Saturday, 27 June 2015

Tests in Utopia

It sometimes seems that in utopias of an ecological persuasion the author feels obliged to reintroduce into his or her genially pastoral world elements of stress, challenge and competition that had once been afforded, in the bad old pre-utopian days, by a capitalist economy and its intolerable pressures. Thus it is that in Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962) the young people of Pala collectively engage in dangerous feats of mountaineering which occasionally result in fatalities, but these are regarded as a price worth paying for a social ritual that inculcates independence and a sense of the sublime in the young.

In Ernest Callenbach’s still impressive Ecotopia (1975), which first gave that new utopian sub-genre its name, we have the famous or infamous ‘war-games’, in which the young men of the utopian society daub themselves in war-paint, quaff intoxicating beverages and fight with spears to establish the supremacy of their particular team; Ecotopia’s young women then give their favours lavishly to the victors. Again, there are injuries and even occasional fatalities (with the narrator William Weston himself getting nastily injured as he participates in the ritual), but these, as in Huxley, are seen as a price well worth paying.

Is it a weakness of Morris’s own utopian realm Nowhere that it does not contain such tests and challenges for the young, that it has not replaced capitalist competition with new utopian forms thereof – unless you include camping out in Kensington forest in the summer months under that category? Could we imagine more challenging Nowherian rituals in the Thames valley that could substitute for Huxleyan mountaineering or Callenbachian war-games? We might have to import elements from the harsher and more adventurous fictional worlds of Morris’s late romances in order to do so. But without such tests or rituals News from Nowhere runs the risk – as many critics have thought – of seeming too arcadian and undemanding. So instead of simply being a surly Old Grumbler who passively bemoans that fact, we need to be actively inventing remedies for it.

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