekend was also the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on New York.

Plenty of stimulating rethinking of Morris, with a strong focus on how we get beyond older debates which polarised his aesthetics and politics. But how do we ‘rethink ourselves’ too? How do we pose a Morrisian version of that old Matthew Arnold question (in ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’): ‘And what am I, that I am here?’ Or, to put it in more up-to-date terminology, how might we factor the subject into the equation, as Frederic Jameson would phrase it, achieving a properly dialectical self-reflexivity? In a weekend much concerned with frames and framing, what are the frames in and through which we now respond to Morris, the situations to which we want him to be a response?

A quick checklist might include: 1. recent developments in literary studies (the ‘death of theory’, the ‘religious turn’, the rise of creative writing); 2. current national-political situations in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, such as the August riots in London for UK scholars (as I tried to show in earlier posts), or Canada’s alarming drift rightwards in the Stephen Harper years, or the frustrating Obama presidency for US colleagues; and 3. longer-term epochal-global trends that shape us all down to our toenails, such as economic globalisation, immigration and multiculturalism, postmodernism in culture, the digitalisation of communications, climate change and global warming, the rise of China to superpower status and, finally, 9/11 itself and the whole ‘war on terror’ that followed so disastrously in its wake.

‘Rethinking ourselves’, then, need not mean some touchy-feely collective therapy session, but rather this effort to get some grip on the historical determinants that make us the Morris scholars that we are. For we are most certainly not, to borrow E.M. Forster’s old image, sitting synchronously around a table at the British Museum with J.W. Mackail, Robin Page Arnot, J.M.S. Tompkins and E.P. Thompson.

Friday 16 September 2011

Questions of Travel

While travelling to and from Michelle Weinroth’s recent Morrisfest in Ottawa, I decided to read, as the most apt book I could think of, Lavinia Greenlaw’s Questions of Travel: William Morris in Iceland (2011), a curious little tome which slips handily in your pocket when you’re on the road. On the righthand pages, Greenlaw gives extended extracts from the 1871 Iceland travel diary; and on the lefthand pages, underneath a key Morris phrase, she offers her own brief, bulletpoint-style reflections. Some lefthand pages are entirely blank, others have half a dozen Greenlawian reflections which almost constitute a small poem in their own right.

What she does, in effect, is to subtly x-ray out the general issues of travel – philosophical, ethical, therapeutic – which get lost in the sheer welter of Icelandic detail that Morris throws at us. The quality of her commentary is mixed, sometimes falling into banality (‘You are moving and so things keep changing’), now and again sounding rather mystically portentous, and occasionally addressing Morris as an analyst might a patient (‘At last you let yourself be carried’); but also often achieving some startling illuminations, especially in her delicate metaphorising of some of the literal details of the trip (dark passages, floating helpless, messes in boxes).

What Greenlaw does to Morris is effectively what Roland Barthes did to Balzac in his wonderful study S/Z in 1971: break the primary text up into fragments and offer a subtle commentary on these discrete units. She has brilliantly found a new form for writing about Morris, and for this we can only be grateful; for increasingly my feeling about Morris studies is that we need to be more experimental, to invent new writing projects which might lead to the discovery of new content, rather than packaging new content into the familiar form of the scholarly essay. I have myself been trying to contribute to new modes in my blogging and tweeting on Morris, and intend to pursue them further in the form of a News from Nowhere sequel in due course; and I therefore salute Lavinia Greenlaw as a bold pioneer in such formal iconoclasms.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Thor the Mighty Thunder God

As a boy, I was a great fan of the Marvel Comics hero Thor, and he was my way into Norse mythology in general: Loki, Odin, Asgard, Yggdrasil and all the rest of it. I loved the way Thor demolished enemies with his mighty hammer, which he also used to fly through the air (I was easily pleased in those days). And now, so many years later, Thor is back, in Kenneth Branagh’s recent film where Chris Hemsworth plays the Thunder God in his earthbound exile. Watching the various recent Marvel Comics movies – Captain America last month - I at once switch back into the old teenage mode of utterly uncritical enjoyment.

But Thor features in high culture as well as mass culture. Coleridge once planned a long poem on ‘The Excursion of Thor’; and the Thunder God makes brief appearances in Matthew Arnold’s narrative poem ‘Balder Dead’, where he grieves for his more thoughtful brother and muscularly pushes Balder’s ship of death off the beach into the sea. He gets a brief mention in Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung, though his one-eyed father Odin plays rather more of a role in that northern epic; and there are a couple of good evocations of him at the start of ‘The Lovers of Gudrun’ in The Earthly Paradise, where ‘Thor’s hammer gleamed o’er Thor’s red-bearded face’.

And now A.S. Byatt has written a novel called Ragnarok, in which Thor will presumably play a major part in the final battle or ‘twilight’ of the Norse gods. So there seems to be much mileage left in my old boyhood hero the Thunder God. I wish Morris himself, with his passionate enthusiasm for Norse culture, had made rather more of him, but we can at least hope that Byatt has now penned the worthy mythic novel of which Morris himself alas wasn’t quite capable. My Amazon order for the Byatt book has just gone in; I shall report back.

Friday 2 September 2011

The Kissed Mouth

There is an excellent blog called ‘The Kissed Mouth’ (after Rossetti’s Bocca Bociata), which deals with Pre-Raphaelite art in a very lively way; and its title makes me wonder which are the most memorable kisses in Morris’s work.

Four examples leap to mind. First, the kiss between Lancelot and Guenevere in the garden in ‘The Defence of Guenevere’ where, as the Queen puts it, ‘both our mouths went wandering in one way,/And aching sorely, met among the leaves’ (ll.136-7). It’s a curious formulation, which reminds me of how the fragmented part-objects of the human body – eyes, arms, hands - live their autonomous life in T.S. Eliot’s early poetry. The Morrisian mouths go wandering on their way towards the compromising kiss, while their human owners dissociate themselves from the truth of what is actually happening here.

The second kiss is that imagined in ‘Concerning Geffray Teste Noire’, which is surely the ultimate Pre-Raphaelite femme fatale kiss of all time, coming at you through the air as lethally as a Bruce Lee shuriken: ‘I saw you kissing once, like a curved sword/That bites with all its edge, did your lips lie’. Better run fast if you ever see that one coming!

As for socialist kisses, well, the one William Guest receives from Annie in News from Nowhere, which ‘almost took away from me my desire for the expedition’ up the Thames (ch.XXI), must have been pretty impressive.

And finally, Morgan le Fay, in ‘Ogier the Dane’ from The Earthly Paradise, has lips that might ‘give at last the kiss unspeakable’, which sounds intriguing. That wouldn’t be a mid-Victorian euphemism for oral sex, by any chance, would it?

Tuesday 30 August 2011

From Riots to Utopia

I’ve been expecting the Saturday ‘Review’ section of the Guardian newspaper to devote its ‘Ten of the Best’ column to the subject of Riots in Literature; but it hasn’t done so yet. As a Victorianist, I’d start with the attack on Thornton’s mill in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, follow it up by the riot in George Eliot’s Felix Holt, and eventually pass on to twentieth-century examples. Such a column would be salutary in reminding us what a recurrent social phenomenon riots are, but in the present climate of moralistic indignation the Guardian probably feels it would be accused of trivialising the issue by converting it to literary history in this way.

How deep has the shock of those riots actually been, what impulses to personal change have they given to those of us who weren’t ourselves out on the streets earlier this month? To me, they demonstrated how much anger there is out there against capitalism and what it’s doing to people’s lives, but also how shapeless, unstructured and therefore self-defeating and ugly such anger currently is. They’ve made me ask again what an effective anti-capitalist politics might look like. When New Labour made the Labour Party hopeless, I joined the Greens expectantly and even became a Green Party city councillor for a while (1999-2003); yet now I feel that we have to reinvent the wheel and get the term ‘socialism’ back into circulation all over again instead. But how?

When William Morris lectured here in Lancaster on 2 November 1886 his topic was ‘Socialism: The End and the Means’. So even if we had the means, i.e. an effective socialist party (which we don’t), we would still require the ‘end’, i.e., an inspiring vision of the good society which that party was working towards. Which is precisely where utopianism comes in. Analysis of the causes of the riots, fine; new efforts at Left political organisation in the present, yes indeed; but happy visions of the future too, absolutely. Marxism has always been chary of utopia, and in a postmodern ‘image-culture’ that traditional suspicion was reinforced by a feeling that all positive utopian images were already somehow incorporated by the system.

But the great importance of Morris is in showing us that, however vulnerable the activity of utopian mapping and speculation may be, it is entirely indispensable to the Left too. We still need our own News from Nowhere, from a good future whose outlines we can as yet barely see, if we are to have any chance of remaining sane and resolute in the present.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Stories in Landscapes

I feel that, under pressure of recent social events, I have been neglecting the ‘creative writing’ dimension of this blog, its aspiration to generate more Morrisian text, to finish his uncompleted works or to speculate on the shape and sources of new ones; and this is an emphasis that can apply to Morris’s circle as much as the man himself.

Georgiana Burne-Jones, for example, informs us that her husband ‘enjoyed making up stories about his backgrounds, as he painted them’, which might license us to make up our own stories on the basis of such haunting paintings as ‘Golden Stairs’ and ‘Mirror of Venus’. Such new tales may prove a good deal more disturbing or even science-fictional than you might at first think. ‘Now and then I want to see Hell in a landscape’, Burne-Jones himself remarked, criticising the too placid scenery of Surrey; and he once, according to his wife, offered ‘a description, I remember, of an era when “giant white cockroaches” reigned supreme’. Not Rise of the Planet of the Apes, then, but Rise of the Cockroaches instead.

So get down to your local museum or art gallery, locate its Burne-Jones holdings, and wait in front of them, pen and notebook in hand, until narrative inspiration descends.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Architecture and Social Unrest

At one point in his three-part Channel 4 TV series on ‘The Secret Life of Buildings’, Tom Dyckhoff showed us images of pitched Parisian street battles from 1968, to which French architecture attempted to respond through the young Richard Rogers’s Pompidou Centre, conceived (as Dyckhoff remarked) as a ‘building for the people’. Might we then expect to see architecture, Morris’s great art of arts, respond to our recent riots?

Dyckhoff is a cheery, chirpy presenter and his series was entertaining and illuminating in equal measure. He examined the effects on human well-being of domestic, work and leisure buildings by wearing mobile eye trackers through a shopping mall, having an EEG cap strapped to his head in an open-plan office, and even by being doused in an ice-cold bath for as long as he could endure in different architectural settings.

The programme on working spaces was in the grip of a spatial ‘reformism’ which was all about introducing architectural wit and variety within existing power-relations. Dyckhoff showed us how you can ‘de-institutionalise’ prison-like old schools with colour and anti-geometry in ways that will calm troublesome kids down (perhaps this will work with rioters too); just as, over in Europe, you can brighten up – or even combine - office and industrial spaces in ways that improve staff morale (BMW’s factory in Leipzig). But there is all the difference in the world between redesigning a building to maximise your workers’ comfort, efficiency and productivity under capitalism; and designing a space, in post-capitalist society, in which workers may democratically govern their own production processes (see Morris’s own utopian writings on factories as they ‘might be’).

However, the first programme on domestic buildings had made more telling political points, noting that since 1980 there has been no legal minimum size for UK houses and that we are accordingly building some of the smallest and worst-lit dwellings in Europe. And the final programme on leisure buildings was more radical still, as Dyckhoff denounced 1980s ‘free market fundamentalism’ and tackled leading architects such as Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas about buildings (like the Bilbao Guggenheim, illustrated above) which are zany high-tech spectacles rather than genuine social spaces, which latter he found exemplified by the demotic idiom of the 1951 Royal Festival Hall in London and, as I have noted, the Paris Pompidou Centre.

Architecture alone will not solve our present violent social discontents, as Morris in his socialist phase knew well enough; but since he always was so concerned for its ‘prospects ... in civilisation’ (to borrow that lecture title), we might well now wonder whether it will find creative ways to respond to the riots we have just witnessed. Can video-gaming technology truly ‘democratise the process of architecture’, as Michael Kohn claimed at the end of Tom Dyckhoff’s fine series? In the days ahead we shall find out.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Tweeting William Morris

Have just started tweeting on my usual issues of Morris and utopia. If you go into the Twitter website and search for ‘TonyPinkney1’, you should be able to find me (and could then choose to ‘follow’ the sequence, if you feel so inclined). After all, if The Earthly Paradise celebrates ‘The twitter of the autumn birds’ in ‘The Man born to be King’, why should we not try out the twitter of the literary critics? Perhaps it too might prove to be tuneful and consoling.

Apart from a few famous maxims (‘Have nothing in your house ...’, etc), Morris is the very opposite of an aphoristic writer. Think of those great sheets of poetry-as-tapestry in The Earthly Paradise itself, for example, or the family description of The Well at the World's End as 'the Interminable'. So will it indeed prove possible to evoke and discuss him fruitfully in the tiny genre of the 140-character tweet? I’m not sure. ‘Scorn not the Sonnet’, counselled Wordsworth; but that was fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, not 140 characters! Whereas if you were tweeting on Oscar Wilde, say, rather than Morris, you might feel that this mode of miniature commentary was in harmony with the lapidary, epigrammatic energies of your subject himself.

Yet I do believe that new modes of writing, however challenging, can themselves sometimes generate new thoughts, even new kinds of thinking. For in his Adorno book, Fredric Jameson writes of ‘the possibility of forms of writing and Darstellung [presentation] that unexpectedly free you from the taboos and constraints of forms learnt by rote and assumed to be inscribed in the nature of things’. And perhaps Twitter too, as Walter Benjamin did for Adorno, will offer ‘the possibility of another kind of writing – which is eventually to say: another kind of thinking’ (p.52).

So, as far as William Morris tweeting goes, I think the answer is: suck it and see! I intend to.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Crafts in a Time of Crisis

My blog is relatively weak on the crafts side of Morris, I have to acknowledge that, though I hope it compensates on the literary and political dimensions of his work. Fortunately we do have other blogs out there which give stronger coverage of the arts and crafts aspects; see, for example, ‘William Morris Fan Club’ and ‘William Morris and Quilting’. But after a week in which so many English cities have seen such violent social unrest, perhaps it isn’t amiss to try and restate (as I understand it) the importance of craft activities in the wider Morrisian scheme of things.

When I read last week’s announcements about restoration of the Morris embroidery known as the Lanercost Dossal (kept just up the road from me at Lanercost Priory in Cumbria), my first thought was: hum, is this not a rather remote and antiquarian bypath when our cities are burning and our fellow-citizens are being killed (both by police bullets and by rioters’ violence)? And I think, yes, one does initially have to keep that extraordinary disjunction of different social realms – delicate embroidery versus flames in the streets – firmly in mind.

And yet it is, after all, surely the crucial importance of Morris that he brings these two things – craft activities and social upheaval – inextricably together. So my second and better thought is: it is precisely because capitalism cannot give its citizens work which has the kind of dignity or creativity which the Lanercost Dossal or any other craft artefact embodies (and oftentimes cannot offer them any work or hope at all), that people in their frustration at what Morris famously terms ‘useless toil’ (or no toil at all) will rise up in sporadic violent revolt against it. Only very serious political leadership could ever hope to get beyond such fruitless local riots into a principled challenge to the entire underlying economic system.

So all Morrisian craft works, then, as I have written elsewhere of the Kelmscott Press books, ‘are not evidences of medievalist nostalgia and political withdrawal, but are rather time-travellers from some far future we can as yet barely imagine, showing how lovingly artefacts might be crafted in the socialist world that is to come’. Such, at any rate, would be my own take on the Lanercost Dossal and its fellow works. If your own differs, as it well may, I look forward to learning of it.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Disaffected Youth - Some Utopian Remedies

Instead of importing police specialists on gang culture from the United States, perhaps the government might consider adopting some local practices from the utopian literary tradition. Of course, you don’t, by definition, get disaffected youth in utopia, but even in these perfect societies there is sometimes an awareness that the high spirits and coursing hormones of young people are going to need some form of creative physical outlet (apart from just sex, that is).

So short of a socialist revolution, which I don’t think we are going to get any time soon, how about such lesser measures as:

Working for two years on the land, as everybody at some point in their careers has to do in Thomas More’s Utopia. They thus get to understand agriculture, perhaps develop a more empathic relationship with Nature as they do so, and, from our own perspective, might helpfully burn off a good deal of excess physical energy in the process.

Strenuous rock-climbing as in Aldous Huxley’s Island, where this is consciously practised as an initiation rite for young people (even though it leads to occasional fatalities). The utopians thrive on the sense of physical challenge and develop an acute sense of responsibility both for themselves and for the rest of the team with which they are climbing.

‘War games’ as – very controversially – in Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (where he only lets men participate, but we’ll include women too). Teams of young people get semi-drunk, do some ceremonial chanting, put on their totemically decorated costumes, and then fight it out with spears till someone is seriously wounded (in this case, the narrator William Weston).

Sensuously creative physical labour with one’s hands is the central utopian practice in Morris’s News from Nowhere, but we might also note such tougher manual exercises as ‘trying how much pick-work you can get into an hour’ when you are road-mending (ch.VII). Thus the muscle-bound Dick Hammond, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of Morris’s utopia, works off those physical energies of which Huxley, in particular, is very wary.

Plenty of other ideas elsewhere, including Charles Fourier’s masterstroke of letting children collect the rubbish because they so enjoy getting mucky. But since I can’t see Cameron and co. paying any attention to what utopia has to say on all this, I think I’ll stop here.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

The London Riots

We know how Matthew Arnold wanted to deal with London rioters, in the wake of the Hyde Park disturbances of 1866; for as he tells us in Culture and Anarchy, ‘the old Roman way ... is always the right one; flog the rank and file, and fling the ringleaders from the Tarpeian rock’. And that is pretty much what we have been hearing for the last few days in the great tide of kneejerk rightwing commentary on our present urban discontents: ‘mindless thuggery’, ‘pure criminality’, ‘full force of the law’, 'water cannon and rubber bullets'.

The major riot of Morris’s socialist period was ‘Black Monday’, 8 February 1886, when, as E.P. Thompson puts it, ‘The Socialists led the crowds up Pall Mall for a further meeting at Hyde Park. There was some jeering from the clubs. The unemployed retaliated with stones and window-smashing, and then a good deal of indiscriminate damage and looting took place, in which Morris’s own shop was lucky to escape’. Morris himself had not in fact been present at these events on the day, but, as Thompson notes, ‘the Trafalgar Square riots were a sudden test of Morris’s ability as a Socialist leader, and also of the sincerity of his revolutionary opinions’.

Our own riots of 2011 differ in significant ways from the 1886 troubles: there is no Socialist leadership of any kind, and there is a racial dimension here (in the police killing of Mark Duggan and the long-term background of racist policing in Tottenham and elsewhere) which Morris could never have imagined. But of our riots we could still say what he did of his own, in the pages of Commonweal in March 1886: ‘What was the meaning of it? At bottom misery’. A generation of young people thrown on the economic scrapheap under both New Labour and the Con-Dems; obscene financial bonuses made by bankers and City traders; hopelessness and rage, with the gloomy world economic situation making our own grotesque inequalities and savage cuts to welfare provision all the more devastating. No major English political party speaks out against all this, and thus, as Martin Luther King insisted, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard’.

The violence, looting and fires on our streets over the last few days are the ugly dark truth of Cameron's and Clegg’s England, not whatever glossy Olympic facade we might be able to muster for global media consumption in twelve months time.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Socialist Poetry

Andy Croft gave an invigorating talk with this title at the Wordsworth Study Centre in Grasmere the other day. Brandishing a copy of Red Sky at Night, the anthology of British radical verse which he edited with Adrian Mitchell in 2003, he spoke about general issues of poetry and politics, and read a selection of fine poems from the collection, of which the highlight was surely Adrian Mitchell’s own ‘Victor Hara of Chile’, about an Argentinian radical musician tortured and murdered by Fascists in the Pinochet coup.

The spectrum of radical poetry is wide and complex, and it would have required more time than Croft had in his talk to fully unravel socialist verse, Marxist verse, anti-Fascist verse, working-class verse, anarchist verse, and so on. Yet it left me uneasy that he was so dismissive of modernism in his quest for a lucidly communicative political poetry. Agreed, some modernisms can be wilfully difficult, not to mention politically suspect; but left-wing writers will surely need all those modernistic techniques of disorientation, alienation, defamiliarisation – which indeed go to an admirable political home in the work of Bertolt Brecht.

In the wake of the talk I turned up a copy of the 1970 Penguin Book of Socialist Verse, edited by Alan Bold, which takes the entire world’s left-wing poetry as its field, so that Brecht, Aragon, Mayakovsky, Hikmet, Ritsos, Neruda and even Mao Tse-Tung all feature prominently. Yet for all that, Bold’s collection, like Croft’s, features some of William Morris’s verse in its early pages (and even has a Walter Crane design for its front cover too); and I certainly feel that Morris’s ‘All for the Cause’ is still a rousing socialist poem.

In the space available here all one can do is record a few other personal favourites. I’ve always found W.H. Auden’s elegy for the left-wing Expressionist dramatist Ernst Toller deeply moving; Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘Second Hymn to Lenin’ is an intense work too; and Tony Harrison’s ‘V’ is perhaps the poem of English working-class experience in our own time. Brecht’s masterpiece ‘To those who come after’ is also a long-time favourite, and not just because I’m the proud owner of a German audiobook which features Brecht himself reading it. ‘Wirklich, ich lebe in finsteren Zeiten’, the poem begins, times politically darker than Morris himself ever knew, certainly. But the modest consolation that ‘without me, the rulers would have sat more securely’ is perhaps one which any adequate socialist poem might in the end tentatively offer itself.

Monday 1 August 2011

Morris Blog Book Available

If William Morris were alive today, he would certainly be busily blogging on all the literary, cultural and political issues that so passionately absorbed him; and in fact his ‘Notes on News’ items in his socialist newspaper Commonweal in the late 1880s do constitute a kind of political blog in their own right. But since we don’t actually have Morris’s own blog, we shall have to make do with blogs about him and his work.

There are by now several of these, but the blog you are currently reading, ‘William Morris Unbound’, was the world’s first blog on Morris-and-utopia. Now, with the publication of William Morris: The Blog from the Kelmsgarth Press, I have brought the 139 posts between its launch in October 2007 and the end of March 2011 from the blogosphere into print. These brief entries, which I hope illuminate and entertain by turns, explore the full range of Morris’s concerns: poetry and printing, Icelandic sagas and romance writing, art and architecture, utopia and socialism. But they also range into such unlikely topics as drawing pins, insults, Star Trek, Southend Pier and penis size, as well as offering a Morrisian commentary on national and international events of recent years.

At the very heart of my ‘blog book’ is Morris’s great utopia, News from Nowhere, and William Morris: The Blog offers many new approaches to that work, as well as the prospect of a twenty-first-century sequel to it. To purchase the book at £12.95 paperback (includes postage), please go to the Kelmsgarth Press website at http://kelmsgarthpress.com/ and use the Paypal facility there.

Thursday 28 July 2011

Seven of Everything

Morris’s poem ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’ has perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful refrain in all his verse: ‘”Therefore,” said fair Yoland of the flowers,/”This is the tune of Seven Towers”’. The meaning of both poem and refrain remains obscure, despite the reference back to the Rossetti watercolour. But we might want to ask of both the painting and Morris’s delicately enigmatic little text, why seven towers, rather than five or nine or eleven?

So the Seven Towers motif makes me wonder why that particular figure has proved such a recurrent numerological theme in both literature itself and in literary and cultural studies more generally. In Thomas Campanella’s utopia City of the Sun (written in 1602) there are seven concentric circles bearing the names of the seven planets. The Victorian art critic John Ruskin in 1849 offered us Seven Lamps of Architecture, not six or eight. T.E. Lawrence entitled his autobiographical account of his war experiences Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922). William Empson, perhaps our most mischievously brilliant literary critic ever, proposed Seven Types of Ambiguity in 1930, although I am not sure anyone has ever believed that you could fully tell all the different types rigorously apart from each other. More recently, in a breathtakingly ambitious survey of the world’s story-telling, Christopher Booker has sketched out Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004); and in the field of linguistics rather than literary studies, Ronald Macaulay has just published Seven Ways of Looking at Language (2010). No doubt there are plenty more examples if one goes hunting for them (Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and so on)

Why then, I wonder, does this particular figure haunt our literary imaginations so? Do we all secretly want to live in that walled town called Sevenham which Morris mentions in his Child Christopher? I have a feeling, at any rate, that in the numbers game which the utopians play after dinner in Thomas More’s Utopia seven will certainly be the numeral which trumps all the others!

Friday 22 July 2011

Death in Utopia: or, Lessons in Thanatology

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida remarks somewhere that ‘one should not develop a taste for mourning’. I’m sure that’s true, but it may also be that, in some utopias, one mourns too little rather than too much; and Morris’s News from Nowhere may be one such example.

We hear of deaths in Nowhere caused by sexual jealousy and violence, but we don’t actually see any of that at first hand; and though Phillippa the carver, as we learn, has been quite seriously ill, far from that proving terminal she is back to something like full strength as she works on the new house on the upper Thames. Yet one powerful way in which utopia might win us over to its values is to demonstrate to us, existentially and on the pulses, that dying and mourning in a genuinely cooperative society are much less painful and lonely than they are in our own capitalist present.

We would need to turn to Aldous Huxley’s beautiful utopia Island (1962) to see that lesson being enforced. For among the utopians of Pala, Susila MacPhail is grieving for the death of her husband in a rock-climbing accident just four months earlier, and her father-in-law Dr Robert MacPhail is not only mourning his son’s death but also has to live through the actual dying of his wife Lakshmi from cancer in the course of the book. These are, in Huxley’s own term, ‘lessons in thanatology’ which test the Buddhistic values of the Pala utopia almost to breaking point, but which they do in the end successfully encompass.

And no sooner have we, as readers, lived through these experiences of death and grieving with the characters than we are subjected to a short sharp thanatological lesson of our own too. For as Colonel Dipa’s soldiers move ruthlessly into Pala at the end of the book, we learn that it is not just individual utopians who can die, but utopia itself, swept away as it is here by a toxic combination of oil-addicted Western consumerism and Third World dictatorship.

Monday 18 July 2011

Japanising the Late Romances

Having bought a curious ‘William Morris Puppet’ kit for £10-00 in the V & A shop the other day, I then made my way into the museum’s Japanese gallery. After admiring the samurai sword collection (which could easily lead into a meditation on the artistry and nomenclature of swords in Morris’s romances), I turned to the spectacular netsuke cabinets. These tiny, intricate carvings of gods, demons, animals and insects on ivory are miracles of delicate craftsmanship, and since we know how much Morris admired the carved ivories at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857, we can assume that he would have enjoyed these too. And it was while contemplating the netsuke that a great epiphany, a Matthew-Arnoldian ‘spark from heaven’, suddenly came to me: why not use the traditional Japanese form of bunraku or puppet theatre to present Morris’s late romances?

Film versions would be ideal, but are no doubt inordinately expensive, so the simplified form of bunraku, in which colourfully decorated, three foot tall puppets are made to act on stage by operators in black costumes, might do very nicely instead. Morris’s late romances have no real depth of character psychology, so bunraku, which is an art of exquisite surfaces (Roland Barthes valued it for exactly that reason), would serve very aptly to represent them. Having already tried the experiment of reading News from Nowhere as a traditional Japanese Noh play (in the Tokyo journal The Rising Generation, March 2009, pp.6-10), I should now like to see The Wood Beyond the World and its successors actually performed as bunraku. I would be willing to produce the scripts.

‘Japan was talked of, but all seemed uncertain’, wrote Jane Morris on 12 October 1892. Yes, we couldn’t be absolutely sure that bunraku would work for her husband’s late works, but I think it’s well worth a try.

Sunday 17 July 2011

The Cult of Beauty: Theorising Aestheticism

If the Owl of Minerva does indeed fly only at night, then the best time to mull over the ‘Cult of Beauty’ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum will be the day on which it closes (which happens to be today). This has been a wonderfully rich display of Aestheticism and its works, of which my own personal favourites were Albert Moore’s sumptuously orange ‘Midsummer’ painting, the recreation (by projectors) of Whistler’s Peacock Room, and Godwin’s Anglo-Japanese furniture designs. This being Aestheticism, there are of course sunflowers, peacock feathers, Japanese fans and sleeping women everywhere.

But if we want to theorise Aestheticism rather than just review it, if we want to offer an account worthy of Hegel’s philosophical Owl, then we might return to a book which I remember being very excited about when it was translated during the ‘literary theory wars’ of the 1980s, namely Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avantgarde. For Bürger broke dramatically with the ‘1848’ theory of modern art associated with Georg Lukács, Jean-Paul Sartre and Roland Barthes, in which the revolutions of that year bring a transparently classical or realist mode of writing crashing down and replace it with the densely self-referential modernist writing of Flaubert, Mallarmé and others. Instead, for Bürger, it is Aestheticism at the very end of the nineteenth century which is the key turning point of modern art, because it radically separates artistic value from utilitarian daily life, an exclusivist gesture which will then let the early twentieth-century avantgardes angrily blast aesthetics back to the life-world.

Does Peter Bürger’s decidedly philosophical account mesh with the V&A’s Aestheticism exhibition itself? Well, yes indeed. For if the Albert Moore and late Burne-Jones paintings create a realm of pure beauty and exquisite decorative surfaces entirely removed from the quotidian, then even the works here which do engage the everyday – tiles, arm-chairs, garden gates, fire-dogs, and so on – pull so far away in the direction of a Tennysonian Palace of Art that they too vanish into the Aestheticist aether. What is created in both cases is an autonomous realm of exquisite aesthetic privilege which will indeed require the exhilarating cultural vandalism of the avantgarde – of the Marinettis and Mayakovskys and Wyndham Lewises – to bring it back to anything like the ordinary workaday world. So, thanks to the V&A for a superb exhibition, but we shall also need, with the Futurists, to take a pickaxe to all of these wonderful artefacts too!

Tuesday 12 July 2011

'Nature of Gothic' Facsimile

I’m glad to report that a paperback facsimile edition of the 1892 Kelmscott Press version of John Ruskin’s The Nature of Gothic – the first ever made of this rare book - has just been issued by Pallas Athene Arts. This publisher, which operates at the high-cultural end of the travel books market, ranges over history, art and architecture as well as travel, wine and food, and has a strong Ruskin list among its offerings. This attractively produced Nature of Gothic volume contains Morris’s Preface to Ruskin’s chapter, in which he grandly describes it as ‘one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century’. The Ruskin text looks formidable on the page in Kelmscott Golden Type with flamboyant Morrisian initials, and Afterwords by Robert Hewison and Tony Pinkney conclude the book.

Pallas Athene’s commercial logo is a quaint little square-shaped owl, who might remind us of Hegel’s great claim that ‘the Owl of Minerva flies at night’, i.e. you can theorise only what has already been achieved in practice. Ruskin powerfully theorised the medieval architectural past for Morris and deeply shaped the latter’s life in so doing. But, as Morris knew, we have to theorise the future as well as the past (or it will never come into being in the way we want in the first place), so I suspect that today we will need a Society for the Protection of Future Buildings quite as much as Ancient ones.

Sunday 10 July 2011

News of the World

‘A deputation of leading commercial people ... together with a number of newspaper editors, had a long interview with the heads of the Government ... The deputation came away from that interview ... smiling and satisfied’. This is News from Nowhere chapter XVII, but Rupert Murdoch too has been ‘smiling and satisfied’ at his ready access to political leaders of both Tory and Labour Parties in government for some years now, so it is good to see him so thoroughly discomfited at last; and as for the News of the World itself, well, good riddance to that. The important task now is to stop Murdoch’s NewsCorp getting full control of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

The recent ructions in the British newspaper world remind us, as Patrick Parrinder insisted in a little-known 1991 article on News from Nowhere, that ‘Morris (among his multifarious activities) was a newspaperman’ too. Thus it is, as Parrinder notes, that ‘a surprising amount of space in the “How the Change Came” chapter is given to recounting the tactics of the socialist press and of their enemies, the capitalist newspaper barons’, including the Rupert Murdochs of the day. Politically shrewd though Morris is about much of this, however, he naively ‘stops short of imagining that a threatened state apparatus would turn on its journalistic opponents’ (pp.30-1).

‘News’ is important both in utopia and in the present, where Morris put remarkable amounts of time, energy and money into trying to create an effective socialist newspaper; and this task remains as pressing today. I’m addicted to my daily copy of The Guardian, but its left-liberalism is hardly socialism; and while I admire the staff of The Morning Star for keeping that paper going beyond the fall of the British Communist Party itself, I can’t feel that it has successfully plugged into everyday social experience (even if you can buy it in Sainsburys). So Morris’s Commonweal project remains no less urgent than on the day of that paper’s first publication in February 1885, and it is good to know that there are plans afoot for an exhibition on the radical press at Kelmscott House to inspire us in that direction.

Monday 4 July 2011

William Morris Holidays

There have been a good number of Morris-orientated mini-holidays advertised in the quality press and on the internet this year. Dr Anne Anderson will be leading three-day trips entitled ‘At Home with William Morris’ in September and October; these will ‘examine the profound influence of William Morris’ and include tours of Red House and Standen House. You can also explore ‘Pre-Raphaelite Oxford’ in trips during July, September and October; these aim to ‘explore Morris’s life and work in the city of Oxford with visits to Christchurch, Keble, Exeter, and Oxford University Museum’. Or you can join ‘William Morris: A Great Victorian’, with expert talks by Anne Anderson and Peter Cormack, and visits to Kelmscott Manor, Rodmarton Manor and All Saints Church, Selsey.

Now these all look very fascinating and worthwhile, and I might even go on one or two of them myself. But they are not in the end, we have to admit, really William Morris excursions at all. For they are passive, aesthetic and contemplative, while genuine Morris holidays, as modelled for us in News from Nowhere itself, are active and very hands-on indeed. As Dick Hammond informs us, ‘many grown people will go to live in the forests through the summer ... Apart from the other pleasures of it, it gives them a little rough work’. And presumably, like the children in Kensington forest, these adults are also ‘living in tents ... they learn to do things for themselves and get to notice the wild creatures’ (ch.V).

So never mind your learned tours of Standen and the Oxford Museum. Pack a tent in your rucksack, put some dubbin on your walking boots, polish up your binoculars, and head off boldly to the rough places. For that is how you truly have an authentic Morrisian holiday experience!

Wednesday 29 June 2011

J30: Public Sector Strikes and the New Art

‘First I must ask you to extend the word art’, Morris remarks in his great 1883 Oxford lecture on ‘Art under Plutocracy’. He wants his audience to expand the term beyond painting and sculpture to ‘the shapes and colours of all household goods, nay, even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and of our highways of all kinds’. But I think we need to take one step further still, and extend the word ‘art’ to encompass tomorrow’s coordinated strike action of so many public sector workers against government cuts to pension provision.

Morris himself, I think, doesn’t quite make that semantic extension. His view of the matter, as expressed in his November 1893 letter on the miners’ strike of that year, is a future-oriented one: ‘The first step, therefore, towards the birth of a new art must be a definite rise in the condition of the workers’. For Morris, every strike is a building block towards an eventual new culture that would itself be aesthetic rather than utilitarian, based on Ruskinian creativity-in-labour rather than the subjection of human inventiveness to the vagaries of the world market.

But one of the big slogans of 1960s identity politics was that you must be the change which you aim to bring about, i.e. that you must incarnate its values in the present, not just project them distantly into the future (thereby separating ends from means), so we therefore need to understand strike action as an aesthetic as well as economic activity. Walter Benjamin made the point even earlier when he noted of ‘refined and spiritual things’ (i.e. aesthetic values) that ‘it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humour, cunning and fortitude’. That Morrisian ‘new art’ is then already at work in us as soon as we actively begin to challenge our political and economic masters.

Art isn’t just something that happens in the Royal Academy summer exhibition in Piccadilly, but will rather be active on our streets tomorrow in the collective protest of so many good people against a rightwing government determined to reinstate Victorian levels of economic inequality.