Sunday 24 May 2020

Cholera, Corona, New Beginnings

In his account of Morris and Burne-Jones at Oxford University, J.W. Mackail notes that in October 1854 ‘Term had been postponed for a week because of the cholera epidemic’.  I had already pointed this fact out to my own students when they were unable to return to campus at the beginning of this term; ‘The British academic system has been here before’, I noted in an online message to them.

What I hadn’t then recalled is just how much Mackail makes of that cholera epidemic a few pages earlier, how much symbolic, even proto-political force he imbues it with.  For he writes that, to young men of the time, ‘The terrible cholera autumn of 1854 seemed the climax of a period of physical and moral stagnation from which the world was awakening to something like a new birth’.  To back up this claim he quotes a sizeable stretch from Morris’s early short story ‘A Dream’, which I give here in truncated form: ‘Till late that night I ministered to the sick in that hospital; but when I went away, I walked down to the sea … I walked there pondering till a noise from over the sea made me turn and look that way; what was that coming over the sea?  Laus Deo!  The WEST WIND:  Hurrah! … I saw the great green waves rising, nodding and breaking, all coming on together; and over them from wave to wave leaped the joyous WEST WIND; and the mist and the plague clouds were sweeping back eastward in wild swirls’. 

Shelleyan promises of personal and perhaps cultural renewal, then, from the ‘pest-laden city’ the story evokes; and Mackail claims that such significances are a 'hardly concealed second meaning’ on its author’s part.  May the terrible Covid-19 Spring of 2020 prove such a symbolic turning point too, so that we ourselves awaken to a political new birth from the physical and moral stagnation of the Tory austerity of the last decade.

Saturday 16 May 2020

Morris Online under Covid-19

This week I taught my last-ever undergraduate seminars, as the conclusion of a mini-course on Thomas Hardy’s poetry, so, like Coleridge’s snake with its tail in its mouth (his image for the organicist nature of the work of art), my academic career at its close has circled back to its origins, for Hardy’s poetry and novels were a big part of our A-level training at Southend High School for Boys under the adept tutelage of Mr A.J. Webster some decades back.  The surprising feature of these seminars was, then, not their literary content, but the fact that they took place online, as part of the remote teaching that British universities are currently practising under coronavirus lockdown (and may well still be practising this coming autumn term).

Many other intellectual and political projects have moved their own operations online in a wholesale fashion during the Covid-19 crisis.  My wife’s Lacanian psychoanalysis seminar, which had required her to take crack-of-dawn trains from Lancaster to London once a month, now holds its meetings via Zoom; and in fact is having more meetings rather than less in its enthusiasm for the new online medium.  Moreover, the geographical range of participants has increased, allowing people in other countries who could never have made it to London for a Saturday morning start to participate.  

Meantime, in the field of Morris studies, Ingrid Hansen has done an excellent job of organising ‘Morris Out Loud’, a reading-out of the entirety of News from Nowhere via Zoom on Monday evenings from 6.30pm.  But I’m not aware of anything much other than this by way of new Morrisian online offerings.  Yet it should surely have been possible for the William Morris Society, like my wife’s London Lacan group, to have broadcast the speaker meetings it has cancelled over the last couple of months through online forums instead – Microsoft Teams if not Zoom, or no doubt any of a good number of others I don’t know about.  And it too might have increased its audience by so doing.  

There was talk at last year’s Society AGM about the need ‘to increase our digital output’, though at that point it was Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that were mostly on the agenda.  But the coronavirus situation, which could now go on for a very long time indeed, makes it all the more urgent that that digital push is taken into new directions and the Society’s speaker programme got going again by online means.