“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.