Magazine article The Spectator

He's a Real Nowhere Man.Making All His Nowhere Plans

Magazine article The Spectator

He's a Real Nowhere Man.Making All His Nowhere Plans

Article excerpt


edited by John Carey Faber, 20, pp. 531

Utopia, which began its existence as an imaginary island in the Americas, has done much to influence human destiny. As a literary form in Europe and America, utopia is going strong after nearly five centuries. As a programme for social organisation, it seems to be gaining adherents.

Utopia, as almost everybody knows, was invented by Sir Thomas More in a little book of the name, written in Latin and printed in 1516. The book purports to tell of a conversation the year before in Bruges between More and a Portuguese mariner named Raphael Hythloday, who had travelled to America with Vespucci and supposedly visited the island of Utopia, where he found a refined communist society that used gold and silver only for children's toys and chamberpots.

More's model for the dialogue was Plato's Republic, but he leavens the rigour and severity of his model with nonsense and travellers' tales, based on Lucian and Herodotus and the modern literature of the Discoveries. With this book, More inaugurates a literary tradition in which a remote and fantastic society provides a setting for radical political philosophy or satire that might not be plausible or acceptable at home. The word itself, a mixture of Greek and Latin, might be translated as Nowhereville.

Some of the features of More's dialogue - the New World location, candour about sexual arrangements, communism - were for some time inseparable from the form. By the beginning of the next century, and especially in the hands of Francis Bacon, utopia is becoming a scientific community. The utopian tradition colours, in Montaigne and Bougainville, descriptions of actual lands and peoples in the Americas and the South Seas and influences the fanciful `philosophical history' of the Enlightenment.

Utopia even founds a heretical colony. Hostile to science and industry and nostalgic for the Middle Ages, the Romantic utopia can be followed through Marx and William Morris and Hitler's Mein Kampf to the literature of the modern Green movements. By now, the world has become too well-charted to contain such an island, and Utopia must be sought underground or in space or, as in Bellamy and Huxley and Orwell, in the future. Meanwhile, the nowhereness of utopia falls away and history is confronted with frantic and authoritarian social schemes worked out in lunatic detail, sometimes only on paper, as with Fourier or Saint-Simon, or on the streets of revolutionary Paris, Scots cotton mills, the American woods, and National Socialist Germany. …

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