Tuesday 27 December 2011

What do you think of it so far?: Comedy in Utopia

Took my Mum for a Boxing Day visit to the Eric Morecambe statue at Morecambe seafront yesterday. We always used to watch Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials at home in my teenage days, and we all remain fans, even so many years later. When I was a Lancaster city councillor there was some talk of developing a Museum of Comedy at Morecambe to build on the success of the statue, though sadly that has not happened. Not yet, anyway.

Our visit made me wonder about comedy and humour in utopia. One doesn’t think of utopia as a laugh-a-minute genre – indeed, quite the opposite, with those long turgid lectures we tend to get from the Old Man who Knows Everything (to borrow H.G. Wells’s phrase). None the less, there are jokes (as well as much generalised neighbourliness) in utopia; and Morris’s News from Nowhere does occasionally reflect on the nature of humour in an ideal society.

For it may be that the threshold of comedy will be very much lower in utopia. When William Guest complains that the remarks of Dick Hammond’s workmates are ‘not much of a joke’, Dick retorts that ’everything seems like a joke when we have a pleasant spell of work on, and good fellows merry about us’ (ch.VII). So perhaps, in utopia, you wouldn’t need a Museum of Comedy as such because social life in general will have been ‘Eric Morecambeised’. My Mum certainly hopes so!

Saturday 24 December 2011

The Ethics of Horse Riding

‘Up and away through the drifting rain!/ Let us ride to the Little Tower again’. These two lines, from Morris’s poem ‘The Little Tower’, constitute for me the most exciting beginning in all his poetry and make one realise how pervasive the experience of horse-riding is across it.

There are lonely horse-rides in Morris’s poetry, as when Lancelot makes his way dolefully across the Wiltshire downs in ‘King Arthur’s Tomb’; but the much more characteristic experience is of vigorous fellowship on horseback. ‘We rode together/In the winter weather/To the broad mead under the hill’; or ‘For many days we rode together/Yet met we neither friend nor foe’. The latter poem is even entitled ‘Riding Together’, which announces the ethic behind this series of texts clearly enough.

Morris had himself experienced such equine companionship on a brief riding holiday with Charles Faulkner in Wales in April 1875, and more extendedly on his two Iceland trips of 1871 and 1873. In News from Nowhere the children in the Kensington forest are ‘used to tumbling about the little forest ponies’ (ch.V), so one imagines that riding together counts for something in utopia too. That being so, I suspect that here is another new activity which the Morris Society should be promoting – Morrisian riding parties across the English countryside.

I am influenced in all this by that wonderful Edwin Muir poem ‘The Horses’ which I studied for A-level with my teacher Mr A.J. Webster. After a nuclear apocalypse humanity in that poem has to tentatively relearn its old, healthy relationship with horses; and in our own environmentally threatened epoch we surely have to do that too. Let us Morrisians lead the way!

Saturday 17 December 2011

Exploring Psychogeography

I enjoyed Radio 3’s programme on psychogeography the other day, though if you are going to delve into its origins in Situationism in Paris, you really ought to find a presenter with enough French to pronounce his subjects’ names properly (Guy Debord, not Des Bords). And from 1960s Paris we moved on to 1990s London, with interesting interviews with such recent practitioners as Iain Sinclair and Will Self. If this is a literary movement that eventuates in the intriguing concept of ‘magical Marxism’, then Morrisians certainly ought to know about it, and I shall investigate that term further and report back.

But I also found myself wondering whether the powerful reimaginings of city space we already have in the utopian tradition, such as Morris’s transfigured London in News from Nowhere or Callenbach’s new San Francisco in Ecotopia, aren’t themselves exercises in psychogeography. Surely only a ‘punk walker’ on an unusually intense dérive (or drift) could re-experience the House of Commons as a Morrisian Dung Market?

And I got very excited about one particular psychogeographical practice which seems to suggest a whole new hermeneutics for utopian writings. The Situationists, it appears, used to attempt such bizarre experiments as navigating Paris with a map of the Berlin Underground, defamiliarising their home city rewardingly in the process. So could we not cross utopian wires in a loosely analogous way? Suppose we read News from Nowhere as if it were Marge Piercy’s Woman at the Edge of Time (in which case Ellen might be a time traveller from the future), or insert bits of News from Nowhere and H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia into each other, as if they are aspects of a single complex utopian vision? The reading experiments that ensue would probably cover the whole spectrum of psychogeography itself, from the powerfully illuminating to the completely wacky!

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Tearing off Heads: the Animals of Ted Hughes

Lot of fuss being made about the poet Ted Hughes this week, as he finally gets his memorial in Westminster Abbey. As a keen fisherman, Morris might have approved of the piscatorial quote that graces the Hughes memorial slab, but what would a Morrisian approach to Hughes’s poetry look like? I was a keen fan of his early animal poetry myself once, and vividly remember a reading, in Bristol in 1978, at which this dark, charismatic figure deeply impressed my female friends who were present (masochistic Isabella Lintons to his rugged Heathcliff, perhaps).

All those formidable poetic hawks, pike, jaguars, foxes! ‘My manners are tearing off heads’. Nature, then, as a radical alternative to civilisation; but Hughes can alas only conceive Nature as aggressive, predatory, ruthless, which is to say that he projects on to it the rapaciously competitive values of capitalism itself. Far from being any alternative to the system, Hughes’s early vision of Nature is – irony of ironies - just the pure distillation of that vile system’s inner values. So perhaps it’s apt enough that he gets his memorial at its heart in the Abbey after all.

Sunday 4 December 2011

British Association of Literary Theory

‘The advantage of being old’, as F.R. Leavis remarks in his late writings, ‘is that you can say, “I was there”’. And in a more modest way middle age has that privilege too; for I can say that I was there, as a postgraduate student of Terry Eagleton’s at Oxford in the early 1980s, as wave after wave of newly translated work by Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Hans Robert Jauss and others came across from Europe and transformed the foundations of literary studies in this country. Thus the genre of ‘literary theory’ was born here – heady days indeed!

Now, however, we are more likely to hear of the ‘death of theory’ than of its birth, a slogan which means various things. First, that the exciting polemics of the early days are long since over, with literary theory now routinised as a core element of undergraduate English literature syllabuses. Second, that the grand projects of theory are seen as suspect and a ‘return’ to supposedly new versions of formalism or humanism is called for. Third, that many of the founding European and American theorists are indeed now dead or on their last legs.

Are we mourning literary theory, then? Well, perhaps; but as Freud argued, mourning is an active work not a passive condition, as nicely summed up in Samuel Beckett’s formulation: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’. So I suggest that we ‘mourn’ theory as actively as we possibly can, and one good way of doing this will be to establish a British Association of Literary Theory (BALT), a professional association to match those we already have for such academic fields as Romanticism, Victorian Studies and Modernism. And if we do set up BALT, we shall surely find that, as with Mark Twain, reports of literary theory’s death have been greatly exaggerated.