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 Zi┼żek 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?