Keely's Reviews > News from Nowhere

News from Nowhere by William Morris
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
84023
's review
Sep 08, 11

bookshelves: utopia, uk-and-ireland, reviewed

I first knew of Morris as the greatest bookbinder of the modern age, a master of textile design who single-handedly rediscovered half a dozen dead arts. But he was also a fantasist, contemporary with Dunsany, and a political thinker.

My search among the many branching roots of Fantasy lead me to pick up this collection, but I must admit this is not what I had in mind by 'fantasy'. Here, Morris gives us a rather bland and didactic rundown of his perfect world, loosely structured around something less engaging than a story.

Morris' pessimism about the state of man lends him a desperation, a need for things to be different, to be better. He indulges this need, but he does not build upon it. We never learn how his world came about, how it overcame the pitfalls of human conflict, of ignorance, or fear.

There was a bloody revolution, this we know, brought on by the great inequality suffered by the squalid poor. This is not remarkable, as history will attest, but in every case, such revolutions have not resulted in a sudden utopia, but in a new power structure.

In Morris' world, a pleasant socialist anarchy arises from the revolution, and the only explanation for why is that 'human beings desire to be happy'. Certainly, they seem to, but that doesn't mean they know how to achieve happiness, or that they won't be sidelined by fear, ignorance, and internal conflicts.

Morris seems to sense the ephemeral state he has painted, where the problems of the world are solved by pure coincidence, and he often foreshadows that this ideal world is poised to fall at any moment, as well it might, since there is nothing to bolster or protect it.

Like the other Utopian Socialists of Victorian England, Morris wants to see a new world born, but doesn't seem to know how to bring it about. Like them, he is content to rely on the 'pure goodness of man' to do the work for him, and like them, his pleasant thoughts prove ineffective in the end.

After reading about Morris' many laudable achievements in various arts, I felt a need to study him, hoping I might find the personal philosophy which allows a man to explore so freely, and to remain undaunted by the vastness of his studies. I quickly found his secret: he was independently wealthy from a young age.

This allowed him to pursue with absolute freedom anything which interested him, including socialism and the 'plight of the poor', which was indeed a severe one in Victorian period. So he and his other well-off friends started a social club where they would hang about and talk about how to fix the world.

And this book sounds like what would come of the conversation of a bunch of wealthy people who were concerned about the poor and decided they wanted to fix things. There are a lot of noble sentiments, many platitudes, and a complete avoidance of man's darker side.

Morris assumes that if one destroyed all of the social structures (politics, justice, law, industry, business), then all people would naturally be nice to one another, which rather ignores the fact that we developed these systems to replace the violent, anarchic systems which preceded them.

Certainly, all of these structures are rife with corruption and inequality, but it is folly to scrap an entire plan just because it has drawbacks. Every plan has drawbacks, so the real challenge is to find the one that will be most effective despite its flaws, not reject anything that isn't perfect.

Also like other idealist thinkers of the Victorian, he seems to have a very rosy, idealized view of the Medieval Period. After all, it was the Victorians who invented the world of knights, princesses, chivalry, and honor that we not think of as the Middle Ages.

Now, Morris had slightly more knowledge of the period than some of his contemporaries, since he read Medieval manuscripts in order to recreate their craft techniques, but his social understanding seems to be more rudimentary, as he seems to think of it as a Golden Age when people were intelligent and pleasant, not as a period of violent, jostling warlords who were so childish and ignorant that they would buy matching silk shirts instead of armoring their troops.

Morris' Utopia is similar to the Medieval in that it seems to be a period following a Dark Age, where people are mostly simple and uneducated, where much of technology has fallen by the wayside, and people have enough to think about with feeding their families rather than casting their thoughts to higher things.

Overall, the pervasive happiness on which his world seems to run felt more to me like ignorant self-satisfaction rather than the enrichment of a lifetime of soul-searching. Perhaps Morris likes the idea of a world run by the motto 'ignorance is bliss', but I can hardly imagine that would turn out very well.

Another concept central to his world is the notion that work and art are the same thing, and that if people simply took pride in what they did, then they would be happy and all the work would always get done. I couldn't help but think that there would definitely still be some jobs that wouldn't get done, especially ones unpleasant enough that it would be hard to find the art in them, especially if they weren't recompensed.

Certainly, there have been some projects that operated because of a pride in work--namely the great cathedrals of Europe and the Egyptian pyramids, where people were given personal prestige and spiritual guarantees for working free or at a discounted rate, but Morris gives us no such social structure to elevate the status of truly unpleasant labors.

In the conclusion , Morris asks us to believe that this is a vision, not a dream, but that isn't true. This is not a revelation of a philosophy or worldview, not a glimpse of other possibilities, but a vague and ephemeral thing, built of elation and hope--and little else.

UPDATE:

The day after writing this review, I continued with my collection of Morris' writings, finding a lecture called 'The Hopes of Civilization' which more-or-less outlines all the problems I had with News From Nowhere. In the lecture he explains how his utopia could come about, why he idealized the Medieval period, what economic philosophies underpin ideas, and he even mentions manufacturing a pseudo-religious motivation for work.

So here were all my answers, all the failings of this book explained succinctly, passionately, concretely, and instructively, in a lecture. A lecture written five years before News From Nowhere. It is hard to describe the combination of frustration, anger, and confusion I felt as I saw him skillfully lay out what this book should have been, proving that he had all of the tools necessary to write an engrossing, insightful, well-supported work, but instead, and for unfathomable reasons, wrote something vague, repetitive, unsupported, and preachy.

I think if you took all the descriptions of how pretty women are in News From Nowhere (usually every other paragraph if the narrator is talking to a woman) and set them aside, the result would be longer than the entire lecture. I'm not sure what this means, but it gives me the same itchy, perturbed sensation I get when I see a luxury SUV parked across two handicap spaces.

I know other of his works have a more overtly fantastical bent, and I hope to get more out of them than I did from this.
7 likes · likeflag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read News from Nowhere.
sign in »

Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

dateDown_arrow    newest »

Miriam Morris really loved his work (his doctor wrote that he essentially worked himself to death). I don't think he understood that other people didn't enjoy working 14-hour days.


Keely Well, I know I've sometimes fallen into a kind of timeless hypnosis when making art, only to come out of my reverie ten hours later, but I'm not sure one can experience the same thing shoveling shit or providing customer service.


Miriam No, and you probably noticed he evaded the question of who was hauling the garbage.

There is a great photo of Morris in formal ware, top hat included, kneeling on the ground while working a hand loom.


Keely Haha, it's good to see that he writes his own bylines.


message 5: by CJ (new)

CJ It seems that Morris had that almost child like view of people that some wealthy philanthropists have; people are essentially good and if you just give them the opportunity to express their goodness, unfettered by the flawed and often corrupt systems society has imposed on them, everyone will be happy and everything will be wonderful.

I'm afraid I'm much more cynical about people in general and tend to agree with Andrew Vachss; ever since man first discovered how to make fire and gathered around it to enjoy its heat and light, there was someone who preferred the darkness.

It's fascinating to compare Morris' view on mankind with, say, Swift's.

You hit it on the head with the customer service/shoveling shit - there will always be jobs that no one wants to do no matter how happy and shiny all the people are.

Morris' outlook on life certainly speaks volumes about what effect being able to work in a career you love will do for you.

*Loved* the comment about the itchy feeling and SUVs!! Priceless!


Miriam He did think that people were basically good, although that was a pretty unusual view in the Victorian period -- the standard conception was that only social stricture and strict laws kept people from sinning as was their nature.


Keely CJ said: ". . . if you just give them the opportunity to express their goodness, unfettered by the flawed and often corrupt systems society has imposed on them, everyone will be happy and everything will be wonderful."

Yeah, and actually, to some degree, I also believe that. If you look at something like the decriminalization of drug use in Portugal, it does seem like it's effective to treat people with dignity and give them aid instead of punishment. But that requires a structured, systematic way in which we administer justice, even if it is mostly rehabilitation.

I never felt that Morris dealt with the fact that people tend to develop factions and then fight with one another obsessively over who is 'right'. Once one leader starts massing naive people, it can be easy for them to overwhelm everyone else, unless there is some system in place to prevent this.

And it often only takes one person taking advantage of things to ruin it for the rest of us. One person breaks the 'honor system' for food in the kitchen at work, and suddenly we can't afford the food any more. One person is caught watching movies on Hulu at work all day, and now no-one can listen to streaming radio while they mindlessly code.

Again, I just don't see a way to have a peaceful, happy society without a structured way to deal with transgressors, even if it isn't punitive.

But thanks for the comment, glad the review amused you.

Miriam said: ". . . the standard conception was that only social stricture and strict laws kept people from sinning as was their nature."

Yeah, it seems to be somewhere in between: most people want to be good, and they want to be successful, but that doesn't mean they are actually capable of being either, at least not with any regularity.


back to top