Thursday, 22 February 2018

William Morris on Radio 4

Today’s broadcast on 1880s socialism, in Anne McElvoy’s BBC Radio 4 series on British Socialism from Robert Owen onwards, certainly had its moments.  Ruth Kinna came up with a nice formulation in calling socialism ‘a fulltime complete-immersion project’ for Morris; and McElvoy’s own account of the Socialist League as ‘the first flowering of what we now call identity politics’, in the form of Eleanor Marx’s embrace of ‘free love’ and women’s issues, and Edward Carpenter’s homosexuality and environmentalism, was an interesting perspective.  Her dating of the post-revolutionary present of News from Nowhere as 2021, however, struck me as rather too definitive, given the slipperiness of the timeframe in Morris’s utopia; and it was just an error to assert that Engels left the Social Democratic Federation, since he was never a member of it in the first place.

Lively and informative though this programme was, it seemed to me yet another instance that proves the case I have argued in a recent article in the William Morris Society Journal: that the word ‘communism’, which was Morris’s own preferred term for his political values, is being systematically censored out of discussion of him.  We should challenge that semantic erasure, I have suggested, because to think of Morris as a communist, of a non-Leninist kind, is to open the possibility of bringing his work into relation to that of contemporary figures like Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek and Jodi Dean, who are trying to invent a post-Leninist communist thinking for our own time.  We need to blast Morris out of the continuum of history, to use Walter Benjamin’s old phrase, in order to make him speak persuasively to our own moment.  Anne McElvoy’s treatment, respectful and learned though it was, left him firmly ensconced in the 1880s and 1890s.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Anger at Morris

In his William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, E.P. Thompson gives a powerful evocation of the shock and grief of the wider socialist movement at the news of Morris’s death on 3 October 1896.  ‘Hundreds and thousands of workers, comrades known and unknown to Morris, sorrowed at the news’, he writes; and he ends his account by quoting a moving tribute from the Lancashire branch of the Social-Democratic Federation: ‘Comrade Morris is not dead there is not a Socialist living whould belive him dead for he Lives in the heart of all true men and women still and will do so to the end of time’.

However, James Leatham suggests that there was a second, and quite different, phase of socialist response to Morris’s death.  Born in 1865, Leatham had been apprenticed to a printer in Aberdeen at the age of thirteen, and met Morris on the latter’s first visit to that city in March 1888.  The following year he started his own printing house and published four Morris pamphlets from 1891 onwards; such was his ardent devotion that he named his eldest daughter May Morris Leatham!

So Leatham writes with some authority as a late-Victorian working-class socialist, and in his William Morris: Master of Many Crafts (1899) informs us, rather unsettlingly, that ‘When, shortly after Morris’s death in 1896, his will was proved, the fact that he left a large fortune to his relatives, but made no bequest to the funds of the Socialist organizations, excited much hostile comment’.  I don’t think I’ve come across that claim before.  Has it been mentioned in recent scholarship and, more importantly, has it ever been thoroughly looked into?  What exactly were the sources of the ‘hostile comment’ that Leatham is evoking here?

Friday, 26 January 2018

The Utopian Field 1890-91

I.F. Clarke’s The Tale of the Future … An Annotated Bibliography (1972) makes an exhilarating, if also somewhat crazy, read as it lists and gives brief plot summaries of a huge number of utopias and dystopias one had never heard of before.  We are used to relating Morris’s News from Nowhere, which appeared as a serial in 1890 and in book form in 1891, back to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) or even, at a pinch, to W.H. Hudson’s  A Crystal Age (1887); but Clarke’s volume suggests that there are many more future fictions which might be seen as constituting the literary field into which Morris intervenes.

Such works from the 1880s seem dominated by fears around the notion of a Channel Tunnel, as with How John Bull Lost London (1882), in which ‘French troops, disguised as tourists, pour through the Channel Tunnel and take London’, a fiendishly clever ploy which Emmanuel Macron might consider using to reverse Brexit.  The relevant works of the early 1890s contain, unsurprisingly, a fair number of fictional responses to Looking Backward quite apart from Morris’s own.  Mostly these seem to be predictable anti-socialist screeds, as with Looking Ahead (1891), in which ‘the plans adopted to bring about the industrial millennium had instead only brought about the shoddy feudalism which I saw around me’.

Others sound more politically ambivalent.  F.W. Hume’s The Year of Miracle (1891) starts with ‘a fanatical socialist spread[ing] the germs of a plague in London’, but ‘an ideal state emerges’ none the less.  K. Folingsby’s Meda: A Tale of the Future (1891) starts in Morrisian territory – ‘by A.D. 5575 cities have been abandoned’ - but then soars off into somatic fantasy: ‘physiological development has reached the point where mankind can live on air’; I’m not sure quite how appealing that prospect would be to Dick Hammond or Ellen.  The Christ that is to be (1891) has a Morrisian starting point, since its Europe of A.D. 2100 is a ‘socialist community’, but it then clairvoyantly forecasts major aspects of our own troubled historical moment; for its China has become ‘a great power’.

There are also technological utopias of the Francis Bacon kind – oil pipelines built between Europe and America, and so on – and feminist utopias such as Gloriana; or, the Revolution of 1900 (1890).  So a fullscale study of the detailed interactions of News from Nowhere and the whole range of its immediately contemporary utopias and future tales would be very welcome indeed.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

From Whileaway to Nowhere

Doing some preparatory reading for my Utopias half-unit, which I’m teaching this term for the first time in several years, I find myself returning to Joanna Russ’s remarkable The Female Man (1975) and recalling those curious moments where its utopian realm, Whileaway, could be taken to bear upon Morris’s News from Nowhere. 

Take, for instance, this, which considerably complicates the utopian time-traveller Janet Evason’s emotional relationship with the teenager Laura Wilding back in the bad old world: ‘Taboos on Whileaway: sexual relations with anybody considerably older or younger than oneself … The taboos in Whileawayan society are cross-age taboos’.  If Morris’s William Guest had been able to learn of this interdiction, he might have prudently saved himself a great deal of emotional pain in his somewhat infatuated relation with Ellen in Nowhere, she being no less than thirty-five years younger than himself.

But if one Nowherian relationship might thus have been stopped in its tracks, another might have been successfully conjured up in its place.  Among his long stretches of utopian exposition in the British Museum, Morris’s Hammond declares that ‘I am old, and perhaps disappointed’; but Russ’s Whileaway provides just the figure we want to jolt him out of his melancholy and hopefully return him to a more active libidinal existence: ‘The Old Whileawayan Philosopher was sitting cross-legged among her disciples (as usual) when, without the slightest explanation, she put her fingers into her vagina, withdrew them, and asked, “What have I here?” … She was immensely entertained by this passion for myth-making’.  No worry about breaking Whileawayan age taboos here; for she is a perfectly apt one-hundred-and-three years old to Hammond’s one-hundred-and-five.  If only we could actually cross-breed the utopias, so that the two might meet!

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Ruskin and his Critics

Nick Shrimpton’s recent Mikimoto lecture of this title was a knowledgeable and entertaining account of John Ruskin’s contemporary critics: William de Morgan, Henry James, Anthony Trollope, among many others.  I particularly enjoyed the parodist whose jaunty verses spoke of Ruskin aggressively putting his ‘tusk in’ throughout his copious writings.   And as Shrimpton spoke, my mind sometimes drifted off to wider theoretical and political issues implicit in his witty discourse at the lectern.  

For I was struck by how often the Victorian critiques of Ruskin as ‘savage’, excessive, vituperative, recalled those directed at F.R. Leavis after his attack on C.P. Snow in the ‘two cultures’ Richmond lecture of 1962; and here surely is the clue to the matter.  For liberal middle-class English culture, aesthetic and social debate should be conducted within parameters that Matthew Arnold evoked in a series of memorable slogans.  It should be ‘disinterested’, characterised by urbanity, the ‘tone of the centre’, ‘sweetness and light’; it should proceed in an ‘Attic style’ and be, like Arnoldian Culture itself, ondoyant et divers.  In his Criticism in the Wilderness (1980), literary theorist Geoffrey Hartman has written well of this ‘Arnoldian Concordat’ which governs – which is to say, cripples – English cultural discourse.

But for Carlyle, Dickens, Ruskin, Morris, D.H. Lawrence, Leavis himself and Raymond Williams, things are quite otherwise.  When fundamental issues of the cultural health and economic direction of a society are at stake, the writing subject is passionately interested, constituted by interests, not disinterested.  His discourse mutates accordingly, from the Attic to the Asiatic in Arnold’s terms, becoming metaphorically dense, forceful in its rhythms, tones and vocabulary, using all the resources of poetry and invective to get across the death-dealing nature of what Leavis termed ‘technologico-Benthamism’, but which we Morrisians will be content to call capitalism.  Ruskinian linguistic ‘violence’ (as its targets and enemies would see it) is a measure of his increasing desperation about the directions of his culture; and in the neo-liberalism of the last thirty years, the technologico-Benthamites have been even more in control than formerly. 

Lancaster’s Ruskin programme, under its new Director Sandra Kemp, will have to live up to the romantic anticapitalist passion of its subject, rather than retreat to Victorian scholarship, if it wants to be relevant to the multiple crises of our own period, the Anthropocene.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Eagleton on Lenin and Luther

After delivering his lecture on ‘Art and Socialism’ in Leicester in 1884, Morris was introduced to the local clergyman Rev. Page Hopps who, in Fiona MacCarthy’s retelling of this well-known anecdote, ‘said that the Socialist society that Morris was envisaging would need God Almighty himself to manage it.  “Alright, man, you catch your God Almighty, we’ll have him,” cried Morris, jumping up, ruffling his hair and shaking his fist close to Page Hopps’s face’.

One of the figures who has done most to capture God for left-wing politics in our own time is Terry Eagleton, whose talk on ‘Lenin after 100 Years, Luther after 500 Years’ I chaired in the Storey Institute, Lancaster, on Monday evening.  In a series of brilliant comparisons and contrasts which probably only he could pull off, Terry offered us a sweeping account of both Lutheran Protestantism and Leninist Communism as intellectual, cultural and socially transformative projects.  Tackling one crucial political misconception, he argued in some detail that Lenin’s vanguard notion of the party is not as transcendent of (and therefore potentially domineering over) the working class as Luther’s ‘hidden God’ - to borrow Lucien Goldmann’s old term - is over fallen humanity.

A follow-up event yesterday, in which Terry spoke alongside author Sara Maitland on the idea of ‘Creation’, was more single-mindedly theological, though the odd political implication did peep out now and again.  I must say that, as a lifelong atheist whose attitude to formal religion is probably best summed up by Matthew Arnold’s great poem ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’, I’m still not sure what I make of the ‘theological turn’ of some recent thinkers on the Left.

‘Never look a gifthorse in the mouth’ might be one’s immediate, pragmatic response; anything that can tip people leftwards, in dark political times, should probably be seized at.  But when it comes to longer-term and more principled thinking about the relation of religion to Left politics, well, for me personally, at least, the jury is still out.   Terry Eagleton  has a new book, Radical Sacrifice, coming out from Yale University Press next Spring; it looks, on the evidence of the publisher’s blurb, like one of the most ambitious syntheses of radical politics and theology that he has attempted for some years.  So I await this volume eagerly, and hope that it may resolve some of the issues here for us.