Monday, 28 February 2011

The Guide in Utopia

In H.G. Wells’s National Observer version of The Time Machine, the Time Traveller, as he explores the baffling new world of 802,701 A.D., reflects that: ‘Odd as it may seem, I had no cicerone. In all the narratives of people visiting the future that I have read, some obliging scandal-monger appears at an early stage, and begins to lecture on constitutional history and social economy, and to point out the celebrities. Indeed so little had I thought of the absurdity of this that I had actually anticipated something of the kind would occur in reality’. And Marina Warner has suggested that ‘William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) was probably uppermost in his [Wells’s] mind when he wrote’ this passage.

Is Dick Hammond, then, as William Guest’s cicerone in the brave new world of Nowhere, an ‘obliging scandal-monger’? I’m not sure I’d use that phrase about Dick, but I do think that the Time Traveller’s remark can helpfully defamiliarise the literary convention of the guide-to-utopia for us, prompting us to observe it quizzically in the spirit of a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. We should not simply admire the guide for his or her genial helpfulness and expository patience, but also ask, more challengingly, ‘what’s in it for them? What does he or she get out of occupying this role?’ Or, as my colleague Keith Hanley wryly puts it, ‘who’s having whom?’

Clearly, you get a good deal of control of what the bewildered visitor to utopia sees or learns of the new society. You can ward off other utopians, as Dick Hammond does with Boffin the Dustman at the Hammersmith Guest House, and make sure that the visitor learns about the new culture only through the particular route that you want him to (Old Hammond at the British Museum, in Dick’s case). And as the guide does this, he may also be imposing his own particular utopian emphases upon the visitor, as Dick, with his passion for manual craft work, is clearly doing – to the point, indeed, where his friend Bob as mathematician and historian has to protest about this.

So H.G. Wells has done us good service, I think, in drawing to our attention the far-from-innocent convention of the utopian cicerone; and we now need to extend our study of this figure across the genre at large.

1 comment:

Tony Pinkney said...

James Buzard is one of the few Morris critics who shows a healthy scepticism towards Dick Hammond, arguing that 'Dick,the very first of the natives Guest meets, volunteers information and guidance with such alacrity that he might make a modern ethnographer suspect the authenticity of what he offers'(p.463). Yes indeed!