Tuesday, 17 January 2017

I call myself a Communist: Alain Badiou at 80

Why should William Morris enthusiasts concern themselves with the work of French philosopher Alain Badiou, who is eighty years old today?  Well, with his more technical philosophical work, such as his magnum opus Being and Event (1988), perhaps they needn’t and shouldn’t; it is the kind of foundational and systematic project that we thought the Derridean moment of French philosophy had done away with for good, and it can be forbiddingly mathematical too into the bargain (yet let us recall that Morris put a lover of mathematics, Bob the weaver, into the early chapters of News from Nowhere).

But with Badiou’s political thinking (which is not, after all, in the end divorced from his philosophy), Morrisians in my view definitely should take a lively interest.  For he is the major advocate in our time of what he terms the ‘communist hypothesis’, and if you regard Morris, at his strongest, as a communist thinker – ‘I call myself a Communist, and have no wish to qualify that word by joining any other to it’, he declared in May 1889 – then there is a nominal continuity here which may be worth exploring.  Moreover, since Badiou calls for a post-Leninist, non-party communism (whatever this might mean), then there may be more specific parallels with Morris’s own, pre-Leninist, utopian communist thinking that should be looked at.   The attempt to revive communist thinking today, in people like Badiou and Slavoj Žižek , may offer an opportunity for making Morris’s work current and suggestive in new ways.

So ‘joyeaux annniversaire’ to Alain Badiou – may he have many more years of pathbreaking thought and active militancy!  And if, in the age of Donald Trump, we seem further than ever from the reinvention of communism as a utopian social goal, then we shall need all the intellectual resources that we can draw on to that end, past and present.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Birds of Winter

I’ve always liked that early sentence in Mackail’s Morris biography which reads: ‘The redwings and fieldfares which they [Morris and his brothers] shot on winter holidays they were allowed to roast for supper’.  Fiona MacCarthy reproduces it almost exactly: ‘the boys with their shotguns would kill redwings, fieldfares, rabbits.  They were then allowed to roast the birds for supper’ (p.8).  It isn’t so much the shooting and eating which excites me here, as the ornithological precision: the overly familiar generic category of ‘thrush’ gets finetuned down into these much more interesting sub-categories.

These birds continued to fascinate Morris in his adult years.  One of the Wanderers in the first volume of The Earthly Paradise muses that ‘Five years had passed since the grey fieldfare sung/To me a dreaming youth laid neath the thorn’.  In the entry for July 29 in his 1871 Iceland Journal Morris writes of ‘a very good birch-wood, among which it is pleasant to see the thrushes (or redwings?) flitting about’.  In a letter from Kelmscott of October 1872 he notes that ‘The fieldfares, which are a winter bird and come from Norway, are chattering all about the berry trees now’.  And it has been suggested that the thrushes which inspired the famous ‘Strawberry Thief’ design of 1883 may themselves have been fieldfares.
It is certain, at any rate, that Morris’s interest in fieldfares has inspired some contemporary artists.  Jane Kendall has done a fieldfare linocut which is loosely based on the Strawberry Thief design; it is 15cm square, and handprinted in white ink on handmade lokta paper.  Jane Tomlinson’s ‘Berry Seeker’ painting is, in its slightly unsettling way, still more evocative of this extraordinary winter bird.  Images of both follow this post.  If only Morris had worked a fieldfare or redwing or two into his fine early poem ‘Winter Weather’ to enhance its already impressive seasonal local colour!

Here is the Jane Kendall image: 

And here the Jane Tomlinson: