Sunday, 13 October 2019

Gestures in Utopia: 2

I’ve always liked those new gestures that Francis Bacon invents in his 1627 utopian fragment New Atlantis.  An inhabitant of the island of Bensalem ‘lifted up his right hand towards heaven, and drew it softly to his mouth (which is the gesture they use when they thank God)’.  The passers-by who witness the visitors to utopia making their way to the House of Strangers ‘put their arms abroad a little, which is their gesture when they bid any welcome’.  And the official at that institution gives his instructions to those visitors by ‘lifting up his cane a little, (as they do when they give any charge or command)’.  There’s an implicit recognition in all this, surely, that utopian transformation will not just affect the major economic and political structures of a society, but will have to bed itself deep down into the substance of the human body too.

Does Morris give us enough sense of a transformed body in News from Nowhere?  There are certainly some memorable gestures in the book, as when Ellen stands with ‘one hand laid on her bosom, the other arm stretched downward and clenched in her earnestness’.  But this is an individual rather than social manifestation, and thus is not quite what I’m after here.  And let’s hope that Robert the weaver’s patronising gesture to one of the Hammersmith Guest House women – ‘patted her on the head in a friendly manner’ – is an individual lapse rather than a new social habit.

The characters in Morris’s Thames valley typically ‘saunter’ rather than ’walk’, so bodily movement has clearly slowed down in this utopia.  And there’s a great deal of neighbourly hand-holding, not only between men and women, as when the Hammersmith waitresses ‘took us by the hands and led us to a table’, but also between men, as when Dick Hammond takes William Guest into the British Museum: he ‘took my hand, and saying “Come along, then!” … ‘.  But though Morris is much concerned with the transformed body in utopia, this tends to be in terms of general health and activity rather of the specific invention of new gestures.  So in this respect New Atlantis, mere fragment though it is, might have had some useful lessons for him.

1 comment:

Tony Pinkney said...

For my earlier post on 'Gestures in Utopia', see the entry for 15 April 2010, which is also available at pp.91-92 of my book 'William Morris: The Blog' (Kelmsgarth Press, 2011).