Sunday, 18 December 2016

Love in Utopia

Why, in literary utopias, do women from the good new society so consistently fall in love with men from the bad old non-utopian one?  Thus, in the transfigured future Boston of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Edith Leete falls in love with the visitor from the past, Julian West; thus Ellen and William Guest begin to fall in love on the upper Thames in News from Nowhere; thus the utopian forester Ellador marries Vandyck Jennings from the bad old world in Herland; all the way through to Ernest Callenbach’s Marissa Brightcloud, who has an intense sexual relationship with the investigative US journalist William Weston, which by the end of Ecotopia (1975) has clearly become permanent.  Thomas More could have enlivened his own Utopia no end if he’d had the young mother who instructs her child about the Anemolian ambassadors fall in love with Raphael Hythloday during his sojourn on the island. 

We might be inclined to attribute such recurrent amatory narratives either to the dire generic necessities of utopia and/or to the literary clumsiness of individual practitioners.  Classical utopias, you might argue, are such desperately dull affairs, narratively speaking, all anodyne geographical tour and turgid sociological disquisition, that they desperately need some plot sweeteners to keep the poor reader turning the pages; and it is then a sign of the ungiftedness of the individual writers that they cannot come up with anything better than this tired old romantic story-line: not ‘boy meets tractor’ of the old socialist-realist novels, but ‘utopian girl meets dystopian boy’.

Well, there may be something in this; but I think that Tom Moylan’s postmodern generic concept of a ‘critical utopia’ might give us pause and prompt us to look for more meaning here than first meets the eye.  It may be that even the classical utopias have more in common with contemporary ‘critical’, i.e. self-critical and self-problematising, utopias than we like to think; and the hackneyed old plot device of utopian girl falling in love with the visitor may be a pointer in that direction.

For in turning to the visitor, is not the utopian woman in some sense (and perhaps unconsciously) looking for qualities which are no longer at work in the utopian men of her own time and society?  Is she not thus implicitly criticising her own society, pointing to its absences and limits?  For it may be after all that new Boston or Nowhere or Ecotopia needs something of what West or Guest or Weston represents, that utopia is not so finished, not so complacently self-sufficient, as we first thought, that, in short, all utopias are ‘critical utopias’ in some way, shape or form.


Kotick said...

There's a nice variant on that old romantic plot line in Bulwer Lytton's 'The Coming Race', Tony. The upper-world visitor to utopia in that book finds himself terrified of being reduced to cinders by a vril wand as a result of the love which the utopian woman Zee has conceived for him!

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