News from Nowhere

Finally, I have got around to reading News from Nowhere, William Morris’s 1890 vision of a socialist Utopia, and it was well worth the wait; ‘Nowhere’ is remarkably appealing, despite its flaws. It tells the story of a man, William Guest (disillusioned with the nineteenth century, he is possibly modelled on Morris himself), who one day wakes up in the future, in 2102 – a pastoral future, post-revolutionary, which is an ideal Communist state. Guest travels around London, meeting people who tell him of the history of the revolution which caused this way of life to begin. Ideas of capitalism and indeed of money are things of the bad old days, and humans live in harmony with each other and with the earth, not owning property themselves but holding all things in common. Indeed, in these recession-hit times when we all try to be a bit greener, now is the time to read Morris.

In many ways, New from Nowhere looks back as much as forward; though all hierarchies have been done away with, and beauty and truth are everything, it is nonetheless a remarkably medieval ideal, as the image of the Kelmscott edition (left) shows. Yet this is not a prediction of what will come to pass, merely a dream, or vision; the intro to the Penguin edition, by Clive Wilmer, rightly suggests that Morris’s work “encourages us to dream for ourselves”, which is very true; I have certainly been dreaming up my own Utopia. A striking feature of the book, I found, was that as I read it, I would find myself thinking, “How does this work?”, “How did that happen?” and “This does not take human nature into account”, yet as such queries arise, Morris answers them. The question of human nature is difficult; the general goodness and enthusiasm of the inhabitants of Nowhere does seem unlikely, but Morris explains that our humanity has been corrupted by the corrupted system in which we are trapped: “[W]hat human nature? The human nature of paupers, of slaves, of slave-holders…?” We are so enslaved by the systems created by a politically-motivated and greedy society that we have become unable to make appropriate judgements.

The chapter on politics is a delight – about 150 words long, it basically says that the society of Nowhere has no politics, nor needs any. Yet there are some surprises: the educated Morris suggests there is no need for schools, and even seems to reject books and learning other than that provided by the natural world. Also, although this is essentially a secular Utopia, it is interesting to note the parallels with Isaiah 65: 17-25, where the “new heavens and new earth” are described:

19And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying.

 20There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years old; but the sinner being an hundred years old shall be accursed.

 21And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them.

 22They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

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