A Religion of Solidarity: Looking Backward as a Rational Utopia

By Ferrara, Mark | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

A Religion of Solidarity: Looking Backward as a Rational Utopia


Ferrara, Mark, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


WHILE the religious dimensions of literary utopianism in the West have been explored in Ernst Bloch s three volume compendium The Philosophy of Hope (1959), Lewis Mumford's well-known The Story of Utopias (1922), Manuel and Manuel's Utopian Thought in the Western World (1979), Ruth Levitas' The Concept of Utopia (1990), and more recently in Barbara Goodwin's The Philosophy of Utopia (2001), the essential role that religion plays at the dialectical level of utopian fiction has been largely overlooked. In fact, the religious dimensions of literary utopias emphasize the dialectical tension between the ideal world and status quo that defines utopia. (1) For the purposes of this study, a literary text becomes utopian when the work portrays a society--earthly or otherworldly--that springs from a radical dissatisfaction with the imperfections of the world and proclaims the amelioration of society.

These religious dimensions of utopian fiction can take many forms, from the formal religion followed by members of a fictional community (like the mix of Hinduism and Buddhism practiced in Aldous Huxley's Island) to the religious themes present in the narrative (for instance, the dedication of Solomon's House to the study of God's works in Francis Bacon's New Atlantis); they can also include ethical and moral codes that help to bring about the realization of a utopian social order (for instance, the belief in continual improvement found in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland). The function of these religious dimensions in utopian fiction is best demonstrated by noting that religion and religious themes, while unique to every fictional society, fall into three broad types (Satirical, Perennial, and Rational), each of which emphasizes one aspect (thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis) of the utopian dialectic. Satirical utopias critique religious and moral systems grounded in history (the status quo) through parody and irony, and therefore, they dialectically emphasize the existing order (thesis). In the Perennial text, utopia is realized in a perpetual moment shot through with meaning, and the character through whom the event is focalized experiences an utterly subjective mystical apprehension of the unity of being, which emphasizes the synthesis pole of the utopian dialectic. Consequently, what one might call the chiliastic, mystical, or transcendental experience is central to Perennial utopias. By contrast, Rational utopias take their name from their tendency to emphasize moral action and to project formal goals that accentuate the ideal pole (anti-thesis) of the utopian dialectic. To borrow a term from Augustine, Rational utopias often point toward the realm of the "Not-Yet," (2) and consequently, they locate the fictional representation of an ideal society in time and draw heavily from the prophetic and millennial themes found in Judeo-Christianity. (3)

In the present study, I interpret Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) as a Rational utopia and find in the text a heightened emphasis on the ideal (anti-thesis) and a central concern with moral action (in this case a society of characters) that brings nearer the promised realization of an ideal social order (the new Boston). Demonstrating that the religious dimensions of Looking Backward operate dialectically to reinforce the opposition between the ideal and the actual (status quo), and that the narrative temporality of the text also heightens the utopian dialectic, is significant because it places religion in these fictions at the heart of the dialectic from which utopia springs.

READERS familiar with the plot of Looking Backward will recall that Julian West falls asleep in 1887 and re-awakens in the year 2000 to a radically transformed Boston, Massachusetts. Crime, war, class struggle, competition, and other social ills have been eliminated, and the state now "guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave" (Looking Backward 43). …

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