Sunday, 30 November 2014

Jeremy Deller's Colossus

I’m not so sure about Jeremy Deller’s painting of a giant William Morris hurling Roman Abramovich’s yacht Luna to the bottom of the ocean, grand ebullient image though it most certainly is. Firstly, the painting plays into a familiar stereotype of Morris’s eccentric rages and tantrums, as when ‘at Red Lion Square he hurled a fifteenth-century folio, which in ordinary circumstances he would hardly have allowed any one but himself to touch, at the head of an offending workman. It missed the workman and drove a panel out of the workshop door’ (Mackail, I, 215). Deller’s image of Morris manhandling the Abramovich yacht thus risks reducing politics to personality, or even pathology (Shaw believed that Morris at such moments suffered from a form of epilepsy).

Secondly, if we do interpret the painting politically, it strikes me as dramatising an individualist-anarchist gesture, a terroristic ‘propaganda by deed’ of the kind against which Morris himself polemicised vigorously in the 1880s and 90s, recommending in its place the slow, patient, frustrating but essential work of building up a collective socialist movement (though to articulate that is perhaps more a task for narrative than image). Thirdly, though I too certainly want to take Abramovich’s yacht out of private super-rich ownership, I don’t want to send it plunging to the bottom of the sea, even in fantasy, but rather to turn it into a floating oceanographic research institute, staffed with unemployed youngsters from east London investigating the effects of global warming upon marine life - roughly on the model of the ship Ganesh in Kim Stanley Robinson’s ecotopia Pacific Edge.

These are just preliminary personal responses, and perhaps in time to come I’ll warm more to Deller’s Morris-as-colossus. For it is certainly a powerful image and we ought therefore to be having a lively debate about its political meanings and impact. So let me here urge the editor of the Morris Society journal, Patrick O’Sullivan, to commission a range of brief responses to the Deller painting - 2000 words each, say - for the next issue, so that our necessary dialogue can begin.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Adjectives for Utopia

The British critic F.R. Leavis used to denounce the ‘adjectival insistence’ of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, by which he meant the way in which Conrad would relentlessly bang on about ‘implacable forces’, ‘inscrutable intentions’ and ‘inconceivable mysteries’ to heighten the enigma of Marlow’s quest for Kurtz in the African jungle. There can hardly be any doubt that Morris is guilty of such insistence in News from Nowhere, though with a very different set of epithets from Conrad’s own.

Everything in Morris’s utopian Thames valley, as John Helmer argued in a fine article on ‘The Prettiness of Utopia’ in 1979, is ‘touched by the same adjectives – pretty, nice, quaint, dainty, handsome and gay’ (p.5); and I’ve been particularly struck by the recurrence of the word ‘little’ in my recent readings of News from Nowhere: little cottage, little river, little hill – the list is endless! I think there is no doubt that, cumulatively, such adjectives have a diminishing effect on the utopian world, reducing it almost to the status of a dolls’ house. How much of the hostile critique of Nowhere as too pastoral and placid is actually the incremental effect in the reader of this relentless patterning of Morrisian adjectives?

Leavis occasionally recommended drastic surgery for texts which displeased him, famously wanting to throw out the Daniel Deronda material from George Eliot’s great novel of that title to produce a much slimmer new work called Gwendolen Harleth. Could we do something similar with Morris’s utopia? How about producing an edition from which all the belittling adjectives – pretty, dainty, quaint and especially little itself – had been entirely banished? Would the utopian world of Nowhere then feel more substantive and challenging? I suspect so; but is there is a publisher bold enough out there to give it a go?