Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Scottish Utopian Fiction and the Invocation of God

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Scottish Utopian Fiction and the Invocation of God

Article excerpt

Abstract

Explicitly utopian novels are relatively uncommon in twentieth-century Scottish fiction, perhaps due to a prevailing conception of Scottish literature as inherently peripheral; for many critics and authors, Scotland is already a place outside the mainstream of political and historical narrative. Utopian themes and imagery, however, have frequently been used by Scottish writers to address the role of religious experience in contemporary life. In novels by Robin Jenkins, Nell M. Gunn, Alasdair Gray, and Iain M. Banks, the utopian form presents the possibility of abandoning traditional religious practices in favor of direct discourse with the divine. Even as they appear to repudiate organized religion, these novels also demonstrate the continued relevance of God and myth. Whether in outright science fiction such as Banks's Culture series and portions of Gray's "Lanark," classical utopias such as Gunn's "The Green Isle of the Great Deep," or ostensibly realist novels such as Jenkins's "The Missionaries," utopian imagery is used to examine what role the divine might have in a secular society. These Scottish utopias offer a place to discuss the relationships between individuals, communities, and nations and how these relationships are reconstituted in a modernity where God is known only as absence.

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Compared to contemporary English literature, twentieth-century Scottish fiction has been remarkably devoid of explicitly utopian texts on the order of those by H. G. Wells or Aldous Huxley. Utopian themes have been widely used in Scottish novels throughout the century, however, to foreground questions of religion, politics, and the nation. Whether in the dystopian future of Neil M. Gunn's The Green Isle of the Great Deep (1944) or the impossible religious community of Robin Jenkins's The Missionaries (1957), utopian imagery is often used to display tensions not only between individual freedom and societal progress but also between traditional religious practice and the direct experience of God. These novels are rarely as pointedly political as their English counterparts, yet similarly use a utopian paradigm in order to question the experience of modernity itself and to present, in the phrase of Isaiah Berlin, an "ideal in terms of which we can measure off our own present imperfections." (1) Utopian imagery and themes are used in Scottish fiction to examine the relationship between a modern secular society and a persistent longing for the divine: only in a utopia can the relationship between everyday experience and a transcendent other be questioned and examined. While none of the novels discussed below posit a Durkheimian community where religious practice and belief can be integrated fully into a given society, in each the creation of a utopian society becomes a way to examine the role of belief in the modern era.

The very idea of utopia, however, has been anathemic to a prevailing critical conception of political imagination in Scottish fiction. Fredric Jameson has argued that one of the tasks of the utopian is to reduce "bad" or political history in favor of the utopian everyday; (2) according to the view of Scottish literature articulated by Cairns Craig, such a split or reduction is already endemic to Scottish fiction at large. As Craig has argued influentially: "For many Scottish novelists, Scotland is quite simply a world to which narrative, and therefore history, is alien." (3) Scotland exists as a periphery to the central narrative of English history; it is, like a utopia, already othered. Early nineteenth-century Scottish novels such as Mary Hamilton's The Cottagers of Glenburnie (1808), for instance, depict Scotland as a testing ground for social and educational reform. If Scotland is not a perfect society, it is nevertheless a space that allows for the depiction of a better way of living. (4) In Craig's modern analysis, Scotland, as portrayed in literature, already exists at a remove from the political and narrative histories that many utopian novelists seek to call into question. …

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