The French philosopher Jacques Derrida remarks somewhere that ‘one should not develop a taste for mourning’. I’m sure that’s true, but it may also be that, in some utopias, one mourns too little rather than too much; and Morris’s News from Nowhere may be one such example.
We hear of deaths in Nowhere caused by sexual jealousy and violence, but we don’t actually see any of that at first hand; and though Phillippa the carver, as we learn, has been quite seriously ill, far from that proving terminal she is back to something like full strength as she works on the new house on the upper Thames. Yet one powerful way in which utopia might win us over to its values is to demonstrate to us, existentially and on the pulses, that dying and mourning in a genuinely cooperative society are much less painful and lonely than they are in our own capitalist present.
We would need to turn to Aldous Huxley’s beautiful utopia Island (1962) to see that lesson being enforced. For among the utopians of Pala, Susila MacPhail is grieving for the death of her husband in a rock-climbing accident just four months earlier, and her father-in-law Dr Robert MacPhail is not only mourning his son’s death but also has to live through the actual dying of his wife Lakshmi from cancer in the course of the book. These are, in Huxley’s own term, ‘lessons in thanatology’ which test the Buddhistic values of the Pala utopia almost to breaking point, but which they do in the end successfully encompass.
And no sooner have we, as readers, lived through these experiences of death and grieving with the characters than we are subjected to a short sharp thanatological lesson of our own too. For as Colonel Dipa’s soldiers move ruthlessly into Pala at the end of the book, we learn that it is not just individual utopians who can die, but utopia itself, swept away as it is here by a toxic combination of oil-addicted Western consumerism and Third World dictatorship.