Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Sartre and Intention

In his exposition of Jean-Paul Sartre in Marxism and Form, Fredric Jameson notes the radical reinterpretation of the concept of intention that is at stake in Sartre’s later drama.  For ‘if it is useless to try to determine the meaning of an act by introspection, in these later plays we proceed in reverse, on the assumption that whatever was done, whatever objective results the act in question had, must have been in some sense willed or desired by the actor himself’.  How might this apply to Morris’s own later works?

In The Well at the World’s End Ralph chooses to go swimming and leaves the Lady of Abundance on her own in the Chamber of Love, which gives the Knight of the Sun the opportunity to steal up upon her and kill her.  So must we then assume, on Sartrean principles, that Ralph somehow desired that outcome, however stricken by grief he might on the surface appear to be afterwards?  Or again, in The Water of the Wondrous Isles Birdalone refuses the injunction to remain safely in the Castle of the Quest and heads off to explore the Black Valley of the Grey Wethers.  The three returning questers must therefore set off to track her down, in the course of which the Golden Knight Baudoin is killed by the evil Red Knight.  So did Birdalone then in some sense desire this to happen?

We should note that there are characters within the late romances who themselves take something like this stance towards intention, as when Roger had predicted to Ralph of the Lady of Abundance that he ‘would take her luck from her and make it thine’, which is not in the least, needless to say, Ralph’s conscious aim.  So to adopt a Sartrean view of intention would, I think, productively complicate our response to these late works, getting beneath the lofty chivalric gestures of which they are so full and opening up darker dimensions of meaning.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Thomas Hardy and William Morris

‘What a strenuous character Morris’s was’.  Thus Thomas Hardy, writing to Sydney Cockerell on 23 February 1917, as he and his wife read through Mackail’s Life together.  Hardy never met Morris, as far as I am aware, though he had attended the Eastern Question conference in London in December 1876 at which Morris was elected as treasurer.  In 1881 Hardy joined the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and was certainly repentant in later life about the church restoration work which he had unreflectively undertaken in his early architectural years.   He had clearly read some of Morris’s cultural writings, and in a 1912 ‘Plea for Pure English’ cites ‘that “grin of delight”, which William Morris assured us, comes over the real artist’ – this being a reference to ‘The Art of the People’ from Hopes and Fears for Art (1882).  The description of Hardy’s first, and unpublished, novel The Poor Man and the Lady as ‘socialistic’ in the Life of Thomas Hardy, that supposed biography actually written by himself, seems even to promise a political alignment with Morris’s later activism which of course never in the end materialised.

In 1881 Hardy wrote to Morris to offer him a copy of Tess.  Morris accepted and in his reply notes that he has already read Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native: ‘the first one is the most pleasing and I suppose you would look upon it as the most typical of your works’.  Whether Hardy did regard that novel in that light, I do not know; and Morris’s phrasing doesn’t give away whether he agrees with the judgement he imputes to the novelist here.  Either way, it’s not a valuation that I can share.  To any reader of Raymond Williams’s marvellous chapter on Hardy in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence – which for me was a life-changing reading experience some forty years ago – it is The Return of the Native, in its exploration of the tension between educated and customary community (by which Tess’s life will be so disrupted too), that is the ‘most typical’ Hardy novel of them all.