Wednesday 25 May 2011

Teachers of Lore: Raman Selden 20 Years On

‘I longed for the coming of the Teacher of Lore’, remarks the Lady of Abundance in Morris’s The Well at the World’s End; and I have myself been lucky enough to know some remarkable teachers, whom I intend to commemorate in this blog. My former Lancaster colleague Professor Raman Selden died twenty years ago today, at the shockingly premature age of 53 and at the very height of his academic career and intellectual powers. In a kinder world, he would still have been with us enjoying retirement, and we would have had two decades’ more writing from him.

Ray Selden is best remembered today as a highly successful populariser of literary theory during the so-called ‘theory wars’ of the 1980s, though his more scholarly work on the eighteenth century retains its importance too. As Head of Department, he appointed me to the Lancaster University English Department in 1989 just as he himself was leaving it, and my brief was very much to take forward the second-year literary theory course which he had instituted. Ray himself wasn’t a Morrisian (though he was a Marxist), but I had copies of my journal News from Nowhere balanced on my knee when I was interviewed by him and I like to think that played a part in his decision.

In literary studies more generally, we now sometimes hear of the ‘death of theory’; but in Morris studies in particular, I still don’t think we’ve had enough theory in the first place! Names like Barthes, Kristeva, Foucault, De Man, Lacan, Bakhtin, Bloom, Iser, Jauss and Derrida, whom Selden expounded so lucidly in his various readers’ guides to theory, don’t feature very regularly in discussions of Morris’s work, so in our specific field at least, the task that Raman Selden enjoined upon us – to get literary theory thoroughly integrated into our literary-critical thinking – remains to be carried through. So I salute this wise and humane Teacher of Lore, still much missed two decades later.

Saturday 21 May 2011

TV: The Only Way is Essex, innit?

‘I come not from heaven but from Essex’, the time-travelling narrator declares proudly in Morris’s A Dream of John Ball; but he might be inclined to keep his county shamefacedly to himself if he had watched the trashy ITV reality-show The Only Way is Essex. The latest series has recently ended, with a spectacular pool-party in Brentwood at which Mark and Lauren, Arg and Lydia, Mick and Gemma, Joey and Sam kept us entertained with their romantic entanglements.

‘Essex man’ once denoted the aspirational working class that voted for Thatcherism, but this particular set of young Essex people wouldn’t have a clue who Margaret Thatcher was in the first place and probably couldn’t name the current Prime Minister either. It would be easy enough to see them as a group of glamorous air-heads whose main concerns are fake tans, vajazzles, boob jobs (‘mine are from Belgium’, one woman announces at the pool-party), night clubs, fashion boutiques and who’s shagging whom this week. Meantime, ‘estuary English’ perpetrates horror after horror upon the language of Shakespeare.

Yet we keep watching, and in our millions, apparently. Why? Partly because, for all the ridiculously staged petty tiffs and jealousies, this is none the less a community of sorts, centred around Mick’s Sugar Hut night club; and there is thus something utopian about this sense of close-knit Gemeinschaft, however degraded it might currently be.

And partly because, if Mark’s Nanny Pat reminds us of an older working-class Essex, we just can’t wholly believe this lot are as hollow as they seem on the surface either. History won’t forget them, however much they might like to forget it; and it will take the form of public service cuts and unemployment in the short term, and climate change in the medium term as Essex becomes an ever drier county. ‘You have to try to think well of people’, as Raymond Williams once remarked; and watching The Only Way is Essex therefore becomes in the end a test of us, the viewers, a test that we don’t fall into the kneejerk dismissals that would be so easy here. We have to remain not ‘pilgrims of hope’ but, as it were, viewers of hope.

‘In Essex they were on the verge of rising’, Morris’s narrator tells us in A Dream of John Ball. Well, we are a very long way indeed from that in this ITV series, but we have to believe that Mark, Arg, Kirk, Amy, Lauren and Sam are capable of political growth and change, capable one day, we trust, of blasting my old home county out of the current media stereotypes that have so engulfed it.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Living Fast in Syria

I knew that Morris’s favourite tobacco was Latakia and had always presumed this entailed on his part at least a minimal interest in Syria (for that is where the city of Latakia is); but it was still a surprise to come across the more specific remarks on Syria in News from Nowhere itself. For Dick Hammond, in the context of a discussion about the Bible, refers to ‘Syria, a hot dry country, where people live faster than in our temperate climate’ (ch.VIII). And people certainly are living faster in Syria just at the moment, with sustained protests against the Assad regime and extreme government violence in repressing them.

News from Nowhere has confidence that government massacres of protestors, as happens in Trafalgar Square in 1952 in the book, will kick off rather than stifle wider revolutionary upheavals; but that isn’t what happened in the wake of the Bloody Sunday violence of Morris’s own day (which led to a shift towards reformism rather than revolution), and it’s hard to see the ruthlessly widespread murder and torture practised by Assad and his henchmen as generating a mass movement that will sweep them all away in the near future.

Nor are there any good options for the West in all this. The sanctions against Assad and his cronies announced by President Obama today are too little too late; while, at the other extreme, British and French-led NATO military action in Libya is bogged down in a stalemated civil war, has lost the initial credibility the UN ‘no-fly zone’ resolution gave it, and is looking increasingly like old-style Western imperialist intervention.

In Morris’s utopia, extreme repression proves counter-productive; one hopes for the sake of the brave people of Syria that he is right. But at the moment they are dying fast as well as living fast in that country; and, outside utopia, we will have to content ourselves with Antonio Gramsci’s old slogan of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Eating Squirrels

We know that when they lived at Woodford Hall the young Morris and his brothers would shoot rabbits and wild birds. ‘The redwings and fieldfares which they shot on winter holidays they were allowed to roast for supper’, J.W. Mackail tells us (I, 9). But did they also shoot and cook squirrels, I wonder?

I’m moved to ask the question because of that curious moment late in The Life and Death of Jason (1867) when Jason first visits Glauce in her woodland abode and she offers him refreshments after his day’s hunting: ‘of fair simple flowers ... Your drink shall savour, and your meat shall be/Red-coated squirrels from the beechen tree’ (book XVII). This certainly sounds more to me like a boyhood memory than it does any kind of reference to Apollonius’s Greek original.

If so, then is squirrel-hunting an activity the William Morris Society should be promoting (grey-coated rather than ‘red-coated’ today, of course); and what exactly anyway, I wonder, does squirrel meat taste like?

Sunday 15 May 2011

Joanna Russ: renewing utopia

I’m saddened to learn, through obituaries in the national newspapers, of the death of Joanna Russ on April 29 at the age of 74. We have had some eloquent testimonies of how her great science-fictional utopia The Female Man changed its readers’ lives when it was first published in 1975. I didn’t encounter it myself till much later, but certainly found it an electrifying book, though for reasons less connected with its gender politics than those earlier readers.

It is a splendidly disorientating work, formally speaking. With its complex time strands and its sly fictional self-consciousness, it may be the first utopia to have fully taken on board the great formal upheavals of the modernist movement of the early twentieth century. No ‘Old Man Who Knows Everything’ (to borrow H.G. Wells’s term) placidly explaining the system here; instead, the actual outlines of the utopian society only emerge in fragmented form across the book as a whole.

The all-female utopian world of Whileaway (all the men died in a plague, conveniently) owes something to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist vision in Herland (1915). But what is most striking to me about Russ’s utopian vision in The Female Man is rather that which links it so closely to Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). For in both books we have, not the traditional visitor from the bad society going forward in time to the new utopia (as William Guest travels forwards to Morris’s Nowhere), but rather a utopian – Janet Evason for Russ, Luciente for Piercy – travelling back in time or probability to the bad old world, our world – as if Morris’s Dick Hammond or Ellen had time-travelled back to 1890. This is a powerful new convention for utopia, which I’m still not sure we fully understand. It seems to suggest how precarious utopia is; for if these visitors from the far future don’t mange to rouse us in the present to fight actively for a better world, they will never come into being in the first place.

Classical utopias can alas be – let us admit it among friends – boring, both in social content and manner of telling; and that is the one thing that could never be said of Joanna Russ’s wonderfully unsettling book. So I salute a bold literary pioneer who made utopia possible again for the late twentieth century.

Friday 13 May 2011

Grettir as Guest

We can always learn more about Morris by cross-breeding his texts in new ways – in this case, his translation of the Grettir Saga and News from Nowhere. For what, we might ask of both these works, is the point of adopting the name ‘Guest’ when you arrive in a new household, as the outlawed Grettir does when he stays with Steinvor the goodwife of Sand-Heaps, south of Isledale-River, and as the narrator of Morris’s utopia does when he unexpectedly wakes up in the Hammersmith Guest House in the far future.

In the case of News from Nowhere the reason for adopting the surname Guest is, it would appear, to avoid any complications caused by your time-travelling status so that you can passively absorb as much as possible about the new utopian world all around you, both its political history and the social principles which underlie and shape it. But in the Grettir Saga the choice of the name Guest has a much more active motivation. The outlawed Grettir conceals his identity from his hostess so that he can challenge and defeat the deadly enemies that threaten her household, first the hideous troll-wife and then the even more powerful giant who lives under the waterfall nearby.

Let’s try taking that active model across from the saga to the utopia. We would then have to think of William Guest as having arrived in Nowhere with a very specific mission, even if he himself isn’t consciously aware of it. He is now, on this showing, the potent hero who can rid the Hammersmith household or, by extension, utopia in general of certain dangerous threats that menace it, even if the utopians in turn are not very aware of what these might be (though Ellen and old Hammond have some clues). This, it seems to me, would be a very salutary hermeneutic perspective indeed to take towards News from Nowhere – though it will require a good deal more critical work to develop it in full.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

B.A. or B.Sc. by Combat

On the day on which our utterly shameless Tory government briefly floated the possibility of wealthy British students buying their way into our universities (if they are prepared to pay the exorbitant fees which overseas students are currently charged), I note that Morris might mischievously be seen as also promoting an unusual approach to higher education issues in his early short story ‘Golden Wings’. For the young knight Lionel finds in that tale that ‘the next day they held a grand tourney, that I might be proven ... And Alys sat under a green canopy, that she might give the degree to the best knight’!

So: degrees by physical combat rather than by Finals examinations – well, it might be an improvement of sorts (definitely involves less marking for over-stretched academics). And certainly either system is better than just using your accumulated family wealth to buy your way in - no youthful prowess of any kind, martial or intellectual, at stake in that.

Saturday 7 May 2011

Radical Shakespeare

Coming home from a lively day-symposium to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Terry Eagleton’s book on Shakespeare in his Blackwells ‘Rereading Literature’ series (which famously kicks off with the provocative claim that the three witches are the heroines of Macbeth), I find myself impressed by how clairvoyantly Morris predicted the whole subsequent history of radical Shakespeare criticism in a single pregnant remark in News from Nowhere. For William Guest reflects of Dick Hammond that ‘the nineteenth century ... counted for nothing in the memory of this man, who read Shakespeare and had not forgotten the Middle Ages’ (ch.VIII).

Reading Shakespeare without forgetting the Middle Ages: if all philosophy has been a footnote to Plato, all later Marxist criticism of the Bard has been a footnote to that terse remark of Guest’s. For as Fredric Jameson put it in 1995, ‘Shakespeare would thus be the name for the space and locus of transition as such – the immense historical dislocations and sufferings of an incomprehensible and seismological shift from the feudal to the commercial and later on the capitalist’. Of all the plays, King Lear would be the privileged text of that transition from medieval feudalism to capitalism; and this is the great epochal transformation from which not only Shakespeare but the very genre of utopia itself emerges (through the good offices of Thomas More).

Thursday 5 May 2011

Ground Zero: US policy after bin Laden

When old Hammond describes the civil war of 1952-54 to William Guest in News from Nowhere he notes that during it the ruling class ‘at least and at last learned something about the reality of life, and its sorrows, which they – their class, I mean - had once known nothing of’ (ch.XVIII). I suspect that the appalling terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre of 9.11 potentially had just that kind of impact on the United States in 2001. The US had blithely intervened militarily, both openly and covertly, in so many other countries, and now some of that relentless violence had horrendously bounced back and hit it in its very heartlands.

That might have been a moment of great awakening as well as great trauma, in which the USA seriously reassessed its role in the world. But no, George Bush was at the helm with his fellow neo-cons, so we got the disastrous ‘war on terror’, Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo. Now, with the killing of Osama bin Laden, one particular strand of Bush’s war on terror has been pushed through to a conclusion which he himself wasn’t able to achieve in his own term of office.

So Barack Obama has now done the gung-ho, cowboy-style ‘wanted dead or alive’ thing as Commander in Chief, which may also serve to get him re-elected in 2012 (for, heaven help us, we don’t want Donald Trump). And perhaps, having done that, Obama can now turn to the more thoughtful international approach he seems eminently qualified to pursue. Serious non-violent American support for the ‘Arab Spring’ and a determined attempt to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict (which will involve standing up to Israel in ways American presidents traditionally have not done) might just possibly create a new democratic Arab politics and a new US relation to the Arab world which would dissolve the bitter sense of grievance which gave bin Laden and Al Qaeda their emotional pull in that part of the world in the first place.

Monday 2 May 2011

Lloyd Webber's Pre-Raphaelites

'I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house,/Wherein at ease for aye to dwell’. The opening words of Tennyson’s ‘The Palace of Art’ came surging up as I watched Andrew Lloyd Webber hold forth on ITV about the Pre-Raphaelites last night. He sat beneath Rossetti’s ‘Proserpine’ (which he owns) and at a Kate Faulkner-decorated piano (which he also owns), and with the walls of his house absolutely chock-a-block with other famous Pre-Raph paintings from his personal collection. ‘And who shall gaze upon/My palace with unblinded eyes ...?’, Tennyson’s poem hubristically continues; and how could it be that so many important paintings that should absolutely be out in the public domain could be so greedily hoarded by one wealthy individual like this? Let’s hope that Lloyd Webber doesn’t have the shattering guilty nervous breakdown suffered by the soul in Tennyson’s poem, but he has certainly created around himself a palace of culture quite as dead and inert as hers.

On the day Lloyd Webber’s programme was broadcast, the veteran British heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper died, whose great fights with Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali I watched on television with my father many years ago. More genuine culture in Our ‘Enry’s basic human decency than in the whole of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stifling Palace of Art, one would think.

Sunday 1 May 2011

Novelising Morris's Poems

If a dramatic monologue is, in effect, a speech from a play or novel with the rest of the text cut away, and if as a reader you greatly enjoy the monologue, then why not extend your pleasure by writing the rest of that imaginary text? Which is exactly what Gabrielle Kimm has done in her novel His Last Duchess (2010), a title which gives the game away at once. For she builds on Robert Browning’s most famous dramatic monologue to tell the full story of the young Lucrezia de Medici’s marriage to the dangerous fifth Duke of Ferrara, in the context of a rich portrayal of sixteenth-century Tuscany and Ferrara.

In my earlier meditations in this blog on generating more Morrisian text I focused on his prose works – unfinished romances, and so on. But why not, as Gabrielle Kimm’s book so brilliantly suggests to us, extend this approach to his poetry too? Why not write the novel of what may well be these days Morris’s most anthologised poem, ‘The Haystack in the Floods’? It is not a dramatic monologue, but it certainly has rich narrative potential: how did Robert and Jehane first come together, why do the people of Paris bay for her blood, how had Godmar come to be so obsessed with her, will she ultimately revenge herself for the murder of her lover? We could surely have a gripping Morrisian novel here, with a fourteenth-century Froissartian French background every bit as richly detailed as Gabrielle Kimm’s colourful Renaissance Italy.