Pretty Much like Ourselves

Terry Eagleton

  • Modern British Utopias 1700-1850 by Gregory Claeys
    Pickering & Chatto, 4128 pp, £550.00, March 1997, ISBN 1 85196 319 7

Utopia is the most self-undermining of literary forms. If an ideal society can be portrayed only in the language of the present, it risks being betrayed as soon as we speak of it. Anything we can speak of must fall short of the otherness we desire. Utopias rebel against the unimaginativeness of the present, and in doing so find themselves simply reproducing it. All utopian writing is also dystopian, since, like Kant’s sublime, it cannot help reminding us of our mental limits in the act of striving to go beyond them.

The same problem is evident in descriptions of aliens, almost all of which are absurdly anthropomorphic. Beings who must have set out for Earth millions of years ago turn out to look pretty much like Paddy Ashdown apart from their dwarfish stature and sinisterly monotone voices. Spacecraft capable of negotiating black holes crash in the Nevada desert, while their occupants display an excited interest in human dentures and genitals. Their speech and bodies are inconceivably different from ours, except for the fact that they speak and have bodies. There can be no alien abductions, since any aliens who bothered to abduct us would not be aliens. UFOs, like utopias, are epiphanies of the beyond which bear witness to the fact that we can never attain it. The most mindbending of literary genres provide evidence of our incurable straightness.

Utopias from the 18th and early 19th-centuries, of the kind which Gregory Claeys has assembled in this handsome set of volumes, are outlandish precisely because of their ordinariness. What seems ‘utopian’, in the sense of extravagantly unreal, about them is precisely their incapacity to imagine a world significantly different from the one around them. In a bold-faced piece of bohemianism, the utopianists of Lady Mary Fox’s Account of an Expedition to the interior of New Holland (1837) hold casual buffets rather than dinner parties. In Sarah Scott’s A Description of Millennium Hall (1778), utopia is a country mansion in Cornwall, an anodyne English pastoral in which female midgets play the harpsichord and tend the shrubberies. For the English the ideal society needs to have an old orchard and a couple of herbaceous borders. The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1751) locates its perfect society in ‘spacious vales and lofty mountains, pleasant verdure and groves of stately trees’.

This particular utopia smells good, whereas most of them are odourless, antiseptic places, intolerably streamlined and sensible, in which the natives will jaw on for hours about the efficiency of their sanitary arrangements or the ingenuity of their electoral system. Indeed talk seems all that is left to a people whose history has come to an end, and who are dependent for diversion on some alien visitor dropping in to have their theological doctrines explained to him. Charles Rowcroft’s ideal world in The Triumph of Woman (1848) is a drearily high-minded regime full of wholesome puddings, docile, state-funded artists and one pew per person in church. The space-travelling protagonist, who lands in Bavaria by meteorite, reports that there are no women in his world – a state of affairs which you suspect is the closest to perfection the patriarchal Rowcroft could get, even if his alien ends up falling for a female earthling. Douglas Jerrold’s The Chronicles of Clovernook (1846) – an insufferably arch narrative which becomes peculiarly excited at the prospect of little boys rending their trousers while climbing for apples – enthuses over an imaginary society which still has taxes, prisons and poverty.

Whatever their radical content, the form of such utopias reflects back to us the actual world in mildly reformed guise, and so helps to reinforce it. They are end-of-history texts, fictional equivalents of Francis Fukuyama, which deny that reality could be transformed in the very act of proclaiming how it could be improved. The Island of Liberty (1848) shows an enlightened aristocrat carrying out an experiment in human equality on a South Sea island, a project which goes dismally wrong. The point of imagining an alternative society, not least in the year of European revolutions, is to reassure yourself that it isn’t feasible. Otherness turns out to be bogus: John Kirkby’s The Capacity and Extent of the Human Understanding (1745) presents us with a noble savage on his paradisal island who has figured out more or less the whole of English 18th-century religion almost down to country parsonages, simply by attentively observing the natural world around him.

The paradigm of all such fiction is Robinson Crusoe, since what is so consoling about the book is the way its protagonist gets by in exotically unfamiliar circumstances by exercising a very English rationality. It is enheartening to see Crusoe briskly chopping wood and staking out his enclosure as if he were somewhere in the Home Counties. If you catch a sea monster in this kind of tale, it is in order to squeeze oil out of it. Gulliver’s Travels, too, exploits this technique, introducing us to alien worlds whose natives turn out to be much more like us than their appearance would lead us to expect. Indeed, if this were not so the novel would not work – partly because Gulliver must share some cultural characteristics with the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians if they are effectively to satirise his own society, partly because the truly other would be unintelligible.

That these freaks, microbeings, rational quadrupeds and immortal wrecks are not all that different from the citizens of Birmingham is in one sense a smack at the radical utopianists Swift detested: there can be nothing beyond the limits of what is already known. In another sense, however, it is a swipe at those Enlightenment philosophers who believed complacently in a universal human nature. The Lilliputians do indeed turn out to be pretty much like ourselves, more’s the pity. Gulliver himself can never achieve a proper balance between standing superiorly aloof from these other cultures, and going pathetically overboard for their way of seeing. If he subjects the King of Brobdingnag to a blast of chuckle-headed English chauvinism, he is also foolishly proud of the title the Lilliputians bestow on him, and indignantly rebuts a charge of having had sex with a female only a few inches high. To embrace cultural otherness too eagerly is to betray a flaw in one’s own identity; and Gulliver, who ends up believing that he is a horse, finally loses his precarious hold on selfhood and collapses into madness and despair.

The trick of Gulliver’s Travels is to use imaginary cultures to estrange and unsettle our own. This means laying aside our own assumptions in just the way that the lesser writings collected here seem to find impossible. For all their supposed idealism, these utopian flights of fancy are doggedly realist works, displaying a world which is reassuringly familiar even as they clamour for it to be changed. This contradiction between form and content was to have a long after-history: Bernard Shaw’s plays may issue subversive messages, but the loving precision with which their stage directions detail the furniture or the colour of the maid’s stockings suggests a reality too massively solid to be more than tinkered with.

These 18th-century utopias exist on the margins of space rather than of time. They are more often set in the South Seas than in some era to come, since their authors have no particular concept of historical progress; and their function is to comment on the present rather than to project a desirable future. They are not particularly interested in how the transition from the actual to the utopian is made, in contrast with William Morris’s News from Nowhere, which, as Perry Anderson has noted, is that rarest of socialist utopias, one which describes in some detail how the revolution actually came about. Nor are they especially interested in what their utopias look like. The stage-setting is generally accomplished in purely formulaic style, pressed to extremes in Great Britain in 1841; or, the Results of the Reform Bill (1831), which begins with its narrator blandly announcing that ‘It so happened, that at the close of the year 1831, I fell into a profound slumber, which continued undisturbed till the end of the year 1841.’ We are no more meant to ask how he came to sleep for ten years than we are supposed to find a pantomime horse anatomically convincing. On awakening from his slumber, the narrator of this anonymous tract finds his brother bending benevolently over him, looking forty rather than ten years older than when he saw him last. This premature ageing is the result of the 1832 Reform Bill, which has allowed the state to confiscate their father’s property and forced him into exile in the south of France. The funds of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge have likewise been grabbed by the Government, their Fellows reduced to beggary and their lecture halls thrown impiously open to religious doctrines other than those of the Established Church. England and Ireland have been dissevered, the King has fled to Hanover, the rioting populace is carrying out summary executions and the brothers’ mother has died of a broken heart.

The last thing such works are concerned with is a world beyond. Alternative universes are simply devices for embarrassing the one we have: the point is not to go elsewhere, but to use elsewhere as a reflection on where you are. The more relevant to our own concerns utopia is, the less utopian it becomes. William Thomson’s The Man in the Moon (1783) whisks Charles James Fox into space to hang him from a wart on the moon’s nose, but the political discussion which follows could have taken place in any London coffee house. The seditious republican satire A Voyage to the Moon (1793), which contains a savage libel of the Prince of Wales, imagines a society in which big snakes oppress little ones; but everything else about England is perfectly familiar, and even the snakes have to be supplied with arms to allow them to engage in amorous embraces.

Amorous embraces have their place in these countries of the mind, even though English utopias are typically rational rather than carnivalesque, more preoccupied with the constitutional than the carnal. The narrator of The Adventures of James Dubourdieu (1719) finds himself in a primitive vegetarian paradise in which inhabitants bereft of all body-hair leap naked into fountains. James Lawrence’s The Empire of the Nairs, or, the Rights of Woman (1811), set among the nobility of the Malabar coast, portrays a libertine community in which women are free to choose their own lovers and children are tended only by their mothers. Both features are meant to be feminist, though the latter is no doubt more the sort of feminism that would appeal to a male author. The liberal-minded protagonist is pleased to see hordes of naked young woman disporting themselves unashamed, though whether his pleasure is entirely ideological remains unclear. In The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, the enlightened hero marries an inhabitant of the imaginary realm of Swangea only to discover on his wedding night that her body is entirely encased in an artificial skin. Anxious that he may be deprived of his conjugal rights ‘either to my own Gratification, or the Increase of our Species’, the fumbling Wilkins lights upon ‘divers fat broad ledges, likke Whalebone, seemingly under her Covering, which closely enfolded her Body’. Surmising that her second skin ‘might all be laced on together, somewhat like Stays’, he ‘felt behind for the Lacing’. To his chagrin he discovers no way in, but the woman suddenly throws off her encasement by some mysterious device and gives herself up to his embraces. This book is a cautionary tale for liberals: those who think that cultural differences can be casually set aside might end up with a lifetime of enforced celibacy.

Claeys reprints a few well-known (anti-)utopian pieces like Johnson’s Rasselas and Burke’s spoof A Vindication of Natural Society (1756), but most of his chosen texts are obscure, amateurish and drearily written. An exception is the American socialist John Francis Bray’s A Voyage from Utopia (1842), a scorching libertarian satire dedicated to John Wilkes, which inspects English politics and religion from the viewpoint of a visiting native of utopia. He finds ‘Anglos’ full of ill-clad, half-starved humans who worship Fe-fo-fum, a god who lives in Blesso and has a sworn enemy in Blacko-Jacko, an inhabitant of Blazo. The 1840s, like the closing decades of the 18th century, were awash with utopias for obvious political reasons; but in common with the political journalism they covertly are, utopias are the most ephemeral of literary forms, constructing their ideal kingdoms simply to promote some parochial obsession in the present. No form of fantasy could be more provincial and prosaic. By the end of the 19th century, after Morris’s mighty classic, the task of imagining otherness would pass to science fiction, which performed it with a good deal more panache.

There are two kinds of starry-eyed idealist: those who believe in a perfect society, and those who hold that the future will be pretty much like the present. Wedged between them are the realists, who recognise that the future will be a lot different, though by no means necessarily better. To claim that human affairs might feasibly be much improved is a realist position; those with their heads truly in the clouds are the hard-nosed pragmatists who behave as though chocolate-chip cookies or the International Monetary Fund will still be with us in two thousand years’ time. Such a view is simply an inversion of the television cartoon The Flintstones, for which the remote past is just American suburbia plus dinosaurs. The 18th-century fascination with utopia went hand-in-glove with imperial expeditions, as a spiritual equivalent of the colonising project. One of the functions of the genre was to bring cultural difference under the sway of Western identity without thereby abolishing the exoticism which made the Tartars or Tongans worth writing about in the first place.

The irony of colonialism is that it cannot help flirting with cultural relativism at just the point where it needs to affirm the superior worth of its own way of doing things. Since this includes plundering other cultures, it is unavoidably confronted with the scandalous truth that these cultures are at once profoundly alien and in ostensibly good working order. Indeed, in order to impose its political rule colonialism often enough relies on the fact that its underlings have their own coherent values and institutions. Genuine savages could not be governed, since they would lack all concept of authority and subjection. The fact that you can conquer another society suggests that you shouldn’t, since for this to be possible the natives must be sufficiently like us to render it morally dubious. If, on the other hand, they are incapable of our own level of civility, you can use this fact to justify exploiting them, but will be forced to give up trying to rationalise that exploitation as a part of a civilising process.

Utopias, however, are not just the products of colonialism; they are also attempts to imagine a condition beyond it. But all such generous speculations must buy their virtual realities at a certain cost. For one thing, the energies invested in imagining a better world may help to sidetrack the energies devoted to its realisation. For another thing, projecting the future may just be an attempt to control it as efficiently as you do the present. The true clairvoyants of our epoch are those specialists hired to peer into the entrails of the economic system and assure its proprietors that their profits are safe for another thirty years. Their opposite numbers are the prophets, who, like their Old Testament forbears, have no interest in the future beyond warning that it is likely to be unpleasant if we do not change our ways.

Walter Benjamin thought that the Jewish prohibition of graven images included a refusal to make a fetish of the future. There is remarkably little utopian speculation in the work of the Jewish Marx, who viewed his task not as sketching a blueprint for the coming kingdom but as resolving the contradictions which forestalled its arrival. Once the just society has arrived, Marx and his ilk will have done themselves out of a job: there will be no radicals in the New Jerusalem, since their discourse belongs to the present as much as the language of man-management. Left-wing utopias which dream of a society beyond privilege are instances of the privileges they disown: as Oscar Wilde knew, there is something offensively idle and frivolous about thinking up other worlds, a pursuit in which anyone can engage as readily as they can boil an egg. But Wilde was also aware that we fleshly creatures stood in need of such images, which is why he offered himself as a person at once intolerably self-indulgent and the harbinger of a future in which nobody else would need to work either. This collection provides us with other images of utopia, though anyone who can afford it is already living in one.