Essay on What Are the Different Varieties of Literary Utopia or Utopianism?
Number of words: 1541
Humans have always tried to improve their lives and society since the beginning of life. People have tried everything possible to eliminate the numerous ever-changing problems that they face every day. They have prayed and made sacrifices to superior beings, invented machines, ventured into other terrestrial bodies, created institutions, and improved their production methods to create perfect societies where there are no problems that plague them. Regardless, an end to an unfair world never materializes. It is like nature harbors some form of hatred towards them. After all the efforts and time, they realized they had to tackle the situation from a different perspective; imagination. This imagination led to the emergence of authors who wrote texts fictionalizing the perfect world, and consequently, the word ‘Utopia’ surfaced. The authors wrote different literary utopian versions such that scholars had to categorize them. While some literary utopian versions share standard features with others, the purpose of this essay is to map out a few distinctive utopian varieties.
The Utopianism Concept
The expression ‘utopia’ first appeared in a literary work authored by an English saint, writer, and lawyer in 1516, Thomas More. Scholars also credit Thomas with the development of the ‘Utopianism’ idea. In his book “Utopia”, More imagined a desirable society with an almost-perfect government by discussing a fictional island that he referred to by the same name. In Greek, utopia means a ‘happy place’, but some scholars articulate that ‘no place’ is the closest meaning of the term in Latin. According to Fitting (122), however, Thomas was not the first person to imagine an ideal social and governmental notion. Philosopher Plato, in 380 BC, had already played around with thoughts of an administration system where leaders did not know their parentage lines since they would have been born out of sex orgies that would happen once a year. Such leaders would be fair and just in their dispensation since all people would be of equal practices.
However, the notion of an ideal society took a significant turn in the 14th century when, in the 1330s, Pieter Brueghel imagined ‘The Land of Cockaygne’ located in Ireland. Here, people would be equal, and there would be no rulers, no personal property, and would not have to work. Many more utopian texts and experiments emerged between the 14th and 18th centuries, after which they declined, but Robert Owen from Britain revived the idea in the early 1800s. Robert bought a ballroom and a school and christened them a cooperative village. Other socialists and do-gooders followed suit and experimented with similar cooperative villages where they offered each household land and cultivating lessons (Fitting 125). The projects failed, but they left a mark in cooperative societies that are still in existence today. The Industrial Revolution, several wars, and capitalism versus socialism notions that became popular in the 19th and 20th centuries appeared to have killed utopian expectations by establishing the dystopian idea. The dystopian school of thought argued that people are heterogeneous, they are difficult to satisfy simultaneously, and that utopian is delusional. Dystopian followers also recognized the term as an antonym to utopia. In the 1950s, the word utopia was embraced to mean a place of perfect ideality, especially in government, policies, and social conditions (Fitting 130).
Today, there exists a blurry line between utopia and science fiction. Filmmakers have adopted original utopian ideas in movies in four major varieties: paradise, technological, scientific, and preternatural utopians (Williams).
New Harmony, Icaria, Oneida, the Fourierist Phalanxes, and Oneida Utopianisms in Chris Jennings’ “Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism”
Chris Jennings revisits history in this book released in 2017 and writes that during the American Independence War, some spiritual groups grew weary of the severe conditions and joined with revolutionists and political groups to establish a blend of utopian thinking radicals. This was when drunk, violent, and vulgar attitudes dominated the US, and science was developing along with religious ideologies. Jennings puts it that “…darkness spread across New England’s sky...gardens went unplanted, and the wheat grew thin” (Jennings 344), meaning it was hard for people to live under such circumstances. The radicals believed that they could create a New Jerusalem in America with optimism, hope, and hard work. Their New Jerusalem, they hypothesized, would have steam power and rail locomotives. All their problems would disappear, and they could co-exist in harmony. However, they had not foreseen what feeding a charged community and financial realities could do.
Jennings explores New Harmony, Icaria, The Fourierist Phalanxes, and Oneida communities. Each group believed that they could establish a society so content, productive, and healthy than other regions, countries, and the world would join their lifestyle. The Fourierist Phalanx practised a unique sexual freedom style within its taxonomy mania, while the Oneida practised free love according to Bible Communism. On the other hand, The Shakers abstained from sex and maintained a strict work schedule. New Harmony’s mantra was to live peacefully and share resources and produce without any leadership. Icaria was obscure since they kept migrating and ended up flushing Mormons out of Texas. They faded into oblivion after years of isolation and persecution. Eventually, all the groups failed due to spiritual extremism and economic hardships.
‘Paradise Now’ narrates how people can go to extreme lengths to liberate themselves when religions and social injustices fail to favor them. The five groups in the book explored utopia to experience a different kind of life. Although they all failed, they present an educational perspective that people will ever want to improve and try to find alternative livelihoods from their problematic situations.
Bensalem Island’s Scientific Utopian Story in Francis Bacon’s “The New Atlantis”
Bacon’s is a narration about an isle he refers to as Bensalem, discovered by travellers during a trip to the South Pacific. It is a genius combination of a core story about the lost continent of Atlantis and the scientific advancements that people’s civilization has made in large in the 400 years after Bacon’s era of the 1600s. The storyteller is a ship commandeer whose vessel has crashed on an alien island with a sophisticated civilization. Bensalem’s rulers have kept their kingdom hidden from the rest of the planet on purpose. They get their men to pose as inhabitants of developed nations as they send explorers to Europe and the other world. Regardless of their isolated lifestyle, the people of Bensalem are Religious people. They had been approached two decades after Jesus’ passing away by a meteor-like signal in the heavens that presented them an ark holding the Bible.
The narrator is given an account of scientific developments made in Bensalem that have been established despite being a secluded, perfect society. Most of what is described in the story seem to prophesy what today’s developed world has achieved through scientific advancements. For instance, the narrator is told how there are buildings as high as half a mile, refrigeration methods, and advanced medical practices. Bacon puts it that there are;
“…glasses and means to see small and minute bodies….and observations in urine and blood not otherwise to be seen… yet unknown to you, the known of producing light, originally, from diverse bodies. They can “represent things near, as from afar off, and things afar off as near, making feigned distances,” meaning Bensalem is already using microscopes, solar power, and spectacles (Bacon 45).
Through a story, Bacon gives much more details of remarkable scientific progress. ‘The New Atlantis’ is almost a prediction of how a man can improve his life using science. Bacon also bases his book on the notion that a scientific utopia has lived before and has been recreated in a place hidden from the rest of the world or demolished.
The idea Thomas More popularized in the 16th century influenced many other literary thinkers who authored different works. These works have given scholars, academicians, and scientists food for thought. Besides, the tests have shown that humans can go to great lengths, physically and imaginary, to alleviate the social and themselves from worldly challenges. When the five utopian groups saw a positive way of life in utopia away from the revolution, industrialization, and fight for independence, it is a sign of hope that at some point in life, all human beings will live in harmony, having grown weary of warring. That will be a good step towards utopia.
Bacon, Francis. New Atlantis. At the University Press, 1900.
Fitting, Peter. “A Short History of Utopian Studies.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, 2009, pp. 121–131. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25475211. Accessed 9 Mar. 2021.
Jennings, Chris. Paradise now: The story of American utopianism. Random House, 2017. 343-345.
Williams, Raymond. “Raymond Williams- Utopia And Science Fiction”. Depauw.Edu, 1978, https://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/16/williams16art.htm. Accessed 9 Feb 2021.