Escaping a Dystopian Present: Compensatory and Anticipatory Utopias in Bruce Chatwin's the Viceroy of Ouidah and the Songlines

By Williams, Marie | Utopian Studies, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Escaping a Dystopian Present: Compensatory and Anticipatory Utopias in Bruce Chatwin's the Viceroy of Ouidah and the Songlines


Williams, Marie, Utopian Studies


THIS ARTICLE EXPLORES Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines (1987) and The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) in terms of their representation of and engagement with forms of utopian thinking. Whilst there is also scope for discussing In Patagonia (1977) in terms of utopia, I have chosen these texts because they each present a different aspect of Chatwin's utopian theorising and In Patagonia shares characteristics with each of these texts. I suggest that Chatwin's texts display a preoccupation with utopian thought, both compensatory--offering a form of individual escape or alternative to the present set of social arrangements imagined as dystopian; and anticipatory--imagining a time in which a dystopian present will be replaced by another form of living. Chatwin's texts predominantly represent this utopian future in terms of the nomadic--not necessarily a pastoral nomadism or transhumance but as a specific practice: as a way of living lightly upon the earth with few possessions, avoiding the 'unnatural' restrictions of a settled lifestyle. This article provides a reading of the ways in which Chatwin's texts represent this anticipatory dreaming and its grounding in a critique of certain properties of Western modernity. Conversely, Chatwin also depicts individual characters attempting to escape from a dystopian modernity through the acquisition of possessions, where objects act to insulate the individual from reality. These purely compensatory forms of utopian dreaming are, ultimately, seen to fail, being isolating and repressive of the self or of others. Analysing such moments of failure will serve to illustrate the need for utopian dreaming to avoid replicating the repressive power structures of the dystopian present and the need to move beyond individual escapism towards concrete social change.

This reading will prove fruitful in offering a way of avoiding the problematic arguments surrounding the status of the texts (i.e. fiction or non-fiction, travel writing or novel), foregrounding instead the extent to which his texts engage with certain social questions, critique aspects of late capitalism and suggest possible alternatives, countering those who regard his work as merely shallow posturing or technical contrivance. Faced with the text's gender stereotyping and cultural appropriation of Aboriginal knowledge, existing critical commentaries tend to overlook the depth of Chatwin's social critique of a problematic Western modernity and also the text's anticipatory utopianising. This approach to Chatwin's texts also provides a way of assessing the failures and contradictions inherent in Chatwin's critique; for example, his failure to address questions of subjectivity and to move beyond a binary discourse through which utopia becomes limited to the white, Western, intellectual male.

Whilst my reading of Chatwin falls outside of the usual approaches to his work, the utopian tendency in Chatwin's texts has also been noted, though not explored further, by Catherine Bernard. Bernard states that: "Chatwin's work is quite logically and quite literally, a utopian one, beyond any kind of referential space, beyond any chartable frontiers. It explores the Coleridgean and post-Romantic/Baudelairean lands of inner exile" (68). This notion of inner exile is an important concept within Chatwin's work, although my reading of Chatwin with regards to the referentiality of his texts differs markedly from that of Bernard. In The Concept of Utopia, Ruth Levitas argues convincingly for a material and historical basis for utopian thought: "Utopia is a social construct which arises not from a 'natural' impulse subject to social mediation, but as a socially constructed response to an equally socially constructed gap between the needs and wants generated by a particular society and the satisfactions available to and distributed by it" (181-82).

Rather than being "beyond frontiers", utopian thought, in its various literary forms, is a response to the material conditions and historical context of the writer and the implied reader. …

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