Saturday 29 October 2011

Gifts in Utopia

‘Doubtless the Utopia is a necessary part of every Socialist’s library’, writes Morris in his preface to the Kelmscott edition of Thomas More’s book. So we must read and re-read it, and perhaps it may even have lessons for how we approach Morris’s own utopia, not least in the question of the role of the visitor to the new society. We tend to think of the visitor to utopia as passively wondering at the marvels of the new world, but this is by no means simply the case for More’s Raphael Hythloday.

Raphael learns much from Utopia, no doubt about it; but he also brings gifts to it – Greek literature, the manufacture of paper, the art of printing, and a knowledge of Christianity. So he certainly has an active and not merely a receptive role. Moreover, it is not at all clear that these gifts will be simple boons to the Utopians. Already, before he got to the island, Hythloday had taught local mariners the use of the lodestone in navigation, which then tempts them into dangerously reckless voyages. So this first, pre-Utopia gift already proves decidedly ambivalent; and the gift of Christianity itself later causes dissension, when one new Utopian convert starts preaching violently against all the other existing varieties of faith on the island. The visitor’s gifts may thus contaminate and even disrupt the perfect realm he has entered.

Can we carry this model across from More’s Hythloday to William Guest in News from Nowhere? Can we think of Guest, too, not just as the passive recipient of Nowhere’s benign pedagogy, but as an active, even perhaps a dangerous participant in the new society? What gifts might he be imparting to it, knowingly or unknowingly, and what effects may they have on the host society? Might Guest be about to trouble Nowhere as disastrously as Ellen declares she disturbs men’s minds?

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