William Morris’ Nonsense from Nowhere

One of C.S. Lewis’ great literary conversation partners was William Morris. Lewis wrote literary criticism about him beginning in his first collection of essays (Rehabilitations, 1939, now in Selected Literary Essays). In that early literary essay, delivered first to the Martlet Society in Nov 1937,  his piece on William Morris was the one “into which I had put most of my heart, the one I really cared about and in which I discharged a keen enthusiasm” (“Fern Seeds and Elephants”; see also “On Criticism”).

This critical love of Morris began early. Before the age of 16, Lewis was able to make the grand statement that Malory was the master and Morris the disciple (see a letter to Arthur Greeves, 17 Nov 1914). Lewis saw Morris as one of the great mythopoeic writers of his age. We can see Morris’ influence on Lewis as early as his first attempt at writing an adventure story, his teenage “Quest of Bleheris,” which Lewis sent weekly to his best friend in 1916. Lewis praised “the cool water-colour effects” and “northern bareness” of Morris (“The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version”), and mentions him dozens of times in his letters.

Lewis’ teenage trinity of “M” writers—Malory, Morris, and MacDonald—was made complete when Lewis providentially stumbled upon Phantastes in March of 1916. Together, these three writers—filled in by Milton and some non-M writers like Dante, Swift, and Spenser—provided an imaginative landscape for his own worldview-infused fiction. In the end, as Lewis tumbled toward faith, Morris and MacDonald were the question and answer, respectively, on the question death and spirituality.

Lewis described William Morris this way in his teens: “besides being a poet [Morris] was a wall paper designer, a potter, a hand loom weaver and everything else you can think of” (letter to his father, 25 May 1915). It was the romances that most stuck with Lewis in the end—adventure stories of a high mythical air and significantly influenced by the late middle ages and its courtly love traditions. The Well at the World’s End is a brilliant example of that species, and a book worth picking up.

Because of the influence of Morris on Lewis (and on some of the other Inklings)—and, honestly, because Audible sent me a note saying I’d love this book—I downloaded News from Nowhere, his 1889 utopian fantasy. With a strong reader in Barnaby Edwards and a strong imprint upon C.S. Lewis and so many others, I looked forward to reading one of William Morris’ most famous works.

Honestly? This was a painful book to read. In a couple of weeks I will talk about how I avoid writing bad reviews, but I will break that rule today. This was a very poor book, and bad on a number of levels.

First, the book does not work as a story. I know that it is a philosophical novel, and that it is there not merely for entertainment but to treat a topic. I love philosophical fiction. The first rule of message-stories is that they should be great stories (unless they are satire, like Voltaire’s Candide, which is energized by its humour and wit). Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Mary Shelley, Umberto Eco, C.S. Lewis, Muriel Barbery, G.K. Chesterton, Ursula K. LeGuin, Søren Kierkegaard, Oscar Wilde, Margaret Atwood, and George Orwell all knew how to pique the intellect without losing the plot. While philosophical novels don’t always sit at the top of our fiction lists, notice that their authors often do.

William Morris fails utterly in crafting a narrative that is worth reading on its own. It ranks with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Gerry Jenkins for its complete inability to tell a compelling story that is valuable as simply a story (though I did like some of the characters in each of these books). All of these moralistic tales give in to the expository demonNews from Nowhere is a blunt instrument in the hands of an intellectual demagogue. All of its dialogue has the tang of a sermon preached to trapped school children by a pedant who forgot to wind his watch.

This is not a compelling tale, and that is a great sin.

Second, Morris’ utopia is in many ways a nightmare. “Utopia” is a made-up word, coined by Sir Thomas More. Students are typically told that it comes from two Greek words: οὐ (“no”) and τόπος (“place”)—hence the title, News from Nowhere. I’ve never been convinced that this is the whole story, as the “u” in “utopia” might have come from Greek εὖ (“good”): “good place” is how many of us would translate “utopia,” and our pronunciation makes better sense this way. As an ambiguous pun, though, it works well in capturing the future (or other-worldly) land of plenty, hope, equality, and goodness.

Yet, does that place exist? I’m not sure that Thomas More was really blueprinting a great world or new Atlantis, but giving us an other-place to act as a mirror to our own place in the late 19th century. Ideological utopias often have a sour taste to those on the outside. I feel almost as good about Morris’ future socialist England as I do about the Citadel in The Hunger Games or Ayn Rand’s mountain retreat, where the rich sit and watch America burn. Though not as extreme, I got a sour taste from Morris’s future England because that world was made for me: the educated, middle class, nature- and architecture-loving bookish white male who enjoys getting his hands dirty in “real” work when time with texts become too much. I found Morris’ future startling because it sealed this certain image of white-male as king of the world as the ideal future inhabitant of Nowhere England.

Worse than a world where men and women work together in the struggle toward equality, Morris keeps women contentedly in their domestic spaces–sealed in with wax for all future political life.

That William Morris has no understanding at all of economics or sociology may be part of this. Morris constructs an idyllic future where people are scattered over the globe with large yards and grand (old-fashioned) houses, all requiring little maintenance in an ecosystem entirely open to this kind of human living. What he doesn’t mention (because he is clueless) is that his England must have cleaned out tens of millions of people with a reduction of human life greater than the two great wars that followed his book.

On top of this, his medievalesque utopian socialist society has been achieved with little loss of blood–and achieved equally throughout the world. Trusting a deal struck following riots in London would work for everyone in the entire world, people of all races, ideologies, religions, cultures, languages, dreams, and ambitions just voluntarily give up all belongings, weapons, power, social systems, and religion with a nostalgic shrug, then put their hands to the work of future building.

Wow. If this isn’t ignorance, then it is a frightening kind of knowledge in Morris. Lewis called it:

“The ‘kindreds’, ‘houses’, or ‘little lands’ of the romances are the points where Morris’s career as a socialist touches his career as a poet. For Morris–let there be no mistake about it–is in one sense as good a ‘totalitarian’ as ever came out of Moscow or Berlin…” (“William Morris” in Selected Literary Essays, 227).

Just read the passages where male and female roles are set in concrete in the future utopia: women are largely in place for the aesthetic pleasure of men, beautiful and entertaining (though with a striking deal of freedom and cultural equality), they are ultimately angels in the house for all ages. Or consider the way that children are simply a social experiment and what their parents do to them is inconsequential. And Morris was a pretty generous and progressive fellow; imagine if one of his misogynistic fellow socialist wrote this book.

News from Nowhere should remind us of the reality that we reflect the values of our times and places. Our own conservativism or progressivism (or anti- versions of these) is bound to be as shocking to a future generation as Morris’ “dream” for the future was to me.

Third, in reading News from Nowhere, I got the distinct sense that he had never met a live human being. William Morris reduces all bad things—from sin and violence, to the sluggishness of human invention, to unhappiness and even disease—to a single factor: the slavery of the contemporary socio-economic system which leverages power against the weak and reduces everyone (including its oppressors) to being bricks in a liberal democratic prison wall. In the end, crime is “a mere spasmodic disease, which requires no body of criminal law to deal with it.”

You can see the full quotation below that pulls this idea out in chapter 12. Morris even tests the case by speaking of a man who picked up an axe and murdered a sexual competitor in a rage. The community question is not one of discipline or education or whether the man has lost the right to live a healthy life while he has taken the life of another. Instead, their chief concern is how they might make the axe-murderer not feel too down. It is, after all, really depressing to kill a young person with his whole life before him.

A caution. Most of those who are reading this will come from partly socialist countries. Unlike dictatorships, communist countries, or fully socialistic societies, we balance a partially-open market with shared responsibility for particular social institutions. Most of us live in societies that share collectively most of the cost of roads, the military, childhood education, and some social safety net for the destitute or the disabled. The United States is outside of other G8 nations in its struggle to share basic health care, but offsets that with huge investments in military, farming subsidies, prisons, and (in past years) science and innovation. There is a lot of anxiety about how the Trump administration will change that balance of open-market socialism, but historically countries like the U.K., Germany, France, Japan, Canada, and especially the U.S. have created spaces of scientific ingenuity, social creativity, and a tempered space of equality.

It is important for people in societies like ours to read books like Atlas Shrugged and News from Nowhere for two reasons. First, they can inspire a moral disgust that will hopefully generate beautiful actions on our part. Second, the silliness of their philosophies are important cautions as we navigate between full socialism or complete libertarianism.

For I reject both socialist and libertarian views for exactly the same reason: I know my own heart. I asked before whether Morris had ever met a human, but has he ever even looked at his own heart? Does his heart, like mine, not contain a queer combination of ambition and timidity? sloth and an addiction to work? both violence and goodness that stirs my passions? I reject Ayn Rand on the right and William Morris on the left because both of their systems forget the critical truth of human nature—perhaps Christianity’s only scientifically verifiable creed—that people never meet their own standard of morality, let alone the hopes they have for the human community.

Historically, we have called this original sin or the fall or, in Paul’s terms, “the flesh.” But it amounts to the same: despite their significant benefits and important corrections to the fads of one generation or another–and I have sympathy with parts of each–libertarianism sacrifices the whole to the power of the few and socialism decimates the individual for the sake of the whole.

On the side of Morris’ socialism, all we have to do is look at the effect of welfare in our own world. For every success story where welfare has stabilized the desperate poverty of a family and lifted the next generation to amazing things, there is the story of a person who has disappeared into his welfare cheque, losing himself totally to cable TV, smoking cigarettes in a cheap, unventilated apartment until his lungs rot out of his chest and the yellow streaks of nicotine drip from the wall. Socialism can never account for the fact that removing the hungry nature of our work—that we are driven to good work and bad by the tares in our wheat—will always remove human dignity for some.

This is quite apart from the failed socialist experiments of the 20th century, which we have the luxury of knowing about though Morris cannot know. I remember visiting Venezuela in the late 90s and seeing its poverty. 20 years on and things are far worse. It isn’t often that we can use the word “decimate” in its proper sense when referring to an economy. It is a war zone, which is the ultimate reality of any pure socialist state (though doubtless families and communes can run on those terms). A true socialist state is only ever established or maintained by force, and we know of no national-level experiment where the few in comfort did not end up in control of the many back-bent poor.

The 21st century will teach us new things. Sometimes I go back and think about Chesterton’s Christian distributism—which got a nod in Screwtape’s toast. And the populism of the left and right in the Western hemisphere is adding a new dimension to how we engage in politics. But News from Nowhere, even in its own day, suffered from a stunning inability to know the heart of man–let alone the heart of humanity.

Besides its use as a cautionary tale, there were three redeeming features in the book. First, if you can excuse archaism where they don’t belong, he has a good way with words. Second, I thought the ending was quite nicely done. Third, it was mercifully short—just 200 or so pages in a cheap paperback.

Selection from News from Nowhere, chapter 12

“Well,” said I, “that is understood, and I agree with it; but how about crimes of violence? would not their occurrence (and you admit that they occur) make criminal law necessary?”

Said he: “In your sense of the word, we have no criminal law either. Let us look at the matter closer, and see whence crimes of violence spring. By far the greater part of these in past days were the result of the laws of private property, which forbade the satisfaction of their natural desires to all but a privileged few, and of the general visible coercion which came of those laws. All that cause of violent crime is gone. Again, many violent acts came from the artificial perversion of the sexual passions, which caused overweening jealousy and the like miseries. Now, when you look carefully into these, you will find that what lay at the bottom of them was mostly the idea (a law-made idea) of the woman being the property of the man, whether he were husband, father, brother, or what not. That idea has of course vanished with private property, as well as certain follies about the ‘ruin’ of women for following their natural desires in an illegal way, which of course was a convention caused by the laws of private property.

“Another cognate cause of crimes of violence was the family tyranny, which was the subject of so many novels and stories of the past, and which once more was the result of private property. Of course that is all ended, since families are held together by no bond of coercion, legal or social, but by mutual liking and affection, and everybody is free to come or go as he or she pleases. Furthermore, our standards of honour and public estimation are very different from the old ones; success in besting our neighbours is a road to renown now closed, let us hope for ever. Each man is free to exercise his special faculty to the utmost, and every one encourages him in so doing. So that we have got rid of the scowling envy, coupled by the poets with hatred, and surely with good reason; heaps of unhappiness and ill-blood were caused by it, which with irritable and passionate men—i.e., energetic and active men—often led to violence.”

I laughed, and said: “So that you now withdraw your admission, and say that there is no violence amongst you?”

“No,” said he, “I withdraw nothing; as I told you, such things will happen. Hot blood will err sometimes. A man may strike another, and the stricken strike back again, and the result be a homicide, to put it at the worst. But what then? Shall we the neighbours make it worse still? Shall we think so poorly of each other as to suppose that the slain man calls on us to revenge him, when we know that if he had been maimed, he would, when in cold blood and able to weigh all the circumstances, have forgiven his manner? Or will the death of the slayer bring the slain man to life again and cure the unhappiness his loss has caused?”

“Yes,” I said, “but consider, must not the safety of society be safeguarded by some punishment?”

“There, neighbour!” said the old man, with some exultation “You have hit the mark. That punishment of which men used to talk so wisely and act so foolishly, what was it but the expression of their fear? And they had need to fear, since they—i.e., the rulers of society—were dwelling like an armed band in a hostile country. But we who live amongst our friends need neither fear nor punish. Surely if we, in dread of an occasional rare homicide, an occasional rough blow, were solemnly and legally to commit homicide and violence, we could only be a society of ferocious cowards. Don’t you think so, neighbour?”

“Yes, I do, when I come to think of it from that side,” said I.

“Yet you must understand,” said the old man, “that when any violence is committed, we expect the transgressor to make any atonement possible to him, and he himself expects it. But again, think if the destruction or serious injury of a man momentarily overcome by wrath or folly can be any atonement to the commonwealth? Surely it can only be an additional injury to it.”

Said I: “But suppose the man has a habit of violence,—kills a man a year, for instance?”

“Such a thing is unknown,” said he. “In a society where there is no punishment to evade, no law to triumph over, remorse will certainly follow transgression.”

“And lesser outbreaks of violence,” said I, “how do you deal with them? for hitherto we have been talking of great tragedies, I suppose?”

Said Hammond: “If the ill-doer is not sick or mad (in which case he must be restrained till his sickness or madness is cured) it is clear that grief and humiliation must follow the ill-deed; and society in general will make that pretty clear to the ill-doer if he should chance to be dull to it; and again, some kind of atonement will follow,—at the least, an open acknowledgement of the grief and humiliation. Is it so hard to say, I ask your pardon, neighbour?—Well, sometimes it is hard—and let it be.”

“You think that enough?” said I.

“Yes,” said he, “and moreover it is all that we can do. If in addition we torture the man, we turn his grief into anger, and the humiliation he would otherwise feel for his wrong-doing is swallowed up by a hope of revenge for our wrong-doing to him. He has paid the legal penalty, and can ‘go and sin again’ with comfort. Shall we commit such a folly, then? Remember Jesus had got the legal penalty remitted before he said ‘Go and sin no more.’ Let alone that in a society of equals you will not find any one to play the part of torturer or jailer, though many to act as nurse or doctor.”

“So,” said I, “you consider crime a mere spasmodic disease, which requires no body of criminal law to deal with it?”

“Pretty much so,” said he; “and since, as I have told you, we are a healthy people generally, so we are not likely to be much troubled with this disease.”

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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8 Responses to William Morris’ Nonsense from Nowhere

  1. Steve says:

    I haven’t read News from Nowhere, but I have read The well at the world’s end. I haven’t read Phantastes, but I have read The Princess and Curdie. I’ve read Lilith three-quarters of the way through twice, and was too bored to go on. Yes, I know they inspired Lewis, but they inspired him to write stuff that was so much better.

    I think the same was true of Tolkien and Williams. Are they just attractive because they are our contemporaries? Will their work seem as dull to people a century from now as their inspirers (and later imitators) appear to me?

    Liked by 1 person

    • loritischler says:

      Good questions!! I feel the very same way about the books you mention.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Oh, oh, dear folk – do finish Lilith! (My second time through was thanks to Pete Williams and LibriVox.org – and convinced me its éven (much!) more worth re-reading/listening to than doing so only once! Fascinating to juxtapose with Lewis’s Great Divorce, where MacDonald is his dream-guide, too!)

        Like

  2. loritischler says:

    Very smart analysis! Perhaps a tad wordy…although it’s probably my attention span which is shrinking as I get older.
    And loved this: “All of these moralistic tales give in to the expository demon. News from Nowhere is a blunt instrument in the hands of an intellectual demagogue. All of its dialogue has the tang of a sermon preached to trapped school children by a pedant who forgot to wind his watch.” Lol!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. largrant says:

    William Morris is hard to read! Morris’ ideas are summarized in Leon Rosselson’s song “Bringing the News from Nowhere;” to me, it’s a beautiful, visionary song, sang by a socialist with a poet’s heart. Take a listen!

    Like

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Wow – this was very good! I haven’t read/listened to News from Nowhere, yet, but your excerpt makes me wonder if Huxley is deliberately answering it (among other things) in Brave New World. I have read and enjoyed Butler’s Rerewhon (read backwards, like the Mirror of Erised…) – thanks to a comment in one of Tolkien’s letters – and it would be interesting if you some day appended a little comparative note about it – and about E. Nesbit’s children’s-fiction Socialist future!

    Like

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