Raymond Williams’s Communicative Ideal

by Daniel Hartley

In the first novel Raymond Williams ever published, Border Country (1960), he describes the annual Eisteddfod of the fictional Welsh border village Glynmawr.[1] The Eisteddfod, supposedly an ancient bardic custom, was in fact an “invented tradition” of the 1840s.[2] Ostensibly, it was a talent competition for children and adults, based primarily on the reading of excerpts from the Bible. But it also had a deeper function: it brought together the local community and reaffirmed their communal identity at the local and national levels. In this particular, fictional Eisteddfod, communal cohesion is stressed in that, as each child mounts the stage to recite, the conductor-cum-master of ceremonies, Illtyd Morgan y Darren, “identified her family, and recalled older members of the same family, who had come as children to this platform” (Williams, 2006, p. 251). Remarkably, the narrator qualifies this genealogical ritual as “centrally…the meaning of life” (ibid.). Given such a description, one could be forgiven for thinking that what is occurring in these pages is an idealised depiction of village life, along the lines of that mythical “organic community” for which F. R. Leavis so famously yearned. Indeed, the central passage in which this sense of an ideal community comes into its own is the climax of the Eisteddfod when the whole village joins together in song:

…then irresistibly the entry and rising of an extraordinary power, and everyone singing; the faces straining and the voices rising around them, holding, moving, in the hushed silence that held all the potency of these sounds, until you listening were the singing and the border had been crossed. When all the choirs had sung, everyone stood and sang the [Welsh] anthem. It was now no longer simply hearing, but a direct effect on the body: on the skin, on the hair, on the hands. (Williams, 2006, pp. 258-259)

The key line here is “you listening were the singing and the border had been crossed”. It encapsulates an ideal, almost transcendent, form of communication: addresser and addressee are fused in a whole greater than its parts, to the extent that singing and listening become indistinguishable. It is also a bodily form of communication – one is almost tempted to say ‘communion’. Is this not the most dramatic example of the organic community in action? A community so organic that the “border” separating individuals from one another is crossed?

In fact, it is not. Even when Leavis’s influence on his thought was at its most pervasive, Williams accepted neither the terms nor the presuppositions of Leavis’s social diagnosis. (Williams’s The Country and the City is one of the most powerful critiques of such regressive nostalgia ever written.) So what could be the meaning of such passages in Border Country? And what is their significance for what Williams might have understood by the ‘politics of style’? Firstly, let us reconsider the Eisteddfod section, this time in terms of its narrative function within the broader context of the scene as a whole. The scene begins with a passage on Alun Hybart, a young man spotted by a scout for Gwenton football club who subsequently goes on to enjoy the success of leaving the village for ‘better’ things. The tension set up is that between staying and leaving, or, more complexly, how to stay true to a place you have physically and socially left, but to which you still somehow belong.[3] This includes a flashback to the scout’s visit to the village, in which the latter mocks the large number of inhabitants who share the surname ‘Davies’ (Williams, 2006, p. 247). The function of this mockery is to form a counterpoint to the overvaluation of names and naming within the genealogical ritual of the Eisteddfod itself.[4] Compounded with this external mockery of the village’s communal modes of meaning-making, Alun – a semi-insider – then claims that the entire basis of the Eisteddfod is competition and the desire to win, to which Will (the young male protagonist, based on a young Raymond Williams) responds that it is the taking part that counts. But Will himself is torn between, on the one hand, defending the communal traditions of the village enshrined in the Eisteddfod against external mockery and miscomprehension and, on the other, resenting the suffocating provinciality of such close-knit communal ties. The narrator makes constant references to Will’s uneasiness and his desire somehow to separate himself off from or define himself against the community.[5] Moreover, between the afternoon and evening sessions of the Eisteddfod, Williams includes a brief domestic interlude which reminds the reader of all of the major dramatic conflicts of the novel to date (Williams, 2006, pp. 252-256): intergenerational conflicts (which are also struggles over modes of inheritance of the past and interpretations of the present) and ideological struggles between Will’s father’s attempt at a total integrity of moral and economic self-sufficiency and the more opportunist, superficial approach to morality and economics of Morgan Rosser. It is in terms of these wider conflicts that the ideal unity of community embodied in the singing of the Eisteddfod must be read. Indeed, it is only against this backdrop of historical and personal strife that the Eisteddfod, located at the halfway point of the novel, becomes invested with such dramatic intensity in the first place.

It is the totality of this scene – the harmony and the conflict, the continuities and the discontinuities, the settlements and the struggles – with which Williams was concerned. Time and again throughout his work, one comes across the constitutively ambiguous senses of ‘community’ and ‘communication’: on the one hand, they already exist; he has lived them and known them in his working-class youth. On the other hand, however, he demonstrates that it was never a perfect community or communication in the first place, and never will be until the political and economic struggles that generate intra-communal strife are finally overcome. So it is that Williams’s texts always move – in a controlled, measured manner – from indicative to subjunctive and back again. The fictional Eisteddfod should stand as an allegory for what Williams saw as the perfection of human communication: but only as an allegory. From his theory of style to his concrete policy proposals on the media and the arts, and his sketches of a future socialist community, the regulative ideal of the “listening as the singing”, of writer and reader, addresser and addressee as co-producers and sharers of a communication – this ideal is always hovering in the background. But it stays there, whilst in the foreground he takes an unflinching “full look at the worst”.[6]

Just as Ken Hirshckop has argued that the defining issue of Mikhail Bakhtin’s philosophical and political project was “the felt need for a dialogism different from dialogue and at the same time its modern heir” (Hirschkop, 1999, p. 56) – that is, a type of communication that binds the immediacy of direct speech to the necessary complexity of written and abstract discourse – so Williams’s political project can be summed up in the following sentence: “The condition of socialist democracy is that it is built from direct social relations into all necessary indirect and extended relations” (Williams, 1983a, p. 124). Where Leavisites hankered after the “direct social relations” of the ever-receding “organic community”, Williams looked capitalist modernity in the eye and called its bluff. From now on, the complexity of modern societies was such that “indirect and extended relations” were inevitable, not least since they were currently structured around the commodity form, the very Muse of abstraction itself. Yet socialism involved the drive to embed these distanced and abstract relations within a concrete and liveable directness, to give them, as the saying goes, “a local habitation and a name”. The Eisteddfod scene thus stands just as much for a reminder of the difficult road to socialism as it does for its final destination.

 

[1] Glynmawr was based on Pandy, the village in which Williams grew up.

[2] Prys Morgan has written thus of the symbols and insignia used at the nineteenth-century Eisteddfod: “The new ceremonials and the symbols and insignia all served to help Welshmen visualize their own country, and they had an exceptional importance in a national community that was not a political state. They were a substitute for the lost customs and rites of the old society of patronal festivals, merry nights and calendar feasts” (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983, p. 92). Cf. also (Smith, 2008, pp. 52-53).

[3] This is the central theme of the whole novel. Williams returned to it several times, most notably when discussing the simultaneously formal and political problem he faced when trying to represent “combined continuity and discontinuity” whilst writing Border Country (Williams, 1979, p. 273). Cf. also (Williams, 1983b, pp. 240-241).

[4] There is also, of course, the matter of the protagonist’s two names: ‘Matthew’ is his formal, legal name, but the villagers know him as ‘Will’. Likewise, Raymond Williams, prior to university, was known locally as ‘Jim’.

[5] E.g., “Against his determination, Will felt himself caught up in that movement and pressure…” (p. 249); “Half-ashamed, Will found himself wishing that there could be some extraordinary blunder…” (p. 251); “The mounting excitement…seemed wholly apart from him” (p. 257).

[6] Taken from the epigraph Williams chose for his Towards 2000, an excerpt from a Thomas Hardy poem: “Who holds that if way to the Better there be,/ it exacts a full look at the worst”. Interestingly, Theodor W. Adorno chose an almost identical epigraph for the second part of his Minima Moralia, this time taken from F. H. Bradley: “Where everything is bad, it must be good to know the worst.”

 

Bibliography

Hirschkop, K. (1999). Mikhail Bakhtin : An Aesthetic for Democracy. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Hobsbawm, E. J., & Ranger, T. O. (1983). The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge Cambridgeshire ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, D. (2008). Raymond Williams : A Warrior’s Tale. Cardigan: Parthian.

Williams, R. (1979). Politics and Letters : Interviews with ‘New Left Review’. London: NLB.

Williams, R. (1983a). Towards 2000. London: Chatto & Windus.

Williams, R. (1983b). Writing in Society. London: Verso.

Williams, R. (2006). Border Country (New ed.). Cardigan: Parthian.