[Part 3 of the author's "Homesick in Utopia: State Capitalism and Pathology in Novels of the 1880s and 1890s."]
ooking Backward can perhaps justifiably be seen as an ideologically coloured blueprint, a contrived political tract thinly camouflaged by a conventional romance-plot. Yet it is also a work of fiction – and it is as a fictional text that I shall treat it here. Its plot inadvertently undermines the proposed ideology. The protagonist’s acute homesickness and his nostalgia for an eventually recaptured relationship counteract the Utopian project. In 1887, Julian West endeavours to combat his chronic insomnia with a trance-induced sleep in a subterranean sleeping-chamber, but awakes only in the year 2000 in an apparently thriving technocracy in which well-adjusted individuals form the functioning parts of the healthy machinery of the state and its economies of reproduction. This ostensibly perfect industrial Utopia is dismantled by West’s intense homesickness. This “waif from another century” (ch.4, 59) remains liable to “uncanny feelings” (ch.11, 100). He feels like – and is perceived as – “some strange uncanny being, a stranded creature of an unknown sea” (ch.27, 209), embodying “the vast moral gap between the century to which [he] belonged and that in which [he] found [him]self, [which has] an effect strongly to accentuate [his] sense of loneliness in it” (ch.27, 207). Preaching on the moral inferiority of nineteenth-century man, the twentieth-century propagators of moral evolutionism callously force him “into a state of profound depression” (ch.27, 207).
Yet far from building on this exposure of the savagery of a morally “evolved” people that abuses the “uncanny creature” as spectacle, scapegoat, and reassuringly inferior “other” against which self-congratulatory self-definitions can be poised, Looking Backward concludes with the happy ending of its romance-plot, swerving away from the problematics of representing the Utopian state. This Utopia stops short where Dystopias commence. West finds a cosily bourgeois home and resurrected love: “I had not been stranded upon the shore of this strange world to find myself alone and companionless. My love, whom I had dreamed lost, had been re-embodied for my consolation.” (ch.27, 212) While Utopia leaves West feeling lost, unwanted, and homesick, restitution rests in the nostalgic homemaking of Edith Leete, the great-granddaughter of no other than his lost love; and the possibility of an even closer relationship is hinted at. Transmigration of souls would perfect the restoration of West’s home-life, as Edith would be his Edith: “What if I were to tell you that I have sometimes thought that her spirit lives in me – that Edith Bartlett, not Edith Leete, is my real name.” (ch.27, 213) It has been suggested that “West is more like a prised heirloom than a man with whom [Edith] wishes to spend her life” (Strauss, 83). West is in many ways a museum-piece; both his and Edith’s anomalous position in their uncanny re-enactment of past cosiness leaves a welter of questions unanswered, not all of which are satisfactorily tackled in the sequel. The plethora of imitations sparked off by the book’s popularity is significantly Dystopian, pinpointing the underlying ambiguities of Bellamy’s Utopia and in particular of the sudden shift from political blueprinting to bourgeois domesticity.
It has, in fact, been suggested that the bourgeois closure of Looking Backward seems strangely at odds with the manifesto it sets out to present, that what is eventually endorsed is “predominantly a middle-class golden age, and one that is culturally homogeneous” (Tichi, 22). Abrash emphasises that it is “the comfort of home which establishes the tone of the new society for Julian. And a thoroughly bourgeois home it is.” (7) Ironically, Bellamy’s literary mentor William Dean Howells maintains that “his imagination was intensely democratic, it was inalienably plebeian, even – that is to say, humane.” (viii) Yet in the sequel – ironically entitled Equality (1897) – the issues of discrimination, state surveillance, and racial as well as gender segregation are even more elaborated. The separate work forces of men and women foster hypocritically maintained inequality and parallel racial separation. The new system involves “no more commingling of races than the old had done. It was perfectly consistent with any degree of race separation in industry which the most bigoted local prejudices might demand.” (ch.37, 365) Most frighteningly, mankind has been purged of “uncleanness”. “Unfit” individuals are sentenced to solitary confinement till consensus is attained. The state-controlled healthy society imposes purging remedies on social maladies:
By preferring their evil courses to the fair and honourable life offered them, such persons would henceforth pronounce sentence on themselves as unfit for human intercourse. With a good conscience, therefore, the new society proceeded to deal with all vicious and criminal persons as morally insane, and to segregate them in places of confinement […]. By this means the race […] was able to leave behind itself forever a load of inherited depravity and base congenial instincts, […] purging itself of its uncleanness. (ch.37, 364)
The sequel offers a narrative that is even more overlaid with ideological blueprints, while it is still possible and valuable to read Looking Backward as a novel. As a fictional narrative, it offers an ambiguous, essentially twofold, usage of the pathology of nostalgic and Utopian longings. The story of West’s search for personal happiness undermines the Utopian blueprint – and it is the subversive energies of nostalgia that focus this clash of genres. This subversion includes a re-deployment of the popular link between social and somatic disease. Illness and recovery are of course central themes in a book about a technocratic recuperation of the Golden Age, pinpointing the incongruity of the state’s treatment of pathology. When Edith’s father discusses the symptoms of West’s neurasthenia — emphatically denoted as peculiar to the nineteenth century — we are, as Robert Shelton puts it in an article on “Images of Health and Disease: Pathology and Ideology in Looking Backward and The Time Machine,” “encouraged [to] translate these individual maladies into metaphors for the Gilded Age” (18). Psychosomatic illness is conceived as a symptom of the nineteenth century: “I had left my tendency to insomnia behind me with the other discomforts of existence in the nineteenth century” (ch.13, 114).
Sleeping as time-travel is a familiar literary device, but here it has an additional significance. Reflecting the restlessness of his time, West’s insomnia induces him to be entombed in his subterranean sleeping chamber. In Utopia, the “confirmed sufferer from insomnia” (ch.2, 46) finds he has shed the “fear of nervous disorder” (ch.2, 47). But this silencing of unease is engendered by the totalitarian surveillance that masters an Industrial army organised for maximum efficiency. The health of this state – cleansed of atavistically asocial dissidents – is ominous in its exertion to “heal” ill-adjusted elements. Not only are asocial dissidents treated as cases of atavism in hospitals that specialise in such social diseases, but the incarceration of those who are deemed incurable effectively prevents them from procreating and thereby guarantees healthy happiness for the masses through a eugenic holocaust of all that are other. West’s assimilation or “integration” into society is supervised by a physician, who acts as his sole source of information. Shelton analyses the function of Dr Leete as “the physician-as-guide character” (17), but his analysis of Bellamy’s Utopian intention to link the health of the body to that of the state ignores its ominous potential. The societal conditioning of West does not progress satisfactorily, as he remains unsure whether he has been relocated into Utopia or Dystopia – “transported from earth, say, to Paradise or Hades” (ch.4, 56). The allegedly perfect society does not prevent him from feeling uncanny and superfluous: “There was no place for me anywhere. I was neither dead nor properly alive.” (ch.27, 209) His homesickness is intense and intensely physical:
There are no words for the mental torture I endured during this helpless, eyeless groping for myself in a boundless void. No other experience of the mind gives probably anything like the sense of absolute intellectual arrest from the loss of a mental fulcrum […]. My mental confusion was so intense as to produce actual nausea. (ch.8, 87-88)
West eventually finds happiness in an enactment of his lost home; and it is clear that this felicity stands affirmed. It is not a parody of happy endings in the style of the Dystopian ironies that conclude We or Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it is also conspicuous that the desired recuperation is not generated by the awesome — or awful — state machinery. On the contrary, in a very different invocation of the narrative potentialities of the “pathology” of nostalgia, the domestic ending of the romance-plot re-deploys the strategies of the Victorian sickroom-topos. West’s nausea is alleviated by the nursing touch of a girl who has fed on Victorian love-letters, who has become a nostalgic re-creation of Victorian womanhood. This “radiant daughter of a golden age” (ch.27, 210) shields him from Utopia’s self-righteousness. “Morbidity” is not healed, but sheltered from institutions and societal surveillance.
That this affirmation of nostalgia in Utopia is not only incongruous, but inadvertent is corroborated by the bias against memory in Bellamy’s other writings. In “Blindman’s World” (1898), extraterrestrians remark on the lack of foresight among the human faculties. The exclusively backward memory of humans is seen as “a moral mutilation, a deprivation arbitrary and unaccountable” (29). Dr Heidenhoff’s Process (1880) proposes a “treatment” of unhappy memories. A galvanic battery is used to remove memories from the brain by dissolving “morbid” tissue, “crushing, destroying, annihilating these black devils of evil memories that feed on hearts” (ch.11, 117). Memory is medicinally truncated in a dream vision of medical control over happiness. In the sequels to Looking Backward, it is precisely the nostalgic cherishing of what has been lost that mark such a future as Dystopian.
- An Introduction to Victorian Holocausts and their Literary Legacies
- Looking Beyond Looking Backward: Dystopian Reactions
- Subversive Nostalgia and Pastoral Utopia: William Morris
Last modified 11 November 2002