Tuesday, 14 May 2013

How to Corrupt Utopia

Our brightest young commentators on News from Nowhere have tended to see William Guest as a disruptive force in the Epoch of Rest he visits. Matthew Beaumont argues that Guest ‘unsettles the tranquillity of utopia’, and Marcus Waithe uses an even stronger verb, maintaining that ‘Guest seems at times in danger of contaminating Nowhere’. Traditionalist readers of Morris tend to be dismissive of such views, believing: 1. that Guest’s relation to Nowhere is entirely benign; and 2. that anyone who thinks otherwise has him or herself been ‘contaminated’ by modern literary theory into perverse excesses of interpretive ingenuity.

However, if we delve back into the history of utopia, we shall find that some of its founding fathers have shared these Beaumont-Waithe suspicions of the visitor to utopia. Take Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627). Its utopian lawgiver, Salamona, ‘amongst his other fundamental laws of this kingdom ... did ordain the interdicts and prohibitions which we have touching entrance of strangers ... doubting novelties and commixture of manners’. So Salamona certainly fears that guests may unsettle or contaminate his utopia, although whether Bacon’s fifty-one visiting mariners actually have this effect upon the various Bensalemites they meet, we cannot tell, since New Atlantis remains only a brief fragment. Just as Terry Eagleton has argued that literary theory is actually more traditional than its traditionalist opponents (because it goes back to the founding concerns of ancient rhetoric), so today’s theory-inspired young readers of News from Nowhere go back, whether they realise it or not, to the concerns of the earliest utopias we have.

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