Class 7, October 9th, An introduction to Utopia

Activity I


The Cambrige Companion to Utopian Literature edited by Gregory Claeys

Summary of “The concept of Utopia”, Fatima Vieira p. 3-27


“The problem is that the first meaning of utopia is by no means obvious. More used the word both to name the unknown island described by the Portuguese sailor Raphael Hythloday, and as a title for his book. This situation resulted in the emergence of two different meanings of utopia, which became clearer as the process of deneologization occurred. In fact, though the word utopia came into being to allude to imaginary paradisiacal places, it has also been used to refer to a particular kind of narrative, which became known as utopian literature. This was a new literary form, and its novelty certainly justified the need for a neologism”. (p4)


“Historically, the concept of utopia has been defined with regard to one of four characteristics:   (1) the content of the imagined society (i.e., the identification of that society with the idea of ‘good place’, a notion that should be discarded since it is based on a subjective conception of what is or is not desirable, and envisages utopia as being essentially in opposition to the prevailing ideology); (2) the literary form into which the utopian imagination has been crystallized (which is a very limiting way of defining utopia, since it excludes a considerable number of texts that are clearly utopian in perspective but that do not rigorously comply with the narrative model established by More); (3) the function of utopia (i.e., the impact that it causes on its reader, urging him to take action (a definition that should be rejected as it takes into account political utopia only); (4) the desire for a better life, caused by a feeling of discontentment towards the society one lives in (utopia is then seen as a matter of attitude)” (p6)


“Utopia is then to be seen as a matter of attitude, as a kind of reaction to an undesirable present and an aspiration to overcome all difficulties by the imagination of possible alternatives”.


“The fact that the utopian traveller departs from a real place, visits an imagined place and goes back home, situates utopia at the boundary between reality and fiction. This fiction is in fact important, not as an end in itself, but as a privileged means to convey a potentially subversive message, but in such a way that the utopist cannot be criticized. In this sense, utopia, as a literary genre, is part of clandestine literature. Anchored in a real society, the utopist puts forward plausible alternatives, basing them on meticulous analysis and evaluation of different cultures. But although literary utopias are serious in their intent, they may well incorporate amusing and entertaining moments, provided they do not smother the didactic discourse. Utopia is, in fact, a game, and implies the celebration of a kind of pact between the utopist and the reader: the utopist addresses the reader to tell him about a society that does not exist, and the reader acts as if he believes the author, even if he is aware of the non-existence of such a society. Still, the reader’s notion of reality cannot be pushed too far as otherwise he will refuse to act as if he believed the author. In fact, the fiction cannot defy logic, and the passage from the real to the fictional world has to be gradual. This passage can be softened by the introduction, into the imagined world, of objects and structures that already exist in the real world, but which now have a different or even opposite function”. (p8)


“It cannot be forgotten that it was Marx and Engels who considered their plans utopian (in a negative sense), as they disregarded the forces of history and were rooted in the belief that strategies conceived by men of genius would be enough to change the world; for the modern socialists, who claimed for themselves a scientific view of history, the idea that history might obey reason did indeed seem absurd. But if possible the so-called utopian socialists would have refuted that label, as they conceived plans to be effectively put into practice”. (p12)


“Although they claimed their theories to be scientific, the truth is that both Marx and Engels’s thought was clearly utopian, in that it pointed to the future and offered promising images of freedom, stability and happiness. Based on the idea that as the capitalist modes of production caused the feudal world to disintegrate, so would industrial competition cause the destruction of the capitalist system, Marx and Engels believed that the improvement of machinery – an imperative dictated by the laws of competition – would lead to cyclical situations of a surplus of production, and eventually to the collapse of capitalist society. History itself would cause the destruction of capitalism (theory of historical materialism) but men would necessarily have to help in order to speed up this process (theory of dialectical materialism)”. (p13)


“English literary utopias, influenced by Marxism, regarded the future as a promise of history, and were based on a logic which opposed that of Mercier: the birth of the new man would only take place after the economic situation of society had changed. It was then urgent for man to take action, and to hasten the transformation. In this sense, socialist-communist utopias were particularly revolutionary; but they were also dynamic: utopia was no longer seen as a rigid, finished model, but as a guiding principle that could even be transcended. In fact, it has often been forgotten that communism was presented by Marx as the active principle for a short-term future that could be transcended by a later evolution towards a positive humanism”. (p16)


“Literary dystopia utilizes the narrative devices of literary utopia, incorporating into its logic the principles of euchronia (i.e., imagining what the same place – the place where the utopist lives – will be like in another time – the future), but predicts that things will turn out badly; it is thus essentially pessimistic in its presentation of projective images”. (p17)


“But although the images of the future put forward in dystopias may lead the reader to despair, the main aim of this sub-genre is didactic and moralistic: images of the future are put forward as real possibilities because the utopist wants to frighten the reader and to make him realize that things may go either right or wrong, depending on the moral, social and civic responsibility of the citizens. A descendant of satirical utopia and of anti-utopia, dystopia rejects the idea that man can reach perfection. But although the writers of dystopias present very negative images of the future, they expect a very positive reaction on the part of their readers: on the one hand, the readers are led to realize that all human beings have (and will always have) f l aws, and so social improvement – rather than individual improvement – is the only way to ensure social and political happiness; on the other hand, the readers are to understand that the depicted future is not a reality but only a possibility that they have to learn to avoid. If dystopias provoke despair on the part of the readers, it is because their writers want their readers to take them as a serious menace; they differ, though, in intent, from apocalyptic writings that confront man with the horror of the end of society and humanity. Dystopias that leave no room for hope do in fact fail in their mission”. (p17)


“The awareness of the existing flaws in imagined societies had a positive intent, though: they aimed at making the readers keep looking for alternatives. Because of this, they came to be called critical utopias. But apart from these years, the twentieth century was predominantly characterized by man’s disappointment – and even incredulity – at the perception of his own nature, mostly when his terrifying deeds throughout the two World Wars were considered. In this context, utopian ideals seemed absurd; and the floor was inevitably left to dystopian discourse. In the second half of the twentieth century, in particular, dystopias became the predominant genre in the United States. Two ideas, which are intimately connected, have fed dystopian discourse: on the one hand, the idea of totalitarianism; on the other hand, the idea of scientific and technological progress which, instead of impelling humanity to prosper, has sometimes been instrumental in the establishment of dictatorships. The first images of a future where the results of scientific and technological progress were misused are to be found in the canonical dystopias of the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin ( We,  1921), Aldous Huxley ( Brave New World ,  1932 ), and George Orwell ( Nineteen EightyFour ,  1949 ), and have, in fact, inspired generations of authors.  Mainly from the 1970s until the present, dystopias, nourished by projective images of scientific and technological advancement”. (p18)


“The world is experiencing a grave crisis; the nature of our predicament is economic, environmental, social and political, but it is certainly also philosophical. Throughout history, utopia has been subject to similar pressures – will it not have a role to play this time? Looking around, it seems that utopia has been replaced by images of a very unsatisfactory present, or, in the case of utopian literature, by images of a dystopian future. Has man lost his capacity to think of alternatives? Is utopia, in fact, finally on the verge of death?” (p20)


“At the end of the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century, utopia was too easily identified with socialist-communist projects, as well as with the idea of totalitarianism. The two World Wars, Hitler’s utopian aspiration to ‘purify the human race’ and the collapse of the communist regimes all over the world led people to retreat from dreaming and forced them to adopt a very realistic perspective. Stigmatized by the ideas of impossibility and totalitarianism, utopian thought underwent an expressive change, and redefined its scope of action”. (p22)


II.- An introduction to Marxism:

III.- Watch the following video about C.S. Lewis, a utopist writer. Why he matters today…

IV.- For a description about The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe, open the following link:

V.- Read the following documents for further information about “The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe”

Literary analysis about The Lion, TW and TW

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, A children’s manual of values

VI.- Homework: Start reading George Orwell’s book “Nineteen eighty four”. Download from here: 1984


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