“Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take”*…
How do you get to utopia? You don’t, of course. It’s unreachably distant. Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) are set in what were then uncharted waters, far enough away to have escaped both the attention and interference of the rest of the world. That’s what makes these islands, for a moment, plausible: no one can deny their existence with positive knowledge. And that’s how they stay perfect: no one’s colonized them, traded with them, influenced them in any way. Distance and difference were understood as directly relational: the greater the distance, the greater the difference. And utopias are radically different. Granted, in some cases, the distance is temporal; we call these “euchronias”. The point is we’ll never get there, never live long enough, never see fiction turned to fact.
Today’s readers demur. Too far-fetched, they complain, rejecting the distance. Others see utopias as prescriptive, rigidly so, even fascistic. People think of head-in-the-clouds dreamers or dogmatic philosopher kings, though Fredric Jameson argues, persuasively, that utopias give us not blueprints but open-ended possibilities. At any rate, we now prefer dystopias: The Road, The Hunger Games, and countless others, many adapted as films. Such scenarios seem not distant but close, potentially imminent, and fans of the cult movie Idiocracy have already noted, with horror, the accuracy of its predictions: our vulgar entertainment; the corporatization of everything; the dumbing down — and worse — of the highest office in the land. Dystopias speak to us because they’re practically adjacent…
Of course, we still have to try. Do nothing, and we get dystopias. Extrapolated from the present, they project a future that might seem inevitable, pulling us forward as if by tractor beam. For Margaret Atwood, this is literature that deals with “things that really could happen”.
The great power of utopias is to disrupt our surrender to orthodoxy, freeing us to understand the status quo as contingent, not predetermined, as changeable, not inevitable. And by smuggling utopia home, Defoe unsettles our notion of the totality of state power, the power to which his utopias are opposed…
The full and fascinating essay at “Defoe and the Distance to Utopia.”
C.F. also: “Every Society Invents the Failed Utopia it Deserves.”
* Kim Stanley Robinson,
As we hope– and work– for the best, we might spare a thought for William Butler Yeats; he died on this date in 1939. A poet, essayist, politician, and mystic, he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1923. His gravestone in Ireland bears the epitaph he composed: “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, Pass by.” Larry McMurtry took the title of his first novel from these lines (filmed as Hud.)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
– “The Second Coming,” W.B. Yeats