LAND OF MAKE-BELIEVE

TrumptonA work of philosophical fiction published 500 years ago, one that paints a portrait of an egalitarian republic that advocates the abolition of private ownership and tolerates all forms of religious worship; this is a country that can boast free health care, divorce, married priests of both sexes, and legal euthanasia; it has an exclusively rural economy without serfdom, elects its head of state and opposes gambling, lawyers, hunting, cosmetic adornment and war. Essentially classless, it nevertheless has a large slave population, though this one real concession to the times in which it was written shouldn’t overshadow the radical and revolutionary concept of society it promotes.

Seemingly anticipating Enlightenment thinking, as well as both Socialism and Communism, one would imagine the author to be a humanist visionary who despised the faults within his own era and looked to a more idealistic future. Yet, ‘Utopia’, first printed in 1516, came from the pen of Thomas More, a man whose later position as Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII saw him instigate a ruthless campaign against ‘heretical’ Protestants until his devotion to the Catholic Church cost him his head when refusing to recognise Henry’s religious supremacy following the break with Rome.

Originally written in Latin (as was the custom), ‘Utopia’ was hardly the ’50 Shades of Grey’ of its day in terms of sales, appearing when the majority of Europe was largely illiterate and not actually published in More’s homeland and native tongue until 16 years after his execution, 35 since it was first published on the Continent. Like most people reading this, I would imagine, I’ve never read it myself; but then I’ve never read the Bible or the Koran either; that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m ignorant of their content or unaware of their far-reaching influence.

As far as ‘Utopia’ is concerned, the title itself – derived from Ancient Greek – is perhaps now more famous than the book. The word and its opposite, Dystopia, has continued to permeate popular culture up to the present day; a recent Channel 4 drama borrowed the title, even though one feels this was ironic, as the society its cast of unpleasant characters inhabited was far-from Utopian. Utopian and Dystopian fiction have crossed all manners of literary genres, including horror and (mainly) science fiction, though ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ probably remains the most entertaining, not to mention satirical, interpretation of the Utopian idyll. The concept has also been prevalent in cinema for several decades. One only has to think of ‘Brave New World’, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘Zardoz’ and ‘Equilibrium’; TV has dabbled too, from various episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone’, through to ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Survivors’ and ‘The Walking Dead’.

As early as the aftermath of the English Civil War, with Puritan groups such as the Diggers, the ideas More espoused in ‘Utopia’ began to infect numerous political ideologies and have continued to do so in the centuries since its publication. The seismic societal shift of the Industrial Revolution and the increasing chase for profit at the expense of human wellbeing in the nineteenth century saw Socialist philosophies emerge in Britain, despite their brutal suppression across the Channel following the initial optimism of the French Revolution. The publication of Marx and Engels’ ‘The Communist Manifesto’, arriving just in time for the Revolutions of 1848, updated some of More’s theories and expanded them into a more cohesive manifesto for social change. Although Marx regarded some of More’s ideas as naive, the presence of slavery in the island of Utopia and the notion that privacy did not equate with freedom was cited as highly relevant to the Soviet model of Communism by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn after his time in Gulags. The claiming of More as a Communist Godfather by the nascent USSR was emphasised by his name’s presence on a list of similarly regarded figures carved into Moscow’s Obelisk of Revolutionary Thinkers, a monument that stood near the Kremlin for 95 years before being controversially (not to say symbolically) demolished without warning on the instructions of the autocratic President Putin in 2013.

Some have claimed More’s inspiration for the society depicted in ‘Utopia’ came from his experience of monastic communities as well as his time spent as an envoy in Europe, where he was exposed to Renaissance Humanism. The fact that Utopia is situated in the New World seems to suggest the author believed a better future for mankind lay away from the endlessly warring European kingdoms and the unequal societies they had evolved into over centuries. There is also an argument he was influenced by the ideas of Ancient Greek philosophers; the text is peppered with knowing references to Ancient Greek, mainly in the names of Utopia’s cities and in the central character of Raphael, whose surname translates as ‘Dispenser of nonsense’. It’s quite possible More may have had his tongue in his cheek whilst writing ‘Utopia’ as well as reflecting the idealism of youth before that idealism was corrupted by power and wealth.

Whatever the genesis and subsequent influence of ‘Utopia’, the fact that it was written so long ago and by a man one doesn’t instantly associate with the ideals the book depicts, is a fascinating example of thinking outside the conventions of the box as they stood when More conceived it. Unlike, say, Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, ‘Utopia’ was something of a slow-burner when it came to its cultural impact, though considering the severe reprisals dished out by religious and monarchical institutions to anyone who questioned or challenged their right to rule in the sixteenth century, perhaps that was just as well for More. Imagine living in a time when freedom of thought and the ability to express that in writing were condemned and crushed without mercy…

© The Editor

https://www.epubli.co.uk/shop/buch/48495#beschreibung

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8 thoughts on “LAND OF MAKE-BELIEVE

  1. Whatever our own views of our own version of ‘Utopia’, that ideal never comes free, its functions have to be paid for somehow. Whether that’s via free-market capitalism, deep-red socialism or third-way forms of co-operativism, they’ve all somehow got to generate the wherewithal to fund the necessary support services required by that model of ‘Utopia’.
    So far, all the various methods tried have failed in various ways, but probably not because the methods themselves are flawed, rather that the human condition means that, whatever method is in operation, some of its subjects will always seek to abuse it or take advantage from it and, once that abuse becomes known, then the rest lose faith in the status quo and the system fails.
    That someone should have outlined a vision of ‘Utopia’ 500 years ago is remarkable: that half a millennium later we haven’t quite found a way of achieving it may be considered depressing, but we’re taking about humans, all with their individually different views, motivations, desires and objectives, increasingly free to express and debate them. I suspect the next half of that millennium will have passed before any real common ‘Utopia’ is achieved, if ever.

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    1. I agree. I don’t think Utopia ever will be achieved, if only that interpretations of it vary so much; a land without war or poverty should be a given as an ideal, but beyond that everyone seems to have their own notion of Utopia. I would say ‘Chigley’ came fairly close, but that reactionary aristocrat Lord Bellborough was never going to open the doors of his stately residence to those enslaved in the biscuit factory.

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      1. Does anyone else remember this slice of antipodean children’s drama from the 70’s? It begins with, what could be described as, a very Utopian idea, but quickly results in five children becoming stranded in a Dystopian world that is lost in time as well as lost geographically!

        P.s. The theme song is perhaps the very definition of the term “Narrative Exposition” 🙂

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      2. I don’t think I ever saw an episode, but the opening titles certainly seem familiar – the kind of thing ITV regions would stick on during the school holidays. As you say, no need to ask ‘What’s it about, then?’!

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  2. Just watched your latest BBC Schools spoof video, great stuff, brilliant, gave me a much needed good laugh, thanks! The funny thing is, is that I was just thinking, earlier today, about other dystopian kids programs that caught my imagination back in the 70’s and one of them was BBC’s “The Changes” which, if I’m not mistaken, provided the footage for “Vicky and the Village Idiots?” All these years later and yet sometimes I still can’t look up at electricity pylons without a slight shiver of dread running down my spine!

    The other one that I remember giving me the creeps was an ITV series called “Children of the Stones” Filmed at Avebury Ring, it had the guy who played Blake in “Blake’s Seven” in it. Its themes were ancient stones and our complete and abject failure to comprehend that “Time” is, in reality, very, very far removed from the simplistic “linear” structure we like to tell ourselves it is. Growing up with telly like this it is not surprising that I became a lifelong fan of Joan Lindsay, her novel “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and her autobiography “Time Without Clocks” Peter Weir’s film adaptation of Picnic is very good too, but you really need to read the novel as well.

    P.s. One of the girls who disappear on the rock was played by the late Jane Vallis, who also played the part of Anna in “The Lost Islands”! She died tragically young, from Breast Cancer in 1993.

    All the best,
    Hubert. 🙂

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    1. I’m glad you caught (and enjoyed) the video while you could. Thanks to good old ‘BBC Worldwide’, it’s already been blocked, so I’ve had to excise the first programme and am currently re-editing it to upload anew. I took a pair of scissors to the original trio to remove what caused me to delete them first time round, and the bastards still aren’t happy! Anyway, you were right – I did use ‘The Changes’ as source material; creeped me out too as a kid and I’m happy to say I now own it on DVD. It used to be on YT years back, which is where I took the grainy version from. Oh, well – freedom to take the piss is alive and kicking, just not on YouTube!

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      1. I’m so sorry, not to mention angry, to hear what those BBC c*nts have done to you, again! If they actually knew their arse from their elbow and actually bothered to watch your videos, on their merits, then they would be begging you for material and offering you financial reward for the use of your talents. They really have gone downhill and down in my estimation these past few years I am very sorry to say.

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      2. The late ‘Dad’s Army’ co-creator David Croft still has a YT channel; looking for a clip of the Walmington Home Guard yesterday, I found BBC Worldwide has even removed all ‘Dad’s Army’ footage from there – even the bloody opening titles!!!

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