Sunday, 11 March 2012

The Uses of Error

Does every essay published on News from Nowhere at some point or other fall into provable error and misreading? I suspect so. Take Krishan Kumar’s splendid 1994 article on ‘A Pilgrimage of Hope: William Morris’s Journey to Utopia’. Kumar is a well-respected scholar and even at one point in his essay berates ‘culpable casualness on the part of [Morris’s] readers’. Yet he himself tells us of ‘William Guest’s despair at being shut out from the feast at the old house’, which is wrong because the feast takes place in Kelmscott church, not manor; and informs us that Ellen ‘makes everything good and everyone happy’, when Ellen in fact announces that she has ‘often troubled men’s minds disastrously’.

I wager that we could pluck such basic errors out of every News from Nowhere analysis ever published; and this is not just a case of careful scholars occasionally nodding on the job. For we should surely regard such mistakes as Freudian parapraxes, as expressing authorial desire; they are misrememberings and embryonic reconstructions of the text. Kumar would like the final utopian feast to take place in the manor, given all the genial stories we have about Morris’s own hospitality there; and he would like Ellen to be a benign fairy godmother in the tale, rather than the challenging figure she actually is.

At such moments of ‘error’, then, critics are beginning to write their own versions of News from Nowhere. Nothing wrong with that: I just think it would be better if they did it frankly and overtly, rather than in this circuitous manner.

1 comment:

Tony Pinkney said...

This theory applies to my own writing too, as when, in my 1991 essay on 'Postmodern Space in Morris's Utopia',I carelessly referred to Morris's William Guest as Stephen Guest. The immediate reason: I was teaching George Eliot's 'Mill on the Floss' at that time and that book does indeed include a character called Stephen Guest, so a mental mix-up had taken place. The underlying fantasy at work in the error: presumably I wanted the 56-year-old William Guest to be as young as Eliot's suave Stephen Guest so that he could indeed have a successful sexual relationship with the 20-year-old Ellen at the close of the book.