The Limits of Spatialized Form: Visibility and Obscurity in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward
Williams, Nicholas M., Utopian Studies
NEAR THE MIDDLE of his utopian romance Looking Backward, after his hero Julian West has already been briefed on the startling advantages of the production and distribution systems of Boston in the year 2000, Edward Bellamy includes a dream of West's which stands out oddly against its surroundings:
I dreamed that I sat on the throne of the Abencerrages in the banqueting hall of the Alhambra, feasting my lords and generals, who next day were to follow the crescent against the Christian dogs of Spain. The air, cooled by the spray of fountains, was heavy with the scent of flowers. A band of Nautch girls, round-limbed and luscious-lipped, danced with voluptuous grace to the music of brazen and stringed instruments. Looking up to the latticed galleries, one caught a gleam now and then from the eye of some beauty of the royal harem, looking down upon the assembled flower of Moorish chivalry. Louder and louder clashed the cymbals, wilder and wilder grew the strain, till the blood of the desert race could no longer resist the martial delirium, and the swart nobles leaped to their feet; a thousand scimitars were bared, and the cry, "Allah il Allah!" shook the hall and awoke me, to find it broad daylight, and the room tingling with the electric music of the "Turkish Reveille." (183-4)
In one sense, of course, such an episode would seem perfectly at home in a book which continually plays with figures of sleep and awakening, as in the central utopian conceit by which West falls asleep in 1887 to awake in 2000, or, perhaps even more strikingly, in the last chapter's ambiguous dreamed return to the hellish 19th century, also concluded by a salubrious awakening.(1) But if the "Alhambra" dream can be entered in the list of West's other dreams, it is unusual to the extent that it is the only dream in the novel which announces itself as such, both in the narrator's opening statement and in its reliance on the traditional stuff of dreams--eros, power, and the exotic. A rationalist might, indeed, see the images of the dream merely as the undigested remnants of the real utopian world around West. From this point of view, the cooling fountain of the dream is a transfiguration of the "magnificent fountain [...] cooling the atmosphere to a delicious freshness with its spray" (157) which had so impressed West during his tour, earlier that day, of the city's centralized shopping emporium. Similarly, the "round-limbed and luscious-lipped" nautch girls are a dream reworking of West's companion on the shopping expedition, Edith Leete, whom he had described on first meeting as "the most beautiful girl I had ever seen" (118). And, of course, the central image for the transparent relation between dream and reality in the passage is contained in West's waking to find his Eastern idyll echoed and predetermined by the music issuing from Bellamy's prescient version of the clock radio.
But if the fingerprints of reality are clearly discernible on West's dream, there are also elements of it which are distinct from the Boston of 2000 and which represent an entirely different register of reference from the structural descriptions of Dr. Leete which occupy most of the book. With the exception of a brief discussion of "the more backward races" (Leete's phrase) immediately following and seemingly inspired by West's recounting of his dream and the character of Sawyer, West's 19th-century servant, the dream contains the novel's only attempt to imagine a racial or religious Other, here directly impersonated by West's dream self.(2) In addition, the dream seems an outlet for emotions which have no place in the "Religion of Solidarity" that serves as the ideological underpinning of the transformed Boston: the "martial delirium," powered as it is by an overdrawn religion of aggression, directed against "the Christian dogs of Spain," seems as out of step as Julian's dream assumption of despotic power at a moment when all hierarchy has been superseded in the equality of the new society. …