BY Carol Mavor in Features | 08 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 5

The Closed Cosmogony of Utopia

On Thomas More's wildly influential book, which was published 500 years ago

BY Carol Mavor in Features | 08 SEP 16

In December 1516, Utopia emerged from its shell (amorphous, imperfect, unblushing, flabby, ascetic) as Thomas More’s On the Best State of a Commonwealth and on the New Island of Utopia: A Truly Golden Handbook, No Less Beneficial than Entertaining. (Originally published in Latin, the book was first translated into English in 1551.) Today, More’s famous book is simply called Utopia.

The Utopians live on an island, somewhere in the New World, far out of reach, in seas unknown. More’s map of the island, included with the publication of Utopia, is as useless as Lewis Carroll’s Ocean Chart map of nothing in his nonsense poem, Hunting of the Snark (1876). Literature has a fascination for isolated islands, their remoteness and self-contained cosmogonies: Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874), Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul and Virginia (1787), Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904). (‘Where is Neverland? Second to the right,’ said Peter, ‘and then straight on till morning.’)

More invented the word Utopia by fusing the Greek adverb ou (meaning ‘not’) with the noun topos (meaning ‘place’) and then giving it a Latin ending. The word also puns on another Greek compound, eu-topia, which means a ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’ place. The story of Utopia is told to Thomas More, the author of the book, and Thomas More, a dramatic character within it — by a kind of pilgrim, Raphael Hythloday, whose name is another portmanteau, this time connoting ‘nonsense peddler’. More even invented an alphabet for his Utopians, with affinities with Greek and Latin. This cipher-writing further enclosed the Utopians — who had remained protected for centuries — from the outside world.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Thomas More, 1527, oil on oak panel, 75 x 60 cm. Courtesy: © The Frick Collection, New York

Remote islands, as Roland Barthes writes in Mythologies (1957), are not only associated with adventure: they also offer a delight in the finite — not unlike the ‘childhood passion for cabins and tents: to enclose oneself and to settle — such is the existential dream of childhood’. When Hythloday speaks of Utopia, More feels as if he is somehow ‘a child’ in his ‘own native land once more’.

Hythloday argues that personal property must be abolished in order to achieve Utopia, which is not so far from a monk practising religious withdrawal and constructing an entire inner world. For four years, More (a Catholic English lawyer, statesman and humanist who was canonized in 1935), lived with the Carthusians, the strictest of orders, where the enclosed monks practice solitude and silence, and refer to each other as ‘hermits’: like molluscs in shell-cells. As the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space (1958): ‘The “mollusc exudes its shell”, it lets the building material “seep through”, “distil its marvellous covering as needed”. And when the seeping starts the house is already completed.’ The shell begins in the middle. It secretes its enclosure, like an ‘existential dream of childhood’ and fills it with nothing but the self. In 1944, the poet H.D. writes in ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’:

bone, stone, marble
hewn from within by that craftsman,

the shell-fish:
oyster, clam, mollusc

is master-mason planning
the stone marvel:

yet that flabby, amorphous hermit
within, like the planet

senses the finite,
it limits its orbit

of being, its house,
temple, fane, shrine

Begun while living in London during the Blitz in World War II and published in 1944, H.D.’s lines about shut sea shells are images of flesh protected by Utopian hope in the form of a self-secreted masonry: at once philosophical and material. As a child, I, too, used my imagination to build protective dreams around my ‘flabby amorphous’ self, in the form of huts, forts, caverns, boats and islands.

Thomas More's Utopia is intentionally flawed. It is an irritant that makes a pearl.

In Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island, a hot air balloon lands on an undiscovered island and the passengers have to create a new world. The canvas of the wrecked balloon is made into windmills and underwear; seals become bellows; the virgin land yields crops. It is a closed and complete cosmogony of ‘magic’ and ‘reason’, where the ‘tool produces a tool’. Like More, according to Barthes, Verne ‘reinvents the world, fills it, encloses it, and himself within it’.

In More’s Utopia, everyone has a job but only works six hours a day; yet leisure time cannot be ‘wasted in roistering or sloth’. Utopia has no place for waste. No one on the island can ‘dare to be lazy’, a challenge that Barthes offered in a 1979 interview, as radical resistance to activities with ‘finality’. (Likewise, Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, wrote a book called The Right to Be Lazy, 1883.) Travelling in Utopia requires permission: if you are caught twice travelling without it, you are made a slave. There are no locks on the doors. There is no place to hide. Everyone has a beautiful garden, which everyone (somehow) takes pleasure and pride in tending. Everyone wears the same clothes of the same durable, undyed fabric (not unattractive, but easy to move in). There’s an excellent health service where patients are ‘nursed with tender and watchful care’. Euthanasia: yes. Suicide: no. War: sometimes. Utopians are pacifists who do not believe in killing (usually). Colonialism: it happens. Women can be priests, as long as they are widows advanced in years. No sex outside of marriage. Before you are married, you and your intended are presented to each other fully naked by two chaperones to insure no ‘deformity may lurk under clothing’. (What a Hieronymus Bosch shock to see a fellow Utopian hermit, naked-flabby-bony-amorphous, expelled from his or her shell.) There is no limit to the number of children you can have but if you have too many, they are transferred to households with too few. Utopians are ‘very fond of fools and think it contemptible to insult them’. Utopia is cleansed of race. Yet, their language resembles Persian and they worship Mithra, who in ancient Persia was ‘the spirit of light’. Slaughtering of animals destroys a sense of compassion: it is best done outside of town. Hunting is forbidden. Gold is used for chamber pots and the shackles of the slaves. Children play with pearls and gems until they put them away out of shame as childish things, as if they were marbles or dolls. Lawyers are outlawed.

Utopia is intentionally flawed. It is an irritant that makes a pearl. It makes you think. It induces you to write along with the author, becoming what Barthes famously refers to as a ‘writerly’ reader. Utopia is the mollusc-inmate of the shell.

The Marxist theorist and literary critic Fredric Jameson emphasizes that More’s text ‘has nothing to do with his thoughts about money and human nature, but everything to do with his account of the utopian arrangements of daily life’. Similarly, Barthes finds the Marquis de Sade’s Utopianism to be marked by the strict, cordoned-off ‘organization of daily life’ — such as ‘timetables, dietary programmes, plans for clothing, the installation of furnishings […] all that is Sade’ — rather than the outrageous sexuality performed within. In Sade, Barthes explains, it is ‘the enclosure [that] permits [and enables] the system’, which is, quite simply, ‘the imagination’. For Barthes, Utopia cannot be otherwise than ‘domestic’, and ‘politics is what forecloses desire’. 

Henry Holiday, Ocean Map (illustration from Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits), 1876, printed map, 13 x 8 am. Courtesy: John Rylands Library, University of Manchester

In her recent photograph of a large shell, whose scientific name is Cassis cornuta, Esther Teichmann features the emptiness of the mollusc’s ‘marvel’. The ‘flabby, amorphous hermit’ that once inhabited it is gone, is nowhere, is no place (ou-topia). It is an unoccupied ‘house, temple, fane, shrine’ to fill with our own dreams of a happy or fortunate place (eu-topia). Its black hole is an inviting, in-waiting aperture — a point that Teichmann as artist and writer makes clear. She encourages her viewers and readers to crawl inside its ‘octopus darkness’ in order to furnish it with light, images, narrative. Or, as Barthes put it, when evoking the darkened cinema as a closed cosmogony of desire: ‘Invisible work of possible affects emerges from a veritable cinematographic cocoon; the movie spectator could easily appropriate the silkworm’s motto Inclusum labor illustrat; it is because I am enclosed that I work and glow with all my desire.’ Teichmann’s shell, like Utopia, like going to the cinema, is an image of enclosure that excites the imagination.

In 1516, an amorphous, imperfect, unblushing, flabby, ascetic mollusc came out of its shell and was christened Utopia. Rejoice in it ugliness and imperfection and offensiveness. It is yours for the remaking. I first learned to practice Utopia at the University of California, Santa Cruz: a realized Utopia if there ever was one. Its campus is set in a redwood forest overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A student I knew lived in a teepee in the endless pear-green meadow that my dorm room overlooked. I saw families of deer on my way to class. It was the most intellectual place that I have ever been. Some of the great Utopian thinkers of our time taught there when I was a student: Reyner Banham, Jameson, Louis Marin. My seminars with Banham and Jameson were unforgettable. (I regret not taking a class with Marin, who would become instrumental to my future writing.) We had no grades. Students studied for something else unnamed in the future. I am still studying. Utopia is my key text towards the unapologetic, unblushing movement towards something better: what the German, Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch called the ‘not-yet-conscious’ or the ‘not-yet become’.

For my beloved teacher Reyner Banham, the British architectural critic who found Utopia in the everyday, including the California desert, the freeways of Los Angeles, a hamburger platter at Bob’s Big Boy, the Pacific Ocean and our classroom.

Carol Mavor is professor of art history and visual studies at the University of Manchester, UK. She has published five books, including Blue Mythologies: Reflections on a Colour (2013) and Reading Boyishly (2008). Her latest book, Aurelia: Art and Literature Through the Eyes and Mouth of the Fairy Tale, will be published in 2017.