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Summer 2015

Revisiting Raymond Williams

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Geoff Dyer

Politics and Letters:
Interviews with New Left Review

by Raymond Williams.
Originally published by NLB, 1979;
reissued by Verso, 2015.



“I come from Pandy…” The first words spoken by Raymond Williams in this book may not have quite the rolling loquacity of the opening lines of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March—“I am an American, Chicago born…”—but in their brisk way they bespeak a similar confidence. Bellow’s narrator immediately situates his experience in the heart of America; Williams announced one of his main concerns in the title of his first novel, Border Country. Borders—how they are constructed and recognized, how they impede and are crossed—are central to his thought. In contrast to March’s unequivocal belief—“I am an American”—Williams, whose work concentrated on the English literary and cultural tradition, came to identify himself as “a Welsh European,” emphasizing what lay either side of a presumed center, both locally and within a larger international context.

“It happened that in a predominantly urban and industrial Britain I was born in a remote village, in a very old settled countryside, on the border between England and Wales.” This is the account Williams gives of his origins in The Country and the City, the simple facts of the matter beginning to unfurl and expand in the recognizable style of his analytical writing: an authority that draws power from—rather than being hindered by—a suggested hesitancy; the unhurried accumulation of material and argument; a continual elaboration and deepening of meaning. Stylistically this is the opposite of the persuasive oratory of Aneurin Bevan (“not a style for serious argument”) that Williams had been hearing “since about the age of two,” or of the plain-speaking that he became suspicious of in Orwell: “the plain man who bumps into experience in an unmediated way.” While Williams was proudly conscious of the convolutions of his own method and mode—“all my usual famous qualifying and complicating, my insistence on depths and ambiguities”—a former student, Terry Eagleton, remembers his lecturing style as that of “somebody who was talking in a human voice.”

Eagleton was struck, also, by the way that although Williams’s back- ground might, by Cambridge standards, have been regarded as humble, it was also sufficiently “privileged” to give him “a sort of stability, a rootedness and self-assurance, and almost magisterial authority.” It gave him the confidence, while still an undergraduate—albeit an undergraduate who had served in the war—to stand up and insist, after a talk in which L. C. Knights claimed that a corrupt and mechanical civilization could no longer understand neighborliness, that he knew “perfectly well, from Wales, what neighbor meant.”

Confidence counts for little unless it is allied with determination. Combined with an Orwellian sense “of the enormous injustice” of the world, Williams had the resources to develop his early critical and theoretical project—one that stressed the importance of shared experience and common meanings—in comparative isolation. The single-mindedness of the endeavor was matched by its scale. In the process of becoming articulate in the language of a new and expansive kind of cultural history he also, in Raphael Samuel’s words, “constructed a conceptual vocabulary of his own.” The vocabulary was more than conceptual; it was also the cerebral expression of a temperament shaped by a particular geography and history. In Border Country Harry Price, in discussion with Morgan Rosser, is “waiting for terms he could feel.” You could almost say he is waiting for the author to coin his most famous term, “structure of feeling.” Going further back, to Words-worth in “Residence at Cambridge,” Williams’s thought, even at its most theoretical, “is linked…with some feeling.” Where Williams came from was inextricably linked with what he came to say.

If Orwell’s sense of the injustice of the world was fed by a disposition to dwell on its misery, then the “privileged” background of the signalman’s son over that of the old Etonian made the idea of defeat almost entirely alien. It also meant, according to his critics, that the political positions of his later years, with Thatcherism in full swing and the miners having suffered a catastrophic defeat, were nostalgic, even sentimental. Either way, the key thing is that his writing always carried an enormous freight of autobiography. He was explicit about this in a piece included in the posthumous collection Resources of Hope: “I learned the reality of hegemony, I learned the saturating power of the structures of feeling of a given society, as much from my own mind and my own experience as from observing the lives of others. All through our lives, if we make the effort, we uncover layers of this kind of alien formation in ourselves, and deep in ourselves.”

This double combination—complexity of thought and clarity of expression, with a depth and intensity of personal feeling—made Williams a commanding and inspirational figure for the generation of students who came of age in 1968 and looked to him for political and moral as well as intellectual guidance. In some cases former students shared platforms with him, or went on—like Eagleton—to become colleagues or friends. A representative of the next generation (age ten in 1968), I set eyes on him precisely twice.

The first time was when he came to give a lecture at Oxford, where I was an undergraduate, in about 1978 or 1979. Our tutor encouraged us to go, so we went. I had no idea who Williams was or what he was droning on about. Then, in the mid-1980s, I went to see him in conversation with Michael Ignatieff at the ICA. I’m guessing that the occasion was the publication of his novel Loyalties—though if it was, then how come I didn’t get my copy signed? And even if it wasn’t, why didn’t I ask him to sign my copy of Politics and Letters (bought in Collets on the Tottenham Court Road on March 30, 1983)? I can only assume I was too intimidated because by then the old bloke who’d waffled on at Oxford had entirely reshaped my sense of life and literature and the way they were related. The idea of “lived experience” may have been part of the Leavisite vocabulary, but whereas I had read the words in Leavis, I experienced them in Williams. Before that, in a way that now seems hard to credit, I had no understanding of the social process I’d lived through even though it was, by then, a well-documented one: the working-class boy who keeps passing exams—exams that take him first to grammar school, then to an Oxbridge college—and discovers only in retrospect that there was more to all this than exams, or even education. It’s entirely appropriate that Culture and Society—a new way of considering authors with whom I was already familiar—played a crucial part in this discovery. All the expected symptoms of the transformative reading experience were in evidence: the feeling of being addressed personally, of one’s life making a sense that should have been apparent all along while being conscious, also, that the revelation was happening at just the right time. This was all the more acute because—and my gratitude on this score is boundless—it occurred independently, after university, not as part of some kind of assigned coursework. At the risk of placing more emphasis on the letters than the politics, I discovered and loved Williams in the way that, and at the same time as, friends were discovering and loving novelists such as Bellow.

And it happened in tandem with my discovery of another writer, John Berger. The Country and the City was published in 1973 and made into a film six years later by Mike Dibb. In 1971, in Ways of Seeing (also directed by Dibb), Berger had encapsulated one of Williams’s arguments with a proto-Banksy bit of vandalism: nailing to the tree behind the landowners’ heads in Gainsborough’s portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews a sign that reads “Private Property Keep Out.”

I emphasize the kinship—what the author of Culture and Society might have called commonalities—between these two not because of their shared place in my autobiography but to pull Williams away from the slightly tweedy company he is assumed to keep. An undergraduate at Cambridge in the early 1990s, Zadie Smith recalls Williams being spoken of “as the equal of Foucault or Barthes.” There followed a long and gradual shrinking of a legacy and influence that had seemed assured. If, more than a quarter century after his death, Williams is to become a vital rather than remembered or spent force it is necessary to do two things that might appear contradictory: to concede that, with the exception of Border Country, the fiction to which he devoted so much energy and on which he placed so much importance was dull; and to free the rest of his work from the once-modish tundra of Cultural Studies, let alone the pack ice of Theory. Perhaps then he will be read with the same passion and adoration that still attends the discovery of Berger. A perverse and ironic fate: Williams, the internationalist, is seen as the worthy relic of a vanished, pre-Thatcherite Britain, a socialist writer read by a diminishing audience of Marxists, academics, and students to whom his work is prescribed as retroactive treatment for a sickness (late capitalism) that has infected the furthest reaches of the global body politic. It was the least surprising thing in the world to see, in the Occupy camp at St. Paul’s a few years ago, a much-pierced protester reading Berger’s Hold Everything Dear; it was equally unsurprising that no one was holding The Country and the City.

I mention that book partly because of its relevance to the issues raised by Occupy, partly because of the moment in Politics and Letters when the New Left Review interlocutors quote a passage about the great country houses and the landscape that surrounds them. I hadn’t looked at this in years, but when I started to reread it here I could not see the page for tears. I went back to my own edition of The Country and the City and saw the same passage, in the original as it were: heavily underscored, the margins marked by long pencil lines of admiring gratitude. In a late essay, D. H. Lawrence looked back on “Nottingham and the Mining Country,” the part of the world where he “came in to consciousness.” The welling up of feeling that came from seeing again that passage from The Country and the City was due not simply to the power of its analysis. Certain books are held dear because they are also psychic landmarks revealing where and how they helped us come into consciousness. Inevitably, our perception of the world—and of other books—continues to be informed by such texts long after the precise details of their contents have been forgotten. Just before rereading Politics and Letters—that is, at maximum chronological distance from any previous reading of The Country and the City—I came across a long essay by Janet Malcolm about the Bloomsbury Group. After describing a meeting between Virginia and Vanessa Stephen with Clive Bell in 1908, Malcolm writes: “In his hard-core aestheticism, Clive was behaving as few Victorian men behaved. Clive came from a rich family that had made its money from mines in Wales and had built a hideous and pretentious mansion in Wiltshire, decorated with fake-Gothic ornament and animal trophies. Numerous sardonic descriptions of the place have come down to us from Vanessa, who would visit there as a dutiful daughter-in-law and write to Virginia of the ‘combination of new art and deer’s hoofs.’”

The passage itself is unremarkable; what was extraordinary was how thoroughly my reading of it was permeated by the earlier exposure to The Country and the City: how its implications were deepened and its meaning extended beyond the scene and circumstances intended. Who would have thought that Wales had played such a proximate role in the exquisite preoccupations of Bloomsbury, such a formative part in the decorative aesthetics of Charleston? Even when half-buried from view, certain landmark texts—the foundations of our adult consciousness —retain the power to radically reroute or reconfigure things far beyond their expected reach.

Even the tough-minded NLR interrogators deem the passage from The Country and the City “extraordinarily moving”—before resuming their cross-examination. Williams’s is the only name to appear on the cover and title page, but the part played by Perry Anderson, Anthony Barnett, and Francis Mulhern can hardly be overstated. The book is a far more thoroughgoing collaboration than the subtitle Interviews with New Left Review modestly suggests. I can’t help likening these intellectually bruising encounters to an experience shared by myself and two friends in Oxford shortly after we’d graduated. On the street outside a house party, we found ourselves being sucked in by the gravitational threat of a guy—Welsh, as it happens—who was spoiling for a fight. “Come on, all three of you rush me!” he said at one point. That’s how I think of these sessions, with the inquisitors forcing Williams—whose style of thought and expression rendered him impervious to being rushed—vigorously to defend himself, to reconsider previous positions and lines of argument. On one occasion he pulls rank rather wonderfully: “You have got to remember that I read my own books too, and that in a competition for critical readers I shall at least be on the final list.” He responds with the expected qualifications, revisions, and elaborations but also with off-the-cuff comments quite different in tone to his normal expository style. His reason for stopping taking the Times in the mid-Fifties—“I will simply not begin the day with those people in the house”—seems sounder than ever in the Murdoch era. The verdict on The Spoils of Poynton —that “people should be sent to read” it right after “the first chapter of Capital”—both complements and cancels out Ezra Pound’s famous complaint that it was a lot of “damned fuss about furniture.” Not that Williams was an aphorist. After being accused of diagnosing Orwell as simply “tired,” he agrees that this might have seemed a “sentimental” response and then proceeds to historicize that tiredness: “what is interesting is that he had available to him a way of being tired, so to speak, which was unthinkable for a Deutscher or Trotsky. That was the notion, which was extraordinarily widespread in England, that British society could be transformed through the conduct of the war.”

Williams’s own experiences in that war have since been extensively documented in Dai Smith’s biography, Raymond Williams: A Warrior’s Tale, but for a long while Politics and Letters was the only source of information about this part of his life and how deeply it affected his subsequent thinking. Discussing the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, he talks about the idea of the tank, “which I was both less frightened of and more immediately emotionally involved in than people who’d never been inside one.” But the experience “of having fought in tanks going into a city” also gave him a devastating awareness of “what an army which is really not holding back can do to a city.” It is another instance of Williams unconsciously echoing Orwell, who took issue with Auden’s “conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder” on the grounds that the poet could only say such things because he had probably “never even seen a murdered man’s corpse.”

More broadly, the undertow of the peculiar “privilege” of Williams’s upbringing is felt throughout the book’s long discussions. In Culture and Society he reminded us that Lawrence’s “first social responses were those, not of a man observing the processes of industrialism, but of one caught in them, at an exposed point, and destined, in the normal course, to be enlisted in their regiments”: a vivid instance of how Williams’s critical writings double as vicarious autobiography. Class struggle and the other components of Marxist theory were not just concepts to Williams; they were in his blood, part of his inheritance, of who he was. This is not to say that he always had—or should be allowed—the last word. Looking back on a lecture in which he made a point about George Eliot and Middlemarch, Williams recalls that “Terry Eagleton, who was sitting in the front row, sat bolt upright because he was so inside the argument—we talked all the time—that he could see immediately the shift of judgement that had just come out of the logic of the argument.” The authentic drama of the moment is somewhat compromised, unfortunately, by the way that Eagleton, in his own book of interviews, The Task of the Critic, claims such a thing could not have happened. “I’m wondering whether that’s a phantom memory. I never sat in the front row; I lurked at the back.”

It’s a minor point, a mere detail. More substantially, Smith’s biography provides a less comfortable, more complex picture of the young Raymond’s relationship with his father than the one offered here. First-person testimony is notoriously unreliable, the conventions of the memoir encouraging—perhaps even requiring—a self-serving drift towards the fictive. Again, the sympathetic severity of the questioning is crucial in ensuring that Politics and Letters bears little resemblance to a memoir or intellectual autobiography. When he was shown proofs of the book Williams said, “It feels like a quite new form.” This, to put it in the style of his interlocutors, is well said—and not simply because of the book’s formal originality. What is so unusual is that a volume that might be regarded as a postscript or addendum to the main body of the work turns out to be an integral part of it.




Geoff Dyer's new book "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" will be published next year by Pantheon.
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