This is the final part of a series that began here. I suggest beginning with Part 1 and reading forward. Thanks for coming and reading.
For some years now, dystopians have been all the rage, particularly among books published for young adults.
Nobody seems to be writing utopias these days, probably because our culture has grown too cynical for utopias. One writer friend told me it is not possible to write a true utopia: Either the story will not have any conflict, or it will be a dystopian in disguise. “It seems like a perfect world, but . . .”
If you want to talk about important utopias in western literature, you have to back a while.
Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) has been called one of the most influential books in western literature.
Utopia describes an idealized island community upon which perfect social harmony has been achieved. On this island all property is community owned, violence is nonexistent and everyone has the opportunity to work and live in an environment of religious tolerance. Many social movements throughout history have drawn upon More’s work for inspiration. While possibly unachievable Thomas More’s “Utopia” gives a vision of what could be.
Thomas More published his book in 1516. If nations, and cultures, have life spans, 1516 was surely the youth of western culture. The period was fraught with dangers and disease, but people largely held comforting beliefs: They largely believed humankind had been created in the image of God, and they believed humankind lived at the very center of the universe. They believed mere mortals to be capable of heroic greatness.
In 1905 H.G. Wells published A Modern Utopia in which two travelers fall into a space-warp and suddenly find themselves upon a Utopian Earth controlled by a single World Government. This other planet is exactly like Earth in every way, except that the people found a way to live without war in perfect harmony.
An other major utopia I know of is Skinner’s Walden Two, published in 1948. The characters achieve a utopian society by rejecting free will, and rejecting the idea that people have a soul or spirit. Walden Two assumes that people are entirely controlled by their environment, so altering the environment can generate a perfect society.
The last true utopia that drew a wide readership (that I know of) was published in 1954 by Arthur Clark.
Modern day utopias are often dystopians in disguise. An example is Lois Lowry’s The Giver. From the jacket flap of The Giver:
Jonas’s world is perfect. Everything is under control. There is no war or fear of pain. There are no choices. Every person is assigned a role in the community. When Jonas turns 12 he is singled out to receive special training from The Giver. The Giver alone holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life. Now, it is time for Jonas to receive the truth. There is no turning back.
The society is initially presented as utopian, but as the book progresses, the society appears more and more dystopian.
My favorite dystopian-in-disguise is The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, a story by Ursula LeGuin about a perfect society that can remain perfect only as long as all inhabitants close their eyes to the suffering of a child. The story serves as an allegory of how some people — the fortunate ones — live in luxury and abundance made possible by the suffering of others, with slavery as one example.
A dystopian is an imaginative way of presenting an exposé or a warning. The dystopian holds up a mirror up to life, magnifying and reflecting back the worst fault and excesses.
I see the value in dystopians. One of my favorite books of all time, Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, is a dystopian. The story is both horrifying and fascinating, showing what can go wrong if fanatics seize control of the government and where disastrous ideas and misguided behavior can lead.
Dystopians infuse us with horror. They wake us up from complacency and force us to consider how much worse things could become if we don’t set aside apathy.
There is also no denying that stories that scare us can be fun the way a thrilling amusement park ride can be fun. Screaming as the roller coaster careens around a corner is certainly a thrill. Horror stories, including dystopians, offer the same heart-pounding fright.
Horrifying stories can also purge us of certain kinds of fear by showing us that it is possible to rise above even the most adverse circumstances.
Most importantly, dystopians can serve as important warnings, teaching us to see evil and take action before the evil has a chance to take root.
Several classic dystopians came from the disillusionment and bitterness that resulted from the Marxist revolution in Russia. Animal Farm is both an allegory of the Russian revolution and a dystopian view of how a revolution can go wrong. The refrain “all people are created equal, but some people are more equal than others,” shows the corruption that arose from the revolution, and cynically concluded that even a revolution born from idealism is bound to go wrong because of human greed. Animal Farm, and stories like it, teach us to see warning signs of political corruption.
Nineteen Eighty Four has — in my view — been justly called one of the best books ever written. It’s depiction of how a totalitarian government can gain complete control over the hearts and minds of its citizens is a must-read for everyone who wants to understand how we can be manipulated and controlled.
So I do see the value in dystopians.
But any way you look at it, a dystopian tells ugly lies. Children being set up to kill other children is ugly and evil — even though, of course, this is exactly what happens any time two opposing armies recruit seventeen year old boys and send them to meet on the battlefield, while the winners are cheered.
A dystopia, by its very nature, sees the meanness in human nature and imagines how thoroughly mean and evil people can be. Dystopians, for all their value, tell ugly lies.
The question is whether the value of the lesson outweighs the presentation of violence and horror and the telling of ugly lies. Are we more likely to imitate the horror, or become numb to horror, or are we more likely to learn the lessons?
The answer for me is to walk down the middle. I think there is value when an artist shows us the forms evil can take. Having a “political doublespeak” as a metaphor helps us recognize it when it occurs.
On the other hand, the constant depiction of commonplace and meaningless violence and suffering as a form of entertainment is surely harmful and perhaps even depraved.
The larger question is this: What becomes of a culture when true cynicism and bitterness sets in, when artists can only imagine ugliness and horror? Like a star in a galaxy approaching old age — is there nothing to do but wait and watch as the light burns out entirely?
Or is it possible to set aside bitterness and revive a youthful exuberance and belief in the greatness of the human spirit?
The answer, I believe, lies in Dostoevsky’s assertion that “The world will be saved by beauty.”
Who can better show beauty than the artist? Ages past have looked for a messiah or prophet, but it seems to me that the prophets of old were artists of a certain type: They were creative visionaries who can show the world as it might be and help us find a way to a better tomorrow.
If the artists are unable to imagine a beautiful the world as it should be, who can?
So I conclude this long series by ending up where I started: because life imitates art, the artist should tell beautiful lies.
That is how the world will be saved by beauty.