Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Morris: News from Nowhere

Also The Wood Beyond the World: the Pre-Raphaelite prose irks, but there are some passages that please: "What shall I swear by? she said. Quoth he, thou shalt swear by my body; & therewith he thrust himself close up against her; but she drew her hand from his, & laid it on his breast, and said: I swear by thy body. He smiled on her licorously, and took her by the shoulders, and kissed her face many times, & then stood aloof from her, and said: Now have I had hansel: but tell me, when shall I come to thee?" Swear by my body?

News from Nowhere begins, like Rip Van Winkle, Phantastes, Looking Backward, and When the Sleeper Wakes, with a sleeping anomaly: it is neatly formulated as a conjunction of the usual and unusual, rhetorically appealing to us (as the "good sleepers") such that this could happen to anyone: "In this mood he tumbled into bed, and fell asleep after his wont, in two minutes' time; but (contrary to his wont) woke up again not long after in that curiously wide-awake condition which sometimes surprises even good sleepers; a condition under which we feel all our wits preternaturally sharpened, while all the miserable muddles we have ever got into , all the disgraces and losses of our lives, will insist on thrusting themselves forward for the consideration of those sharpened wits." A model insomniac, though he even slept.

Morris's socialism is evident from the first encounter, with the waterman: "And he laughed loud and merrily, as if the idea of being paid for his work was a very funny joke." The author apparently criticized the hierarchy of Bellamy's utopia, so this cameraderie (the sculler becomes the narrator William Guest's cicerone) has a democratic significance. The river, the Runnymede and the Thames, represent his journey. Morris's imagination goes backward and forward, but avoids his own present, as if it were too painful to speak of.

Invention married to desire is the bedrock of the utopia. Examples. The females "were clothed like women, not upholstered like arm-chairs, as most women of our time are." They call each other "neighbour," as in the text of the golden rule. Poor means poorly, as in sick: poverty is such an alien concept that the word has lost any other meaning. Or simply: "Fancy people not liking to work!--it's too ridiculous." (To the mind that writes this sentence, Marx no doubt has a compelling teleology.) No prisons. Divorce is as easy as walking out of the house, and does not exist as such, because it is an issue of property, which also does not exist. Consciences are free due to moral anarchy: "there is no code of public opinion which takes the place of such courts, and which might be as tyrannical and unreasonable as they were." Cities have vanished, and with them slums. London the modern Babylon has been reduced to the old Babylon. Colonialism is only ever benevolent, and answers Malthusian fears: "Of course, also, we have helped to opulate other countries--where we were wanted and were called for." No politics: "pure Communism." Atopian. No surpluses. No books, or no need for them: "dreary introspective nonsense." Competition-free. They no longer "sympathise with the seasons." Instead a perpetual summer, and a new empathy. After the Great Change comes "the second childhood of the world."

Morris's social perspective is curious. The elder Hammond says: "How could we have them [criminal classes],...since there is no rich class to breed enemies against the state by means of the injustice of the state?" It must be said that dramatically the novel slows to a snail's crawl once this conversation starts, and becomes a dialogue-treatise on political philosophy, except a naive because a fantastic one. Our boredom perhaps hints at the boredom such a utopia would breed. Morris is not interested in aesthetics or storytelling: the drama is unambiguously a prop for the ideology and ideal society. But enough attention is put into it that it almost works. As when Guest reveals his origins at last and the spritely Ellen says: "How well we get on now you are no longer on your guard against me!"

Production of wares is too much the focus: Morris cannot see beyond that horizon toward the post-industrial service economy, for Hammond fears that too many work-lovers will soon be unemployed. O disaster! There is, though, something like a prophecy of the dynamic of the February revolution: "After that massacre, however, it was at all times doubtful if the regular soldiers would fire upon an unarmed or half-armed crowd."

The pearl in Morris's crown is that these are a both happy and self-conscious people. Richard Hammond, his guide, becomes flustered at himself when distempered by Guest's incomprehension of prisons. Later Guest is led by a girl whose "blushes came from happiness, not anger; as, indeed, love is far more self-conscious than wrath." Also good is Clara's speech on books: "As for your books, they were well enough for times when intelligent people had but little else in which they could take pleasure, and when they must needs supplement the sordid miseries of their own lives with imaginations of the lives of other people. But I say flatly that in spite of all their cleverness and vigour, and capacity for story-telling, there is something loathsome about them." Relatedly: "Indeed, in those days it was thought poetic and imaginative to look upon life as a thing to be borne, rather than enjoyed." Romanticism is anathema to utopia.

Guest is cast back because he is not yet ready for that happiness; for a "life of repose amidst of energy; of work which is pleasure and pleasure which is work." What would twist the narrative interestingly would be if Guest brought his sinful nineteenth-century nature with him, and robbed from compulsion; and if this were a contagion that spread and wrecked the utopia of Hammersmith. Back, "I lay in my bed in my house at dingy Hammersmith thinking about it all; and trying to consider if I was overwhelmed with despair at finding I had been dreaming a dream; and strange to say, I found that I was not so despairing. Or indeed was it a dream?" Or a vision of a true future: the choice, Morris tells us, is ours. An uninteresting end, because purposefully engaged. The proletariat has perhaps, the novel muses, drunk the hemlock of sadness and thereby killed its inner hope: Ellen, symbol of the new youthful age and hope thereof, warns Guest, "you belong so entirely to the unhappiness of the past that our happiness even would weary you." Morris hints that like Marxist courage, a perfect happiness has become and now would be too much for us to bear. It ends with the open plea: "Yes, surely! and if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream."

Compare the very different dystopian far-future in Wells's Time Machine (1898) where the world is divided between the Morlocks (white and ape-like; subterranean; nocturnal; descendants of the laboring class) and the Eloi (exquisite, even ethereal; terranean; diurnal; descendants of the capitalists). Morlocks feast on the Eloi. That novella, like News from Nowhere, leaves the reader with a choice. "Will he ever return?"--the Time Traveller, that is? The future, has it killed him or blessed him with new life, in a different epoch than he at first found?

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