Tuesday 25 January 2011

Philology in Utopia

Dystopia has its philologists, such as Winston Smith’s friend Syme in 1984: ‘Syme was a philologist, a specialist in Newspeak. Indeed, he was one of the enormous team of experts now engaged in compiling the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak Dictionary’. And it makes sense that dystopia should value the science of philology. For if you can remake language – warp it and simplify it – to the point where no one can even any longer think a dissident thought in the first place, then you will be saved a great and costly apparatus of repressive monitoring and control. Not that dystopia shows any gratitude to the individual linguists who are engaged upon this project; for 100 pages later we learn that ‘Syme had vanished. A morning came and he was missing from work’.

Does utopia need philologists too? If all the customs and structures of a bad old society have mutated into those of a good new one, will not language, as the very underlying medium of culture and politics, necessarily mutate too? And could this be a willed, conscious mutation, not just an incrementally slow organic one?

Sometimes philologists arrive in utopia, as guests or visitors. The narrator of Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) makes detailed use of the philology of Max Müller, with its isolating, agglutinative and inflectional strata of language, to analyse the discourse of his utopian hosts, the Vril-ya; and it seems to me that this philological model might with benefit be carried over into Morris’s News from Nowhere.

Language is certainly mutating in Nowhere, as what Old Hammond terms ‘long-tailed words’ such as administration and organisation are giving way to more physically immediate Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, such as carle, sele and mote. Hammond’s ‘long-tailed words’ are clearly those of Max Müller’s agglutinative stratum, ‘polysynthetical or polysyllabic monsters ... devouring invaders of the aboriginal forms’. And in Nowhere with its emergent Anglo-Saxonisms, as among the Vril-ya, ‘as the inflectional stage prevailed over the agglutinative, it is surprising to see how much more boldly the original roots of the language project from the surface that conceals them’.

But is this a conscious or unconscious process in Nowhere? Is the young man engaged on literary work up the Thames at Bisham in chapter XXIV a philologist, like Syme in 1984, though working to benign rather than totalitarian ends? We know that Morris as a young man had a strong interest in the philology of Richard Trench and we still await a fullscale study of Morris’s writings in relation to the rich field of Victorian philology.

Friday 21 January 2011

Burne-Jones, Luddite

William Morris’s social vision in News from Nowhere is sometimes seen as technologically backward and excessively pastoral, with its Utopians flitting among the Thames-side fields and flowers in Dylan Thomas mode, ‘happy as the grass is green’.

I have written about this issue elsewhere, since I feel there are ways in which the book itself incorporates and actively responds to this kind of critique. But if Morris’s utopia truly were as technologically simplistic as its detractors suggest, then it would have an eminently appropriate inhabitant in the person of his closest friend, Edward Burne-Jones; for, as we learn in Penelope Fitzgerald’s biography of the painter, ‘he was defeated by the simplest mechanical devices, even drawing-pins’ (p.35).

The mind boggles. I sometimes struggle with the DVD recorder or with putting a new battery into my mobile phone or with the complexities of page set-out on the laptop – but drawing-pins ... ?

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Terminator at Kelmscott

I once had a dream that, on some sort of Time Team-style archaeological dig, I excavated part of the broken exoskeleton of one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator robots in the grounds of William Morris’s Kelmscott Manor. I woke up in a state of fear and shock. It is true that there is a World War Two pillbox in the grounds of the Manor, so in that sense the memory of the political barbarism of the twentieth century reaches even into the idyllic corners of Morris’s upper Thames. But what was a robotic image from one of our own most powerful postmodern dystopias, the Terminator series of movies, doing in my dream in the utopian Kelmscott landscapes of News from Nowhere itself?

I take this disturbing dream to be some sort of oblique confirmation, from a Morrisian rather Jungian collective unconscious, that there may be dystopian elements to News from Nowhere, notes of warning built into that text just as they are, very much more obviously, in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine; and that such warnings may ultimately focus around the issue of technology in the text. Old Hammond, as I have noted before in this blog, may be ‘disappointed’ in the new society, and Ellen frets about where its lack of historical consciousness may be politically leading it.

I find my mind circling around the ‘force vehicles’ of the Nowherian society, which do not seem to be very clearly focused or understood in the text itself. What is the nature of that ‘force’? How are democratic decisions about its use or availability made in this society? Who is manufacturing such vehicles? What else do they manufacture? Why do such high-tech products seems so out of kilter with the slow, neighbourly, arts-and-crafts lifestyle of the other Nowherians? If, historically speaking, energy-rich societies have militarily imposed themselves upon their energy-poor neighbours, might it not be that the ‘force-rich’ manufacturers may seek to impose their will upon the force-poor neighbours of the Thames valley in Morris’s novel?

For if they – whoever ‘they’ are – can build force-vehicles, could they not ultimately, if push came to shove, build Terminator robots too? And the English revolution of 1952 would then have to be fought all over again, but now – to borrow a phrase of T.S. Eliot’s from Four Quartets – under conditions that seem unpropitious.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Lessons from the Sherlockians

In order to satisfy their unquenchable enthusiasm for Sherlockian adventures, fans of the Sherlock Holmes stories have taken to writing out in full imaginary versions of cases which Dr Watson only mentions in passing, usually at the beginning of a story. Thus it is that we have lively full-length versions of X, Y and Z, all of which only get the briefest of allusions in the Conan Doyle canon itself. What might William Morris fans learn from this practice, in order to feed their own unquenchable reading addictions?

Take the case of Morris’s late romances. I have already suggested that we try completing those fragmentary tales which Morris left unfinished at his death (see entry for 3.03.09); but even the completed ones offer much additional, undeveloped narrative potential. Many intriguing minor characters seem to have complex life stories of their own, which the romances do no more than hint at. Much room for further creative development here, one would think!

In The Wood beyond the World (1894) Walter and his crew, driven off course by tempests as they attempt to return to Langton, encounter an elderly man on an unknown shore who gives them food and shelter. ‘Father, meseemeth thou shouldest have some strange tale to tell’, remarks Walter, but we get no more than glimpses of what this colourful tale might be; it seems to have involved killing a predecessor who had tried to stop him going through the ‘shard’ in the cliff-wall that later takes Walter himself to the Mistress, Maid and Dwarf. So here is a story ripe for further narrative development, surely.

As with the minor figures, so, often and surprisingly, with the major ones too. As the Maid tells her story to Walter as they fly towards the Land of the Bears, she herself concedes that ‘there are, as it were, shards or gaps in my life’, particularly in the early years. We have no more than misty glimpses, including the figure of the old woman who taught magical ‘lore’ to her. So here, too, is a tale that would bear imaginative recreation in full. Some bold Morris scholars have already done some work along these lines, as Peter Faulkner notes in his obituary of Norman Talbot: ‘he was to go on to draft a version of The Sundering Flood from the point of view of its female protagonist’.

Much potential for further Morrisian text here then; it isn’t only the Sherlockians who can look forward to new additions to the canon well beyond Conan Doyle’s own demise.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Masters of the Universe

As British bankers resume their culture of huge bonuses and manage to evade many of the regulatory measures proposed in the immediate aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, so one turns with a mixture of glee and relief to Paul Lafargue’s account of the Morrow of the Revolution in Commonweal on 9 July 1887 – an article which Morris, as editor, described in that issue as ‘surely well worth our attention’.

For in the industrial towns, Lafargue tells us, the Socialists ‘will have to get hold of the local governments ... open the prisons to let out the petty thieves, and put under lock and key the big ones, such as bankers, financiers, big manufacturers, landowners, etc ... Not that one would do them any harm, but to treat them as hostages responsible for the good behaviour of their class’.

I can’t recall any mention of bankers in News from Nowhere, but since Morris in a later lecture remarked that ‘our friend Paul Lafargue’s late article in Commonweal points out clearly enough the direction of the steps to be taken in the re-organization of society’, we can assume that the bankers and hedge-fund managers find themselves locked up after the revolution there too. After all, as Bertolt Brecht put it, in a finely pithy example of his plumpes Denken or ‘crude thinking’: ‘what is robbing a bank compared to founding one?’

Saturday 1 January 2011

The Blog as Literary Form

We have distinguished essays on the essay as a literary form by Georg Lukács and Theodor Adorno, but we do not yet, as far as I know, have an account of the blog as a literary form. Yet blogs are a sufficiently well-established social practice in the early twenty-first century to deserve some generic self-consciousness, one would think. So here are my own preliminary thoughts in that direction: not an essay on essays, but a blog on blogs.

Blogs are, on the whole, very much shorter than essays, in my own case averaging out at about 250-300 words a time. Essays may themselves be a nimble, opportunistic, socially topical form, but blogs, which might only take 15-20 minutes to compose, will clearly therefore be even more so; especially since they can be self-published immediately. Blogs may have something of the immediacy of a diary entry, but they will on the whole tend to be more crafted than a diary jotting, to be more of an aesthetic artefact than a scribbled memo; and since in their brief compass they often try to crystallise a single epiphanic insight about their subject matter, perhaps we should think of them as the electronic equivalent of haiku, that traditional miniature Japanese poetic form.

Indeed, we are not short of traditional genres on which to model our blogs: the Oriental ‘pillow book’, the Nietzschean aphorism, William Morris’s own ‘Notes on News’ in Commonweal (and Walter Benjamin’s more avantgarde idea of an essay composed entirely of footnotes might be relevant here too). The blog entry will be to these modes what Bruce Lee’s fighting style jeet kune do was to karate, judo, kung-fu, aikido, and so on; it will opportunistically incorporate elements from all of them, while being reducible to none. The blog is a twenty-first-century genre still in the making; and like the novel for Mikhail Bakhtin, it is as yet more of an unsettling energy or force than a classical genre with formulable rules of its own. Long may it thrive, and happy New Year to you all!