Utopian Musings

Utopia is the hope that the scattered fragments of good
that we come across from time to time in our lives can be
put together, one day, to reveal the shape of a new kind of life.
The kind of life that ours should have been.

Nick Bostrom, "Letter from Utopia"

You lot. You spend all your time thinking about dying,
like you're going to get killed by eggs, or beef, or global warming,
or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible.
That maybe you survive.

Ninth Doctor, "The End of the World" (Doctor Who)

Sorry I've been out lately; work's got the best of my time, and what's left goes to, oh, old serials from Doctor Who, or having to call maintenance to vacuum out the water from my A/C on the hottest day of the year to date, or other little things. But I've been working, oh don't you think otherwise! Today was the second of three lecture/discussions on Paradise Lost, one of the many texts I've felt under-qualified to so much as attempt to teach. On Monday I was faced with lecturing on Donne, and discovered to my horror that Elegy 18 is not as innocent as I'd previously hoped (frankly, I always liked it for being clever, but several of my students pointed out that she has no say in what he demands, and is never really there at all other than as a thing to be possessed ["Oh my America! Oh my New Found Land!" etc.]) The week before was the Faerie Queene, which I'd like to think I handled all right. Overall, though, it's been a slog.

But I'm not here for confessional, your grace; I'm here toss out a dissertation idea. I want to deal with the medieval utopian. What is "utopia" in the middle ages, you ask? Well, I don't know yet, but when I do, I'll let you know. The scope of the project, though, is likely to include both elite (yay canon!) and popular (yay, er, this book) understandings, and may focus on dreams and dream-visions. If anyone out there knows of a good dream vision in, say, popular romance or a nice one-off chronicle, I'd be glad to know ye.

Meanwhile, I've been poking at the idea like a boy with a stick and a dead badger, and have begun generating the sort of philosophical musings that will probably—deus voluit and the creek don't rise—work their way into the first chapter.

No, you can't see them. What are you, some dead-badger-fetishist?

Oh, all right. Here, tell me what you think:

Writing on the Utopian in the European Middle Ages is dangerous, because there is a great temptation to conflate the Utopian impulse with Ecclesiastical notions of the millennium and have done with it. While the Millennium is an outgrowth of the Utopian, it is not solely one and the same. Rather than asking how they are alike, we might better consider the ways in which the anticipated Heavenly Jerusalem is not Utopian.
The particular fascination with the urban, built-form concrete Utopia is an early modern obsession, stemming from More's Utopia and (another text the name of which escapes me--JCL). The form "Utopian" thought took before this period—More's use of it in Utopia is no surprise—was metaphysical and theological; when it talked of cities at all, only Heavenly Jerusalem came up. Few would talk of building heavenly Jerusalem—such work was God's, not man's—and as such we expect few examples post-More to apply.
The question remains: what do we mean by the medieval Utopian? On the one hand, we can say, as Ernst Bloch does, that the Utopian represents a universal ideal of human freedom, an imaginary space where alternatives may be contemplated and hope for a new world nurtured. This level of definition seems however almost too encompassing: do we include as Utopian all sides of alterity, all moments of subversion, all instances of hope? The Carnivalesque, the queer, the millenarian, even the fundamental? "Yes" is the answer—yes, but not today. Not all at once.
As Nicola McDonald writes, “Modern narrative is often distinguished by the way in which it frustrates the conventional trajectory of desire, pulls it up short and resists the closure that is otherwise, in narrative terms, inevitable. Our desires, such narratives contend, are not finally satisfiable” (Pulp Fictions of Medieval England 13). It is no surprise that one modern descendant of romance is categorized as “fantasy”: those narratives in which it is even remotely possible for desire to be fulfilled must be separated from the vast, shambling herds of “real” fiction. We cannot hope for better than this life, in which, like Milton’s Satan, we have said “farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear / Farewell remorse” (Paradise Lost IV.108-9). Indeed, the world where all desires are known and met is often dismissed as a trivial place, not even worth experiencing—yet, as Fredric Jameson notes, “the complaint about the boredom of Utopias can much more clearly be seen to be so much propaganda for the excitement of market competition” (Jameson, Archaeologies 339).

There, that's the whole start of things. Nobody steal this or I'll. . . hurt you somehow.

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