Utopias, Anti-Utopias, Dystopias and Cockaygne

There is one tradition in which my reading is obsessive, otherwise I am perhaps too eclectic. And it is also one in which the nuances are frustratingly and commonly missed or forgotten, but nonetheless fascinating. To start with the subtlest, what chiefly separates the anti-utopia from the dystopia is the former was satirical (Erewhon and Gulliver’s Travels) whereas the latter is tragic (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World). There is also an ambiguity and tension between utopias and anti-utopias, in strong evidence in the disputed readings of Thomas More’s Utopia itself, with some taking it as an attack on such dreams while others were inspired to indulge hopes of a better world. My personal take on that scholarly controversy is both/and; despite his loyalties More was a Renaissance spirit who played with aporia as ably as Shakespeare or Donne.

Herein lies the real horror of the dystopian genre: by the conclusion we are invariably left doubtless that society can be opposed to human flourishing and yet achieve structural stability. That the worst of all worlds might command the abiding loyalty of a citizenry too fearful or comfortable to press change. Hence The Iron Heel is properly a transitional novel between the utopia, anti-utopia and dystopia traditions; it might posit a terrible world order, but it also satirises some political goals (the Bishop’s) while making other utopian ends actually inevitable.  We is the proper prototype of the twentieth century dystopia.

None of the anti-utopians believed in a perpetual hell; for them, like Marx, a bad society contained its own undoing. Not necessarily so as to lead to an inevitable improvement, which vulgar Marxists uphold, but certainly so as to undermine the system itself. Only a good society can transcend cycles: for More that meant something like Augustine’s City of God, for Swift the idle fancy of anaemic thinkers and for utopians like Bellamy, Morris, Cabet, Piercy et al. a realisable project. One with various inspirations, which is lately only expressed with an element of embarrassment.

All of these types of writing need to be contrasted with the medieval (and earlier) Cockaygne myths; be this in the form of a pastoral arcadia, a science-fiction post-scarcity society (like Ian M. Bank’s Culture or Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek) or religious origin story (The Garden of Eden, Greek Golden Age or the myriad parallels we find throughout the world). These tell of an entirely different propensity and are either clever allegories about spiritual development or whimsical escapisms that jettison the very material of utopian prose: the capacity to construct an unlimited human order from a limited material basis.

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