Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Utopian Time & Space: De/(Con)structions of Babel (Part III of III)

Even More seems aware of these shifting borders as he attempts an analogous, albeit rhetorical, configuration throughout his text. First we have More as author, here to relate the tale of Utopia. Then we have More as character. This second More seems to serve as an Everyman (or at least as a generic European of the time) who listens attentively to Hythloday’s account about the distant island.

Despite More’s attempts to confound the public in regard to the veracity of just such a place, its ultimate artificiality becomes apparent. The utopia of the island (there) is fictional in the same way that any utopia (here) is improbable if not impossible: the learned (in this case, Hythloday) knows that it is useless to try to advise the king. The distance to both is just as great. The decentered and displaced rhetorical devices throughout Utopia extinguish any hope of utopia (either here or there) because of this preposterous interchange between the historical More and the unreliable narrator of the text. In fact, the real More seems just as unreliable when we examine the various techniques he used to convince the public that this book was an account of an actual voyage. In asking who are we to believe, we cannot conclusively believe anyone due to More’s overwhelming ambivalence.

More scholar Alistair Fox suggests in his analysis of the textual production of Utopia that More began to sense that the perfection he was attempting to create carried within itself its own imperfections. The rhetoric of Book 2 where he describes Utopia in practice becomes increasingly complicated, suggesting, perhaps, that More himself realized, as he constructed Utopia, the near impossibility of a perfect social order existing at a particular moment in time. More’s description of Utopia begins simply enough and perhaps even convincingly. However, as he develops his ideas and offers the reader more details about the island’s structure and operations, the potential flaws in his perfect society begin to reveal themselves. Fox argues that “Utopia is in a constant state of evolution” (43), and thus, as we have argued, utopia can exist only in a mode of becoming and never in one of being.

One can simply compare the industriousness of these utopias to the lack of toil and labor necessary to maintain Eden to get at the heart of this push, this urge, this drive to do the good work not for its own sake but for the totalizing and universalizing sake of all, and in particular, for the sake of utopia itself. Yet the further we move (in time and conceptually) away from Eden, the closer (in time and conceptually) we come toward Armageddon. Utopia becomes contaminated, infested with apocalypse, so much so that not only do we see off in the distance a new heaven and a new earth but a new hell as well. Our drive toward one is ultimately a drive toward the other; hence, the canon of utopian literature becomes overrun by dystopia.

The construction of any Edenic (or Zen/Taoist) utopia of being, in which the eternal present constrains both valorization of the past and the articulation of schemes to construct a future state of being, would necessarily throw a regime back into a state of becoming, for in a true state of being, history is sloughed off as easily as any grand narrative of the future. There can be no Edenic policy of communism, democratization, globalization, Nazification, New World Order, or even a War on Terror, for all such policies are necessarily policies of becoming. To be in a state of being, we must be “ruled by an eternal present . . . a time forged in opposition to the very idea of time. In order to conceive and aspire to it, we must execrate all becoming….” (Cioran 99). The only true approach to a state of being would involve acceptance of the present moment itself, as it is right now, outside or beyond any linear, teleological paradigm or construct. No goal could be admitted into such a state, and by the sheer fact that this state lies outside the dualisms of past and future, good and evil, us and them, this post-dialectical Eden would remain immune from accusations of stasis and stagnation. Cioran asks, “Isn’t history ultimately the result of our fear of boredom, of that fear which will always make us cherish the novelty and the spice of disaster, and prefer any misfortune to stagnation?” (Cioran 109). If we answer no, then we must ask the more difficult question: “How are we to embark upon our own nevertheless doomed voyage toward utopia?” But if we answer yes, however, then we too must acquiesce that any attempt to create utopia will necessarily always be a working toward some final destruction; and that every earthbound utopia is always already a suicidal drive toward Armageddon.

Co-authored with S. Harding and presented at the “Imagining the Future: Utopia, Dystopia and Science Fiction” at Monash University, December 6 – 7, 2005, Melbourne, Australia.

Works Cited

Blake, William. “The New Jerusalem.” In Immortal Poems of the English Language. Ed. Oscar Williams. New York: Washington Square P, 1952.

Cioran, E.M. History and Utopia. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Seaver, 1987.

Fox, Alistair. Utopia: An Elusive Vision. New York: Twayne, 1993.

More, Sir Thomas. Utopia. Trans. & ed. Robert M. Adams. Norton Critical Edition, 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1992.

Mumford, Lewis. The Story of Utopias. New York: Viking, 1968.

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