Wednesday, April 25, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time II

Apparently, Fiona MacCarthy has a deep love for her subject, and it is not one that I share. However, I still find the life and times of Morris interesting, if perhaps for different reasons than MacCarthy. As far as I've read, Morris has spent his high school years at Marlborough College and his university years at Exeter College, Oxford. Shortly before he died, Morris's father had bought him a position at Marlborough. Morris's experience there was almost exclusively negative. The students were unruly and violent, the college was poorly administered, and Morris had no friends. There was a connection between Marlborough and Exeter, and Morris entered Exeter after studying for its entrance exam with a private tutor.

Prior to Oxford, Morris had been solitary and socially awkward, spending much of his time outdoors in nature. When he arrived in Oxford, he immediately fell in with Edward Burne-Jones, the future artist. They belonged to a set of students whose presumed profession would be the clergy. However, they took little interest in Latin or religious training and preferred the arts, specifically painting, architecture, poetry and the fantasy world of Arthurian legend. Morris was attracted to the Gothic cathedrals of northern France, their stained glass in particular. In poetry they admired Tennyson, and in prose they admired John Ruskin. Intellectually, they seem to have belonged to late Romanticism, living well after Byron, Shelley and Keats. Temperamentally, Morris was given to sudden rages, which sometimes scared people and may have been related to an unidentified disorder similar to epilepsy. He seems to have had little patience with ideas and tended to emphasize physical details. Although his group at Oxford was all-male, with some homosexual undertones, they were committed to chastity, and there were no suitable females around.

I think what is interesting me is the social structure of Morris's environment. Although he went to Oxford in 1852, it reminds me of going to an American liberal arts college in 1968. At the time I went to college, I was not as aware as I am now of the link between the church and the college. In Morris's day, forty percent of the students at Oxford went into the clergy, and the connection between the university and the church was more palpable. My college had been founded by Methodists, and it struck me as odd that there was a Department of Philosophy and Religion, because the two areas seemed incompatible to me. In fact, many of the faculty in that department had divinity degrees, and they were not philosophers in the sense that I think of them. There has been a slow transition from the time when colleges and universities concentrated on theology to the current inclusion of all of the modern academic disciplines. This has occurred inconspicuously in part because a college degree has always been a social marker that exists independently from any particular discipline. While being a graduate may once have meant that one had a better understanding of God, that was slowly replaced with the idea that college graduates belong to the ruling class. Recently, with suitable employment becoming increasingly scarce, college has become more closely associated with vocational training, though a four-year degree still retains the aura of higher social standing.

In Morris's case, he was better off than most of his friends at Oxford and could even afford to publish his own magazine while there. He reminds me of people I've known who arrived at college not really knowing why they were there, but who nevertheless benefited from it in one way or another. This now strikes me as a rather poorly conceived process, but the colleges themselves spin it as part of their allure. Vocational training is lower-class, whereas four years of dilettantish study is upper-class. The trick, apparently, if you're not born wealthy, is to choose postgraduate training in a lucrative field such as medicine or law, or perhaps dentistry. Really, this whole process seems farcical to me, and now one might enroll in a liberal arts college and be trained in environmental studies, which conveys the same kind of social status that was once associated with training for the clergy: you are wealthy enough to pursue a field in which you represent a higher purpose of some sort. College seems always to have been an institution that reckons with social standing, and, as such, it has never been quite as practical as one might hope.

I am in sympathy with some of Morris's ideas regarding the selection of a vocation. He disliked the thought of making money through business or finance, because he didn't consider that real work. He identified with artisans who made beautiful objects. I felt the same way after I had given up the idea of pursuing a career in philosophy. I didn't want to work in an office and would have liked to have had a real skill, such as a craft. Thus, I haphazardly entered the field of printing, and though I did initially operate a press, I was over-educated for trade work, and, in any case, there is almost no market for aesthetically superior products in the U.S. I found that high-quality work is typically not considered commercially viable. Thus, art books are not usually printed in the U.S., and that role is often taken by specialists in Italy or China. With some exceptions, the U.S. is not known for craftsmanship or style. When I worked for large printing companies, I learned that the emphasis was on volume, not quality. The measure of success is how many impressions per hour you can get on the cheapest possible paper. The fact is that American consumers are not discerning, and the preference for low cost usually kills high-quality products as an available option. Like me, William Morris would be disgusted by modern capitalism.

When Morris finished at Oxford in 1855, he did not join the clergy as his mother had hoped, and he became an apprentice at a small architectural firm in Oxford.

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