Monday, 22 October 2012

Writing Oxford, Writing Morris

My colleague John Schad has for some years been making it his personal mission to erode the generic boundary between literary criticism and theory, on the one hand, and creative writing on the other. I recently sat through a dramatised reading of his 2007 book Someone Called Derrida: An Oxford Mystery, a philosophical detective story which interweaves the Oxonian experiences of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida with those of John’s father there and elsewhere, a very unsettling mix indeed. Having published my own Oxford book in 2007 - William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-1895 - I now wonder if I wasn’t too generically timid in that project. Certainly I tried to find a lively mode of narration, but the book is basically a standard scholarly study of its topic. Yet Schadian boundary-breaking suggests that it could have been done quite differently.

We know that on his sea journey back from Norway in August 1896 Morris was afflicted by sinister hallucinations. Could William Morris in Oxford not have been written in that mode, then, as a disjointed stream-of-consciousness in which episodes, themes and figures from his Oxford campaigning years recur to Morris in eerily heightened fashion, with the Ashmolean metamorphosing suddenly into St Marks in Venice, the gaunt medieval statues and gargoyles on St Marys Church coming alive and preaching communism on Port Meadow, and the socialist chimney sweep William Hines assaulting the Master of Balliol with his brush in Broad Street? My text might thus have been as fragmentary as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and any unity or meaning it has would have to be actively constructed by the reader rather than being guaranteed in advance by the conventions of scholarly narrative. Surely our task as Morrisians in the years to come will indeed be to forge what Roland Barthes would term writerly or scriptible rather than readerly or lisible modes of writing about our hero.

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