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).