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!