Sunday, 15 March 2020

Coronavirus in Utopia



‘For our sick, they were many, and in very ill case; so that if they were not permitted to land, they ran danger of their lives’.  But when ‘we … came close to the shore, and offered to land … we saw divers of the people, with bastons in their hands, as it were forbidding us to land … warning us off by signs that they made’.

These words, which might have been uttered by the captains of the cruise ships Diamond Princess and Grand Princess, which were recently moored off Yokohama and San Francisco respectively without being able to land, are in fact from the opening of Francis Bacon’s 1627 utopian fragment New Atlantis.  Eventually, the 51 passengers on Bacon’s ship (‘whereof our sick were seventeen’) are allowed on shore, but they are then effectively quarantined in the House of Strangers.  The utopians naturally do not wear our modern facemasks in dealing with them, but the first utopian official who greeted the visitors had used a richly smelling fruit ‘for a preservative against infection’.


Early utopias are deeply afraid of infection, both medical and ideological; for New Atlantis has ‘interdicts and prohibitions … touching entrance of strangers … doubting novelties and commixture of manners’ as well as transmission of illness.  To what extent is this true of their successors?  Is Morris’s Hammersmith Guest House in News from Nowhere perhaps a version of Bacon’s House of Strangers, an institution where visitors are vetted to see whether they can be safely allowed to explore the new realm more generally?

Well, it is certainly a place where Dick Hammond is trying to stamp out certain kinds of intellectualism (i.e. the historical interests of Bob and Boffin); and critics have sometimes seen William Guest as carrying an ideological virus into the Thames valley, as when Marcus Waithe refers to the possibility of him ‘contaminating Nowhere’.  Morris’s utopians know that infection can be a political issue, with old Hammond referring to the British Government sending ‘blankets infected with small-pox as choice gifts to inconvenient tribes of Red-Skins’; and this local textual reference presumably inspired Barbara Gribble in 1985 to wonder more generally ‘how Dick or Walter would react to a sudden epidemic’. 


Perhaps we are about to find out, just beyond the boundaries of the text, as it were.  For we never do discover the nature of Philippa the carver’s illness, though it was clearly quite debilitating: ‘I was ill and unable to do anything all through April and May’.  Is she perhaps Patient Zero of the epidemic that Gribble envisages?  And if it were to spread as rapidly as coronavirus is doing in Europe at the moment, then Morris’s Nowhere may be about to face one of the great challenges of its existence.

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