Saturday 25 January 2020

Transfiguration of the Hero

When in Ursula Le Guin’s utopia The Dispossessed the hero Shevek embarks on a sexual partnership with the marine biologist Takver, the two of them take a room together at the northern end of the city of Abbenay: ‘The move was not complicated … Shevek brought a box of papers, his winter boots, and the orange blanket.  Takver had to make three trips.  One was to the district clothing depositary to get them both a new suit, an act which she felt obscurely but strongly was essential to them beginning their partnership’.

A similar sartorial moment befalls William Guest in News from Nowhere, on the morning after his return from old Hammond’s long lectures to him in the British Museum: ‘I dressed speedily, in a suit of blue laid ready for me, so handsome that I quite blushed when I had got into it, feeling as I did so that excited pleasure of anticipation of a holiday’.  Guest’s new clothes don’t have the happy sexual meaning of Takver and Shevek’s, but they too mark a significant new phase for him: departure from London and travel up the Thames.

In both these instances we are surely in the presence of what narratologist Vladimir Propp, in his pathbreaking book Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928), describes as Function XXIX: ‘THE HERO IS GIVEN A NEW APPEARANCE (Definition: transfiguration.  Designation: T)’.  Of the four variants there listed, we are in Morris and Le Guin dealing with number three: ‘The hero puts on new garments’.  That both utopias thus deliver function XXIX so neatly prompts a more general question: how useful would Proppian narratology be for the analysis both of particular utopias and of the genre of utopia itself?  Has anyone tried out a Proppian study of either The Dispossessed or News from Nowhere; and if not, why not?

Friday 3 January 2020

Sir William Morris, Sir Keir Starmer

Of course, Morris never actually became Sir William Morris because he posed such a severe political challenge to the Establishment that they didn’t award him any major honours, although there was some informal approach about becoming Poet Laureate after Tennyson’s death in October 1892.  In just the same way, there will never be a Sir Jeremy Corbyn or Sir Terry Eagleton.  On the other hand, that politically unimportant figure Edward Burne-Jones became Sir Edward Burne-Jones in the New Year’s honours of 1894, to the disgust of both Morris and his own wife Georgiana.

Labour MP Keir Starmer, who has been much in the news over the past few days, is actually Sir Keir Starmer, for he was knighted in 2014 for his services to law and criminal justice; and now that he has declared himself a candidate for the leadership of the Labour Party, we should reflect on this fact.  If, like Morris or Corbyn, you don’t get a knighthood because you pose a serious political challenge to capitalism, then, in reverse, you get one precisely because you do not pose much or any threat to it, like Burne-Jones.

And Sir Keir, as Labour leader, would be a centrist ‘safe pair of hands’, a major break back towards the right after the Corbyn project (whatever lip-service he currently pays to it).  As a London MP, he would do nothing towards helping Labour retake votes and territory in the North – indeed, as someone identified with the idea of a second referendum which was seen as being Remain in disguise, he would be counter-productive in that respect.   Powerful media forces are supporting his candidacy, particularly the left-liberal Guardian newspaper, which is desperate to stop a ‘continuity Corbyn’ figure, and has made much use of a one-sided YouGov poll to promote Sir Keir (one-sided because its figures do not include union affiliates and registered Labour supporters, who are likely to be broadly Corbynist).  A party of the Left will have a place for Starmer’s undoubted talents, but certainly not as leader.