Monday, 22 September 2014

A Bollocking for Beowulf

For William Morris’s translation of Beowulf, that is, not the Anglo-Saxon epic itself, which I am ancient enough to have had to learn to read in the original Old English on my undergraduate English Literature course at Bristol University in 1975-6. Morris’s translation has always had a very lukewarm press, despite one or two bold attempts at critical redemption (by Robert Boenig, for example). But its most contemptuous dismissal ever may well be that of Kevin Jackson in his Invisible Forms: A Guide to Literary Curiosities (1999). For he there refers witheringly to ‘Morris’s dismal version of Beowulf, written in collaboration with [F.J.] Furnivall’s junior colleague A.J. Wyatt. The glossary for Morris’s Beowulf gives some indication of what a Teutonized form of twentieth-century English might have sounded like: in the hands of Wyatt and Morris, “disregard” became forheed, “mansion” or “dwelling-place” became wickstead, “curiosity” became witlust, “brave” became moody, and “poured out” became skinked‘ (p.105). And as for F.J. Furnivall’s own project of Teutonising the English language, that, Jackson neatly remarks, ‘was largely forheeded’. Are there, I wonder, any still nastier treatments of Morris’s version of Beowulf lurking out there?

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Go for it, Scotland!

‘We discourage centralisation all we can’ declares old Hammond in News from Nowhere (ch.X), a statement which we may take as giving his positive endorsement to the current Scottish independence campaign. As the Westminster, banking and business establishments go into panic mode in the final days before the referendum, what is at stake in all the turmoil?

Of course, Scotland will not get socialism if it votes ‘yes’ next Thursday, but it will think at least some new political thoughts (booting UK nuclear weapons out of the country, for one). And new thought is ultimately what this campaign has been all about. Live without ideas, the neo-liberal establishment tells us all; just get on with your shopping, for docile consumerism is life. Never mind grotesque and growing levels of inequality, the accelerating trashing of nature all around you, or US and NATO military adventurism across the globe – just go to Sainsburys or Topshop and get on with it.

So we must hope that Scotland holds its courage and lives up to the recent YouGov poll that gave a one per cent lead for the independence campaign. If it does so, it will have shown us what life lived in the light of an Idea looks like, even if, as I concede, this is not a socialist Idea as such. And that example will mobilise others, stirring us from consumerist slumbers into becoming militants of utopian Ideas of other kinds. So, invoking the memory of my beloved Auntie Edna from Aberdeen (pictured below, circa 1985) as well as Morris’s old Hammond, I heartily say: go for it, Scotland.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Objects in Utopia

My favourite literary theorist Roland Barthes once remarked that ‘Notre littérature a mis très longtemps à découvrir l'objet; il faut attendre Balzac pour que le roman ne soit plus seulement l'espace de purs rapports humains, mais aussi de matières et d'usages appelés à jouer leur partie dans l'histoire des passions : Grandet eût-il pu être avare (littérairement parlant), sans ses bouts de chandelles, ses morceaux de sucre et son crucifix d'or?’ Morris’s News from Nowhere might equally well be considered the moment when utopia discovered the object, when those rather colourless, merely generic utopian objects from Thomas More to Edward Bellamy give way to the intensely rendered object-world of Morris’s Thames valley: Dick Hammond’s damascened belt buckle, William Guest’s elaborately crafted pipe in the Piccadilly booth, and so on.

There are no doubt major benefits for utopia in this discovery of the object. The more sensuously embodied the abstract schema of your good society is, the more persuasive it and its values will appear to the reader. But there are paradoxical dangers here too. For if objects, landscape and even characters are indeed welcomely concretised and individualised in this fashion, there opens the possibility that they will acquire a thematic momentum and narrative force of their own, which may lead in directions that stray away from, or even directly challenge, the official thematic values that your utopia was trying to propound.

An ‘incarnational’ aesthetics thus proves to be a mixed blessing. It’s now hard to imagine a satisfying (or even readable) utopia without it, but it may also lead us to a view of the genre that veers close to the Marxist literary theory of Pierre Macherey: that the very fleshing out of the author’s ideological intentions – in this case, the abstract schema of a good society - in literary form may itself problematise those intentions, may revealingly expose their gaps, limits and silences. Whether or not Macherey's claim is true of literature as a whole, it certainly seems to capture the constitutive joy and dilemma of utopia as a genre, strung unsettlingly between politics (abstract) and literature (concrete) as it has been from More onwards.