From Nowhere to The Wasteland: A look at how Wlliam Morris’ News from Nowhere relates to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland

Posted in academic, literary analysis, morris, T.S.Eliot with tags , , , , on January 30, 2009 by Megan

I have been looking at these two writers this week after I re-read Morris’ novel. I found they both harbour a strong desire for social change, and as I am researching the role of writing in facilitating social and political change I thought it might be a useful addition to my research blog.


United in their desolation

It seems to be nobody’s business to try to better things­­-isn’t mine you see, in spite of all my grumbling-but look, suppose people lived in little communities among gardens and green fields, so that you could be in the country in five minutes walk, and had few wants, almost no furniture for instance, and no servants, and studied the (difficult) arts of enjoying life, and finding out what they really wanted: then I think that one might hope civilisation had really begun. But as it is, the best thing one can wish for this country at least is, meseems, some great and tragic circumstances…’

Morris 1874

The Letters of William Morris to his Family and Friends, ed. P.Henderson, London, 1950 

This passage from a personal letter is, for me, the first clear sign that Morris’ novel, News from Nowhere, is not simply an exercise in whimsical Utopian fantasy as many have suggested. His clear willingness to accept the fact that society has passed the point of feasibly achieving the Utopian dream shows that he has recognised his own idealism and accepted it. He reacts with a nihilistic desire for destruction of the society he despairs of, just as Eliot depicts the mentality of mankind during the modern predicament to veer towards an apocalyptic mindset.

Divided in their reactions

Divided in their reactions

Very soon after writing this Morris felt obliged to recognise that it was his business to try to better things, and for the last twenty years of his life he poured his time, energy, and money into socialist work… ‘I have very little life now outside the movement…which is as it should be’’

James Redmond on William Morris, 1970


Whilst  it is clear that Morris experienced the same period of despair in the state of mankind as Eliot, it is at once clear that he reacted in an entirely different manner.  He bore out of this desolation a desire to change the fate of modern society, a need to drive for the ultimate in social reform: a society without the greed for monetary gain encouraged by Capitalism, a society in step with the natural world that thrived on achieving that true inner contentment that cannot be reached through materialistic possessions. This is in direct contrast to Eliot who chose to depict a narrative for man as failure, as striving without commitment and ultimately becoming unable to alter the descent of society into a modernity of degradation and moral impotence.



Suit the action to the word, the word to the action….

Posted in academic, direct action, literary analysis, literature with tags , , , , on January 21, 2009 by Megan
Walter Pater

Walter Pater

I was reading an essay for one of my University modules yesterday by Walter Pater, the Conclusion to Renaissance. In it he seems to be summing up the purpose and importance of art in relation to ‘real’ life experience.

‘Of this wisdom, the poetic pasion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.’

In these last lines I found myself all at once in agreement and opposition. Firstly, his declaration that art is able to heighten your experience of a moment is, I feel, accurate. In fact, it reminded me of the speech in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when he writes that the plays purpose is to hold a mirror up to nature, to reflect our reality so that we can better understand it and recognise our own strengths and flaws. However, I think that his admiration of art as  ‘art for art’s sake’ is less valid. Whilst art can of course be appreciated for it’s beauty, it is never simply for it’s own sake or for no reason that it is beautiful, or interesting or awe inspiring etc. It instills in us these feelings because of an underlying narrative, sometimes the context of it’s creation, the history of it’s artist/author, or the contrasts it depicts between it’s subject/author and the viewer/reader.

As both Pater and Shakespeare point out, art is capable of reflecting and intensifying reality, but I think perhaps my research leans more towards an argument that forms of art can create or inspire reality, that they can turn the mirror around and reflect upon nature that which has been created in art.

As I explored int his post: C.Day Lewis is one of the writers who has recognised the power of writing in inspiring change in politics and society. Although there has been much political writing published that is credited to creating a change it is nearly always academic, non-fictional material. Lewis points out that creative forms of writing such as poetry can also have this effect, and have the added bonus of reaching a different, and sometimes wider, audience. In this sense, I think that it is clear that one of the central aims of my thesis is to show that fictional writing can act as a catalyst for change in a social/political movement.

Seeing it on the page like that makes me realise that that is what I was really saying in my first ever blog post, the power of the word and that it has taken this exploration of other texts and themes to solidify that aim in my mind.

A leap of logic?

Posted in academic, literary analysis, literature with tags , , , on January 20, 2009 by Megan

somewhere, far below, the mythical Thesis waited.....

I have been thinking this week about where my research is going, and how I seem to keep getting stuck in an endless cycle of reading interesting novels/essays and getting excited about relating the literary concepts I see in them to my own primary text. Obviously this is an inportant part of research, and as Zoe and David pointed out in one of their lectures last term it is this ability to recognise and make connections that helps us to become better critical readers, however, I am also aware that it can only go so far, and that the next step does eventually need to be taken.

This flinging of yourself from the murky but enjoyable waters of secondary reading into the distilling pool of concise aims and editing is daunting, and some may say it takes a leap of faith. However, being the stubborn aetheist that I am I do not want to attach any unwanted religious romanticism to my research process, and am therefore opting for a leap of logic.

Over the next few weeks I hope to start pinning down the precise ideas I want to explore and somehow beginning to experiment with a formal structure for my thesis. Alongside beginning two new modules on my course and holding down one (soon to be two) jobs. Great. Happy January to me then. 😀

Down and Out with the Zapatistas

Posted in academic, literature, orwell, zapatistas with tags , , , , on January 6, 2009 by Megan


I finished reading Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell last night, and found it an intriguing read. Whilst I enjoyed the book for Orwell’s flowing prose and detailed descriptions of his experiences of poverty in the two cities, I also found that while reading I was noting how some of his observations on the lives of the lowest paid workers in Paris and tramps in London are reflected across numerous societies and movements today. In Chapter 22 Orwell discusses how we tend to justify laborious roles that echo slave labor with the assumption that they are necessary, that someone has to do it, and this is why people continue to carry out roles such as overworked, underpaid waiters, coal miners and sewage workers. What really struck me though was the paragraph following this, in which he questions the necessity of such menial tasks, and points out that usually they serve only to supply a luxury, a ‘small amount of convenience, which cannot possibly balance the suffering of the men and animals‘ involved. This recognition that people are enslaved in a societal position through an ingrained belief that it is their place, that someone has to do it so they might as well, can be seen across any society where greed and capitalism has reigned. A well known example would be the uprising of the workers during the hey day of Marxism, their indignation at being the producers of a luxury for others ( in this case often money for the factory owners) and yet receiving no part of the luxury themselves.

Whilst this might be a well known example, I don’t think it is the most accurate. I think that Orwell is putting the majority of the emphasis on, not the unfairness of such situations, but their lack of necessity. In other words, the real flaw is that these societal roles exist at all, not that people do not get paid enough to carry them out. This is a concept which is inherent to the Zapatistas in that they demand the right to live as they wish to, which is in a sustainable, autonomous fashion with an emphasis on working on and with the land and their natural surroundings as opposed to being confined to roles of production or servility within a consumerist, capitalist society.

Zapatistas show solidarity with Gaza

Posted in academic, gaza, palestine, zapatista with tags , , , on January 6, 2009 by Megan
Marcos speaks out in solidarity with Palestinians

Marcos speaks out in solidarity with Palestinians

Just want to note this morning that the movement I am studying in this research has spoken out against the violence of the Israeli army in the Gaza strip:

While the APPO Marches on the US Consulate in Oaxaca, Subcomandante Marcos Declares from Chiapas, “to the Zapatistas it looks like there’s a professional army murdering a defenseless population” in Palestine

The similarities between the treatment of the Zapatistas by the Mexican army and the recent force applied to Palestinians in Gaza by the Israeli army are clear. The fact that communities all over the globe are declaring solidarity with Palestine demonstrates both the importance of a strong global network and the innate human need for company and support in times of struggle. This idea of movements being globally connected, mirrored and intertwined with each other is reflected brilliantly in We Are Everywhere, edited by Notes From Nowhere. A quote early on in the book declares that:

the Zapatistas,

from behind their masks, are saying not “Do as we do”, but

rather, “We are you”.

Take a look……

Writing the revolution

Posted in academic, direct action, literary analysis, mexico, zapatista with tags , , , on January 5, 2009 by Megan


I haven’t posted for a little while over the holidays as I have been concentrating on my reading and widening the kinds of materials I have that relate to my primary text, hence my bedroom is now drowning under a mountain of books.

One of the most interesting books I have stumbled across in the University Library over these past few weeks was ‘Writing the Revolution: Cultural criticism from Left Review’. It’s a collection of essays edited by David Margolies and covers a wide range of literary criticism from poetry to surrealism to plays and art etc. All the essays are originally from Left Review and are therefore from a Marxist perspective. I approached the book hoping that it would contain some support for my opinion that writing is a powerful tool in radical politics/social movements.

Happily, I was in luck, and found some inspiring passages that renewed my confidence in my research and reflected some of the thoughts I have been having:

‘I know personally over a dozen young men who date their first interest in Marxism from the reading of this kind of poetry: it made them aware of a movement of feeling and action which before they had been blind to or had realised only as something academic, theoretical, unconnected with their own lives. I have had letters from many other intellectuals and not a few workers, both here and in America, which have made it quite clear that this revolutionary poetry has had a real earthquake effect on them- shaken up their ideas and altered the whole map of reality for them. It’s a long step, of course, from reading poetry to becoming an active revolutionary: but the poetry has in many cases been a first step.’

In this essay C.Day Lewis describes how poetry can act to inspire revolution in it’s readers. This is precisely the effect that I see in Marcos’ short stories, the ability to open the reader’s eyes with a blend of fiction, fact, opinion and poetry. As Lewis points out here, one of the most important abilities of this kind of writing is that it can break through the barriers of genre and bring a subject that may have previously been considered irrelevant or academic (in the case of my research this is the subject of societal reform and political upheaval) to an audience that are unlikely to be receptive to the dry facts of pamphlets or the serious composition of an official report.

What Lewis is saying is that poetry made Marxism accessible to a wider audience, just as I believe writers such as Marcos could make the struggle of the Zapatistas and their trans-formative values accessible to a much wider audience than they already have.It is the integration of the polemic into a fictional, poetic setting that makes the political/social message that much easier to comprehend.

Whilst this demonstrates that a literary text can successfully convey it’s polemic there is still the question of whether this is important enough to study at length. I clearly believe it is, as I conducted a similar vein of study for my undergraduate dissertation, and am still interested in it! If you are not so convinced, then this would be my justification.

Movements evrywhere are using the power of art, literature and poetry to convey important new ideas and inspire action

Movements evrywhere are using the power of art, literature and poetry to convey important new ideas and inspire action

I think it was Homi Bhabha who emphasised the importance of the efficacy of a text in one of his studies on critical and cultural theory, and he explained that when a text has the ability to change something, to inspire action in any way shape or form, then it is important that this potential is recognised. When I read this it felt to me like a call to action, a demand that those who have the opportunity to draw attention to texts should do so with the aim of realising their efficacy. For, when you think about it, if a text has the ability to connect to it’s reader and inspire in them a new feeling, thought or action then the text is performing at it’s best when it reaches as many readers as is possible. It is no good having an inspirational book or poem if it is only read by a specific class, sex, age  or race, what is needed is a text that can be accessed by a cross section of society. I feel that Marcos’ stories go someway to achieving this as they contain that balance of fact and fiction, alongside a talent for placing the reader inside the environment to truly connect. The book even manages to target a varied age range as several of the stories are suitable for children as well as adults.

After I had enjoyed and been inspired by his writing myself I thought of Homi Bhabha’s statement, and realised that it is no good to simply experience the ability of a text if you do not use your opportunities to aid it’s recognition. Just as i argued (in my dissertation) that we need to be open to popular fiction as a genre capable of cultural analysis, so I aim to argue with this research that we also need to be open to new literary styles and genres as legitimate parts of political and social movements.

Thoughts on The Wicker Man and The Zapatistas

Posted in academic, literary analysis, mexico, zapatista with tags , , on December 16, 2008 by Megan
Image of the sacrificial fire from the original 70s Wicker Man film

Image of the sacrificial fire from the original 70s Wicker Man film

I recently picked up a copy of The Wicker Man in a lovely secondhand bookstore during a trip to London. I had seen the film (the original) several times and was intruiged to see what the novel (written byt he script writer and director after the film) would have to offer that was different. One of the things that really came across in the novel more so than in the film was the assumptions that Howie made about a culture he knew nothing about. As he is confronted by behaviour he would not ususally experience in his own culture (ie public displays of sexual practices) he immediately assumes that this behaviour is somehow for his benefit, that the community behanes in this way to shock, offend or frighten him. It is clear to me a s a reader that these behaviours are simply part of the culture of the islanders, and would carry on whether he was there or not. This clash of assumptions could be displayed by the writers for a few reasons:

They are positioning Howie, as their central, heroic ‘colonial centre’ male figure in the position they feel he deserves: the centre of the narrative, so that all action is catalysed by himself. If this is so, then my reading into the islander’s behaviour as unrelated to Howie’s appearance was certainly not intended by the writers.


The writers are deliberately creating a contrast between Howie’s perception of himself and the reality of the islanders. By this I mean that by showing that Howie believes himself to be central to the actions of the people he is displaying the classic attitude of the colonial centre, one of assumed self importance, a presumption that they are the catalyst for evertyhing. At the same time, by allowing the reader to identify the islander’s behaviours as natural parts of their culture( this is done through the use of language with positive connotations and the drawing on human connection in descriptive scenes) the writers are encouraging the reader to become aware of the inaacuracy of Howie’s assumptions.

I am inclined to take the position of the second point, but an obvious flaw that could be pointed out with this is that Howie does turn out to be central to the plot, as he is the sacrifice. However, I would argue that just as Howies’s tendency to seem himself as a catalyst exposes the colonial centre attitude, so his reluctance to see himself as a victim/tool displays another attribute of the colonial centre, the beliefe that the centre is stronger, cleverer and more advanced than ‘The Other’, and therefore incapable of being the victim.

Analysing the text int his way caused me to pay attention to something obvious in my primary text for my thesis, Zapatista Stories. In these short stories there is no colonial centre acting as the protaganist, as the focus is on the culture and society that the writer lives in, it is not an observation from an outsider. Also, and perhaps more importantly, neither of the predominant figures in the stories (Subcomandante and Durito) act as catalysts on their own. I think that this deviance from an oft used narrative demonsrates both that there is power in numbers, that when you are not alone you are stronger, and that that power is best used when distributed evenly; Durito and Subcomandant Marcos are equal in their levels as narrative catalysts, the power is distributed as it is in the Zapatista communities, a little for everyone to hold and use.