Science Fiction Studies

# 9 = Volume 3, Part 2 = July 1976

J. Max Patrick

Iconoclasm, the Complement of Utopianism

My text, "Iconoclasm is the complement of utopianism," is an observation made by A.S.P. Woodhouse in Puritanism and Liberty. However, my thesis extends further; for I contend that historically, regardless of their authors’ intentions, most utopias have been more significant and influential in their normative and iconoclastic functions than as ideals and models: they upheld imagined societies with which readers inevitably compared and judged their own; and they served as debunkers, underminers, and destroyers of existent societies and faith in them. Indeed, the traditional approach to utopias as models, exemplars, and ideals often distracts readers and critics from their central practical importance.

The iconoclasm of utopias is obvious. Plato’s Republic is an attack on social and moral injustice. The iconoclasm of More’s Utopia is even more apparent because he devoted his first book to an onslaught against England’s evils: in the words of Erasmus, he exposed "the causes of mischief in commonwealths." The first French utopia, Le Royaume d’Antangil, covertly impugns absolute monarchy, ecclesiastical tyranny, and unearned privilege. And Campanella’s Civitas Solis, despite its grandiose schemes, is destructive of the family and individualism: Adolph Franck rightly deemed it "essentially a refutative work." And Robert Burton’s "utopia of mine own" in The Anatomy of Melancholy is a vehicle for trenchant social comments imbedded within a searching analysis of the causes of sickness and inefficiency in commonwealths: his seemingly positive account of a well-ordered state is largely a means of driving home his destructive account of European societies, especially England. Even New Atlantis, though constructive in its glorification of the social applications of science, was iconoclastic in its warring against scholasticism, prevalent modes of education, and traditions. If Harrington’s Oceana seems more constructive than iconoclastic, it is because the Puritan Revolution had effected most of the prerequisite destruction. On the other hand, for Gerrard Winstanley that Revolution had not expunged enough: in The Law of Freedom in a Platform he invoked Parliament "to break the Tyrants bonds, to abolish all their oppressing Laws abolish all old Laws and Customs" and to wipe out private property.

Dystopias such as Joseph Hall’s Mundus Alter et Idem are overtly iconoclastic. (Paradoxically, some of their force lies in the positive societies implicit behind their negativism.) Also openly destructive in nature and purpose are the French libertine utopias of the seventeenth century—the voyages to the sun and moon invented by Cyrano de Bergerac, Gabriel Foigny’s La Terre Australe Connue, and L’Histoire des Sevarambes by Denis Veiras, books which anticipated the eighteenth-century philosophes in their undermining of the ancient regime of France. It was these libertine writers who established the tradition of iconoclastic, heterodox utopias which persists and is now manifested in the "maps of hell" of science fiction today.

In short, from its beginnings, utopian literature has been quite iconoclastic. To ignore or slight this and define utopias in the traditional manner is to misunderstand the full nature and significance of the genre. The notion that a utopia is a commonwealth ideally perfect in politics, education, manners, economy, laws, religion, and all, is patently absurd—mere fantasy. The major and significant utopists hold back from describing ideal perfection. To illustrate that it is easy—and pointless—to do so, let us invent Optimia, an island-continent blest with fertile soil, all necessary minerals, harbors, plants, climates, etc. It amply (but not overamply) furnishes everything needful for human beings. Its citizens are cooperative, informed, and reasonable. They therefore make the right decisions and behave in the best possible manner, so that only a minimum of laws and government is needed. Since there is plenty for all, there are no property conflicts. Since all are reasonable and loving, there are no problems about sex or passions. Religion is, of course, based on perfect truth, so there is no disputing about it. Science and the arts are well developed and ever advancing, but the reasonableness of the populace ensures that they are not allowed to get out of hand. Etc. etc.: such a description has some value as a vehicle for expounding theories and abstractions; but such over ideal perfections usually may be dismissed with Hazlitt’s label—"hairbrained schemes." Such societies are dreams that float on postulates of human and natural perfections. But meaningful utopias do not deal with such "airy fictions," as Robert Burton put it when he declared that he would deal with men, not with gods. An effective utopia has its roots in reality, not mere fantasy. It must begin with human beings and facts as they are, transforming them and revolutionizing them within the limits of the conceivably practical. To the extent that an invented commonwealth moves from the realistic and possible and tends toward mere fantasy and dream it moves away from proper utopian writing.

The great utopists keep their feet on the ground. Even Plato did not depict a truly perfect society. As undergraduates delight to assert in their essays, he pays too little attention to the welfare of the masses, goes to extremes in subordinating individuals to the state, preserves slavery, makes insufficient provision against power’s corrupting his philosopher-kings, and neglects creativity in the arts. And the same undergraduates claim depth-insights when they note deficiencies in other great utopias: in More’s, a man cannot even go for a walk without his wife’s consent; Bacon’s patriarchal system would result in domestic tyrannies; Campanella’s eugenic welfare sacrifices personal liberty; Bellamy’s Looking Backward would stultify the arts; H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia is naive in assuming that scientifically trained men and women when put in control of a society would continue to possess the essential benevolence and compassion; B.F. Skinner’s behaviorally engineered Walden II has the fault of making the same assumption even more dangerously; and Austin Tappin Wright’s Islandia would suit only some temperaments. It is patent that these societies are not perfect or ideal. To the extent that they postulate perfection, they are fantasies or unrealizable models. As sophomore Boni Lumphead put it, "What use is a model if it can’t be used as a model?"

These students go to extremes. But they confirm my point: emphasis on utopias as models, ideals, and goals is a misleading approach; the greater importance of utopias lies elsewhere.

The first function of a utopia is normative. By describing another society and its organization, a utopist puts forth a norm or standard for comparison: he points to an alternative with which known societies may be contrasted. A utopia thus acts as a touchstone, as a criticism, and as a stimulus to the consideration of changes and reforms, a standard whereby existing society may be measured. Some features of the imagined country may be directly imitable, but historically most of them have been more effective because they inspire comparisons. Indeed, one must not assume that utopists necessarily intended their creations as ideals and models. Surely it is inconceivable that Thomas More, future saint and martyr, intended his naturalistic communist society as an ideal to be realized rather than as a norm to evaluate by: his Utopia serves best as a basis for comparisons and for his iconoclastic exposure of Europe’s professedly Christian countries. Admittedly some of the major nineteenth-century utopias were promulgated as realizable models—for example, Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Hertzka’s Freiland, and Cabet’s Voyage en Icarie. But their chief impact was as norms used iconoclastically. Thus Vincent Solberg observed that Looking Backward was largely a "protest against the corruptions and uneven distribution of wealth." Previous protests against the established order such as the Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, Mugwump opposition to Blaine, Henry George’s Labor-Democracy mayoralty campaign, and the United Labor Party with its single-tax socialism had all seemed factional, foreign, and anti-American. Bellamy’s genius was to translate this iconoclasm into American terms: the effectiveness of his book lies in his using a new utopian society as one means of contributing to the destruction of an old one. His work’s potency lay in his exposing the intolerable nature of the old society by using an imagined one as a norm whereby to judge the old, and as a standard, measured by which the old was seen to be both destructible and in need of destruction.

So, important is this iconoclastic function of utopias that in the twentieth century the writing of positive utopias has declined to a trickle, and iconoclasm has become the dominant mode, taking the form of anti-utopias, dystopias, and science-fiction maps of hell that are nearly all negative and adversely critical in their emphases. Until our century, it usually seemed sufficient for a utopist to attack existing societies overtly or by implication and then to turn to a sure cure-all such as intensified exploitation of available resources of men and materials—exploitation which would bring into being the material circumstances that would liberate men and women enabling them to be fully human and humane.

Almost twenty-five years ago I participated in an MLA Convention program on utopias like the one today;* and I then remarked that "the modern utopist is faced by circumstances that ought to be liberating but are proving inhibiting to the invention of inspiring utopias." I pointed out that then (if it was not already too late) we had reached the magic moment in human history when we had enough technological, scientific, and economic savoir faire that if we used our knowledge and talents wisely we could give economic security and at least the material circumstances for happiness to everyone in the world. But that moment has, of course, passed because of overpopulating and the raping of the world resources. But even then utopists, faced by that possibility of seeing the dreams of their predecessors made actual, were recognizing that when utopia becomes realizable, it loses its utopian appeal. Accordingly, true to their iconoclastic obligation, the utopists increasingly pointed to the inherent flaws: who would do the controlling? what would people do with their leisure? how was creativity to be ensured and nourished? how were we to avoid being doped, lobotomized, or conditioned into euphoric slavery? In short, the emphases of the utopists remained iconoclastic.

Now, a quarter-century later, attempts to build utopias are increasingly recognized as futile attempts to build towers of Babel. We overindulge in anti-utopias. The trend has its predecessors, but during those decades it grew gradually. Evelyn Waugh in Love Among the Ruins painted a gloomy picture of the drabness and inefficiency that socialism could bring. Ayn Rand in Anthem depicted the static society that would emerge from the break-up of the present one, or in Atlas Shrugged found refuge from an ultra-New-Deal America of corruption and inefficiency by having her industrialists flee to a hidden community in Colorado. Human beings became increasingly seen as demons whose big governments and welfare states proved domineering and/or inefficient hells. E.M. Forster in The Machine Stops carried the anti-mechanical doctrines of Howells, Morris, and Samuel Butler to an ultimate warning against the enslaving and destructive effects of mechanization and against the concomitant sin of trying to live like disembodied spirits. This last aspect of turning utopias against themselves is what Chad Walsh calls "angelism"—the theme of false and fatal spirituality, what happens when men become overrefined and overspiritual. John Macmillan Brown (Godfrey Sweven) had issued such a warning in Limanora (1903); and Franz Werfel continued it in The Star of the Unborn with the moral that if men play at being angels they perish more miserably than beasts. Others painted what happens in a society based on the joyful subordination of individualism: Huxley’s Brave New World is a well known example. Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister also makes the point effectively: recognizing that a certain amount of consciousness exists in the world, his dictator distributes it evenly under a plausible tyranny which loses individuals in group gratifications or pseudo-satisfactions. The Machine Stops, 1984, Star of the Unborn, and Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo show an increasing trend toward disparagement of the physical universe. In C.S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength there is even a leader who longs for the day when all trees will be replaced by artificial, less messy ones. And most of these works develop themes of depersonalization, loss of wholeness, loss of identity, the death of self and rebirth as cells in a social body, or the simple engulfing of self. In extremer forms utopists warn that we cannot have it both ways: the choice is between a safe and stable society or one that prohibits and inhibits creativity: such is the center of Anthony Boucher’s Barrier. In his society even changes of musical time or key are prohibited. Thus these iconoclastic writers, debunking the utopian dreams of the past, proceed to the favored topic of mutilation or its equivalents—brainwashing, prenatal stunting of the mind, hypnopaedia, lifelong psychological conditioning, prefrontal lobotomies. And from all this there emerges the persistent moral that if you gain one thing, you lose another. Voluntary lobotomies and amputations remove our propensities to evil; but they reduce us to vegetable existence or to futile and limited pseudo-creativity in harmless areas. All this eventuates, overtly or covertly, in the doctrine that a utopian society is self-defeating.

In sum, iconoclasm is the complement of utopianism; overemphasis on utopias as models must not he allowed to obscure the normative and iconoclastic functions of utopias. So marked has this iconoclastic nature become in our own time that, with supreme irony, utopists have now turned on their own genre—or on the common notion of it—and are increasingly iconoclastic toward the notion that any ideal society—even an imaginary one—is either possible or desirable. Utopia is being overturned by its own iconoclasm.

*NOTE. This paper was prepared for Seminar 129 of the 1975 MLA Convention.



I contend that historically, regardless of their author’s intentions, most utopias have been more significant and influential in their normative and iconoclastic functions than as ideals and models. Utopias held up imagined societies with which readers compared and judged their own; they served as debunkers, underminers, and destroyers of existing societies. By describing another society and its organization, the utopist put forth a norm or standard for comparison, pointing to an alternative with which known societies could be contrasted. A utopia thus acts as a touchstone, as a criticism, and as a stimulus to the consideration of changes and reforms. One must not assume that utopists intend their creations as ideals and models. It is inconceivable that Thomas More, future saint and martyr, intended his communistic society to be viewed as an ideal to be realized rather than as a norm to evaluate by. From early texts such as Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, and Hall’s Mundus Alter et Idem to more recent works such as Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Wells’s A Modern Utopia, and Skinner’s Walden II, my analysis suggests that the traditional approach to utopias as models can only distract readers and critics from their central practical importance.

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