Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Notes on Raymond Williams's The Country and the City (1973), "Country and City"

Just in from Jarvis32:

Born in the Black Mountains on the Welsh border and later educated at Cambridge, Raymond Williams was ever conscious of the tensions between "country" and "city," and of the disparity between the perceptions and the realities of each. In his essay "Country and City," he challenges the misrepresentation of rural life promoted at Cambridge, arguing that the relation between city and country is never fixed. "Cityfolk" in fact hold ambivalent attitudes toward the "country," he argued; and likewise, the rural population holds complex and ambivalent attitudes toward the city. Yet the old, monolithic stereotypes persist, despite the associative complexities of the two terms, “country” and “city.” Drawing on personal anecdotes, Williams argues his point convincingly in a rich, comma-strewn prose that reads more like the poetry of, say, W.H. Auden than formal criticism.

In Chapter 2 of the essay, Williams argues that rural life -- in England, at least-- has effectively ended. This process of deruralization began during the industrial revolution, when an economic system based on highly developed agrarian capitalism was established, causing the traditional peasantry to quickly disappear. Rural agriculture became even less of a factor during Britain’s imperialist phase, so that by the turn of the century only 4% of working men were engaged in farming. However, despite the complete transformation of the social and economic framework, the old stereotypes of "city" and "country" continued to persist.

Just what are these stereotypes? Williams points out that the images of the country are often either idealized or degraded. The idyllic image of the country is a world that is "natural," "innocent," "virtuous," and "peaceful." The negative inversion of this image is the "backward," "ignorant," and "limited" country. The city, too, can be stereotyped positively as a cultural center of learning, communication, and light; and, negatively, as a noisy center of worldliness and material ambitions, a hub of power, commerce, and rent.

As Raymonds points out, these stereotypes reach back to ancient times and persist into the present, despite the fact that they no longer provide any accurate reflection of the modern world. "Ways of life" today, Williams concludes, are too varied to be categorized as either belonging to "country" or "city," as there have been for decades now suburbs, dorm towns, shanty towns, industrial estates, and many other forms of living that do not fit comfortably into either category.

Raymond Williams (1921-1988), Welsh novelist, critic, academic and politicizer of F.R. Leavis, fought at Normandy during the Second World War and soon after participated in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. After the war, he became an ardent leftist, advocating in some cases violent Marxist revolution. Along with Lukacs, Gramsci, Plekhanov, Goldmann, Althusser, Benjamin, Barthes, Antonio Gramsci, Chomsky, Brecht, Sartre and others, Williams published theoretical writings that helped form post-war cultural Marxism. His major works include Culture and Society (1958), The Long Revolution (1961) and The Country and the City (1973).

No comments: