Friday, February 19, 2010

A Beautiful House

William Morris, who was a master of many trades, from poetry to wallpaper design, was once asked what the highest product of artistic endeavor would be: he said, without a moment of hesitation, “a beautiful house.”

He did not mean a comfortable house. When someone complained that the furniture he designed was not comfortable, he said shortly, “if you want to be comfortable, go to bed.”

There were few people more aware of the ubiquity of suffering than Morris. Beauty was, to him, what you raised up against suffering: not to alleviate it – not to become comfortable – but almost you might say to justify it. He hated modern civilization not because it made the poor so poor, but because it gave them no opportunity to create something beautiful in recompense. It was one thing peasants to toil in the shadow of a magnificent cathedral that they and their forebears had built and decorated with their own hands over centuries, and quite another for the poor to grind out their days in a factory producing shoe-black, having raised nothing by all their work but monuments to ugliness. Just as poor, and just as much in servitude: but Morris thought the one life was worth living, and the other not.

There's often a breathtaking effrontery in Victorian radicals – in all radicals, I suppose. How the hell does one man know what makes another man's life worth living? And yet we all make our judgements about that, whether we acknowledge them or not, and they inform our politics and our family lives, our pastimes and our art.

I've lost confidence in much of my radicalism over the years, but I believe more strongly than ever that modern economies inevitably – because of their structure and not because of the wickedness of the people locked inside them – ruin the natural world, ensure that the artificial world will be hideous, and corrode human love and loyalty. I don't know how to change them – their ruthless abstraction and dehumanization. I know I participate in it daily, further it. I know that the demands of an economy that genuinely respected the natural world, made beautiful towns possible, and nourished human love and loyalty, would overwhelm me. I'm not up to it. I'm a weak, slack addict of convenience: I use things and people once, and throw them away. I want to be comfortable. I am myself one of the things the modern world has ruined: how (I whine) can I be expected to put it right?

And yet – and yet – despite all my wriggling, despite all my concessions, despite having made comfort the ruling priority of my life – somehow, even so, I just can't get quite comfortable. Neither can you.

No comments: