The Medium Against the Message: The Dilemma of Utopian Narration.

Author:Beauchamp, Gorman
Position::Essay
 
FREE EXCERPT

"We are men, not automata; we eat meat, not ideas; we drink wine, not syllogisms; we make love to people of the opposite sex, not to dialectics." Alberto Moravia, Man as an End In 1866 Frederic Harrison, a follower of Auguste Comte and true believer in his grand scheme for a utopian sociocracy, sent a letter to George Eliot urging her to write a great fictive tableau depicting the realization of the ideal Comtean society. Indeed, the correspondent declared that to undertake such a task was Eliot's "destiny." What the world needed to be shown, he argued, "is the possibility in real life of healthy moral control over societies." Perhaps it is testimony to the verisimilitude of George Eliot's art that this correspondent should mistake it for real life, but one sees his point: to persuade the widest audience, Comte's grand abstract design required translation into the sort of living and true-to-life--that is, novelistic--picture at which Eliot excelled. She replied to this importuning with a tactful but decisive denial of the possibility of conveying the utopist's design through the novelist's art--a denial, that is, of the possibility of a utopian novel. You cannot imagine, she wrote,

the severe effort of trying to make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh and not in the spirit. I think aesthetic teaching is the highest of all teaching because it deals with life in its highest complexity. But if it ceases to be purely aesthetic--if it lapses anywhere from the picture to the diagram--it becomes the most offensive of all teaching. Avowed Utopias are not offensive, because they are understood to have a scientific and expository character: they do not pretend to work on the emotions, or couldn't do it if they did pretend.... [c]onsider the sort of agonizing labour to an English-fed imagination to make art a sufficiently real background, for the desired picture, to get breathing, individual forms, and group them into the needful relations, so that the presentation will lay hold on the emotions as human experience--will... "flash" conviction on the world by means of aroused sympathy. (IV, 300-301) Eliot's distinction between diagram and picture--between the abstraction of the utopia and the concreteness of the novel--and her conviction of their incompatibility provide the crux of what I call here the dilemma of utopian narration: that the medium works against the message.

Let me establish, first, a fact about the affect of utopias: that for most contemporary readers the putatively ideal worlds they project usually appear less attractive than the real world that they criticize and are meant to transcend. Anyone who has taught a work of utopian literature will, I warrant, attest to this affect; the prevailing view, at all events, is that expressed by the novelist Martin Amis in his review of Anthony Burgess's 1985: "no one writes utopias anymore; even the utopias of the past look like dystopias to us" (3). Why this should be so--why the best intentions should elicit such negative response, antipathy if not outright hostility--is a complex question, to which no simple answer will suffice. Historical experience, for one thing, soured the twentieth century on millennial expectations and inclined us to credit dystopian visions over utopian ones: by mid-century Orwell had replaced Wells as the prophetic voice of the age. But I want to suggest that one source of the failure of utopias to persuade us to their vision lies in the narrative technique itself--in the inability to convert diagram into picture. The medium of utopian fiction works against, and finally subverts, its message.

The message, to begin with that, posits that in the reconstructed world of utopia humanity has achieved, at last usually forever, true happiness, the good life, eudemonia, social salvation--call it what you will. Institutions and practices differ from work to work, details, of course, vary: but this essential donnee remains constant and provides the genus for defining the whole range of utopian literature. The narrative mode of the utopists, too, remains remarkably constant. Of the narratives can be said what Sir Thomas More says of the cities of his prototypical imaginary island: when you have seen one, you will have seen them all, so alike are they to one another (63). For this reason, a generalized summary of the "plot" of utopia can serve to describe the genre as a whole, with little violence to individual variations. There is an outsider who happens into a strange new land and a cicerone who conveniently explains its workings to him (and thereby, of course, to the reader): the narrative consists, then, of a guided tour of the millennium, with all the salient features--and some not so salient--of the new order dutifully noted and justified. In a delightful parody of the genre, "The New Utopia," the Edwardian humorist Jerome K. Jerome has a nineteenth century sleeper wake in the twenty-ninth century, on display in a glass box. Familiar with the genre he appears in, the sleeper calls for the cicerone who immediately appears to...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP