[Part 4 of the author's "Homesick in Utopia: State Capitalism and Pathology in Novels of the 1880s and 1890s."]
illiam Morris’s News From Nowhere , a pastoral Utopia that stands in stark contrast to the prevalence of technological Utopias, similarly represents a radical rejection of the ideologies of progress. Guest wakes one morning in an uncannily perfected home, familiar enough to qualify as an ideal opposite, pinpointing the shortcomings of the present. The evening before his dream-journey, he takes his way home to suburbia, “using the means of travelling which civilisation has forced upon us like a habit” (ch.1, 4). The underground atmosphere is nicely captured: “As he sat in that vapour-bath of hurried and discontented humanity, a carriage of the underground railway, he, like others, stewed discontentedly.” (ch.1, 4) The idyllic riverside of his dream-Utopia contrasts with the grime and slime of the present. It is a familiar landscape, but heavily idealised. Wilmer sarcastically remarks that there must have been “a striking improvement in the English weather” (xxxvii) – and that without any environmental control. On the contrary, the dreamscape is as untrammelled by technology as it is by industrial capitalism. England in 2101 is an ideal society, born out of a violent revolution in which all the bottled up discontent appears to have been unleashed: “The world was being brought to its second birth; how could that take place without a tragedy.” (ch.18, 135)
The epoch of rest that follows in its wake sees the Golden Age restored. The Houses of Parliament are – with an acerbic hint at their present function – used to store manure (ch.5, 34). Hampton Court, however, has been re-appropriated, fulfilling Morris’s Utopian dream of rendering beautiful objects available to everyone: “The people [had] an indefinable kind of look of being at home and at ease.” (ch.22, 152) This being “at home” marks the end of homesickness. This Utopia celebrates “the childhood of the world” (ch.16, 104), in which the artistic productivity of the “inner child” is nourished: “It is the child-like part of us that produces work of imagination.” (ch.16, 106) Not surprisingly, creative nostalgia for the world’s infancy is complemented by nostalgia for childhood. Guest is reminded of a time when he “was a happy child on a sunny holiday, and had everything [he] could think of” (ch.19, 141). The end of his dream is a painful return to homesickness: Guest feels “sick at heart past the power of words to describe” (ch.32, 219). Yet nostalgia for the dream might lead to its realisation. Poising hope against discontent with the status quo, the text transforms longings for nostalgic spaces into a Utopian fantasy.
The variety of the detailed Utopias shows that longing is intensely personal.
In his review of Looking Backward , Morris pinpoints this privacy
of Utopian dreams, suggesting that “the only safe way of reading a Utopia
is to consider it as the expression of the temperament of its author”
(354). As Arjun Appadurai has more recently put it, “one man’s imagined
community is another man’s political prison” (295). The critique
of distress caused by the status quo is at the core of a subversive nostalgia,
fuelled as it is by longings for ideal spaces. It has been suggested that “imaginative
literature is one of the most important means by which any culture can investigate
new ways of defining itself and of exploring alternatives to the social and
political status quo” (Booker, 3). While Utopia is the epitome of this
project, Dystopia draws its optimism into question, and by subverting the attainability
and desirability of Utopia, focuses more on longing per se than on the locus
of longing. Yet both the implied ideals obliquely evoked in Dystopian fiction
and those postulated in fictional Utopias envision an alternative to the status
quo, channelling desires for re-enacted Golden Ages, yielding ample evidence
of the subversive nature of nostalgia.
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- An Introduction to Victorian Holocausts and their Literary Legacies
- Looking Backward : The Inadvertent Dystopia and the Nostalgic Subversive
- Looking Beyond Looking Backward : Dystopian Reactions
Last modified 11 November 2002