Wednesday 23 November 2011

Theory of Everything

200 posts already clocked up on this Morris-and-utopias blog, and with this item I start my next 200; so this perhaps constitutes a good moment to pause and take stock. I have previously wondered whether there is any topic which could in principle not feature here (31.03.2011). Dog shit, you might think, would be one such; but no, for it briefly features in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopia Herland: ‘when Jeff told them of the effect of dogs on sidewalk merchandise and the streets generally, they found it hard to believe’ (ch.5). But if you are a dog lover who would prefer your canine turds rather more thoroughly utopianised, you just have to turn to Aldous Huxley’s Island: ‘”Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! Even dogs’ messes.” She pointed at a formidable specimen almost at their feet’ (ch.14).

My good friend Pamela White, when challenged to suggest a topic I would be able to make nothing of, promptly uttered ‘doughnuts’; and I must confess that I am still struggling with that one, though there is a brief mention of ‘the underflannel-and-doughnuts mother’ in Herland (ch.12). My students at the University of Notre Dame always wanted to bring doughnuts along for breakfast at our early morning seminars, but I don’t suppose that can count here.

I used to think that it was the genre of the blog itself – nimble, opportunistic, serendipitous – which meant that it could potentially scoop up any kind of topic into its capacious maw; and I’m sure that’s partly true. But now I’m inclined to feel that it is just as much the focus of this particular blog, its Morris-and-utopias emphasis, which makes this greed-for-content possible. For the literary genre of utopia would seem to have an in-built encyclopaedism to it; it wants to map out every conceivable aspect of life in its perfect world, so that in principle no topic whatsoever, no detail however tiny, escapes its totalising ambitions, which are well symbolised by that giant index or ‘universal eye’ of utopia in central Paris in H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia. While this might in some ways be politically scary, it can also lead to an agreeable aesthetic quirkiness too. How often, for example, should you have your teeth checked by the dentist in utopia? Well, the answer is there for the taking in B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two (ch.22).

So I confidently predict that, though I haven’t come across it just yet, there will be some utopia out there somewhere in which doughnuts will turn out to be the main staple of utopian diet.

Monday 14 November 2011

The Dickens Reading Project

The William Morris Society is not, as far as I know, planning any particular event to celebrate the Charles Dickens bi-centenary next year; and yet given both Morris’s personal enthusiasm for Dickens’s novels and their appearance in some of our most memorable utopias, you would think it certainly ought to. So here is a Swiftian ‘modest proposal’ in that direction.

I suggest that the Society embark upon a long-term ‘Dickens Reading Project’ starting next autumn. It would devote one of its meetings per year to a particular Dickens novel, drafting in a Dickens specialist to lecture on it on that occasion, but also doing all it can to encourage widespread reading of the book among Society members by discussion across the year in the Newsletter. To pluck a novel out of the air as a starting point, let us take Barnaby Rudge, which Morris used to read aloud to Jane Burden as a significant part of his wooing of her in his Oxford days (not a tactic many of us would be inclined to use in our own relationships, perhaps).

Several years into this Reading Project, we would be reaching that happy position evoked in News from Nowhere where, in relation to Dickensian nicknames, Dick Hammond cheerfully observes to William Guest, ‘I see you take the allusion’ (ch.III); and perhaps a good few years further on we might even collectively rival that ‘exceptional familiarity with Dickens’ which Julian West claims in Edward Bellamy’s utopia (ch.XIII).

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Sequels to Utopia

‘You must take me there someday, darling ... I want to see your country’, remarks Ellador to Vandyck Jennings in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), which at once gives you the easiest of sequels. A utopian woman falls in love with the visitor to utopia (why they do this so regularly is matter for another post in its own right, perhaps); but instead of settling with her in utopia, as Julian West does with Edith Leete in Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the visitor now decides to take her back home to his own bad society. And there you have your volume two, With Her in Ourland (1916) in Gilman’s case.

Samuel Butler had already experimented with this narrative paradigm in Erewhon, where Higgins escapes from utopia in a balloon with Arowhena. In the sequel, Erewhon Revisited, written some thirty years later, we learn, however, that this hasn’t turned out too well. Arowhena has never really felt at home in London and she dies prematurely, a rather defeated and poignant figure. Gilman’s Ellador is made of sterner stuff, fortunately, and gets on well enough with Van in ‘Ourland’.

So I suppose the readiest model of a sequel to News from Nowhere, if Morris had ever been inclined to pen one, would have been to have Ellen return with William Guest to late-Victorian London as we see it in the opening pages of the book. Taking your utopian woman home, however, imposes more narrative problems for time-travelling utopias like Morris and Bellamy than it does for spatially-travelling ones like Butler and Gilman. If you can’t depend on an H.G. Wells-style Time Machine, then you must invent other temporal procedures – mesmerism or dream-vision – which work well enough in one direction but are not so easily reversed.

On the other hand, Morris’s Ellen shows so much interest in history in general, and in what she herself might have been in the nineteenth century in particular, to make us feel that a further dream-vision in which she woke up in 1890s Hammersmith alongside Guest might make a very lively book. Anyone out there fancy having a go at writing it on Morris’s behalf?

Wednesday 2 November 2011

The Crisis of the Humanities

I have just received the latest issue of the Oxford University alumni magazine Oxford Today, the front cover of which dramatically announces: ‘Whither the Humanities?: Uncovering a Global Crisis in our Midst’. Martha Nussbaum, Jonathan Bate and Colin Blakemore contribute articles on this crisis, which comes about, of course, as a capitalism lurching into deep economic trouble cuts back spending on what to it appear to be such merely decorative luxuries as History, Modern Languages, Literary Studies, Anthropology and so on.

What would the Morrisian angle on this lively current debate be? Three things, I think. First, that we in the Humanities should not, as the main focus of our energies, be trying to justify our activities to our capitalist pay masters; rather, we should be endeavouring to replace them. Which is to say that the ultimate function of the Humanities – the way in which they finally prove themselves to be humane, as it were - is not self-cultivation or the disinterested free play of the mind or to provide content for new creative industries, but rather to give oppressed groups intellectual resources with which to challenge their oppressors.

Secondly, that any contemporary practice of the Humanities which does not do this is as withered and dead as Morris believed the art and poetry of his own time to be; it is, that is to say, merely the privileged pursuit of a few in some leafy Oxbridge college garden with no invigorating wider social base. Political intellectuals (or ‘soldiers of the Cause’, in Morris’s own rousing phrase) will tactically support the ‘defence of the Humanities’ by the liberal-humanists, but their heart and energy will be elsewhere: in organising broader oppositional forces.

Thirdly, that the Humanities will one day – but now in a benign, indeed utopian sense - wither away, because the values they currently represent and protect will have become incarnated in everyday life itself. In a post-capitalist economy organised around mutuality, creativity and pleasure in work rather than private profit, the Humanities as a specialist preserve of aesthetic values banished from daily life will simply cease to be. No doubt intellectual enquiry and cultural expression will still continue, but the forms they then take are unlikely to be recognisable to dinosaurs of the old social order like us.