Books: A no-place like home
Sunday 23 February 1997
Aphone of his own was Eddie Cochran's dream in the old rock number "Teenage Heaven". And a car, of course: "Want ma own coupe de ville/My dad pays the bill." The conventional ideal of traditional novels is summed up by Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism: "The good ended happily, the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means." But, whereas characters can legitimately live happily ever after, any book which tries to arrange the same conclusion for society at large is dismissed - either affectionately, as "Utopian", or cruelly, as something out of "Cloud-cuckoo-land". Since the abortive television series of that name, "Eldorado" (Golden Place) is even more discredited.
Despite this, visionaries have been drawing up their blueprints of ideal - and un-ideal - worlds for thousands of years, as Mary Ellen Snodgrass shows. Some of these scenarios have, like Atlantis, gone down with all hands. Others, such as hi-tech heavens where robots do the washing-up, are an acquired taste: one person's Nirvana is another's nightmare. Others again are tricks; the playboys and playgirls of Wells's The Time Machine turn out to be food for subterranean cannibals.
Although Thomas More was by no means the earliest to grapple with the Paradise-on-Earth Syndrome, his 500-year-old Utopia, meaning literally "no place", was the first to trade under that name. (The Phoenix highly- snipped edition is recommended: 60 pages for 60p.) This Utopia is a 200- mile-wide island with a lot going for it: an elected monarch can be booted out; there is no fashion, as all cloaks are the same colour; and work is guaranteed but overwork forbidden.
Cloud-cuckoo-land is a term that is used more but understood less. (The Encyclopedia does not help by lumping this Ancient Greek creation together with the Land of Cockaigne, which was in fact a Middle English term for a mythical paradise of layabouts.)
This avian environment goes back to The Birds, the fifth-century BC feathered fantasy by Aristophanes.
Interesting though it is - The Birds satirised, among other things, an Athenian invasion of Sicily even more disastrous than the American excursion to Vietnam - the comedy is not a serious Utopia. Apart from Thomas More's version, there are comparatively few hard-core Utopias: that is, ideal societies created to show how we should be conducting ourselves now.
These include the rural Utopia, a laugh-free zone described in Virgil's Bucolics (shame about the translation: "Come therefore, from the first months of the year straightway ... ") and the Utopia of theocracy, preached by St Augustine in The City of God. Then there is the horse- ocracy in the last part of Gulliver's Travels.
The Atlantis of Plato was a scientific Nirvana. Francis Bacon picked up the idea in The New Atlantis (1627); his island had the advantage of being even more scientific and much less underwater. In 1887 Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy prophesied an all-electric Eldorado. It inspired Looking Further Forward by another author and Looking Further Backward by a third, as well as "Bellamy Clubs" and a political party devoted to looking every which way.
Your-topia is not necessarily my-topia; in 1891 the opposite kind of ideal world, that is, an ecological Camelot, was depicted by William Morris in News from Nowhere. Then there is Camelot itself, described by Malory and, four centuries later, by Mark Twain.
Naturally enough - since the Devil has the best yarns - the most intriguing material in the Encyclopedia depicts the precise opposite of Utopia: Dystopia. Dystopias, that is, un-ideal worlds, are created as a warning of what could be coming soon to a society near you. The Waterstone's/ C4 Top 100 includes at least four: Nine- teen Eighty-Four (No 2), Animal Farm (3), Brave New World (15) and The Handmaid's Tale (58), the more recent nightmare of fundamentalism by Margaret Atwood.
Unknown to the Top 100, and until now to me, is Anthem by Ayn Rand, whose 1937 novel imagined a bleak future in which citizens have no names but are distinguished only by figures, like car numberplates: the hero is young 7-2521. Another dystopia picked up by the wide sweep of the Encyclopedia is the world of universal zero sperm-count described in The Children of Men (although Ms Snodgrass should be told that referring to its author, P D James, as "an official of the BBC" is enough to give nightmares to the worthy baroness and former BBC Governor).
In an ideal book, Ms Snodgrass would have produced rather more than a single passing reference to millenarianism, the belief in the literal truth of the Last Days as prophesied in the Book of Revelation. I looked in vain for any mention of The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn's classic study of those who expect the ultimate Utopia to be with us any day now: the return of the Messiah and the establishment of Heaven on Earth.
Despite this omission, I was going to put Snodgrass down among the Righteous who should benefit from an assisted-places scheme when the saints come marching in, until I stumbled over sentences like "Chiaroscuro presages an eminent enlightenment." In an ideal society, this unenlightened type of writing would be torn out of the manuscript and buried deep beneath the watery ruins of Atlantis. If she thinks she can get away with it, she is living in Cloud-cuckoo-land.
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