Utopia in Texas

Glen Newey

‘A New Jerusalem cannot be built without an effective sewage system,’ Miriam Eliav-Feldon wrote in Realistic Utopias (1982). Indeed, the old Jerusalem relied in biblical times on a municipal waste-combustion site, Gehenna, identified by Hobbes as the real-world model for hell – where the fires would keep burning for as long as there were sinners for incineration. In William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), which unearths utopia in 21st-century Hammersmith, the Houses of Parliament have been repurposed as a store for dung, while in Utopia itself, Thomas More specifies that Utopians use gold, which is abundant, for chamber pots. Shit, like nothing, happens anywhere, these utopian writers seem to say, but what matters is keeping it localised.

Utopia is now five hundred years old. First published in Leuven in 1516, it stands at the confluence of three currents: Renaissance humanism, the print revolution, and what is sometimes still called ‘the age of discovery’ – notably of the Americas, though these lands probably hadn’t escaped the notice of the peoples who had lived there for 12,000 years before the Europeans showed up. Printers vied to slake the thirst of the reading public for tidings of points west. Utopia was duly mapped as an island somewhere in the west Atlantic. More did his best to give its physical being credibility: Ambrosius Holbein, Hans’s elder brother, furnished a woodcut of it for the 1518 Basel edition.

Unlike The Prince’s five hundredth anniversary four years ago, Utopia’s has received relatively little scholarly fanfare. Cambridge University Press has put out a new edition as one of its Texts in the History of Political Thought, but it’s a reworked version, based on a nearly unchanged translation, of the previous edition from 2002. Verso’s new edition reprints an out-of-copyright version from the 17th century. Little seems planned in the way of quincentennial junkets of the kind that often herald such anniversaries, though the Center for Thomas More Studies in Dallas ran a conference in November. Nor is More much celebrated outside academia and St Peter’s. The fate of the Romanov obelisk in Moscow’s Alexander Garden, first put up in 1914 to mark the tercentenary of the dynasty, is illustrative. Bolsheviks re-engraved the obelisk with More’s name and other mooted harbingers of communism. In 2013, 99 years after it was put up, the Russian Ministry of Culture dismantled and completely refurbished it; along with the others, More’s name was effaced. Now the monument stands dedicated again to the tsar, outside the Kremlin wall, under the gilded two-headed Romanov eagle.

One of the most striking contributions that Utopia made to political thought was in imagining the ideal state – if that’s what it is – as a place, rather than as a pallid aggregate of principles. Foucault was riffing on this notion with his hétérotopie, an elsewhere where the ‘else’ matters as much as the ‘where’, though for Foucault the point is that heterotopias are actual places, the realising of a caprice. The placeness of the non-place – think of the titles of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), or News from Nowhere – has been central to utopian thought, and has moved in lockstep with European attitudes towards colonisation. Mundus Novus, a pamphlet containing a letter supposedly written by the explorer Amerigo Vespucci to his patron Lorenzo Pietro di Medici, published in Latin in 1502 or 1503 and quickly translated into Italian, titillated Europeans with tales (and lurid engravings) of New World natives cavorting naked and chowing down on human-leg fricassée. Another letter from Vespucci, published a few years later, describes four voyages to the New World – the first of which may well have been invented – along with such further tokens of barbarism as Amerindians’ indulgence in sweat lodges and eating without tablecloths. More was reprising a genre in which tall tales were commonplace. Utopia, like Mundus Novus, describes American natives’ indifference to gold and other European gewgaws. In both books, the lurid detail is at once geographically specific, and quite possibly made up.

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