23 May 2012

Martha Nussbaum, Comte, Mill, Tagore… and William Morris

           Martha Nussbaum’s “Reinventing the Civil Religion:  Comte, Mill, Tagore” in the most recent issue of the scholarly journal Victorian Studies (54.1 [dated Autumn 2011], pp. 7-34) is an important and fascinating analysis of attempts to form a “humanistic ‘civil religion’ to counteract the power of egoism and greed” (7) in the nineteenth century.  Critiquing Auguste Comte (as did J. S. Mill) for almost comically appropriating concepts of ritual from traditional religion to inculcate civic virtue, Nussbaum prefers Mill’s posthumously-published essay, “The Utility of Religion,” which conceded the need to have some form of communal celebration but evaded Comte’s attempts at rigid control and shaping of subjectivities.  The most constructive, practicable, and humane conceptualization of a civic religion, according to Nussbaum, was undertaken by Rabindranath Tagore, whose The Religion of Man (1931), unlike Comte’s “Religion of Humanity,” celebrated artistic creativity, the importance of the individual, and inclusiveness  (women as well as men, for example).  Commenting on Tagore’s indebtedness to the religious sect of the Bauls for his conception of civic religion, Nussbaum connects this source to the idea that “society must preserve at its heart, and continually have access to, a kind of fresh joy and delight in the world, in nature, and in people, preferring love and joy to the dead lives of material acquisition that so many adults end up living, and preferring continual questioning and searching to any comforting settled answers” (23). 

I wonder how many others, like me, thought of William Morris’s News from Nowhere and its representation of communal joy, fellowship, and delight in work and nature in reading Nussbaum’s article.  Indeed, Chp. 18 of News from Nowhere explicitly takes up the topic of “The Religion of Humanity”:

‘More akin to our way of looking at life was the spirit of the Middle Ages to whom heaven and the life of the next world was such a reality, that it became to them a part of the life upon the earth….now, where is the difficulty in accepting the religion of humanity, when the men and women who go to make up humanity are free, happy, and energetic at least, and most commonly beautiful of body also, and surrounded by beautiful things of their own fashioning, and a nature bettered and not worsened by contact with mankind?’

Indeed, the last chapter of News from Nowhere involves the “haysel” feast, a communal celebration held in a medieval church that is “gaily dressed up for this latter-day festival, with festoons of flowers from arch to arch” (Chp. 32).

            Perhaps other Morriseans will know whether Morris exerted any direct influence on Tagore; my sole knowledge of a connection is the mention of Morris in 1 or 2 letters from Sir William Rothenstein to Tagore.  In any case I hope that Martha Nussbaum will reconsider Morris’s own role in creating an important paradigm of civic religion founded in creativity, inclusion, and social justice.

--Linda K. Hughes

16 May 2012

Declutter for Civilization's Sake

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
In the years since William Morris first delivered his “The Beauty of Life” lecture in 1880, this quotation has taken on a life of its own. People put it on their bulletin boards, transcribe it in their diaries, and tweet about it on Twitter.

For many, it also helps them to change their lives. “The William Morris Project”, on a blog called “Pancakes and French Fries”, was created by a former lawyer named Jules, who found herself disturbed by the death of her friend's parents in 2011, and the things they had left behind. Instead of a carefully curated collection of objects that could have told volumes about their lives, they had left a white noise of designer handbags, eighties clothes, and redundant kitchen utensils.

With Morris's quotation as her guide, Jules set out to escape the fate of her friend's parents. Naturally, her project focused on de-cluttering her home, keeping only useful or beautiful things. Her project is still going today, and has a large following—it's even inspired others to follow suit.

At first, it may seem that the people involved in the project are overlooking Morris's depth by focusing on a piece of interior decorating advice, but Morris wouldn't think so. He dubbed his quotation “a golden rule that will fit everybody”, calling upon people to follow it not just for their own well being, but to help revive true art, and to save Society from the oblivion of consumption. At least, that's the message he brought to his Birmingham audience in 1880:

“that message is, in short, to call on you to face the latest danger which civilisation is threatened with, a danger of her own breeding : that men in struggling towards the complete attainment of all the luxuries of life for the strongest portion of their race should deprive their whole race of all the beauty of life...”

By forgoing lots of silly luxury items in favor of a few useful and beautiful things, Morris's followers would be resisting the tide of Victorian Capitalism, and they would become the saviors of Society. Perhaps Jules and her followers are the same: tidying up our culture of excess, one drawer at a time.