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Retooling Utopia

Philip MacCann

The oldest myths describe humans living in harmony with their surroundings: in Greek Arcadia, Hebrew Eden; in some pure form of Plato’s Republic; as observance of Confucius or Lao Tzu; in Indian maya consciousness, in submission to the Tao, on Buddha’s “Eightfold Path”. They recur as Augustine’s City of God, as Aristotelian metaphysics and as reconciliation of this with Catholic theology in Aquinas’s ideal society. That these myths may be true is suggested by Marco Polo’s account of the long-living Yogis in Central India. Man’s pre-agrarian wellbeing is argued by anthropologist Jared Diamond and this may have been glimpsed in our time among remote primitive tribes before observing eyes altered them forever. The ideal was believed beyond the Renaissance: it is Blake’s mystical vision of the weave of Nature and Mind – derided by the modernist Anglo-Catholic Eliot but valorised by Northrop Frye. It has been the stuff of utopian speculation down the ages and lives on in Marxist regurgitations and global political agendas.

Once upon a time I thought I lived in the most civilised societies on Earth: in Copenhagen and Amsterdam in the 1980s and early 1990s. I used to wonder if minimal government of elite moderates had realised Wilde’s dream: the soul of man flourishing under socialism. Danes and Amsterdamers even referred to utopic qualities, perhaps in the sense meant by HG Wells explaining in 1904 that A Modern Utopia would have to be kinetic – no longer static – and develop from struggle with success and failure, victories and subjugations of separate individualities (an idea whose moment had come). He was impatient with the public service of Plato’s tiny Republic, the communal values of More’s monastic Utopia, the reduction of identity to social role in Campanella’s City of the Sun.

Wells noted that utopias demand isolation or defences from their greatest threat: external interference. This is true of Hilton’s remote Shangri-La as it is for the politically isolated US of Bellamy or the psychology of hyper-real TV-land of Americans generalised by Baudrillard – walled in as obdurately as Derrida’s USSR. Wells insisted that enduring utopian models cannot deny history and he foresaw globalisation. His own is a well-meaning proposal for worldwide benevolent socialism realisable gradually as new world order. His enthusiasm was matched by none of the above. Plato foresaw his Republic degenerating into democracy, thereby attracting tyranny and leaving behind only its pure form experienced as hope for an afterlife.

That one man’s heaven is another’s hell is exemplified by Wilde’s trust in the state to appropriate the family. And Wells, arch-Fabian, idealised sterilisation of the infirm, pan-surveillance and micro-management of citizens’ personal data which will criss-cross government departments impressively through pneumatic tubes. His wish list included all mod cons of a backpacker’s paradise: efficient Swiss-German inns, cheap worldwide travel and ‘of course, faultless roads … smooth minor high roads ... swift and shapely motor-cars going past”. Concern about pollution and noise had not yet found their moment.

His innocence was offset by twentieth century history and it was dystopian warnings which later attracted the judicious. The first light of a new millennium reveals how the new big idea is to emulate the victims of great dystopian novels, surrendering our hard-earned freedom and individualism. Our present would have dismayed Wells and Wilde: packed stadia of swaying arms, thousands of faces painted over with national flags. The benevolent socialist experiment I enjoyed in Northern Europe was disrupted by ever closer dissolution into sinister EU-topia and soft totalitarianism (Ballard’s phrase) of a global elite.

Yet a new publication invites faith in a utopic EU member state island in the North Atlantic, Anglophone, with Celtic prehistory and future trajectory as an active NATO member. Dynamo Island preserved its 1960s super-green ethos, protecting itself against liberal economic interference. Most radical is its abolition of the internal combustion engine and there follows heady nostalgia for pre-automobile peace in unpolluted Anglo-French countryside: birdsong, silent electric trains, laughter of youths. (One regrettable omission is ubiquitous Bicycle Repair Man.) “The idea of producing power from human energy that is put to human use within a balanced ecological equation is central to Dynamo Island’s understanding of man … [as] the centre of the world … The dynamo principle thus became central to the island community’s ethos and is reflected not only in the country’s name but also in much of its national symbolism.”

With entries about history, literary tradition and famous Dynamoans, it reads like an exhaustive travel guide to a cool destination we can’t find on skyscanner. Was the country, its “Handlebar Mountains” and “Spokane” region, renamed in the sixties? How can a tiny economy intent on zero growth compete in the single let alone global market? When all member states have suffered commercial and political assaults on national ethos, identity, traditions and values, how could Dynamo resist them?

No characters answer, for the country lacks even the generalised people of pre-modern utopias; no narratives test and develop their bold stance. The benevolent author-dictator states official emotions: “Every citizen feels they have a stake in the country and that their voice can be heard.” About Gide and the USSR, David Scott has written differently: “Marxism … does not sufficiently allow or account for change and difference – either in the real world or in the individual desires of members of the community.”

On one level a sincere proposal for an alternative State without car fumes or road rage seeks to return us to the body and its sophisticated production of waste-free energy. Cars preclude travellers’ radiant discoveries, commanding mobility for its own sake, detachment and perpetual denial of real presence. Better known for outstanding fine art and literary criticism, semiologist Scott creates at another level a tongue-in-cheek textual space in which to recover from the din of other discourses, where words can deliver mystical meanings about the genius of place.

Less than fiction, this holiday from global politics is more than a book – stimulating design project exploring paramount issues with online interactive aspect inviting experts to develop the politics, economics and ecology at a virtual conference in Utopia. Be there.

1/6/2016

Philip MacCann's collection of short stories, The Miracle Shed, appeared in 1995. He lives in hope of the short story's return to culture.


Philip MacCann's collection of short stories, the Miracle Shed, appeared in 1995. He lives in hope of the short story's return to culture.

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