Fri
Aug 28 2009 10:18am

Paved with Good Intentions, Part One

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.”   —Revelation of St John the Divine 21:1

So… a typically light-hearted way to start a blog post, then…

There is something about the human mind that makes us yearn for perfection. Even if we are completely happy with our lives, if we are lucky enough to be healthy, surrounded by friends and family, and comfortable, our minds stretch out, imagining places that are somehow…better.

Unsurprisingly, the utopia, and its dark mirror the dystopia (more on that in the next post), are perfectly suited to speculative and fantastic fiction. We can, if we want, smooth out the bewildering complexities of the world we know, and create our own imaginary society that maybe, just maybe, can reflect an ideal.

It is interesting, then, that when we try to create a perfect place, heaven or utopia, cracks appear very rapidly.

Jonathan Swift, for example, created a memorable Utopia in Part four of Gulliver’s Travels—where Gulliver visits a peaceful and civilised country which remains so only because the foul and violent Yahoos (humans) are controlled by the wise and rational Huoyhnhnms (talking, intelligent horses). But it rapidly becomes apparent, to all but Gulliver himself, that the Huoyhnhnms are far from benevolent—practising eugenics, castrating the Yahoos when they become unruly, and feeling little love or compassion even for their fellow horses. This land may be a peaceful place, but it manages it by extinguishing any form of passion.

Then again, this is hardly surprising when you consider the original Utopia, which is riddled with problems. Thomas More’s strange land is curiously inconsistent—honouring elders but promoting euthanasia, demanding religious tolerance but refusing to allow anyone to dress or act differently from their neighbours. True, they are not greedy, but only because they have set out to render gold and jewels undesirable by making prisoners wear them as chains. All of the prejudice and distance between rich and poor is still present—it is simply reversed. It isn’t hard to see that Swift and More thought of their ideal countries less as heavens, but more as workings out of ideas. They only make sense when contrasted with the vices of the real world.

But even places that really are perfect in every way can suffer from one utterly human problem—boredom. One of the most popular Medieval utopias was the fabled land of Cockaigne, where the houses were made of sugar, the streets were paved with pastry, and cooked animals ran free, ready to be eaten. It isn’t hard to see how such a land would be a tempting one for a starving medieval peasant. But it is also worth pointing out that the residents of Cockaigne are the most idle people in the world—Bruegel’s painting of the fabled land shows them lying on their backs, almost suffocated by their mountainous flesh. If the supply of ready-roasted geese ever dried up, they would not be long for the world.

Which is, of course, the problem—perfect places don’t create good stories. Even a poet as great as Dante had a difficult time in making the final part of the Divine Comedy entertaining. Hell and Purgatory are filled with anecdotes, heartbreaking stories and gory details. Heaven is mostly concerned with philosophical debates on the nature of the divine. In fact, most interestingly, at the moment of greatest perfection, when Dante has entered the Heavenly Rose and finally beholds God—the narrative abruptly stops:

High phantasy lost power and here broke off;
Yet, as a wheel moves smoothly, free from jars,
My will and my desire were turned by love,
The love that moves the sun and other stars.

For Dante, true heaven is inexpressible in a mortal tongue.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped utopian thought from driving people on. The desire to create a heaven on earth is often what keeps us striving forward. Then again, we should be cautious. It is a very short step from imagining a perfect world to forcing others to conform to it—at gunpoint if necessary. One person’s heaven is another’s hell.

After all, my opening quote, from the Bible, was supposed to be a vision of perfection—a land where a new city made of jewels is laid out, and there is no more deep and dangerous sea. But as Rupert Brooke pointed out in his poem Heaven, there is at least one creature that might disagree:

Oh! Never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there
And mud celestially fair…
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish.

6 comments
Amir Yoeli
1. Betterthenyouknew
OK, so I have to put in my two cents worth of opinion here.

People, are competitive by nature and by breeding, and therefore, that sense that the neighbor’s grass is always greener, is kind of an inbred trait, which is pretty much an affliction of 99.999% of humanity.

For that simple reason, a Utopia, such as is supposed to be plausible, where everybody is equal and happy and nobody wants for anything, can't exist. The closest we've come to something like this in the recent history, was communism, which was NOT a utopia, but it was--supposedly--equality for all, and nobody wanting for anything.

I am not advocating communism here, but I'm just saying it was probably the closest thing to utopia that has existed recently on a massive scale, and it failed, massively.
There have been other examples throughout history, of utopia’s existing in our own world, but in one sense or another, for one reason or another, they have all failed as well.

A Good example I just thought of for a supposed utopia on a small scale is M. Night Shyamalan’s, The Village. The story shows a working utopia, and, not surprisingly, it’s death knell in the form of the unsatisfied youth’s that wish to leave, or change, where they are living.

Something that has to be understood by all, in order that a utopia should work, is that a utopian society must be enforced in order for it to succeed. For this reason, no utopia is actually a utopia, but truly, a distopia. The two are in fact, one and the same. A distopia, as we know it is a utopia, which really isn’t, because there are malcontents within it. However once those malcontents are forced to conform to the utopian society’s rules, it is in effect enforced, and maintained as a utopia. Therefore, the act of enforcing a utopia in order that it remains a utopia is what also makes it a distopia.

It’s all a neat little circle really, but one which is unlikely ever to exist in real life.

A.
Nancy Lebovitz
2. Nancy Lebovitz
Have you read Lafferty's Past Master? Thomas Moore is brought forward to deal with problems on a planet whose society is based on his Utopia. He's shocked-- he wrote Utopia as a joke.

It takes careful reading to get past the verbal flash, but Astrobe (the planet with the Utopian society) is simply an authoritarian dictatorship with some totalitarian tendencies.
Dan Sparks
3. RedHanded
@ 1 I wouldn't say that communism would be close to a utopia. For one that's not a utopia, that's slavery to the group. Not going to go on in great detail here just wanted to mention it.

The problem with a utopia is that you have to define what exactly it is. Obviously it's a perfect society right? But like Mr. Whitley alludes to with the viewpoint of the fish is the question of perfect to who. To some it may be a life of ease where every want is provided on a whim. (who is doing the providing?). To others it may just be that they are left alone. Or maybe that there is no violence or maybe all of the above. With any idea of what is good the question that always needs asked is good...by who's standard?
That is why the government should never be allowed to enforce any one person or groups idea of good because you will always be violating someone elses right. To me a utopia would be one where the government only does what it is supposed to do, and that is protect individual rights against initiations of physical force...and that's it. Imagine a world where you are free to act of your own volition to make decisions either good or bad for your life without fear of some arbitrary law being enforced upon you at any time. A world where what you earn is yours de jure and not because the government just hasn't decided to take it yet. Now that's a utopia brother!
Daniel Cole
4. zaldar
Ah utopia! Great book by Mr. Moore who did actually know that his utopia was impossible. In fact he wrote it to show how utopias were impossible. Something not enough people see, was glad that you caught it. Will have to go back and reread swift...I didn't catch that the author saw the dystopian nature of the utopia he made there, may have been because I was reading it as a teenager and at the time a world of removed passions probably seemed like a good thing.
Nancy Lebovitz
5. Confusador
I think it's also worth pointing out about Moore that the point of the book is not a longing for Utopia, but a revulsion at the idea. It's written in response to people who would argue for a simpler world. The description of the simple world in Utopia is horrific, where the real world is wildy convoluted. The argument is that the complexity is not regrettable, but the only that life can be and still be good, because of the individuality of each human person.

I find it strange the the meaning of the word has come to mean an idealized place, since Moore's ideal was reality.
David Whitley
6. DavidWhitley
Of course, I have a lot more to say on this subject in part two! But thanks so much for the wonderfully interesting an perceptive comments!

@1 Absolutely - the tendency of utopian thought to create dictatorships is a sad fact. But a few Utopian authors have escaped this by having a society so far down the utopian route that no-one would think of rebelling. Not that this is a good thing - the apparently perfect existance of the Eloi in "The Time Machine" springs to mind. Even when the main character points out how fragile their lives are, they no longer have the will to change anything.

@2 I haven't, but it sounds really fascinating!

@3 I completely take your point, but the difficulty is, of course, defining the full extent of individual rights - something as simple as "a right to quality of life" or "a right to security" can justify huge amounts of intervention. But, as you say, take a thousand people and you'll have a thousand and one viewpoints. I suppose that the trouble with Utopian thought is that it focuses on one or two ideas to the detriment of everything else - more on this in the next post!

@4 Oh yes, Swift is always worth a look... Gulliver did rather damage his credibility by coming back to England, ignoring his very long-suffering wife, and going to live in the stables with his horses. So much so that Pope wrote a tearful little poem from the point of view of Mrs Gulliver, which ended:

'I'll call thee Houhnhnm, that high sounding name,
Thy Children's noses all should twang the same.
So might I find my loving Spouse of course
Endued with all the virtues of a Horse.'

Poor woman...

@5 Very true, though I personally would argue that More was not depicting a wholly dreadful place - some of their attitudes towards equality and the rule of intelluectuals certainly would have suited him. I talk a bit about this in my next post, but I suspect that he was presenting it as a contrast to the real world, to suggest that both could learn from each other. After all - he was a great humanist, he believed in mankind being able to rise itself up to the greatest heights!

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