Sunday, 19 December 2010

Reading in Utopia

In his great study, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005), Fredric Jameson poses a telling issue: ‘Readers have a right to wonder what they will find to read in Utopia, the unspoken thought being that a society without conflict is unlikely to produce exciting stories’(p.182). All utopias, I would suggest, have to address this issue in one way or another, either by delivering to us a satisfying form of utopian art or by arguing that, for whatever reason, art in the older senses has withered away in the new world.

For example, Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward, as Jameson himself notes, delivers into Julian West’s hands the novel Penthesilia by Berrian: ‘It is considered his masterpiece, and will at least give you an idea of what the stories nowadays are like’ (ch.xv). The visitors to utopia in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, on the other hand, witness extraordinary new kinds of drama, ‘a most impressive array of pageantry, of processions, a sort of grand ritual, with their arts and their religion broadly blended’ (ch.9).

News from Nowhere contains Ellen’s fierce attack on the nineteenth-century novel, so even if the Nowherians are still reading them (they love their Dickens), they won’t be writing books like that any more. There is a theatre in Morris’s transfigured London, but we alas learn nothing about what is showing there; and on the whole News from Nowhere is on the other side of the utopian argument here, not so much trying to deliver to us a new literature or art, but rather implying that art in the old sense has now been dissolved away into that ‘work-pleasure’ or Ruskinian creativity-in-labour which characterises the new society.

The most interesting suggestions about what there might be to read in Nowhere have accordingly come from Morris scholars rather than the novel itself. For various critics have argued that the ideal reading in Morris’s utopia would be nothing other than ... Morris’s own late romances themselves! These, it is claimed, in their one-dimensional, desubjectified story-telling would avoid Ellen’s critique of the psychologistic Victorian novel, and would be open to collective modes of reception in ways that the private experience of novel reading obviously is not. So could it indeed be the case that when Annie in the Hammersmith Guest House says she wants to press on with the ‘pretty old book’ she began yesterday she is referring after all to The Wood beyond the World or The Water of the Wondrous Isles?

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