Posts Tagged ‘Looking Backward’

Dreams of utopia – part 1

August 25, 2020

41CQ2tBHymL._AC_UY218_     I’ve written about utopias (and dystopias) before, in a number of places, and if you’re sufficiently interested you can track down the posts. I’ve been thinking again, in the current incredibly dire and grim state of the world, about our likelihood of ever getting anywhere near one before the planet hawks us up and spits us out for good…

There have been religious utopias, economic utopias, feminist utopias, political utopias, rural utopias, ecological utopias. Writers have visualised happiness for an elite, for the many, for most or even for all, and with or without slaves. They have imagined utopias on this planet and on other, imaginary worlds.

A quest for an ideal or perfect world or society presupposed imperfection of and or dissatisfaction with the current one – a permanent given – and a picture of something better; more thoughtful writers also attempt the really difficult bit, which is to explain how we get/got there, and this always raises another question: why don’t we do it?

I find myself going back in time, to ancient days, when society first settled, became agrarian and was able to accumulate surpluses of food. At this point it seems to have been possible for more powerful individuals to take over and arrogate the surpluses to themselves, and thus to also control the labour that produced food, goods and surpluses. Here we have inequality emerging, and we have to think about whether this was inevitable or necessary. Yet, once it happened it will almost instantly have become a permanent feature of our world and its organisation, for what person or group, having seen what it is possible to do with power and more stuff than others, would not strive to keep things that way? And so it has gone on…

When did this start? In my imagination, I see an equality in the builders of something like Stonehenge, for example, which seems to have been constructed to answer to primitive spiritual needs of a society. But even then, in that lost past, was there not a privileged and powerful priestly class to insist on its construction, and make it happen? And when we come to consider the Pharaohs and their pyramids, it’s clearer that a ruling class used enforced labour to create monuments to themselves.

For me the crux is the point where the inequality emerges, where the lower classes are unable – for whatever reason – to resist or counter its emergence and consolidation. N centuries later, inequality is everywhere rampant, entrenched, and condemns countless millions to misery and impoverishment.

71J-9IfLqQL._AC_UY218_     Utopian visions, nowadays certainly, take issue with inequality and see equality of wealth and opportunity, sharing and co-operation rather than competition as the way to ensure maximum happiness or contentment for the greatest number. And we live in a society which has now shown that it can create sufficient abundance for their to be enough for everyone were it shared out more fairly (not even equally). Nobody needs the wealth of a Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos; they could never spend even a part of it.

Utopias usually imagine a world where warfare is part of the past. A rational consideration demonstrates that war is an obscene waste of money and resources (I refer you to this astonishing graphic if you want concrete evidence) without even thinking about the ethical issue of killing other human beings. Weapons are an ideal capitalist consumer good, for, used as directed, they immediately need replacing with more. And the idea that people make their livelihoods from inventing and constructing ever more horrendous devices for killing and maiming their fellow humans is too sick to think about.

Utopias have imagined technology as capable of providing plenty, a life of comfort and ease for all. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (or Life in the Year 2000) was published in 1887 and combines production and socialist distribution to imagine a marvellous future for humanity. More recently, writers have been aware of technology, production and pollution coming together as more of a threat: I offer Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, and Ecotopia Emerging, as examples of how continuing on our current track is not such a good idea. And he was writing 40 years ago, before the horrific state of plastic pollution or the enormous threat presented by climate change and global heating became so obvious…

71FUig5zsTL._AC_UY218_     Some recent utopias (and dystopias) have looked to sexual politics as an issue that needs to be addressed. Charlottle Perkins Gilman created a women-only world in Herland a century or more ago. In the 1970s Suzy McKee Charnas first visualised a dystopia from a woman’s viewpoint (Walk to the End of the World) and then proceeded to construct a response (Motherlines). And Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time is a particularly good example of the genre from this perspective, as is Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction generally.

There have been utopias which have looked backwards in a different way, taking refuge in a quieter agrarian past, a rural idyll. William MorrisNews From Nowhere, W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, and Austin Tappan Wright’s magnificent Islandia are all different examples of how this has been done. To be continued…

Ten of the strangest books in my library – part one

August 15, 2019

Liber Usualis

This is a very thick and weighty tome, originally published, I think, for use in monasteries. It contains the music for the main services, in plainchant four-stave notation. I bought it many years ago, not for the music but for the texts of various now long-lost Latin services, and it’s supplemented by a copy of the Tridentine Missale Romanum with Latin rubrics, and also a copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible.

Adolf in Blunderland

This satire after the manner of Lewis Carroll, complete with Tenniel-style illustrations and reworkings of almost all of the songs from Alice, mocking the Nazis and their leaders, is from the mid 1930s, obviously in the days before the real dangers of the Nazi project were clear to many, and knockabout humour was thought sufficient. I bought it when I was still at school, with five shillings – a sizeable sum in those days – of my pocket money. Unfortunately, even though I’ve looked after it carefully, it is showing its age.

Zbior Nazwisk Szlachty

You wouldn’t have expected the Polish communist authorities to have allowed the publication of such a facsimile, of a book which originally appeared in 1805 and is an index of the names of the Polish nobility. It was a gift to my father, which I inherited – our family name is in the book, and it’s a genuine one rather than one from the days when everyone was scrambling to have a gentrified name; it also means we have a coat of arms. Before you all grovel at the thought of my greatness, I should point out two important details: firstly that the nobility was abolished in 1919, and secondly that it was the name that was important, not wealth or property. A peasant could have a noble name, which brought respect and standing along with it, just as it did to a rich man. If you were among the 25%+ of the nation with a name, you could theoretically take part on the election of the king. Yes, you read that right…

Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (along with Pliny’s Natural History, Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah, and The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition)

I’ve had a soft spot for Isidore for a long time, long before the Vatican named that early encyclopaedist patron saint of the internet. In that curious time known as the Dark Ages, after the disappearance of the Western Roman Empire, monks sought to preserve knowledge, and Isidore complied twenty brief books of etymologies in which he attempted a taxonomy and collation of everything that was known. He ranges widely through arts and sciences; everything looks to God, and the gaps are haunting and the naivete charming or amusing at different times. As we now know, Arab savants also preserved and built upon the knowledge of the ancients, and two of the other texts I mention offer knowledge from their perspective, from mediaeval times. In our days, when we think we know so much, and with such certainty, I find it humbling and refreshing to see the sum total of knowledge, and the picture of the world from the viewpoint of an ancient Roman, a seventh century Spanish monk, or an Arab scientist. Perhaps far in the future, others will look back at our days and our learning and interpretations in a similar way…

Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward (my edition)

I’ve written about the weirdness of this edition here. I commend the utopian vision to you as an interesting and curious read: the idea of a socialist United States is a marvellous one, but still as far off as it was back in 1887.

A tour of my library – part two

August 9, 2019

My collection of literature and literary criticism lives in my study, and includes works of reference I used when I was teaching. I have been gradually slimming this section down in retirement, since I have actually finished with a good many of the books and do not expect to have any further use for them. I still write the occasional study guide, and so the collection does come in useful, although I tend to rely much more on my own teaching notes, most of which I’ve scanned and keep on my laptop. I’m most pleased with a collection of Shakespeare texts I built up over many years: a complete set of thirty-five volumes of the Arden Shakespeare Second Series in hardback editions. This may not mean anything to you, but this series was the gold standard in my time as a student and teacher. However, the gem of my literature collection was a treat to myself of a facsimile of the First Folio: pure book porn (if you’ll allow the expression), I love to sit and turn the pages over and marvel quietly.

The fiction section lives in our sitting room, by and large, and fills two alcoves on either side of the fireplace. For ease of searching it’s divided into two sections, works written before 1900 and works written after that date. The pre-1900 section contains many of the classics you might expect, Austen, Conrad, and also quite a few of the Russians. I have a good number of nice editions, particularly those of the latest incarnation of the Everyman’s Library; these are books that I do like to come back to. The modern section is very eclectic, but – as you might expect – with a bias to Eastern European literature on my part. A good number of our poetry books also find their homes on the top shelves: Milton, Donne and other metaphysicals; the modern poetry I used to teach is in my study.

There’s a small selection of my science fiction in my study. It’s the only section so far where I have begun to apply a new criterion: do I definitely want to keep/ re-read this book? If I’m certain, or there’s enough doubt, then I shall keep the book; otherwise I shall part with it. This means that quite a lot of the science fiction is actually in boxes in the loft, because I have no interest in re-visiting it. One book which I am keeping is a not very well-known American utopian novel from 1887, Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, which envisions a socialist America in the year 2000. The premise is contrived, as often in a utopia, but the vision is fascinating. And my copy is a most bizarre example: it’s printed on very cheap paper which has gone seriously brown, and looks exactly like the original British edition of the novel, except that it’s in a semi-glossy paperback cover, which would not have been possible then. This cover would seem to feature the frontispiece portrait of Bellamy from that first edition. There are absolutely no clues that this is a reprint or facsimile, and it certainly does not look like a photographic reproduction. I bought it new in the late 1970s, and there was apparently an edition published then, but I have no clue who published it. Very mysterious…

Ernest Callenbach: Ecotopia

May 5, 2019

51i-FvQSB0L._AC_UL320_    A1pKb0cRToL._AC_UL320_    I’ve often written about utopias in posts, and I finally re-read Ecotopia, the most recent one I know of, after a long time. Callenbach wrote the novel in the late ‘70s, setting it 1999, with his hero visiting a country which had seceded from the US in 1980; he is the first American reporter to visit Ecotopia (the two countries do not have diplomatic relations) and the book takes the form of reports he sends back to his New York newspaper, interwoven with a more personal diary of his stay in Ecotopia.

In structure and presentation it’s no different from many other utopias: the visitor travels around the country, meeting people and learning how the place works and how good it is, comparing it with his native land, gradually being convinced of its advantages; it’s no surprise at the end of this novel that our visitor elects to stay… What interests is how close many of the concerns of the novel are to those which today’s world needs to address, and I’m somewhat mystified as to why this novel seems so rapidly to have faded into relative obscurity. There was a prequel a few years later – Ecotopia Emerging – which I once had a copy of, but seem to have mislaid or disposed of.

Ecotopia is basically hippyland – I oversimplify grossly, but anyone who was around in the 1970s and 1980s will know what I mean. The social cost of everything is taken into account, which our traveller finds hard to understand: who is ultimately responsible for the problems, issues, illnesses and other socially harmful consequences of a product or an action, – its producer or consumer? A question surely very relevant today. The economy aims for steady state, not growth, the country is decentralised, recycling, re-use and repairability are at the forefront of all consumer products, and the inhabitants of the country are committed to living in balance with nature… the only contemporary issue missing is climate change.

The two different perspectives the reporter offers us: ‘official’ newspaper articles and a ‘personal’ diary, complement each other and we are able to see him unwillingly seduced into accepting the attractiveness of the alternative model. Ecotopians have gone a long way towards equalising gender roles (though there is absolutely no mention of homosexuality or gay rights, and interracial issues are sidelined by the idea of separate development and decentralisation) and I found myself perceiving some similarities between this society and that of Anarres in Ursula LeGuin’s better and rather better-known novel The Dispossessed. The main difference is that there is no outsider in the same way in her novel; rather the hero from the utopia visits the non-utopian outside, in a sort of reversal. Women played a major role in the original revolt which led to the independence of Ecotopia, and have a leading role in its government. Decisions are made through consensus.

It is still ‘America’ and so Ecotopians have not given up on guns… and with an American author and American setting, none of the solutions are socialist or communist: at the most there is vigorous state direction or control of some aspects of the economy, and this is explained and justified in American terms. But there is a national health service, though it’s not called that. There is a little background to the origin of the new nation and the transition to it, including the inevitable economic dislocation, although this material was clearly the subject matter for the prequel mentioned above.

Utopias, and indeed all SF novels set in the future, date quickly, and the most glaring example in this novel is the absence of the internet. I was also struck by the absence of what I would call ordinary people – we never meet any working-class Ecotopians, and ugly, elderly or uneducated ones, and I cannot believe that everyone in the nation was hippified, beautified and educated in only twenty years… it’s a lovely but very bourgeois, middle-class future society.

Most novels fade into well-deserved obscurity quite rapidly, but here is one that raises questions and issues still salient today, that chimes with many of the things being challenged at this moment, and yet it already in some ways appears as quaint as Edward Bellamy’s socialist utopia of 1887 set in the United States of the year 2000: Looking Backward. Perhaps every generation needs its utopia, in which case, what is today’s?

Return to Utopia

February 2, 2016

I’ve written about utopias at various times, in relation to specific books I’ve read, and more generally, too; I’ve been doing some more thinking recently. Utopias have changed over time: originally they were static worlds, because perfect, and if something is perfect, then any change is per se a deterioration. But stasis has its own dangers, too – that way entropy lies. So, more recently there has been more of a sense of a utopia as a work in progress, with at least some projects or activities allowing the dynamism that we recognise as a human attribute to flourish. In Yefremov’s Andromeda, for instance, it’s contact with alien civilisation that’s the great excitement of the moment. Huxley’s Brave New World – which is a utopia – is fixated on maintaining stasis at all costs, but this seems to matter less as the realisation grows that the inhabitants may be happy, but are not human…

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward is a highly organised and regulated socialist utopia in the United States (!); this apparent contradiction got me thinking about the balance between individuals and groups. Because a utopia is a perfect society (or working towards that state) it seems to me that the role and fulfilment of the individual of necessity has to take a subordinate place to the functioning of the society as a whole, and this is an idea that does not sit easily with us in the West at our particular stage of (capitalist) development. An individual utopia just does not seem to be a possibility (at least, I have yet to encounter one in fiction). And utopia is therefore compulsory for all its inhabitants – you cannot just opt out, for there is nothing to opt out to, if you see what I mean; furthermore, if it is a state of (near) perfection, then its members presumably accept that compulsion and consequent limitations on their freedom as individuals. This brings us back to that hoary old chestnut, freedom from versus freedom to…

Inhabitants of Anarres, in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, seem used to being organised by each other in an anarchist state, accepting rotated allocations to society’s more demanding and less pleasant tasks; it’s possible to imagine that humans might behave like that one day, but how do we get there, from where we are now? Transitions to utopia are often the least successful part of an author’s imagining. And what happens to misfits, the awkward ones, those who don’t or won’t or can’t fit? Huxley exiles them to islands; Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time, has her utopia execute criminals who can’t be reformed…

So, a utopia inevitably for us, posits a tension between what is best for individuals and best for the group. And, if the entire world is not part of the utopia, but only part of it is, such as in Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, or Austin Tappan Wright’s monumental Islandia, then the utopia is constantly looking over its metaphorical shoulder to see what the outsider threats might be.

The original, utopian hedonism of the 1960s was naive and its intentions soon subverted by the system which cashed in on rampant individualism in every way possible: if society is a mass of individuals all in pursuit of their own particular happiness or fulfilment, then there are myriad opportunities to sell stuff to each one of them… and that is what happened, on a grand scale, and is still happening: the idea that we might first consider what might be good for the bigger whole – all of society – has become alien territory, and utopia has receded.

I think that is why, to me at least, utopia remains and always will be the stuff of dreams: there are too many of us humans, all programmed to have so many different wants and needs; even if we could share resources out so that everyone had enough – and there is enough to be able to do this – I still can’t see us thereafter agreeing to sublimate ourselves to a greater good. Maybe I’m just having a bad day…

%d bloggers like this: