Blesok no. 110, October-November, 2016
500 Years since Thomas More’s Utopia: Transformation of Utopian Ideas
500 Years since Thomas More’s Utopia: Transformation of Utopian Ideas
In 1516, Thomas More’s book entitled Utopia appeared. Although there were previously works that discussed the idea of creating a perfect society, of which Plato’s The Republic is probably the most famous example, the appearance of the utopian genre is connected with More, whose book actually gave the genre its name. One of the frequent questions that has been asked in the last two decades in regard to utopias is: have we come to the end of utopia? This question refers not only to the literary genre known under this name, but also to the political and social engagement of the intellectuals to strive for a better society. Both aspects are connected with ideas that dominated near the end of the last century, and whose best known example, or at least one of the best known, is Francis Fukuyama with his thesis about “the end of history” in his paper “The End of History?” (1989). Explaining his thesis, Fukuyama writes that we are facing “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (Fukuyama 1989: 4). If the liberal democracy is considered to be the achieved end point in the efforts for creating a perfect society, then, as a logical consequence, the utopian visions, whether in philosophy or in literature, would end. This essay, however, through a brief historical overview, will attempt to show that this is not the case, and that the utopian genre is flexible and adjustable to historical changes. The contemporary utopian works point to a thesis that is precisely opposite to Fukuyama’s – namely, that the end of history has not yet arrived nor does it seem to be near, as there is still a lot of space for transformations and improvement of the human societies in the world and in the literary works.
More wrote Utopia in order to right the wrongs (Carey, 1999: 38) of the society in which he lived – the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century – which is obvious from the structure of the book; namely, the first part describes in details the poverty and difficult life in Europe in that time, whereas the second one is a description of a much more ideal community in which healthy and happy people live. Although there are numerous discussions in regard to whether More seriously promoted all ideas in his work, taking into consideration that in his life some of his attitudes seem to have been different from those expressed in the book, still Utopia certainly cannot be considered just a joke, considering the thoroughness and enthusiasm with which More describes his imaginary ideal society. If we have in mind the dominant worldview in More’s time, according to which the hierarchy with the king and the feudal masters at the top and the enormous number of utterly poor people at the bottom, More’s ideas for citizens who are equal, who work the same amount of hours without anyone being privileged, who have food and clothing provided are truly revolutionary.
How much do utopian works that were published in the centuries following More’s book retain the elements of Utopia? If they go too far from the basic elements that characterize this work – can we still consider them utopian works? In order to answer these questions, it is important to state Utopia’s main elements: the description of the ideal society is narrated by Raphael Hythloday, a fictional contemporary of More’s. According to his narration, during his stay on the island of Utopia, Hythloday spoke to some of the citizens who served as his guides and who explained to him the social order in Utopia. These are significant elements because in most of the utopian works all the way to the twentieth century, they remain unchanged: a person from the author’s present reaches somehow a country in which an ideal social order has been formed, and where he/she is kindly welcomed by the local citizens who describe their way of life. The narrator, in other words, is in most cases a traveler from our world, and not a resident of the utopian society. In Utopia, there is no private property, there are no robberies because the life standard is the same for all, and therefore all doors are unlocked, everyone works for six hours a day, there is no alcohol, people spend their free time listening to lectures or gardening, all eat together in large halls, there is no close relationship between parents and children, thus making favoritism non-existent and another consequence is that the children of the families with many children can be sent to live with families with no or with few children. Gold and silver is not appreciated, there is healthcare for the sick although the fatally ill people are encouraged to commit suicide so that they would not be a burden to society and would not live in pain.
One of the crucial questions asked by More, which is also an inevitable part of the utopias written in the following five centuries since Utopia’s appearance, is the question how to create people who will voluntarily accept mutual equality at the price of giving up their free will and accepting a uniformed manner of behavior. One of the ways in which More resolves this issue, according to J. C. Davis (2010), is by eliminating private property and overcoming the competitive spirit. “A large part of the transformation rests on the detailed removal of every occasion for emulative triumph. Most crucially, communal property eliminates all opportunities for displays of superfluous private wealth” (J. C. Davis, 2010: 42). The description given by Hythloday of Utopia on the basis of, as he narrates, his travel to this heretofore unknown island, is a social order that springs from the human desire for improvement of the world and strife for a better future.
The ills of the social order in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance have provoked the desire for finding a better social order, but at the same time they have also displayed the pessimism, that is, the doubt that society, the way it is structured, can be improved. This is indirectly visible in the utopias that appear in the first two centuries after the appearance of Utopia, in which a perfect society can only exist in another, imaginary place. In other words, in this period there is no visible belief among the authors in the possibility to improve life in their own environment, but they hope for a more ideal life that may exist in another geographical location. According to Nicole Pohl (2010), “although geographical utopias/voyage utopias of this period are akin to contemporary narratives of explorers, conqueror and merchants, they also projected archaic ideals of Paradise onto new worlds” (55). The paradise may be found in the middle of the Pacific, as in the case of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), who follows the familiar pattern of accidental discovery of a city in the ocean in which society is much better ordered than in the author’s motherland. New Atlantis is considered to be the first scientific utopia, which makes it a precursor to the close relationship between science fiction and utopia that is most conspicuous in the twentieth century. In the case of The Blazing World (1666) by Margaret Cavendish, the world the author admires is located in a place in some other dimension, mysteriously connected to our world somewhere in the vicinity of the North Pole. Probably one of the most famous works of this kind is Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift, in which during his last journey, Gulliver arrives in the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of rational horses, who live in peace, harmony and mutual respect, as the hosts tell Gulliver. This world is perfect because all negative aspects of the world in which Swift lived are eliminated: there are no wars, diseases, poverty, money or alcohol.
Some time at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, the changed worldviews are also reflected in the utopian books: the development of science and ideas in general contributed to increased hope that the world may be changed for the better. This idea brings about the era of utopias taking place not in another geographical location, but in our own world, in the future – this type of utopias are sometimes also referred to as euchronias – in which such progress has been made that all people live happily. Among the first utopias of this kind is The Year 2440 (1771) by Louis-Sébastian Mercier. The pattern established by Mercier, and followed by many later utopias, is: the narrator who is contemporary of the author arrives somehow (through sleep, in a time machine or through some mysterious gate) to the future, where, similarly to the utopias of the previous centuries, he/she is welcomed by the citizens prepared to explain to him/her their social order. The utopian elements in Mercier’s book are seen in the fact that in Paris of the future there is no poverty, people are neither vain nor greedy, they all care for the general good and not for their own interests, while the cities are clean, with wide streets, while everyone wears similar cloths and no one stands out either in their clothing or in their wealth. Edward Bellamy and William Morris use similar patterns. In Looking Backwards (1888) by Bellamy, the narrator from 1887 wakes up in the year 2000, where his host explains how America has transformed. In Bellamy’s utopia there is no more poverty, everyone is employed and all receive an equal part of the profit. Morris, on the other hand, in his utopian vision News from Nowhere (1890), written as a reaction to Looking Backwards, in which the narrator wakes up several hundred years into the future, describes a world in which civilization is abandoned in favor of bringing humanity closer to nature: people there are always kind and jovial – there is no poverty, although there is no progress or industrialization either, and everyone works not out of obligation, but out of pleasure.
With many of his novels, H. G. Wells is a figure that marks the transition from this kind of perfect societies achieved in the future and the frightening societies, also known as dystopias, dark visions of the future, in which a totalitarian regime has been established in which terror and pessimism dominate. Although there is a large number of dystopian works, the most frequently analyzed in literary criticism and most often mentioned in connection to the rise of fascism and Stalinism are: We (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell. Although these three novels are often mentioned in a common context, there are great differences between them: thus, for example, while Huxley expresses fear from the too much liberalism and the development of consumer society in the United States, Orwell fears the negative consequences of establishing totalitarian regimes and taking away people’s freedom of choice. The reasons for this radical transformation of the desire for a perfect society into a fear of the perfect society are numerous, and are mainly due to the historical and political changes in the first half of the twentieth century, above all the two world wars, which has led to a complete change in the structure of utopias, provided that we take the term “utopia” as a general term covering all types of utopias – including utopias, dystopias and other utopian subgenres that appear later. Namely, instead of the typical contemporary and fellow citizen of the author who travels into another location or in another time, the dystopias portrait protagonists who are citizens of the dystopian society itself. Most commonly, the protagonist does not know anything or know very little of what the world looked like before the society in which he/she lives was established.
The first hint of the possible dying out of the utopian ideas takes place in the second half of the twentieth century, when utopias are no longer so focused on building a perfect society in the future, nor are political elements as dominant as in the previous centuries; instead, they begin to get combined with other genres, especially science fiction. In this context, some relevant would be: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time or Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. Le Guin’s novel, for example, takes place on the twin planets of Urras and Anarres – the disciples of Odo were allowed to immigrate on Annares where they built something that resembles a perfect society. Although the science fiction element dominates in the novel, on a more symbolical level, one can notice close analogies with the political situation in the world in which Le Guin lives, and which is harshly criticized by the author, at the same time expressing doubt in the possibility of establishing a blueprint perfect society.
More intensive doubts in the survival of utopia are expressed in the time of the fall of communism, when, as Fukuyama says, it is considered that liberal democracy is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution. Thus, in the last three decades, the utopian genre has transformed so much that, according to some critics, it is beyond recognition, or has lost its connection to almost all utopian elements. Today, within the critical discussions on utopian works, there are many dilemmas regarding whether post-apocalyptic visions which do not deal with creating a perfect society (such as The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy (the book has also been turned into a film) or the films The Day after Tomorrow (2004, directed by Roland Emmerich), I am Legend (2007, directed by Francis Lawrence) and a number of other on a similar topic) or the books and films in which the events take place in the future but only a few aspects of the world are changes, while the residents are the same as today’s residents (that is, they have not vanquished their vanity, avarice, selfishness, as the citizens of More’s or Mercier’s utopias have done – for example Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report (film: 2002, directed by Steven Spielberg) or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (film: 2010, directed by Mark Romanek) – would belong at all in the utopian genre.
In other words, the question is how many and which utopian elements should a work have in order to belong to the category of utopias? It the category is too flexible and can include any work with an expressed idea for working towards a better world, even if events take place in the present, or can include any science fiction work regardless of whether it discusses any strives for creating a perfect society – then the category would lose its sense. If it is too rigid, it would only include More’s Utopia and a few other works which very closely resemble it. It is especially underlined that in recent books and films there is no such dedication to the idea of creating a blueprint perfect society, as was the case with Utopia. Despite assumptions that utopia has reached a dead-end, Novica Petrović (2014) emphasizes that the recent study by Fredric Jameson entitled Archaeologies of the Future shows that there are “voices on the political left still committed to countering the claims that Utopian dreams are politically obsolete” (p. 655). The numerous research in the last few years (D. Milošević, M. Ćuk, A. Johns, N. Petrović, A. Dodeman, M. Živković) of the utopian novels of contemporary authors such as Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin or of thinkers such as Fredric Jameson, point to the fact that the opposite is true.
Kenneth Roemer (2010) gives his working definition of what a literary utopia is: “a fairly detailed narrative description of an imaginary culture – a fiction that invites readers to experience vicariously an alternative reality that critiques their by opening intellectual and emotional spaces that encourage readers to perceive the realities and potentials of their cultures in new ways” (Roemer, 2010: 79).
The life on our planet is far from perfect – which amply provides for a long future of utopian thinking. If we consider Roemer’s definition, the utopias which are not given as a blueprint for structuring a perfect society, but are narrative descriptions of an imaginary culture open to persistent inclusion of new changes (the novels of Le Guin, Piercy or Russ, often analyzed from a feminist point of view as well); the post-apocalyptic books or films, which criticize our reality through warning about a possible catastrophic future unless we change the present devastation of our planet and which sometimes have elements of ecology (The Road or The Day after Tomorrow); the books and films that open discussions about potential cloning or systems of punishing criminals before they commit crime (Never Let Me Go or Minority Report) – although they do not offer a model of a perfect and happy future, they still belong to the utopian literature: they invite the reader to experience an alternative reality, as Roemer says, by “opening intellectual and emotional spaces that encourage readers to perceive the realities and potentials of their cultures in new ways”, that is, they draw the attention of readers and audiences to think about creating a better future.
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