Monday 31 May 2021

Wilde versus Morris

Listening to Terry Eagleton’s online Lancaster classes the other day, I heard him develop a contrast between Oscar Wilde and William Morris that he has set out in print elsewhere.  In Terry’s view, Wilde’s argument that labour should be reduced as much as possible so that we can cultivate varied interests and capacities in our then much enhanced leisure time is closer to Marx than Morris’s demand that labour should be made creative and sensuously pleasurable as opposed to the dehumanised rote that it mostly is under capitalism.

Not that these two cases completely contradict each other.  You can run both of them at the same time – labour should be reduced as much as possible, and what little of it remains should ideally become creative too - though it would then become a matter of where the emphasis is placed between those two requirements.   Wilde is not only closer to Marx on the question of work, on the Eagletonian view, but also, one can’t help feeling, closer to Terry’s own sympathies in this matter.

For much of the utopian tradition, from Thomas More through to Edward Bellamy and H.G. Wells, the Wildean position dominates.  Labour is a mechanical physical drudgery which, by a variety of social devices (equitable distribution, simplification of needs, technical innovation, longer-lasting materials, etc), we should reduce to a bare minimum, so that real human value can flourish elsewhere.  Morris’s view, however, in contrast to all this, is radically non-dualistic: labour can and should be the place where human value is realised, not some dull inert chore that must be got out of the way first.  And this is why – being a literary person for whom form and content are always mutually imbricated, in necessarily non-dualistic ways – my sympathies remain on the Morrisian side of Terry’s Wilde-Morris contrast.