Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Ottawa Roundtable Discussion

William Morris’s radical politics are traditionally tied to his activist phase of 1883-1890. But was ‘militancy’ the exclusive measure of his revolutionary praxis? To Build a Shadowy Isle of Bliss: William Morris’s Radicalism and the Embodiment of Dreams, co-edited by Michelle Weinroth and Paul Leduc Browne, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015) argues that the power of Morris’s radicalism can be discerned within, not in spite of, his aesthetic creations, and that his most compelling political ideas bloomed wherever his dexterous hand had been at work – in artefacts as in fiction. With this central premise, the book complicates received notions of the radical, the aesthetic, and the political, encouraging the reader to appreciate the unorthodox character of Morris’s philosophy of social change.

In an effort to disseminate these ideas within the academy, Michelle Weinroth and Paul Leduc Browne organized a roundtable on the book for the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences – a pan-Canadian event, which typically gathers about 10,000 conferees. The roundtable took place on 4 June 2015, at the University of Ottawa, under the auspices of the Society for Socialist Studies. The speakers included the co-editors and four critics: Matthew Beaumont of University College London, Jason Camlot of Concordia University (Montreal), Nicholas Frankel of Virginia Commonwealth University (Virginia, USA), and Douglas Moggach of the University of Ottawa. Each of these critics received the book enthusiastically and offered an intellectually engaging response to the volume’s treatment of Morris’s radicalism.

In an opening address, Michelle Weinroth explicated the politics behind the book’s cover illustration, arguing that Morris’s radicalism is at its most ‘radical’ where it is most often devalued: in the ornamental and in the oneiric. Nicholas Frankel followed with a critical synthesis of the book’s three core concepts – Morris’s radicalism, the idea of ‘embodiment’, and dreams. Drawing on Morris’s legacy, Jason Camlot reflected on education in the context of ‘The New Division of (Academic) Labour’. Matthew Beaumont then elaborated on Morris’s politics in the light of nineteenth-, twentieth- and twenty-first-century debates about the idea of communism. Finally, Douglas Moggach expounded on Morris’s utopianism as a specific version of an ethical programme of post-Kantian perfectionism. In his closing remarks, Paul Leduc Browne emphasized the importance of reading Morris in and for himself. Such an approach, he suggested, illuminates most sharply the modernity and genuinely original character of Morris’s radical thought.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Tests in Utopia

It sometimes seems that in utopias of an ecological persuasion the author feels obliged to reintroduce into his or her genially pastoral world elements of stress, challenge and competition that had once been afforded, in the bad old pre-utopian days, by a capitalist economy and its intolerable pressures. Thus it is that in Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962) the young people of Pala collectively engage in dangerous feats of mountaineering which occasionally result in fatalities, but these are regarded as a price worth paying for a social ritual that inculcates independence and a sense of the sublime in the young.

In Ernest Callenbach’s still impressive Ecotopia (1975), which first gave that new utopian sub-genre its name, we have the famous or infamous ‘war-games’, in which the young men of the utopian society daub themselves in war-paint, quaff intoxicating beverages and fight with spears to establish the supremacy of their particular team; Ecotopia’s young women then give their favours lavishly to the victors. Again, there are injuries and even occasional fatalities (with the narrator William Weston himself getting nastily injured as he participates in the ritual), but these, as in Huxley, are seen as a price well worth paying.

Is it a weakness of Morris’s own utopian realm Nowhere that it does not contain such tests and challenges for the young, that it has not replaced capitalist competition with new utopian forms thereof – unless you include camping out in Kensington forest in the summer months under that category? Could we imagine more challenging Nowherian rituals in the Thames valley that could substitute for Huxleyan mountaineering or Callenbachian war-games? We might have to import elements from the harsher and more adventurous fictional worlds of Morris’s late romances in order to do so. But without such tests or rituals News from Nowhere runs the risk – as many critics have thought – of seeming too arcadian and undemanding. So instead of simply being a surly Old Grumbler who passively bemoans that fact, we need to be actively inventing remedies for it.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Footnoting Utopia

In the early pages of News from Nowhere, Annie leaves William Guest, Dick Hammond and Bob the weaver to get on with her own work: ‘She waved a hand to us, and stepped lightly down the hall, taking (as Scott says) at least part of the sun from our table as she went’ (ch. III). Of the four modern editions of Morris’s utopia I have sitting beside me on the desk, only one bothers to footnote this Walter Scott reference. James Redmond’s 1970 Routledge & Kegan Paul edition does not; nor does Krishan Kumar’s 1990 Cambridge University Press version ; nor again Stephen Arata’s 2003 Broadview Press effort. Only David Leopold’s 2003 Oxford World’s Classics News from Nowhere informs us, in its 120-word endnote on p.187, that 1. Scott was a major Scottish author, above all of historical novels; 2. that Morris was passionately devoted to his works; and 3. that this particular allusion probably comes from Redgauntlet (1824), when Alan Fairford laments Greenmantle’s sudden disappearance.

All four of these editions are aimed at student or general readers of Morris, so does it matter that three of them do not footnote the Scott reference in the text? Could James Redmond have assumed, in the more literate 1970s, that people would very readily know who Walter Scott was, and perhaps even which particular Waverley novel the image of the sun going out comes from, in a way that in the social-media-dominated world of the present we almost certainly cannot any longer. If you do choose to annotate the Scott reference (as you surely should), how much information is enough? David Leopold might, after all, have related it back to an earlier Scottish reference in News from Nowhere. For it is surely the mention of drawing salmon-nets on the river Tay in chapter II, in relation to the return of salmon to the unpolluted Thames, that cues Morris towards Redgauntlet in chapter III, since a tense dispute over Joshua Geddes’s salmon-nets on the Solway occurs early on in that novel.

Individual editors work on particular Morris works when asked to by publishers, and they make their own decisions about what to annotate and what to pass over in silence; but what we never seem to get is any general or a priori discussion about what the principles of Morrisian annotating ought to be, above all in the case of News from Nowhere, which is for so many of us the ultimate Morris text. One way of starting such a debate would be for someone to write an article comparing the merits and demerits of the existing editions, a discussion which would need to encompass the function and mutual relationships of Introduction, Notes, Bibliography, cover images and (where appropriate) material in Appendices – this latter being a category in which Arata’s Broadview tome wins out handsomely.