- News from Nowhere and William Morris’s Aesthetics of Unreflectiveness: Pleasurable Habits
In a pivotal moment in William Morris’s utopian romance News from Nowhere, William Guest asks Old Hammond to explain how the socialist society of the future is governed. He receives a striking reply: “We have been living for a hundred and fifty years … more or less in our present manner, and a tradition or habit of life has been growing on us; and that habit has become a habit of acting on the whole for the best.… That is in short the foundation of our life and our happiness.”1 By identifying habit rather than a set of laws or a system of government as the binding force of socialist community, Morris places at the centre of his political theory a form of repetitive, unreflective behaviour that was deeply unpopular in much nineteenth-century thought and continues to pose a problem for many present-day critics of News from Nowhere. The utopian inhabitants’ absorption in an apparently changeless present in which they spend day after golden day engaged in the repetition of pleasurable but commonplace tasks has led numerous readers to question the desirability of a happiness that rests on so mundane a foundation.
Years ago Lionel Trilling faulted Morris’s utopia for its endorsement of a life lived unreflectingly, and many contemporary critics have followed his lead in identifying this as Nowhere’s most dystopian feature. Arguing that the book’s “conception of man’s nature” is “informed by a calculated modesty,” Trilling criticizes Morris for rejecting the ideals of personal autonomy, desire, and innovation central to the humanist tradition.2 Although she does not adopt the liberal humanist terms of Trilling’s argument, Linda Dowling similarly identifies unreflective life as a problem, particularly in its consequences for the social role of art. By transforming art into “unreflectingly lived … sensuous experience … without significant obstacle or friction,” Morris unwittingly neutralizes the “critical, conceptual, and oppositional powers” essential to art’s moral function.3 Matthew Beaumont sees the all-too-perfect changelessness [End Page 3] of Nowherian life as an intentional flaw, a conscious sign from Morris that the unreflective “forgetfulness” of Nowhere may “clear the way for a return to some more alienated, fetishized condition of life.”4 Of the handful of recent critics who read unreflective practices as positive features of Nowhere, Marcus Waithe’s work on the role of custom in Morris’s work is most suggestive. Identifying medieval custom as a historical and literary source for Nowhere’s social behaviour, Waithe contends that “informal laws and customs” such as medieval hospitality and gift giving provide “the key to understanding … Nowhere’s openness.”5 Yet he also cautions that the unreflective character of such customariness may lead to politically exclusionary practices; “to take News from Nowhere seriously as a blueprint” is therefore “to consider its social arrangements in a way Morris never intended.”6
This article responds to this scholarship by arguing that unreflective behaviour is integral to the seriousness of News from Nowhere’s political and aesthetic vision. Morris’s investment in habitual behaviour and thought is situated within a wider nineteenth-century philosophical and economic debate about the personal and social dangers of unreflectiveness, an inclusive formulation used here to identify the behaviours that were variously called “custom,” “habit,” and “instinct” in a range of Victorian discourses. Morris’s interest in the forms of behaviour designated by these terms suggests a conscious engagement with the anxiety about unreflective behaviour that was prevalent in nineteenth-century disciplines as disparate as political economy, psychology, aesthetic theory, and anthropology. The aversion to unreflectiveness that pervaded these discourses was linked to a set of interrelated concerns about historical regress, economic stagnation, and aesthetic and psychological conformity. Writers as diverse as Walter Pater, Henry Maudsley, J. S. Mill, and Walter Bagehot saw the unreflective, repetitive inertia of habit to operate as a limitation to the rational model of the individual that came to dominate economic and aesthetic thought by the second half of the nineteenth century.7 As Regenia Gagnier points out, this conception of human nature—typically identified as “Economic Man”—was characterized by...