Special of the week; Issue 8-71 "A Perfection of Utopias"
NDE are the national educational radio network presents special of the week from Yale University from its series called Yale reports. To each of us our personal utopia is a very special country of the mind. Few of us can adequately describe it but it lies within us. Perfect is comforting. A place where things always go right. Looking for Utopia seems to be a human condition. In each generation certain writers seek to articulate their utopias Aristophanes wrote about the perfect society for centuries before Christ. Edward Bellamy described it in the Victorian era. Science fiction writers today are mapping out a perfect world as fast as their books can be printed. One of these utopias became actuality. Would they be the wonderful places their authors imagine or would the rest of us find them stifling boring anti utopias. Today on Yale reports Kenneth cabin door and Alan Danzig explore these literary never never
lands. Mr Cavendish was a playwright and visiting lecturer in mythology at Yale. Mr Danziger is assistant professor of English at City College of New York and visiting lecturer at Gayle's Saybrook college where he teaches a course on science fiction. Mr. Cavendish if we're going to talk about utopia maybe the first order of business ought to be. What does the word mean. And what kind of image does it suggest to people when one thinks of the way the word came into being and the way it was kind Wasn't it kind as a model a perfect model of a new society. That's the piece that happens in science fiction it's not a perfect model it's generally the most imperfect model most utopias end up being very negative utopias science fiction utopias in other words can't topass But by and large yes. I see because when I think of utopia I always think of the paradox. Maybe I'm saying the same thing as you are. I
always think of the paradox that it starts out from something which is. Supposedly perfect action and especially perfection from the mind. Yes yes and I think that most science fiction is a perfection of existing trends and possibilities. So you take something like news Jagat orbit he takes all kinds of trends that are here now and shows what might happen if they continued unchecked it rather in the way of a population expert saying that if if the rate goes on at the present time by the year 2050 we will be shoulder to shoulder from the East Coast to Denver. I cited one thing that interested me about what you said Alan. And that was about as being a perfection from the mind. And I wondered whether that accounted for some of the. Strange paradoxical disjunction that you find in Utopia is the way they turn back on themselves and become
almost evil because of what seems to be characteristic of them all is that their intellectual constructs that they take account only of a rational order and seemingly never of an irrational order that somehow they seem to be based on the face that mind and spirit can accomplish. Heaven on Earth and therefore they see no reason why any irrationalities why any emotional or intuitive or disorderly elements should come in and as soon as those elements do appear they have to be ruthlessly suppressed. So that seems to me that what utopia ends up as is or which is a kind of machine still a machine. In other words and when you turn to politics. The obvious modern example of a political utopia which has been put into practice or at least attempted to be put into practice is the Marxist Leninist utopia
and does one well there's another kind as well. You've got the kind which is being enforced by power by the machine but there's also the kind you said before that it comes from the mind and the spirit. And I think Modern Utopia just would say that the spirit is still a constant necessity in that you have all the communes which are attempts to a very 19th century attempt. You're talking about the communes in this country. Yes yes not Soviet countdowns. Yes though those two at the beginning had the same kind of feeling their misfortune was that they succeeded I suppose it would be interesting to see if any of the communes are now being set up. If they ever did develop their own little cultures of their own that all literature has ever produced fantasies about an ideal society. Well we have we have some which have been going at least for an awfully long time the Amish the Duca bores relatively unchanged because they feel they have got a viable permanent way of life and which have been there going for
hundreds sometimes more years. So as they have to change their country but they change their country but not their spirit to do good. Do we do. Are there any I don't know of any science fiction works that have sprung from say Russia in modern Russia. Neither do I. Most of the Russian science fiction with which I'm familiar is gadgetry. This is the extrapolations in scientific field. I don't know whether this is because the Russian political system won't allow it or if a certain kind of society doesn't produce science fiction of that kind I don't know. When you say a certain kind of society I mean a society in which dissent is very carefully controlled and channelled and in which any expression of. Obviously dissatisfaction which must be behind the idea of utopia is right on. Yes one might be misunderstood so you don't go that way. It's certainly true that in the only examples that
I can think of of utopia in imaginative literature as opposed to philosophy which is the works of Aristophanes The great comic playwright. The whole impulse to write about utopia rose first of all out of a political sense of disorganization and the present order for it falling apart and then the second impulse that is mixed in with that of course is a satirical one and the most obvious example is the birds where the hero literally flies up to heaven to join the birds who are the representatives Interestingly enough of spirit and. Then sets up his utopia in the clouds only to find himself coming directly into conflict with the established order namely Zeus. And in the course of the play defeating the established order so that the old order is replaced by the new. And in the process. Interestingly enough though I'm not sure that this is at all conscious. The New Order turns out to be just as ruthless and cruel as
any old order could possibly have been and in fact in its efficiency and its completeness it's maybe more cruel than even that as you say it seems to be a feature of most utopias but kind of can we really call those utopias that is if they're showing things as they as they actually are. As I think most literature tends to do talk about the way things are now the way we live now. Well whatever for whatever terms. How about something like the Republican or the laws. I was about to go on to that because there seems to be a big difference between the imaginative world of an artist like Aristophanes and the intellectual world of that Plato was an artist. Primarily he was an intellectual and a philosopher so that he suppresses the side of him which is if you like realistic in favor of the side of him which is rigorous. Yes if you look at Plato's utopia if that's what it is it bears exactly the same characteristics as the utopias that we've just been describing except that to
him those characteristics are not evil but good. And maybe it's only our hindsight which condemn regulation of every department of an individual's life and regulation of all his thought processes and eugenics. Maybe it's only our own prejudices that condemn that. But at any rate whether it's prejudice or not it looks from our point of view just as awful and evil as any possible disorder that he might have been trying to correct. So I don't know that it's necessarily it's an objection to the idea of utopia to say that it turns out in practice to be evil because I think maybe that's inherent in the whole idea that the utopia is by both very nature the orderliness of it is going to be important to a romantic minded moral romantics will in no way write that it's it exists only in the mind and as soon as it's translated into practice into reality it becomes the very opposite of what it is imagined then as a model of thought. It may be praiseworthy but as a model of life a model to live by.
It's not as you were talking something occurred to you that maybe we've been too hard on you talk here that really its purpose or its function in. The history of imaginative man's imagination is not to provide an actual model but to provide some kind of impulse. In other words if they had not existed something like Moore's Utopia to provide a momentum certain other things might not have happened if Marx's Utopia had not existed on paper at seven other changes in the distribution of capital in the West to provide the spirit for change in Russia and also to speak about the spirit itself to define it because most of them seem to be talking about something like Brave New World. We can't accept the savage that was obviously much better than the people in Brave New World. We define our own utopia in the in the hiatus between those two. Yeah I wouldn't
choose either one of those as models so that it's kind of. Premonition of what the future might be or if it's a definition of what the present is not. Yes in that sense they would all be satiric. Yes fact they seem. I sort of have broken up utopias into three phases the first one when there seemed to be no possibility of ordering a physical world and by physical I mean political sociological world at that point you could have Utopia which tell the way it should be and the Republican the laws and certainly utopia. They can see New Atlantis would be in that group but particular to English ones are trying to talk about the way things might be by the time the possibility of ordering a physical world had emerged. And by the nineteenth century I can think of no utopias in the nineteenth century except for Bellamy's looking backward. I'm sure I'm leaving something out there on of course. At the same time it is at the
end of the century. But the whole utopian spirit seems to have passed into actual experiments in Utopia book form pad to soccer say oh ins experiments and New Lanark the well maybe then Utopia doesn't have to be something which is exclusively the domain of literature maybe it's something which you can act out with and then I call utopianism or something dreadful political I suppose like I said because I think then the next time it becomes literary is in the 20th century with anti utopias then it becomes the fear of the perfect and not the hope for it. Do you think that may be by nature all young people are utopian and that that somehow accounts for the streak of what seems to older people to be totalitarianism in their thinking or ruthlessness in their actions or
exclusiveness in their ideas. We're using utopian they're simply as idealistic and anything idealistic excludes no alternatives so no I was using it in the sense that. They think that it is possible to create a perfect society on this and that that perfect society will correspond to some mental or intellectual image of the C. There are two ways that they can work out it can work out into going out and doing political work and it seems to me that the 19th century did things that way. That is as long as you have the idea of progress and you really believe that things can be made better. The forces of utopianism are liable to go into actual work and therefore to be modified along the way. That's true too yes because once they come into contact with reality if they have to modify themselves to work out yes. But as soon as you don't believe in progress anymore then you start going back to literary utopias. Yes I know I said before that I thought that Utopia was really
basically empty literary as an idea that is literature. This is a little wider than we're talking about now that literature is dealing with or has dealt with individuals has dealt with the savage life the talk about the savage even in Brave New World but I'm not sure that's really Utopia is it a utopian novel or is it just. It was a science fair enough. It is I think it comes under the category of the kind of novel which is satiric and doesn't enter utopia. I guess it would have to fit in there. But he's the nearest too to a real character that I can think of in any utopia in science fiction. The general trend and the general fact of science fiction is that there are no characters. Even something like The Stars My Destination Gully Foyle is memorable but is simply the Count of Monte-Cristo in a spaceship. It's a revenge novel and there's no there's no real character development right. The I think that utopias tend to
deal with political movements to deal with movements to deal with as you said before things of the mind and not with individuals. Well if Utopia is going to be literature at all that is if writing about it is going to be literature it seems to me that it always ends up as being. Statement of some kind or other to the effect that utopia is impossible that the world of the mind is incomplete and therefore has to be supplemented by the world of human so as not to be an essay in political science exactly as soon as you go to fiction in science fiction. Yes it's going to deal with people. Yes that's always the weakest point. But if we were to look at those characters in science fiction or even the non science fiction that you've been talking about I was wondering whether there was a constant in it somewhere that the inhabitants of this world had some kind of common one characteristic that perhaps strangest case is Walton to which Skinner of course means as a utopia which strikes me as the most chilling.
Yes. Enter utopia of all the. There he works very hard to make his main character a character. He points out that he's not perfect that he will not. He's like Moses he can get a glimpse of the promised land but he will never be allowed into it because he's been badly conditioned by the society that he grew up in. But it doesn't it doesn't work for me he just he just strikes me as somehow goofy rather than really having a central character. Your point about the kind of inhabitant of society of the utopian society that we need he must have some kind of characteristic Yes but it's a group character yes or if you like that it's not some characteristic that is tinge to by all the things which are making our society whatever it is rotten and decadent and unworkable. And that's what interests me about the attitude of the young people to it's a you know they see themselves maybe as untouched by unconditioned by UN corrupted by everything that's corrupting the world.
In science fiction they're just as likely to be the way people fit themselves to a corrupt society ways that they work out of it the ways in which they refused to co-opt. In which case it would be very much of the streets today. I see. Could you elaborate on that I don't know that I follow it. Take a world. I think this is I forget the name of this and I forget the author but we have polluted the atmosphere to such an extent that the ice caps are melting and the seas are now 17 feet high which means most of lower Manhattan where the story is laid are our canals. Some of the higher land is still land but the ice caps are going to go on melting all of New York is going to go under. The world is full of garbage. The science fiction extrapolation is what happens when we have garbage dump the entire world and what happens. Finally leave the denouement is that when the ice caps melt the whole world goes off the old off its axis and is going to break up. So everybody is going to be killed when the everyone is killed as the novel ends it's a real slam bang ending.
Meanwhile though people are living in this garbage the highest rank that you can have is the traffic coordinator or garbage disposal man. These are the two most important functions left and so people have adapted themselves to the rather crummy conditions that they have created in their world. It's not about the how we can make perfection but how we can fit ourselves to the kind of environment we have ourselves created. It is interesting by the way there's one distinction that we didn't make which is between utopias set in the future and Utopia is set in the past. And those are just bad books. Well what about the myth of the golden age would you buy that as as a photo to set Yes as long as it isn't James Fenimore Cooper. Well the myth itself is common to lots of cultures. As I can take it as a pastoral form right straight pastoral form with all the artificiality of it becomes again a thing of the mind. Yes but as soon as I have since I have many Bumppo to point to I'm
unpleasantly aware that buckskin breeches stink after would you going to take but would you accept the idea that that's a genuine Utopia of the imagination which doesn't necessarily contain any of the evils that we've been talking about because they're by definition in the golden age of the animals and all the plants and all the men and all the gods are perfect just in Kali John I wouldn't put that into Utopia because I think Utopia is projective. I think that would be an essential part of my definition. It is that something like Henry James the Americans or the Europeans even where Venus and her son descend on a small New England town but the town is very carefully put in the pre-Civil War days of proof. A perfect New England innocent. No that's a kind of nostalgic form and I think I would want to keep Utopia as a project of what we might attain. I see that I don't think I'd get doctrinaire about that I mean if you wanted to say that is your
definition I wouldn't say you can't you can't you can't. I was just trying to figure out whether there was a difference in attitude involved though that the utopia which was projected into the past because presumably if you're going to take yourself outside time and to enter the world of science fiction I don't see why I shouldn't get out some projects backwards as well as forwards. And if you're going to project a backwards. Place the utopia in the past what that suggests obviously is that we have fallen off from something that was once perfect. If you're going to project the utopia into the future what it says is we are going to somehow or other or could somehow or other progressed into justice but that's what I meant by projective and what you said before about generating a spirit to make things better to change things. So the progress that is going to happen forward is optimistic. Generally speaking but a golden age in the past is bound to be nostalgic.
Yes yes of course there is maybe an interesting distinction there between the attitude of the state of mind which creates a utopia in the past which is basically pessimistic and hopeless and the attitude which creates understand your view of the future which is baseless. But what about the idea of not so much making things different because after all in order to make things different you have to believe that things can be made different as opposed to the idea that you have to make a clean sweep and start from scratch. And it seems to me there's something going on which says the world as it exists has gone so far downhill that there's nothing to be done with it. So we might as well blow it up erase it and start with a clean slate certainly is an enormous growth of apocalyptic literature. So is that may be also. Utopian in a more fundamental sense than any of the ideas that things are going to get better if we let it work harder. I guess I can't take that either. If you want to drop that why I think that it will
work but almost every almost all literature is going to work into that somehow something like Childhood's End is not utopian. Do you know that it's Arthur Clarke he foresees the end of the human race as human it was such a moving and powerful book I have never been able go back and read it again. But the final vision of humanity before there turned into another form of life very much in that in the manner of two thousand and one is of naked ragged starving children holding each other by the hand strung out across the world up hills and down valleys and this everything he recognized as glorious but everything evil about the world is going to be canceled into a higher form of life and then is going to reach the stars by his. Linked voltage power and blast himself as a single mind free of the trammels of the body into the into space. Now that's a kind of utopian in your broader definition but I don't see it that way I would want I would want utopia to be an ordering of sociology and
and science I would agree that simply to say that things are going to get better or there is going to be a quantum jump into a better world. It doesn't at all mean any normal definition of Utopia though I think they all come from the same impulse can we make a formula. I do the things have got to be different. And whether you say they were once different or they can be different in the world or they can be different only by conversion. And here we're back to the idea of spirit again. Yes most of the best writers of Utopia nowadays are are tinges with not only the science part of what we have to do to change the physical ordering of the world but have picked up the 19th century novel idea of. Or it's Blake. It's the romantic poet idea. An internal conversion. Yes a spiritual conversion which has to precede any of it. We would like says we will build Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land he's not he's not trying to build
a utopia he's not a political activist you know. There I think the important words in all that and ordering that it's not simply a vague notion that everything will be. Pleasant and everybody will be in harmony. Similarly whether or not all of which is recognizable and then whether it's a personal order or a personal putting ourselves into line with God for want of a of a more specific term or whether it's an ordering of the mass of of the counters of the world or the physical to put what I call political order in to include sociological economic psychological whether or not it's no matter which way it is. Of those two they're both utopian in thrust right it's a macrocosm or a microcosm of this in our literature then utopia Middlemarch a political novel in the said Britain in mid century looking back to the time just before the passage of the first reform bill 30 to 32. This is telling the way things were but looking very much but with a very strong idea
of the way things ought to be. There must be something wrong with that definition which finally ends up including everybody in the USA. Someone has defined science fiction as literature and all of what we call literature as a subset of science fiction which is a mystery. Well it's wicked but it's I think it's so all together it works if you if you like if you like being slightly naughty about it. Yes fiction is always saying what would it be if always with an idea of what would make it better either explicit or implied. Well then in order to save something for utopia some little area which will be its own. Would you accept the idea that it enjoys a vision of the future is always a paradoxical one at least to our eyes right now to the effect that however good it is. It must proportionately be bad. Would you accept the paradox that in trying to set
up the ideal society the only thing that can be done is to set up a society which if you were to actually live in it would be the furthest from the ideal. Well I think another way to say what you're saying is that a utopia is by definition and it stopped its life finished its at its most perfect. But if we define going on the idea that we must better to travel hopefully than to arrive that it can't be perfect in that sense it must be paradoxical. And I know of one science fiction novel again by Clark the city in the stars which builds exactly on this idea. He he begins with a perfect city. In which everything seem to been taken into account including creativity and even random random is built in. People come back from the storage banks in new bodies but they come back in different combinations and there are a couple of wild jokers in the pack every which are let loose in the city every once in a while just to keep things moving. Once we've explored the idea of that city the hero
who is one of the jokers moves into finds an underground railway which takes him out to a different utopia a kind of frontier pastoral Agricultural Society which also is perfect but of a different order of perfection it's the opposite of city. It's people living in long green huts off among the fields and he teams up with some people from there and they both come back and find a disused starship and go off to take man again to the stars which implies a third or infinite number of utopias which can be set up and that one at least intellectual it works out beautifully and intellectually I think answers your objection very interesting that always there has to be. Impulse to transform for fall. That's a romantic legacy. So I think Thomas Moore was writing without that he was looking he was much more influenced by Augustine City of God than the romantic idea still in the future I'd put it another way if it's perfect it's not
complete and if it's complete it's not perfect. Yeah but that's only I think our own hundred fifty year old idea. I don't think Alexander Pope would have agreed with that. Well if it's both complete and perfect then it's God. All right and once you've lost God then you cannot have complete perfection looking for utopia with Kenneth Cavendish playwright and visiting lecturer in mythology and Alan Dantzic assistant professor of English at City College of New York and visiting lecturer at Yale's Saybrook college scripts for these programs are available for twenty five cents each and coin or two dollars and fifty cents for a 26 week subscription right to Yale reports 1773 Yale station New Haven Connecticut 0 6 5 2 0 ed. of Yale reports is David Walker for a new seriousness a girl wit with technical supervision by Hyatt Le Moyne. This program originates in Yale's audio visual center. NPR's special of the week Thanks Yale University for the recording of this
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