The utopia of the mind is not the same as the utopia of reality. Writers and philosophers and great thinkers of every stripe; and in fact any old crackpot, scoundrel, and megalomaniac can conceive of a utopia in the mind. That is where utopia works best – in the imagination and in dreams. A utopia in reality is quite another matter and we yearn with all our hearts to look further into that possibility next week.
As you may recall, the fourth book of my novel in four volumes will concern itself with the ideas of utopia. (Utopia as allegory).
The utopia of the mind works best because, after all, who does not have the answer to all the world’s problems? If all the people in the world simply acted more like me or at least did everything I told them to do, the world would be a much better place. And when we read Utopian literature that is what it most often sounds like. Take Plato’s ‘Republic’ for instance. What it seems like on paper is the ideal, if not perfect society, based upon the City-State of the Spartans of another age. But in reality what it would be is the kind of totalitarian nightmare regime we have become so familiar with in the modern age. The Nazis in Germany thought of themselves in Utopian terms and look how that turned out. Their ‘reason’ was formed in a vacuum so when it became reality it was as twisted as their swastikas.
Writers through the ages have always had a Utopian bent. The word itself comes from Sir Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ which can mean either ‘Good Place’ or ‘No Place’. This fits because utopia can be a good place, but it is found no place. His utopia was a contrast to the English society of his day. (He later died a martyr’s death at the hands of Henry VIII, but that is quite another story). Some other Utopian writings are Dante’s ‘Purgatorio’ and ‘Paradiso’; John MacNie’s ‘The Diothas’ (1883); Edward Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’ (1888); ‘What the North Wind Rose’ by Robert Graves; St. Augustine’s ‘City of God’ and B.F. Skinner’s ‘Walden Two’. I remember being enthralled by ‘Walden Two’ back in the day, but now find it simplistic in the horse and carrot manner of solving social problems.
Of course there are plenty of examples of utopia gone wrong such as Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’; ‘1984’ by George Orwell; and the allegorical ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding. We might say that the Engels/Marx Utopian idea of communism went terribly wrong also, but that has crossed over into the world of reality.
America, the dream – not the reality – was very Utopian from the beginning. Columbus dreamed of discovering the Garden of Eden. Puritans sought release from the bondage of European restrictions. (Even that failed, however. We North Americans think of Puritanism with no little embarrassment today.) Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ is a kind of individual utopia. If we are willing to endure loneliness and to live within the laws of nature, we can seek and find the genuine self.
There is something unreal even in the dream of utopia. Once we have dreamed it up (it’s perfect!), are we then to stop dreaming? And the reality is even more removed –who will do the work and who would even want to live in such a place? “That’s your idea of perfection, partner, not mine.” Or – “That might work for a mindless automaton, but I have dreams of my own.” In a way the writer is always somewhat Utopian - thinking. The written word is a utopia created and controlled by me (and I hope you all will fight to the death with sticks and fingernails over the manuscripts and papers I leave behind me when I die!). Most writers have given up on utopia altogether, and have opted for anti-utopia, or dystopia instead. Utopia, they believe, is bound to fail.
All life must grow. In order to grow, utopia cannot become static. Growth causes pain. Pain must either be inflicted on others or taken upon ourselves in self-suffering love. Pain becomes suffering if it is not addressed and alleviated. Suffering causes discontent. Discontent leads to Utopian thought. Utopia fails because the people dream of utopia…
Next Week: UTOPIA II The Reality of the World.
Copyright © James D. Sanderson 2010. All rights reserved.
For some intellectually stimulating and eclectic articles about utopia see: