Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Utopia to the Second Power

Re-reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed for my Utopias half unit, I come again across Takver’s rousing statement late on in the book that ‘we’ll go and make an Anarres beyond Anarres, a new beginning’.  If the anarchist utopia she inhabits on the barren planet Anarres has indeed given way to conformity and bureaucracy, then she and her husband Shevek, together with their Syndicate of Initiative, will have to reignite the revolutionary flame that gave birth to that Odonian-anarchist society in the first place.  They will have to fight the actual Anarres in the name of the ideal Anarres it once claimed to be (and perhaps genuinely was).

Takver’s slogan – an Anarres beyond Anarres – has always seemed to me the best way to think about Ellen in Morris’s News from Nowhere.  For we should see her as a figure who could build a Nowhere beyond Nowhere.  If Morris’s neighbourly Thames valley utopia is indeed too pastoral, anti-intellectual and static, as many critics have alleged, then the text invents the enigmatic figure of Ellen to potentially remedy that situation.  Unlike the other younger Nowherians, immersed as they are in the sensory pleasures of the present, Ellen shares the longer historical and political perspectives of old Hammond in the British Museum.  She knows that if a utopia does not remember the bloody political struggles out of which it was born, then it may slide unconsciously backwards towards the very capitalism it thought it had left forever behind. 

What Ellen will actually do in Nowhere, once she is reintegrated with the other utopians at Kelmscott, Morris’s text of course does not show us.  I wager she’ll form some kind of Syndicate of Initiative of her own and thereby reactivate the communist energies of Nowhere, perhaps intervening politically in pre-revolutionary societies elsewhere, as Shevek himself does in travelling back to Urras in The Dispossessed.  Thank God for Ellen, anyhow, without whom News from Nowhere would be a much lesser thing than it actually is.

1 comment:

Tony Pinkney said...

In our discussion of 'The Dispossessed' my seminar group did not seem too impressed by my judgement that the original Odonians had made a major political mistake in not staying at home and fighting for Urras rather than accepting the offer of an enclave-utopia on the moon Anarres. And I note that Shevek in chapter 11 agrees with my students: "We left with empty hands, a hundred and seventy years ago, and we were right". Certainly that's an important statement, given Shevek's centrality to the novel, but the book as a whole does not necessarily have to share its protagonist's political perspective.