Reading News From Nowhere

Oct 07 2013

Claude Lorrain's "Harbour Scene at Sunset"

Claude Lorrain’s “Harbour Scene at Sunset”

Like many great books, William Morris’s News From Nowhere left me with several conflicting feelings.

In a sense, it’s a science fiction novel. The author awakes in a future several hundred years distant from his own time in the 1800’s. He discovers a gentle society of friendly, calm people who go about their daily lives in peace and comfort. Each pursues his or her interests in trade for daily bread.

He discovers that mankind has adopted complete communism, though it hews a bit closer to libertarianism. Everyone produces according to pleasure and takes according to need. Nobody owns anything.

Now, I grew up with plenty of objections to this. But he provides plenty of…if not counter-arguments, then explanations for why this might work.

He points out that few people will hoard items of no value. People want to satisfy their basic needs. So, make that easy. That gives people the mental space to consider higher, better things.

There’s some ugliness here. The author’s stand-in eventually stumbles on an old man who describes the intervening history, and he describes a nightmare of communist cells, revolution and blood in the streets. There are also massive General Strikes involving nearly every working person, lasting for days, while somehow they still find things to eat. Hmmm.

And yet…every time I put down the book, I felt like a better person. I felt like behaving the way those people do: helpful and thoughtful. They are always looking at their neighbors to see if help is needed. They are outwardly focused, motivated by the increase in beauty and health of their communities. Who wants to live surrounded by sick people and ugly buildings? Why not do something about that?

There are a few areas in which Morris can’t quite see beyond his own preconceptions. For example, while he admirable portrays women as just as intelligent and capable of art and conversation as men, every house he visits is tended by women, who do all the cooking and cleaning, because they are born with the disposition to enjoy domestic work.

But that’s quibbling. News From Nowhere arrested my attention and gave me a new perspective. While I still disagree with the need for the broader social conflicts Morris implied, I want to live in that world.

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