Wednesday 15 February 2017

Waking up from Dreams

One issue that has divided critics of News from Nowhere over the years is whether William Guest returns as a more effective fighter for communism as a result of what he has experienced in Morris’s utopia.  Norman Talbot had no doubt about this, informing us in 1990 that ‘Guest is back among us, more resolute than ever’.  But there are dissenting voices too, for example Barbara Gribble, who in 1985 announced sternly that ‘one expects him to take up once again his former and ineffectual habits’.  Closer inspection of the text won’t necessarily resolve this dispute.  If Guest does indeed appear rejuvenated on the upper Thames (which lends itself to the Talbot reading), he also gets hopelessly infatuated with a girl 36 years younger than himself and still loses his temper – ‘damned flunkies ... damned thieves’ (ch.XXIII) – just as he did at the Socialist League meeting – factors which suggest that Gribble may be right after all.

Is it an appropriate interpretive procedure to turn to related moments in other Morris works for guidance here?  In the 1857 poem ‘Spell-Bound’, for instance, the speaker tells us that ‘when the vision from me slips,/In colourless dawn I lie and moan,/And wander forth with fever’d blood,/That makes me start at little things’.  One can be so traumatised by the loss of dream-vision, whether that be of a romantic or a political nature, that one stumbles round distraught and disconsolate thereafter.  ‘Starting at little things’ isn’t entirely negative, since much of the strength of Morris’s early poetry comes from its attention to intense, fragmented perceptions and details.  But it hardly sounds like a very effective way of organising a political movement, which is presumably what Guest ought to be doing when he gets back home.  I’ve suggested in earlier posts that we might use material from Morris’s late romances to interpret details in News from Nowhere; and it may be that his early poetry can come to our assistance in this respect too.

Thursday 2 February 2017

What is the Contemporary?

With the Trumpian counter-revolution underway at breakneck speed in the United States and proto-Fascist populist movements highly active across Europe too, this question, which was the title of a symposium held yesterday at Lancaster University, is certainly the right one to be asking.  But how might one approach an answer – if indeed there is such a thing?

Mike Greaney gave an intriguing reading of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 dystopia Never Let Me Go, in which human clones grow up towards a grim future of having their organs reaped.  Chinese postgraduate Muren Zhang did not speak about China, as I had thought she might (no account of the contemporary which ignores it, and Trump’s planned war against it, will be worth the paper it is written on), but instead reflected on neo-Victorian fiction as a tool for approaching the contemporary in its subtle reworkings of the past.  This is a topic I’ve pondered painfully myself, wondering how my treasured notion of writing a political sequel to Morris’s News from Nowhere might avoid just becoming neo-Victorian kitsch.

Lynne Pearce addressed issues of driving, day-dreaming and mobility, through a focus on the vexed topic of driverless cars – strange to hear Ernst Bloch and Gaston Bachelard brought into this framework!  And visiting speaker Professor Mark Currie gave a subtle paper on contingency and narrative theory, reflecting on the fraught relations between the apparent moment-by-moment freedom of narrative and the ‘always-already’ necessity under which it actually operates.  Extreme contingency, as he argued, is indeed now one of our pervasive self-understandings, a Raymond Williams-style ‘structure of feeling’, one might say.

I greatly enjoyed this event, though I also wanted some sharper politics to enter its mostly literary register.  It is the kind of occasion that the William Morris Society – or perhaps some splinter group within the Morris Society – should surely be running.  Owen Holland has valuably organised a print symposium on Kristin Ross’s recent Paris Commune book in the Society Journal, but even this remains too historicist, despite Ross’s efforts to link the Commune to early twenty-first-century political struggles.  To address the contemporary – or perhaps, more complexly, what Ernst Bloch used to call the non-synchronicity of the present – should be the prime task of a Morris Society worthy of a man who threw himself into his own contemporary crisis with unique energy and utopian hope.