Wednesday 20 June 2012

Cambridge University Stamps on Dissent

English readers of this blog may remember that incident at Cambridge University last December when students and dons drowned out, by reciting a poem at him, the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, who has presided over further rapid marketisation of our universities over the last couple of years. In the wake of that mass protest, the University singled out one student, Owen Holland (pictured), for disciplinary proceedings, and its University Court imposed the extraordinarily vindictive sentence of two and a half years’ rustication upon him. Holland being a postgraduate student, the aim was clearly to destroy his future academic prospects.

What few of us knew then is that Owen Holland’s thesis is on William Morris, and a very fine section from it has already been published as ‘Utopia and the Prohibition of Melancholy: Mulleygrubs and Malcontents in William Morris’s News from Nowhere’ (MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities, vol 6, no 1, 2011, pp.36-45, available online). Clearly Owen’s spirited protest against David Willett’s destruction of university education as a public good comes from his Morrisian values, and Cambridge’s brutal reprisal against him is by the same token an attack on academic work on Morris and utopia. I suggest, then, that Morrisians should offer their full support to this brave young man and that we do our best to sustain his academic endeavours across the rustication period. An appeal against the sentence has been lodged, so Cambridge University has one last opportunity to reconsider its shameful decision.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Gay Erotica in Morris's Works

One of Rosie Miles’s students once brilliantly suggested the possibility of a lesbian attraction between Clara and Ellen in News from Nowhere, so, to expand the opportunities for gay readings of Morris’s utopia, I’ve spliced together passages from it and one other of his later works to reveal what I suspect is the implicit logic of a small incident towards the end of the book. I shall let you, dear reader, work out what the other Morris text is:

Dick came with hasty cheerfulness up the garden path: ‘Perhaps you, Guest, would like a swim before we sit down?’ ‘It is well-thought of, lad,’ I answered, ‘and that the more, as I must needs see thee naked if I am to strengthen thee, as I am minded to do’. He led on till we came to the river above the weir and its mill. There we had a delightful swim in the broad piece of water above the lock, for if Dick were a noble-looking man clad, far nobler was he to look on naked, for he was both big and well-shapen, so that better might not be. So I came out of the water presently, and clad myself, while Dick yet played awhile. Then I called the lad to me, all naked as he was, and said: Stand thou before me, youngling, and I will give thee a gift. And I laid my hands on the head of him first, and let them abide there awhile; then I passed my hands over the arms and shoulders of the boy, and his legs and thighs and breast, and all over his body. Then we lay down on the greensward and rested. ‘Now we are in a fit mood for dinner,’ said Dick, when we had dressed and were going through the grass again (ch.XXXII).

Tuesday 5 June 2012

The Interview That Never Was

I’ve adapted Joseph Dunlap’s excellent title, The Book That Never Was (which describes Morris and Burne-Jones’s unsuccessful plans for an illustrated edition of ‘The Story of Cupid and Psyche’), to evoke a Morris interview which I was not able to include in my collection We Met Morris: Interviews with William Morris 1885-96 (Spire Books, 2005). The story comes to us from Samuel Hobson, who informs us that Morris ‘liked to appear bluff and hearty. Sometimes he carried it rather far. A mild American admirer called to interview him. Morris rolled rather than walked down the stairs. “Well, sir, what the devil do you want?” The unhappy man shivered and fled’ (Pilgrims to the Left, 1938, p.72). One wonders just how many more of these aborted interviews there might have been; and if my book ever comes out in a second edition, I shall of course add this detail.

Sunday 3 June 2012

That Darned Royal Jubilee

‘We just love the Royals. I mean, it’s what we do, innit?’ That was a little snippet I caught on Radio 4 this morning, from a woman who had camped out beside the Thames in the cold and rain last night to get a good view of today’s Jubilee river pageant. I hadn’t particularly wanted to write anything about the Jubilee on this blog, but when a Morrisian craftswoman posts pictures of her ‘William Morris Jubilee Union Jack Cushions’ on Twitter, and a left-wing colleague remarks there: ‘Rented a movie this weekend about countless screaming zombies taking over London, now feel a fool as it's been playing on BBC1 all day’, then perhaps one should say something after all.

The key principle here for me is that, as Fredric Jameson has often insisted, the ideological and the utopian are inseparable in popular culture. So the whole recent frenzy about the monarchy is indeed ideological, disguising the reality of a brutally class-divided society (that reality which erupted in the riots of last summer). We need to invoke all of Morris’s angry invective about Victoria’s 1887 Jubilee and more, and the notion of a Morris Jubilee Union Jack Cushion is therefore simply contemptible.

However, within ideology, utopian impulses are active too. There is a real longing for community beyond class division and capitalism’s cyclical economic crises, and for a continuity and decency which that violently disruptive system tears apart every day (‘all that is solid melts into air’). The fact that such hope is projected onto the elderly Mrs Windsor rather than directed into active politics makes it self-defeating, but it does not make today’s Jubilee enthusiasts the mindless zombies of my colleague’s incautious comment. I certainly wouldn’t want to be as contemptuously dismissive of them as Tiresias is of the typist and clerk in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land – in part because my own Mum is one of them too!

So: ideology and utopia – very frustratingly intertwined indeed. And we are not much better than the socialists of the 1880s at prising utopia away from ideology, either in theory or in practice.

Saturday 2 June 2012

J. Hillis Miller at Lancaster

It has indeed been an honour to have J. Hillis Miller here at Lancaster over the last week, through the good offices of my colleagues Arthur Bradley and John Schad. Still alert and active at the age of 84, Miller represents for many of us the excitement which the literary theory revolution in English studies since the 1980s has promised. I’ve now heard him give a public lecture on ‘Literature Matters Today’, watched Dragan Kujundzic’s film ‘The First Sail: J. Hillis Miller’ (2011), and (as chance would have it) sat next to him all day at our symposium on his writings. Hillis has cracked some good jokes, told fine anecdotes about Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, and consistently returned to the fate of literature in the epoch of postmodern digital technologies and dangerous climate change (“How did this suicidal situation come about?”).

According to which version he tells, it was either reading Lewis Carroll at the age of five or being baffled by Tennyson’s ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ poem in his undergraduate years that set Miller off on the literary-critical route he has pursued since. In narrowly disciplinary terms, he remains a Victorianist, but he has not ever written on William Morris in depth, though he told me he does own a Morris Collected Works. So it is curious that ‘First Sail’ opens with what one might regard as a Morrisian allusion. For no sooner does News from Nowhere get under way than William Guest is being rowed out into the Thames for a swim; and no sooner does the Hillis Miller film open than our hero is being rowed out into the waters off his Maine home, though to board his yacht rather than swim. Yachting, it appears, being Miller’s own personal utopian space.

So intense was Miller’s concern with the new ‘tele-technological’ media that I found myself wondering if he wasn’t veering towards technological determinism. For surely it is the neo-liberalism of the last thirty years which has been the epochal political, economic and ideological project in which such new media have had their effects (though they are certainly not just reducible to that project). And when he speculated that a literary-theoretical training in tropes and semantic self-undoing might carry over into informed suspicion of advertising and contemporary political discourse I felt I could detect the lineaments of that old Leavisite social position: minority culture versus mass civilisation.

But you can’t generate a politics out of literary theory itself any more than Scrutiny could conjure one up out of criticism, so let us hope that J. Hillis Miller, at the ripe old age of 84, might now really start working on Morris, one of the forlornly few Victorian figures who does show how literary culture can cross ‘a river of fire’ to engage a wider transformative politics.