Monday, 1 June 2009

Disappointment in Utopia

The title of the fifth chapter of H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) asks us to think the unthinkable: ‘Failure in a Modern Utopia’. This surely does not, cannot, compute: how after all can there be failure in utopia? Isn’t failure there, of all places, definitionally out of the question, generically ruled out of bounds from the start by the assumption of human perfectibility built into this literary mode? Wells’s oxymoronic formulation, ‘failure in utopia’, is thus, like any literary oxymoron (cf W.B. Yeats’s ‘terrible beauty’ in ‘Easter 1916’), an Eisensteinian montage which clashes discordant ideas or images together to prompt us into new thought or, in this particular case, into a new, less absolutist concept of utopia.

All well and good; but didn’t William Morris, I find myself pondering, get here first? I am thinking of that extraordinary moment in News from Nowhere when Old Hammond announces to his visitor, William Guest, that ‘I am old and perhaps disappointed’ (ch. IX). I have read a good deal of the criticism on News from Nowhere, though by no means all of it; and I haven’t anywhere yet found this remark of Hammond’s commented upon. But surely it is no less startling than H.G. Wells’s chapter title: how can there be disappointment in (or with) utopia any more than there can be failure there?

So we need to ask ourselves two questions, one analytic, the other more speculative. First, what is Old Hammond disappointed about? Is this some personal sexual issue (the remark is made in a chapter ‘Concerning Love’), or does it bear upon the world of Nowhere more generally? I believe it does, and would wish to relate it to his later observations on the loss of historical consciousness among the younger Nowherians and to Ellen’s own anxieties on this score much later in the book. But one thing we can be sure about: if the expositor of utopia, the very torch-bearer of its history and conscience, is ‘disappointed’ with it, then goodness me, the world of Nowhere must indeed be in trouble!

Secondly, however, since Old Hammond is a hale, hearty and active 105-year-old, what does he intend to do about this ‘disappointment’? How might it be remedied, not in the text we have, but in a text we might imagine beyond the borders of Morris’s own utopia? To be ‘disappointed’ in something is simultaneously to wish to repair it, to restore it to what it ought to be; and thus Old Hammond’s enigmatic declaration prompts us to write more Morrisian text, to follow the issues through beyond what Morris himself has given us.

3 comments:

Ian said...

Not so much a comment - rather a puzzle. I was puzzled by "Einsteinian montage" (speeds of light? railway carriages?) but then reading again an hour later realized that "Eisenteinian montage" was probably meant (steps, prams).

Tony Pinkney said...

Dear Ian, Thanks for the eagle-eyed proof-reading! I have now corrected this. It's probably the fact that my son is a PhD Physics student (due, I like to think, to all the 'Star Trek' viewing we did together when he was little), that sent my mind off down the wrong track ...

Anonymous said...

In the Israeli kibbutzim of the 50s, observers were intrigued to note that children were raised collectively on the grounds that the private bourgeois family was reactionary or contrary to the type of society the Zionists, many of whom were left-wing, were building. Twenty years later, this Utopian scheme had been abandoned. Children were now with their natural parents. This illustrates one of the limitations of Utopia: human nature.