The Story of Utopias, by Lewis Mumford, , at sacred-texts.com
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How William Morris and W. H. Hudson renew the classic tradition of utopias; and how, finally, Mr. H. G. Wells sums up and clarifies the utopias of the past, and brings them into contact with the world of the present.
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IT would be a pretty sad thing if the Utopias of the nineteenth century were all of a piece with those of Buckingham and Bellamy. In general we may say that all the utopias of reconstruction had a deadly sameness of purpose and a depressing singleness of interest; and although they saw society whole, they saw the problem of reconstructing society as a simple problem of industrial reorganization. Fortunately, the utopias of escape have something to contribute which the utopias of reconstruction lack; and if William Morris, for example, seems too remote from Manchester and Minneapolis to be of any use, he is by that token a little nearer the essential human realities: he knows that the chief dignity of man lies not in what he consumes but in what he creates, and that the Manchester ideal isdevastatingly consumptive.
Before I go into these utopias of escape, I wish to point out the strange way in which the three utopias we shall examine return as it were upon their classic models, each of the returns being, it is fairly plain, without the consciousness of the writer. Mr. W. H. Hudson returns upon More; and in A Crystal Age the farmstead and the family is the ultimate unit of social life. In News from Nowhere the city of workers, such as Andreæ dreamed of, comes again into being; and in A Modern Utopia, with its order of Samurai, we are
ruled once more by a highly disciplined class of Platonic guardians. Mr. Hudson is a naturalist with a deep sympathy for the rural life of England; William Morris was a craftsman who knew what the English town was like before it had been blighted by industrialism; and with both of these men we feel close to the essential life of man and the essential occupations.
As the clouded vision of the traveller to the Crystal Age clears, he finds himself received in a great Country House, which is inhabited by a large group of men and women who till the land and perform the simple operations of weaving and stonecutting and the like. All over the world, one gathers, these great country houses dot the landscape. Each of them is no weekend center of social life but a permanent home; indeed their permanence is almost past believing; for in each house traditions are carried back thousands of years. The great cities and the complicated metropolitan customs that they produced have long been wiped away, as one might wipe away mold. The world has been stabilized; the itch for getting and spending has disappeared. Our traveller must bind himself to work for a whole year in order to pay for the garments his house-mates weave for him, garments whose texture and cut have a classic turn.
This household, I say, is the social unit of the Crystal Age: the house-father administers the laws and customs, and he dispenses the punishment of seclusion when the visitor trespasses upon the code of the house. The house-mates work together, eat together, play together,
and listen together to the music of a mechanical instrument called the musical sphere. At night they sleep in separate little cubicles which can be opened to the night air. The horses and dogs of the Crystal Age have a degree of intelligence which our common breeds do not possess, so that the horses all but harness themselves to the plow, and the dog teaches the traveller when to leave off working the animals. Each household has not merely its laws and traditions: it has its literature; its written history; and the very girl with whom the traveller falls in love bears a resemblance to the sculptured face of an unhappy house-mother who lived and suffered in the immemorial past. These houses, these families, these social relations are built for endurance. What is the secret of their strength?
The secret of our Crystal Age Utopia is the secret of the beehive: a queen bee. The Crystallites have done away with the difficulties of mating by appointing one woman, in every house, to be the house-mother, the woman whose capital duty is to carry on the family: the entire burden of each generation falls upon her shoulders, and in return for the sacrifice she is treated with the respect due to divinity, like the young man who was chosen in the Kingdom of Montezuma, as the tales have it, to represent the chief deity until at the end of a year he was disembowelled. The wish of a house-mother is a command; the word of the housemother is law. For a year before her retirement as mother she is put into communion with the sacred books of the house, and has at her command a store of knowledge which the rest of the hive are not permitted to share. It is she who keeps burning the fires of life.
For all except the house-mother sex is a matter of
purely physical appearance. The Crystallites, if we may speak irreverently, are "content with a vegetable lovewhich would certainly not suit me" nor, it appears, did it suit our traveller to the Crystal Age, when he discovers that his passion could never be reciprocated by his beloved, even if she so far transgressed the laws of the household as to give way to him. Against the appearance of passion and all the mortal griefs that it carries with it, the house-mother possesses a remedy. When in the murk of despair our traveller turns to her for advice and consolation, she gives him a phial of liquid. He drinks it in the belief that it will make him as free from passion as his house-mates; and he is not deceived; forhe dies.
The social life of the household is not to be wrecked by the storms and stresses of the individual's passions. The engines of life are no longer dangerous: the fuel has been taken away! A "chill moonlight felicity" is all that remains.
There are times when one may look upon the whole adventure of civilized life as a sort of Odyssey of domestication; and in this mood the Crystal Age marks a terminus upon that particular aspect of the adventure. To the objection that this sort of utopia requires that we change human nature, the answer, in terms of modern biology, is that there is no apparent scientific reason why certain elements in human nature should not be selected and brought to the front, or why certain others should not be reduced in importance and eliminated. So, for all practical purposes, there is no apparent reason why human nature should not be
changed, or why we should not be prepared to believe that in times past it has been changedcommunities which selectively bred for pugnacity and aggression committing suicide and opening the way for communities which socially selected other traits that made for survival. It is possible that in times past man has done a great deal to domesticate himself and fit himself for harmonious social life; and a utopia which rests upon the notion that there should be a certain direction in our breeding is not altogether loony; indeed, is nowadays less so than ever before, for the reason that it is possible to separate romantic love from physical procreation without, as the Athenians did, resorting to homosexuality.
If A Crystal Age opens our minds to these possibilities it is not to be counted purely as a romance; in spite of the fact that as a romance it has passages that rival Green Mansions. Between the individual households and common marriages, the utopia of the beehive is a third alternative which possibly remains to be explored.
There are regions in the worldI am thinking perhaps of the table land of South Africa and the Mississippi Valleywhere if one dreamed about utopia the apparatus to support it would be a gigantic network of steel, and huge communities of people would naturally flow together and coalesce in complicated patterns, somewhat after the fashion of those which Mr. H. G. Wells describes in When the Sleeper Awakens. It would be almost impossible, I fancy, to dream of a simple life and of handfuls of people in those parts of the
earth: the simplicity would be barrenness, and a handful of people would be lost.
It is different with the valley of the Thames, that little stream which begins a short way above Oxford and meanders between banks of lush grass and bending willows, down through Marlow, where musty ales have long been made, past Windsor between the Great Park and the Chiltern Hills, through Richmond and so down to Hammersmith where one might perhaps ford the river at low tide if an iron bridge did not carry one across, till below the city of London the estuary becomes a wide tide of water and expands proudly to meet the sea. Nature has carved this valley to the human scale: the houses are not dwarfed by the landscape; and except for the huge warren of Londonfor which nature is not responsiblethere is a fitness between the actor and the scene which, without offering any great Olympian moments, gives the naïve and jolly and wholehearted effect that one finds in a good English hunting print or, let us say, in Pickwick Papers. In such an atmosphere, particularly as one thinks of it on a day late in June, human nature bubbles naturally into good nature, and whatever harshness remains, a tankard of ale will drain away.
It is in this valley of the Thames that William Morris awoke to find his utopia, after returning to his home in Hammersmith, the last really urban borough of London as one goes upstream. From that landscape, sweetened and freshened and ridden of cockney landmarks, Morris evokes the spirit of the River God, as Socrates and Phædrus, by the banks of the Ilyssus, call forth the spirit of Pan.
With all the grime and tedium of the dull eighties
lying upon his soul, Morris finds himself transported to a world which has been cleansed by a revolution of a greater part of the nineteenth century landmarks. In the meanwhile, grass has laid a decent blanket over many irretrievable ruins. The house in which he has gone to bed is now a Guest House; and he is first received into this refurbished world by a boatman who takes him for a morning swim on the Thames, and knows about the value of money only as a collector of copper curios might. At breakfast, he finds himself among a group of friendly people, who call him "Guest"; and he is taken firmly and sweetly and quite serenely in hand by the comely young women who preside over the house. These women, like everyone else in the new Thames valley, are healthy, full-blooded, athletic, sane, and free from the puling maladies which idleness or overwork gave to the women of the nineteenth century. The other guests are a weaver who has come down from the north to take a turn at the boatman's job while the latter goes up towards Oxford to help gather in the hay, and a loquacious dustman in marvellous greens and golds.
In this new England, work has become what one would call in the kindergarten "busy work": in the simplification of the standard of living and the release from the pressure of artificially stimulated wants, the main business of getting a living is easily performed, and the chief concern of everyone is to do his work under the pleasantest conditions possiblea demand which brings back many of the handicrafts, and places a great premium on manual skill. Although the mechanical arts have been improved in certain directions, for in his trip up the Thames our guest meets with a barge
driven by some internal engine, let us say by electricity, a good many devices have been allowed to fall into disuse, because, although the output in goods might be greater, the work itself and the way of life it promotes are not so beneficial as the simple methods of hand labor. In every direction, simplicity and direct action and the immediate supply and interchange of goods out of local produce, has taken the place of the monstrously complicated system of traffic that prevailed in the earlier imperialistic world. Work is given freely, and the proceeds of work exchanged freely, as a man might give of his goods and services nowadays when he welcomes a friend within his own house. A great part of the energy of this new community has gone into building; and architecture, sculpture, and painting flourish in the townhalls and common dining halls of which each village boasts.
It follows from this that the big cities have disappeared. London is again a congeries of villages, mingled in great woodlands and meadows where in the summer children roam about and camp and pick up the simple occupations of rural life. Of all the proud monuments of London that the nineteenth century left, only the Houses of Parliament remain, as a storage-place for dung. There are shops, where one takes for the asking, and there are common halls where people eat and have conversation, as they do now in restaurantsonly these new hostels are beautiful, spacious, and well-served.
Since economic pressure is absent, the people of the Thames valley seem to live a life of leisure; but this life of leisure is not the aimless leisure of the country house, with its artificial stimulants, its artificial exercises,
and the like: the life of dignified leisure is a life of work; in short, the life of the artist. If other people have talked of the necessity for labor, the dignity of labor, the heroism of labor, these simple Englishmen have discovered the beauty of leisurely workthe simple grace that follows when even the practical arts are pursued as if they were liberal arts. In this utopia the instinct of workmanship, the creative impulse, has free play; and since the majority of people are neither scholars nor scientists, as Sir Thomas More would have had them, they find their fulfillment in adding beauty to all the necessities of their daily toil. Where the work itself leads purely to some useful end, as in the growing of wheat or grass, the joy of work arises out of the comradeship and good-feeling that bind together those who perform it, and the comparative lightness of the tasks that find many hands eager almost to the point of competition to perform them.
One looks at the faces of these people, and the effects of their life are visible. Their women are ten or fifteen years older than we should judge by their appearance; and on every face is written the healthy serenity that follows when people do good work, with a good spirit, in a good place. There is a candor, a plainness, a wholesomeness, an absence of furtive repressions in their every gesture; and as far as men can be satisfied and happy in a good environment, this community is satisfied and happy. There are grumblers, it goes without saying. One of them is a crusty old fellow who has read ancient history and who sighs for the cutthroat practices of the competitive era; and there is another who complains of the tameness of Utopian literature, as compared with that which dealt
with the miseries and warped passion of an earlier age.
The only wretchedness in this utopia comes out of the essential human tragedythe disparity between one's aims and one's attainments, between one's desires and the circumstances that clog their fulfillment. How can unhappiness be altogether wiped out as long as maids are fickle and sexual passion strong? The boatman, for example, has been mated with a beautiful girl who leaves him for another man; but she tires of her new love, and under the eyes of the Guest her uncle brings the pair together, and the drama of courtship and mating goes on all over again; for there are no laws to bind people together when every fibre of their being drives them apart; and in a civilization that deals kindly even with its adults there is no difficulty about giving the children all the care they need. For the most part, those who suffer in love bear their burdens manfully, without wailing over imaginary wrongs which are associated with the worship of impossible chastities and reticences; and they turn their balked impulses into the channels of work and poetry as completely as they know how.
Is this the arcadian age of innocence all over again? Are brutality and lust forever wiped out? Not at all. In sudden passion even murders occur, no matter how good and helpful the social order; but instead of compounding murder with an additional murder, the guilty person is left to his own remorse. Use and wont are more powerful than law, and the whole guild that earns its living from the frictions and dissidences of our social life has dropt into limbo. By the same token, the game of the ins and the outs, which we
call political government, has disappeared; for the only matters in which our community is interested are as to whether a new field is to be laid under the plow or a bridge thrown over a stream or a townhall built; and about such things the local community is competent to decide, without lining up in a purely fictitious antagonism.
Sanity and health and good-will and toleranceas one sculls along the Thames, above Richmond, on a Sunday morning, between boatloads of gay picnickers and sauntering people, it is not impossible to imagine a new social order developing on simple lines and bringing these things into existence. With five million people in England, and perhaps half a million in the Thames valley, the thing would not be impossible. Then the whole countryside would be dressed again in green; then buildings would arise in the landscape like flowers out of the ground; then the kindliness and spontaneous cooperation of a happy holiday would be prolonged into the workaday week. We should know how to spend our time and with what to occupy our heads and hands, if the great wen of London were removed from the Thames valley, and all the cheap cockney things that London has conjured into existence were to be blasted away. We should know all these things, because William Morris has told us about them; and we should do all these things, because in our heart of hearts we realize that they would satisfy.
The utopia that remains for consideration is the last important one in point of time; and it is, curiously
enough, the quintessential utopia, for it is written with a free and critical gesture, and with a succinct familiarity towards the more important books that came before it. Mr. H. G. Wells, it is true, has made more than one excursion into an imaginary commonwealth: The Time Machine is his earliest and The World Set Free may possibly be considered as his latest. A Modern Utopia combines the vivid fantasy of the first picture with the more strict regard for present realities that marks the second; and it is, altogether, a fine and lucid product of the imagination.
The assumption upon which Mr. Wells gains entrance into his utopia differs from those shipwrecks and somnambulisms in which our modern utopias have been stereotyped. He conceives of a modern man, a little thickset and protuberant, seated at a desk and brooding over the possibilities of man's future; and gradually this image comes to life and defines his views, and his voice rises into narrative in something like the fashion of a lecturer, throwing from time to time his illustrations of a New World upon the screen. He enters utopia by hypothesis; that is, without any other subterfuge than an act of the imagination; and in the thickening realities of a utopian community, first discovered in an Alpine pass, he finds himself in the company of a sentimental botanist, who is sick with a love affair and is maudlin about dogs, and who again and again wrecks this exploration of utopia by dragging into the midst of the scene some petty complicationabout his sweetheart or his doggiethat he has acquired on earth!
Where and what is this modern utopia? By hypothesis, it is a globe identical with the one on which we
live; it has the same oceans and continents, the same rivers and minor land-masses, the same animals and plants; yes, even the same people, so that each one of us has his utopian counterpart. Conveniently, this new earth is located beyond Sirius; and for the most part its history is parallel to ours; except that it had a critical turn for the better at a not too remote period; so that, while mechanical invention and science and all that sort of thing is exactly on the same level as ours, the scale and order is entirely different.
The scale and order of things is indeed different. Utopia is a world community; it is a single civilization whose net of monorails and posts, whose identification bureaux, whose rules of law and order are the same in England as in Switzerland; and presumably the same in Asia and Africa as in Europe. In every sense it is a modern utopia. Machinery plays an important part, and the absence of menial service is conspicuous from the very first contacts in which our travellers get the hospitality of an inn, and find that interior decoration has verged towards the style of the modern lunchroom and subway station, so that the whole room can be redded, after use, by the guest himself. There is no harking back to the past in industry, in architecture, or in the mode of living. All that machinery has to offer has been accepted and humanized: there is a cleanliness, an absence of squalor and confusion, in this world-community, which indicates that utopia has not been purchased by evasion.
The price of this order and spaciousness is not as heavy as that which Bellamy was willing to pay in Looking Backward. The land and its natural resources are owned by the community and are in the custody of
regional authorities; and the means of communication and travel are in the hands of one common administrative body. There are great socialized enterprises such as the railways, with planetary ramifications; there are regional industries, and there are a good many minor affairs which are still undertaken by private individuals and companies. Farms are worked by a co-operative association of tenant farmers, upon lines suggested by Dr. Hertzka in Freeland. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of utopian organization is the registration of every individual, with his name, numeral, finger-print, changes of residence and changes in life; all of which is filed in a huge central filing office, to become part of a permanent file upon the individual's death. Utopian registration gets our travellers into hot water, for they are naturally mistaken for their utopian doubles; but outside of its use in the story this little device seems strangely beside the point, and it arose, I believe, out of Mr. Wells temperamental regard for tidinesstidiness on a planetary scalethe tagging and labelling of a well-conducted shop. . . .
The people of our Modern Utopia are roughly divided into four classes: the kinetic, the poietic, the base, and the dull. The kinetic are the active and organizing elements in the community: as active kinetics they are the managers, the enterprisers, the great administrators, as passive kinetics they are the minor officials, the innkeepers, the shoptenders, farmers, and the like. The poietic are the creative elements in the community; the "intellectuals" we should perhaps call them. This follows in general the lines laid down by Comtechiefs, people, intellectuals, and emotionals, and perhaps something of the same classification was outlined by More
in his Philarchs, people, priests, and scholars. This division of classes is a very ancient one. In that old Indian script, the Bhagavad Gita, we find that the population is divided into Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaisryas, and Sudras, and that their duties are "determined by the modes that prevail in their separate natures." The residual classes of the base and the dull correspond to the Sudras; they are, of course, the slag of the community; and the active elements in this class, the criminals, the habitual drunkards, and the like are exported to various islands in the Atlantic where they have organized a community of their own in which they may practice fraud, chicane, and violence to their hearts content.
Like Plato, Mr. Wells is concerned to provide for the education, discipline, and maintenance of people who will be sufficiently disinterested and intelligent to keep this vast organization a going concernno ordinary politician or captain of industry will do. Hence there arises a class of Samurai. These Samurai are selected by rigorous mental and physical tests out of youth who are past twenty-five, up to which time they may be foolish and unsettled and may sow their wild oats. These Samurai have a high intellectual standard of achievement. They live a simple life. They are under strict moral discipline, and follow a minute regimentation of dress and minor details of conduct. They cannot marry out of their class. Once a year they are sent out into the forests, the mountains, or the waste places to shift for themselves; they go "bookless and weaponless, without pen or paper, or money"; and they come back again with a new hardness and fineness and fortification of spirit. It is such an organization as might
have been evolved at the time of the Reformation had the Order of Jesuits been able to effect a dictatorship of Christendom. I say this without disparagement of either the Jesuits or the Samurai, in order to point out that these guardians of A Modern Utopia are plausible historic characters. All the important economic and political enterprises of the state, and important vocations like that of the physician, are in the hands of Samurai. They are as necessary to the social organization of A Modern Utopia as the research laboratories, which are provided by charter with each factory, are necessary to its industrial organization.
The glimpses that one gets of this utopia are full of color and light and movement; there are finely contained cities, surrounded by wide suburban territories, cities that are not built of paper and alabaster. Lovers pass arm in arm through the streets in the twilight; and there is a soft dignity in the women, with their gay, sexually unemphatic dresses, that charms. There are electric trains weaving silently on rails over the landscape of Europe, crossing under the English Channel by tube, and emerging in London with none of the bustle, the grinding, or the dirt of a modern railway ride. There are well-cultivated fields and adequate inns. There are no obstreperous patriotisms, as one suspects in Looking Backward; there is none of the shirking one might fear in News from Nowhere. (While our travellers are waiting to be identified they stay for a while in a residential quadrangle at Lucerne, and are given employment in a toy workshop.) There is less dogmatism about creeds than in Christianopolis,
and an entire absence of menialism which contrasts with More's Utopia.
This modern utopia brings together, compares, and criticizes important points that all the other utopias have raised; and it does all this with a deftness and a turn of humor that speaks for Mr. Wells at his best. Above all, A Modern Utopia strikes a new note, the note of reality, the note of the daily world from which we endeavor in vain to escape. More or less, all the other utopias assume that a change has come over the population; that it has been diminished; that the blind, the lame, and the deaf have been cured; that the mean sensual man has been converted and is ready to flap his wings and sing Hallelujah! There is a minimum of these assumptions in A Modern Utopia. It is above all other things an accounting and a criticism; and so it forms a fitting prelude to the remainder of this book.