Thursday, 18 October 2012

All for the Cause

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending Professor Roger Bromley’s Inaugural Lecture on ‘Keeping the Narrative Alive: Reading and Writing the Arab Spring’, which also launched Lancaster University’s new ‘Writing for Liberty’ lecture series. Roger marvellously evoked the energy and courage of writers in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria as they lend their literary talents to the revolutionary cause. And his trenchant accounts of works like Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: My City, Our Revolution and Samar Yazbek’s Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution gave a vivid sense of the complex formal strategies such authors have adopted to narrate social upheaval – realism being only one relevant means among many others.

Roger also broached issues of the concept of literature operative here. What is, or should be, the relation of the writer to the people’s cause? Full-blooded commitment, in Sartrean fashion, or should literature in some sense be above the immediate struggle, taking more complex and longer-term views? William Morris made his own very forthright choice in this respect in the English political battles of the 1880s, abandoning the languorous role of ‘idle singer of an empty day’ for that of militant author of Chants for Socialists, Pilgrims of Hope, etc. If the aim of the Arab demonstrators was, as Roger asserted, ‘to reclaim squares’ in their cities, then that was no less true for Morris and Trafalgar Square than it has been for the Egyptians and Tahrir.

Roger Bromley has long been an important figure in the development of British cultural studies, and it is good to see that mode of analysis, fashioned by Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall from the late 1950s on, still capable of resourcefully engaging the most stirring political events of our own epoch. But what Roger’s superb account of Arab Spring literature, music and blogging most convinced me of is that deeply Morrisian discussions of the relation of culture and politics may fruitfully take place without once mentioning Morris’s name or the 1880s. Indeed, we may be most true to Morris when we leave his specific history quite behind us and fully engage our own.

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