Friday, 22 February 2013

Terry Eagleton at 70

As Terry Eagleton celebrates his 70th birthday today, there are certainly no signs of his extraordinary intellectual productivity slowing down at all. This sapient sutler of Marxism remains as polyphiloprogenitive as ever, and since I frequently find myself absorbing new ideas from him which can then be applied to William Morris, I for one am certainly glad of this.

How to Read Literature (a follow-up to his 2007 poetry book) comes out this Spring, closely followed by Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America. Then there’s one in the pipeline on culture replacing religion - or trying to, anyway; and one also hears of new writing projects under way on the politics of the scapegoat and on the idea of hope. There’s Morrisian mileage in that notion of the scapegoat, I should think. Perhaps we could imagine Ellen, immured in her Runnymede cottage in News from Nowhere, as a kind of scapegoat, whose reintegration into the utopian community at the Kelmscott church feast can only be won at the cost of the eventual scapegoating and expulsion from utopia of William Guest himself. Scapegoats of a feather flock together, in that text.

As for a book on hope, well, that sounds like a Morrisian theme in its own right, but after the bloody political history of the twentieth century – the crimes of Nazism, but even more the crimes of Stalin and Mao – the hope available to us is likely to be a much more straitened thing than the socialist hopes of the 1880s. For, as Eagleton puts it in a 2006 essay on ‘Political Beckett’: ‘Like Freud and Adorno, Beckett knew that the sober, bleak-eyed realist serves the cause of human emancipation more faithfully than the bright-eyed utopians’. So: I wish you a happy and in that politically chastened sense hopeful 70th birthday, Terry.

Monday, 18 February 2013

What is to be Done?

It was certainly a fine idea of Ruth Levitas’s to convene a Society meeting about Morris’s political lectures, and the twenty or so people who turned up on Saturday to this discussion enjoyed into the bargain a splendid rendition by Rob Hunter of the ‘Death Song’ that Morris wrote for Alfred Linnell, who was killed by police on Bloody Sunday in November 1887. That reminder of the violence that ruling classes are always prepared to unleash when seriously challenged served as a sombre backdrop to Ruth’s 12-page handout of key passages from Morris’s lectures, which ranged from the breathtakingly utopian to the hard-headedly pragmatic – his 1896 insistence that we ‘organize a real definite Socialist party’ being both at once, I suppose.

Without organisation, you don’t make much headway against a still powerful capitalism, as the Occupy movement sadly demonstrated to us. But are there any real signs of an effective Party emerging to the left of Labour in the British political spectrum? I used to feel that the Green Party might be that, but I don’t now believe it has an analysis adequate to the global economic crisis we’ve faced since 2008. The Respect Party successfully got George Galloway returned to Parliament in March 2012 and he is an important, if controversial, voice for the Left. But Respect’s aim is to occupy the space of the Labour Party before it became New Labour under Tony Blair, i.e. to be a social-democratic party aiming to curb or humanise capitalism, whereas what we want (just as Morris did in 1896) is a real party of the socialist Left aiming to replace it.

The two successor organisations to the original British Communist Party don’t seem to be making much headway, though it is certainly my own personal hope that communism is now a political term we could start using again. On the Trotsykist Left, the Socialist Workers Party is in crisis, as internal difficulties over its handling of a rape allegation have spiralled into a general challenge to its version of Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism’; let’s hope that the wider membership can overcome the sclerotic Central Committee on this issue and renew the SWP’s energies. As for the independent or libertarian Left, it looks longingly at the Syriza coalition in Greece as a possible model for a new start (see Hilary Wainright’s article in Red Pepper). So our Morrisian utopian values, now as in 1896, lack a plausible political embodiment, though we can be sure that the capitalist ‘age of austerity’ will generate new forms of class consciousness that will eventually find a vehicle of their own.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Harold Bloom's Last Poems

In his days as an important literary theorist in the 1970s, Yale critic Harold Bloom showed no discernable interest in William Morris. In that decade he elaborated a complex psychoanalytical account of the ‘anxiety of influence’ between poets in the Romantic tradition. If you were thinking through the relations between Shelley and Wordsworth in Bloomian terms, you would need a whole arcane terminology of clinamen, tessera, kenosis, askesis and apophrades at your disposal. Bloomianism in those days was a strange but exhilarating theoretical system.

More recently, however, Bloom has abandoned literary theory to become one of the crustiest conservative critics around, cantankerously devoted to ‘the western canon’; and as he has done so, oddly enough, his interest in Morris appears to have grown. In The Anatomy of Influence (2011) he remarks that ‘Sigurd the Volsung, the marvellous verse epic of William Morris, has few readers that I have met, but I go back to it every year or so’ (p.173); and in his intriguing anthology Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems (2010) he represents Morris by the last page or two of Sigurd, in which Gudrun kills Atli and then commits suicide.

A ‘last poem’ for Bloom is either one that definitively sums up the overall impulses of a poetic career or one which is literally the last text that particular poet wrote. I’m not convinced that his chosen pages from Sigurd work as the former, and if we want the latter we will have to turn to the poem ‘She and He’, which Morris wrote in early January 1896 and immediately posted to Georgiana Burne-Jones. That strange, intense work, with its bitter ‘farewell to hope’ in the last line, gives little sense of consolation or completeness as its author entered the final year of his life.