Tumbling drunk into the fire

“Even such things as this,” he wrote of one quarrel, “the army setting off to conquer all the world turning back to burn Jack’s pigstye, and tumbling drunk into the fire—even this don’t shake me: means one must use the best one can get: but one thing I won’t do, wait for perfect means are made for very imperfect me to work with.”

E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (2011- originally published 1955, 1976), p.425

It took me about three weeks to finish Thompson’s book; I still haven’t read the afterword. It’s hard to figure out where to begin discussing it. The thing that has struck me the most is the change in my own attitude about the critiques of the arts and crafts movement (though arts and crafts moment is probably a better description). I used to think they were fairly accurate (thinking of David Pye, among others) but now I see that they pretty much stress John Ruskin as the sole font of theoretical groundings for the movement. Because of that, they miss a lot of development and fracture of Ruskin that is far more interesting. Perhaps the idea of a coherent theory of hand work is not as far fetched as it sometimes seems.

Morris wasn’t systematic in the slightest, nor was he (despite his laudatory essays on Ruskin)  simply a blind disciple at the feet of Ruskin. There is much in him to admire, and much more work to be done to develop his theories on work. Thompson has made a good beginning in this book, although it wasn’t his primary intention. His focus was on Morris as a socialist/communist. Understanding why and how he derailed his entire life in support of that cause is essential to making sense of his theories, however. His passion for the socialist “movement” was consumptive:

“You see, having joined a movement, I must do what I can while I last, that is a matter of duty . . . All this work I have pulled upon my own head, and though in detail much of it is repulsive to the last degree, I still hold that I did not do so without due consideration. Anyhow, it seems to me that I can be of use, therefore I am impelled to make myself useful. . .

You see, my dear, I can’t help it. The ideas which have taken hold of me will not let me rest: nor can I see anything else worth thinking of. How can it be otherwise, when to me society, which to many seems an orderly arrangement for allowing decent people to get through their lives creditably and with some pleasure, seems mere cannibalism; nay worse . . . is grown so corrupt, so steeped in hypocrisy and lies, that one turns from one stratum of it to another with hopeless loathing. One must turn to hope, and only in one direction do I see it— on the road to Revolution: everything else is gone now . . .” (424)

For 200 more pages, Thompson goes through the ins and outs of Morris’s relationship with the failed socialist league in the UK. This sort of reading usually just bores me to tears, but I fear I am indeed tumbling backward into the fire. It’s hard to understand theories of work without dealing with the axis of socialism/communism/anarchism, etc.. I’m pretty much of the “count me out” school when it comes to revolutions.

Nonetheless, dealing with this text has altered my perception of Morris as a florid manufacturer of chintzes and books that only rich people could afford. I didn’t like the hypocrisy of being a “man of the people” while making products that ordinary people could never afford (I have much the same problem with certain strains in modern woodworking, i.e. tool fetishists).   But clearly, Morris wasn’t this. He was aware of what he was doing, and what his place in it was. There is much, much more to say.

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