The Utopian English Novelists [Archives:2003/637/Education]

May 26 2003

Dr. Sadek R. Mohammed
Ibb University

Utopianism is so deeply rooted in human nature that it is almost impossible to understand the history of mankind without mentioning utopia. It is a perennial habit of the mind, a form and a way of thinking which keeps manifesting itself at all times and in all places. It is probably as old as the human tendency of using dreams and visions to place desire above reality and to yearn for their fulfillment. “A map of the world that does not include utopia”, says Oscar Wilde, “is not worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing”. That is why, frank Emanuel and Fritzie P. Manuel speak of a utopian propensity in man similar to the religious propensity of which William James speaks in his famous lectures.
Since the previous century, utopia has been considered from two different perspectives. One is optimistic, hence, tolerant, the other is pessimistic therefore intolerant.
Generally, one can say that utopia lost its appeal during that century. This may be attributed to the fact that world events during that century enforced certain painful realizations on the people of the world. These are basically the “irrationality of the human material, the coercive stability of the authoritarian societies, the surfacing of the bestial during the two world wars.” The aim of utopian theorists was seen as an evil one in spite of the insistence of these theorists that their objective was human happiness. The nineteenth century achievements in science and technology inspired many with optimistic views about the perfectibility of man and his capacity to attain utopia. But with the advent of the twentieth century these views seemed to have vanished and science that was once considered the key to solve all the problems of humanity came to be considered an evil tool that brings misery to mankind. This disillusionment with science is best expressed by the novelist George Gissing who wrote in 1903: “I hate and fear 'science' because of my conviction that for a long time to come if not forever, it will be the remorseless enemy of mankind. I see it destroying all simplicity and gentleness of life, all beauty of the world, I see it restoring barbarism under the mock of civilization; I see it darkening men's minds and hardening their hearts”.
In addition, the establishment of totalitarian states during that century in some parts of the world and the concomitant problems further spread the fear of utopia because many of these states derived their founding principles from philosophies that contained many utopian elements – especially the socialist state of Russia that came into existence after the Revolution of 1917. They provided grim images of the relationship between the regime and the masses and narrowed the scope for human freedom and happiness. Therefore, the Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdiaev wrote once: “Utopias appear to be much more capable of realization than they did in the past. And we find ourselves faced by a much more distressing problem. How can we prevent their final realization?” Warning calls were actually coming from many influential voices. “Save us from the shape of things to come”, said W.H. Auden. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, novelists like H.G. Wells believed in man's inevitable march towards utopia. He spent almost half a century drawing blueprints of a future full of new inventions and “enlightened sunbathers” to quote George Orwell, for a whole “generation of readers growing up between 1900 and 1930”. Writes Peter Firchow, “This little, fat, and jolly man, half prophet and half huckster, became identified with the shape of things to come.” Any mention of the future, observes J.B.S Haldane, “necessarily evoked his name.”
Wells, nevertheless, was a target for the criticism of other twentieth century novelists, especially Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, who did not share his optimism and confidence in the future. Huxley, particularly made no secret of his intention so much so that in his “Brave New World” (1932) he was “blasting Wells” that his ultimate aim was to denude the “horrors of the Wellsain utopia”. In fact, he even went further to mention in a letter to his brother Julian: “All's well that ends Wells”. Evaluating the attitudes of both Wells and Huxley, Orwell, who wrote one of the most terrifying anti-utopias in the twentieth century, “nineteen eighty-four”, mentioned once: “Compare almost any of H.G. Wells utopian books, for instance “A modern utopia”.
With Aldous Huxley's “Brave New World” it's rather the contrast between the over confident and the deflated, between the man who believes innocent in progress and the man who happens to have been born later and has therefore lived to see that progress is just as much of a swindle as reaction”.
George Orwell is a disillusioned and despaired utopian who in the words of C.S Lewis, “later come to see that all totalitarian rulers however their shirt may be are equally the enemies of man.” Therefore, he abandoned any possibility of man being able to achieve any utopian dream. Paradoxically, however, neither Wells was really the “facile optimist” he seems to be, nor Huxely was a permanent pessimist. Any careful reading of Wells, especially some of his early works, clearly manifests this.
In fact, towards the end of his life, Wells, in his “Mind at the End of it Tether”, seems to have lived long after him to write his utopia, “Island” (1962). This schizophrenic attitude of the major twentieth century utopian and anti-utopian novelists may be attributed to the fact that these novelists were very much concerned with and involved in the problems of their contemporary time. Their attitudes were actually reactions to their concerns about what was going on in that time. After all, utopias and anti-utopias are intensely involved in the present, in spite of the fact that they are actually talking about the future, especially in the kinds of dialogues they are involved.