Science Fiction Studies

#41 = Volume 14, Part 1 = March 1987


W. Warren Wagar

The Best and Worst of Times

David Bleich. Utopia: The Psychology of a Cultural Fantasy. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984. 154pp. $32.95.

Alexandra Aldridge. The Scientific World View in Dystopia. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984. 97pp. $27.95.

Two of the better dissertations in utopian/dystopian studies are now available as clothbound books in Robert Scholes's series of "Studies in Speculative Fiction" from UMI Research Press. Each is primarily a work of literary criticism, dwelling on a few major texts. Each is pollinated by wisdom from another field, David Bleich's 1970 thesis by Freudian and Eriksonian psychoanalysis and Alexandra Aldridge's 1978 thesis by intellectual history. As an intellectual historian, I take more kindly to the efforts of Aldridge, but both books are instructive despite their brevity and failure to add insights from recent scholarship. (Bleich cites nothing published after 1967, except a book of his own, Aldridge nothing published after 1977.)

Whether these are also contributions to SF studies in the purest sense depends on one's definitions of the various genres concerned. Bleich's mission is clearly to establish that modernist mainstream fiction represents the triumph of "adult" sensibilities over the "adolescent" utopism of the period 1870-1914, as shown by the putative triumph of Henry James over H.G. Wells. For her part, Aldridge challenges Darko Suvin's claim that utopias and dystopias are a subgenre of SF and finds most of her key texts falling outside the SF canon. In any event, with the exception of Bleich's lengthy analysis of James's The Golden Bowl, it is safe to say that the attention of both scholars centers on works of speculative fiction. You have been warned!

Utopia: The Psychology of a Cultural Fantasy is the more ambitious of the two studies. As often happens in psycho-criticism (or psychohistory), Bleich succumbs to the temptation to reduce everything to the traumas of growing up. Works of literature are not art, thought, reflections of class consciousness, or products of the Zeitgeist, but expressions of feelings generated in childhood. Utopian fantasy is an especially easy target. From its beginnings, writes Bleich, the utopian device has enabled immature males (ignoring all evidence to the contrary, he excludes women from the game) to revel in illusions of omnipotence. In their fantasy lives they topple their fathers and regain admission to the paradise of Mother Earth. Thus, Thomas More's Utopia and also his martyrdom issued from an adolescent struggle for identity, which included rebellion against a father who urged him to pursue a legal career and serve established power, come what may. William Morris's utopian socialism is reduced to adolescent estrange- ment and latent homosexuality. Edward Bellamy seethed with boyhood dreams of being a soldier. Adolf Hitler was a typical adolescent gang leader, a Big Brother who led his siblings in rebellion against the paternal old order. And so forth.

Eras in history display, for Bleich, the same neurosis. For England and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (up to 1914), "the idea of utopia...can be viewed as expressing the period's unique historical identity" (p. 10). Utopias were unusually popular at this time because they expressed national fears and desires. In the case of America, 1870-1914 was the age of transition from adolescence to maturity as a people, the age of gun-slinging cowboys and Robber Barons. Great Britain had no cowboys, but utopian fantasies appeared "as if an expression of guilt for the similarly unscrupulous process of empire building" (p. 42). But after 1914 both nations settled into a more adult way of life that exposed utopian fantasies for what they are.

Germans, unfortunately, have been suffering from a severe and protracted identity crisis since the late Middle Ages--which explains why utopian (or millenarian) fantasies tend to be more violent in the German lands than in England or America, and why they more often lead to destructive efforts to make the dreams come true. Bleich contrasts Thomas Mntzer with Thomas More and finds that although More's utopism was finally acted out in martyrdom, he did not make the mistake of trying to raise a whole nation against its king in order to erect a new social order. More's defiance of Henry VIII was a responsible, adult behavior; Mntzer's role in the German peasant rebellion of the same period was the work of a neurotic adolescent psyche, surpassed only by the career of that supreme fantasist, Adolf Hitler. The difference is simply, according to Bleich, that English utopism is "better socialized," more readily confined to literary expression. Indeed, "the relatively peaceful evolution toward democracy in English government can be partially explained by the siphoning off, through the utopian tradition, of truly aggressive, destructive, revolutionary impulses" (p. 20).

All this is rather breath-taking, but not quite in the way Bleich might wish. One hardly knows where to begin. It is difficult to dispute the argument that millenarian/utopian visions take some of their energy from yearnings that all men and women harbor for a return to the warmth and security of childhood and, perhaps even more so, the womb. Persons with unresolved Oedipus complexes--which may well describe Hitler--are better than average candidates for rebellious or anti-social or unconventional behavior in adult life. But Bleich, in his brief biographical sketches of More, Morris, Bellamy, and Wells, fails to demonstrate that any of these men were conspicuously more Oedipal than the rest of us or shared harsh or aberrant childhoods. As for the thousands of other utopian fantasists in history, the reader is left to fend for her or himself.

The "explanations" of comparative national history offered by Bleich explain even less. The thesis of American adolescence and English pseudo-adolescence in the period 1870-1914 is patently silly. By implication, the countries of continental Europe produced fewer great utopists at this time because they were more grown-up (except, of course, that Germany was always dangerously adolescent, as proved by the examples of Mntzer and Hitler). The point is that psychocritics and psychohistorians play a game they can never lose because they deal with broad patterns of consciousness and behavior common to all individuals and nations. Their explanations always work; yet at the same time, by explaining everything, they explain nothing. They cannot help us with the critical differences between individuals and nations that are matters of inheritance, geography, culture, class, level of socio-economic development, and all sorts of historical variables impossible to pigeon-hole. Nor, in any case, can such explanations be taken seriously unless they systematically sample evidence from several periods and countries, and from the lives of many individuals--here, the lives of many utopographers. Hinging a whole theory of modern history on the lives and writings of a handful of writers of utopias is playing fast and loose indeed.

But history is not Bleich's principal interest. After establishing his categories, his attention shifts in the last three and most substantial chapters to the main business at hand, which turns out to be yet another bashing of H.G. Wells and yet another round of applause for Henry James. As one remembers, this sort of thing was almost a cottage industry for up-to-date literary critics in the 1960s, when Bleich was writing his thesis.

Bleich correctly identifies Wells as a utopian "by profession," driven all his life by utopian impulses. Of course Bleich does not intend this as a compliment. All of Wells's fictional heroes, he remarks, were either idealized figures reflecting a "sense of infantile omnipotence" or Chaplinesque types reflecting "the sense of impotence that cannot adequately cope with the pressure of infantile wishes" (p. 63). The second group, represented by Kipps and Mr. Polly, appear in Wells's best novels, where he dealt more or less realistically with "the most abiding emotional forces of his own personality" (p. 64). But in most of his other novels and in his non-fiction, even--it would seem--in the scientific romances of the 1890s, he played the demigod, the utopian par excellence, and failed. Works such as A Modern Utopia (1905) were popular enough at the time, but when the Anglo-Saxon collective psyche matured after 1914, such childish things were, appropriately, set aside and their emptiness perceived. Bleich quotes, with satisfaction, Bernard Bergonzi's dictum that "Wells's utopias are the projection of a radically immature view of human existence" (p. 66).

Happily, a savior was waiting in the wings, in the person of Henry James, the literary giant who admired Wells's animal vitality and who was rewarded by Wells's savage personal attack in Boon (1915). James, too, suffered from adolescent longings for omnipotence, but he transformed them, writes Bleich, "into a patient search for formal omnipotence in art, which...established James's identity as 'The Master' of art and subdued the demands of his infantile feelings" (p. 73). In his later work, and especially in The Golden Bowl, published in the same year as Wells's A Modern Utopia, James ironically created the true modern utopia, a subjective utopia of art that set all of Western literature on a new path, leaving Wells and his adolescent fantasies in the dust. In our time, now that the old "cultural faith in some kind of workable 'objective' reality" has died out, we are back to Plato's version of utopia, to the inner life that James mastered and Wells impatiently discarded in pursuing his puerile dream of world-salvation (p. 125).

Bleich is, needless to say, entitled to his view of the matter. There can be no question that through most of this century in the Western world, the Jamesians have prevailed in critical circles over the Wellsians. Subjectivity and irrationalism have prevailed both in philosophy and in literature over l9th-century realism and positivism. But three points must be made in Wells's defense. First, Wells himself was a founder, in at least a small way, of the new anti-utopian and irrationalist world-view in what Bleich calls his "science-fantasy phase" (p. 64). Bleich gives no evidence of having read any of the scientific romances, and comments on them only to note that their heroes were scientists--which is, to be as charitable as possible, misleading. But it is curious that Bleich does not wonder why Wells's SF novels have nearly all "prevailed" and continue to sell better than his other works--and probably James's, too.

Second, literary history has not yet come to an end. Critics are even beginning to find merit in some of Wells's later novels, also apparently unread by Bleich. In any event, tastes and world-views can--and surely will--change fundamentally as the years unroll. To quote John Huntington in a recent issue of SFS ("Rethinking Wells" [July 1986], p. 206), Wells may some day be restored to critical esteem as a major writer if we "rethink and restructure our aesthetic priorities. The history of the literary canon is just such a sequence of restructurings." By the same token, Henry James may some day be viewed as a fussy empty-minded old windbag. I would be sorry for that, but not inconsolable.

My third point is political. The dismissal of Wells's utopism as the ravings of an irritable adolescent, and more important, the dismissal of utopism itself as (at best) a way of siphoning off infantile urges and (at worst) of promoting chaos and violence, is a political judgment. It suggests, in concert with Metternich, that fundamental change in the social order is either impossible or bad. It implies that revolutions are the work of sick adolescent minds unable to confront the real world and cope with it manfully. As we look around us at the real world of sovereign states bent on destroying the human race in one final orgy of killing foreseen many times by H.G. Wells, his cry for global revolution and the building of a socialist world commonwealth is more relevant than ever, no matter what its immediate practicability may be. Utopias, as Karl Mannheim argued in Ideology and Utopia, are guides to achievable new societies, and ideologies are rationalizations of established power. In this sense, Bleich's assault on utopism is an example of ideology in its purest form and a confession, not of feelings of adolescent omnipotence to be sure, but of something even worse: senile resignation and despair.

In his eagerness to dispatch utopism, Bleich also largely neglects what many would call the peculiarly 20th-century form of utopia, the dystopia. No one doubts that since the 1920s, dystopias have replaced utopias on the bestseller lists and in the favor of literary critics. Is the dystopia simply a new mode of utopianizing, concealing its vision of the good society in its nightmare of the worst?

Alexandra Aldridge in The Scientific World View in Dystopia replies convincingly in the negative. Whatever generic affinities modern dystopias may have with utopias, they are not, she writes, utopias turned upside down, like the utopian satires and anti-utopias of the 18th and 19th centuries and before. The modern dystopia, from Zamyatin and Huxley to Bradbury and Vonnegut, constitutes a radical departure from utopian literature and thought. It does so, in Aldridge's judgment, in two ways. In form, the dystopia is almost always a true novel, not "a fictive philosophical tract" of the sort produced by More or Bacon or Bellamy, or by Wells in A Modern Utopia. In philosophy, the dystopia is almost always a radical critique of the scientistic world-view of the representative modern utopia, assailing "its adherence to instrumental values, its elevation of functional and collective ends over the humanistic and individual. In outlook, the dystopian novel is close to the mainstream modern novel" (p. 17). Like the mainstream novel, it is preoccupied with such themes as "isolation, spiritual and emotional emptiness, alienation," differing only from the mainstream novel in its focus on "the alienating effects of science and technology" (pp. 17-18).

Aldridge follows Mark Hillegas in tracing modern dystopian fiction to one of Wells's least successful scientific romances, When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), the story of a totalitarian society of the future in which monopoly capital rules with an iron hand, and is later replaced by an equally despotic proto-fascism. On the one hand, When the Sleeper Wakes is a catalogue of horrors that directly inspired Zamyatin and Huxley; but, on the other, Aldridge adds, it lacks the anti-scientistic world-view of its successors. Although the plutocrats of Wells's baleful future exploit science and technology to maximize their power, it is not the logic of science and technology themselves that is to blame, but rather the inequitable distribution of wealth.

So we must turn to Yevgeny Zamyatin and We (1924) for the first true example of dystopia, as Aldridge defines the term. Her chapters on We and on Brave New World are especially good. She properly observes that in both novels, the authors were concerned to attack not science in general, but a particular model of science based on the mechanistic materialism of the Enlightenment and its l9th-century heirs. It was a science of fixed and precise truths leading to a mechanistic vision of society. To this vision, Zamyatin (implicitly) and Huxley (explicitly) opposed a vitalistic conception of reality that left the future open and the individual free to consult truths higher and deeper than the truths of reason.

In a final chapter, Aldridge studies what she calls "dystopian science fiction" (p. 65). She offers Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, and Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles as further exhibits in evidence of the dystopian imagination at work. The analyses here are too brief, and in the case of Canticle, unpersuasive. As I read the novel, it is more an exercise in theology than a critique of scientism. Science and technology supply the means for man's repeated downfalls, but it is man's own pride and greed, his original sin, that dooms him, not the discovery or rediscovery of weapons of mass destruction. Be this as it may, Aldridge runs out of steam at this point, as dissertation-writers sometimes do, and leaves her readers dangling. Explorations of other major texts, such as C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, which would strengthen and enrich her argument, are not forthcoming. She also makes the perhaps unfortunate decision to banish the problem of Orwell's 1984 and other primarily political dystopias to a short appendix. This is a problem that needed closer study. Aldridge is entirely right in noting that Orwell's primary target was not science and technology but totalitarian collectivism. What she may not fully appreciate is that dystopias in the Orwellian mode, of which there are many (going all the way back to Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column), are also frontal assaults on l9th-century utopian visions, from those of Bentham and Comte to those of Marx and Bakunin. Even though they stand on somewhat different ground from dystopias that criticize scientism, they are important enough, and easily enough confused with the model established by Zamyatin and Huxley, to merit at least a chapter of their own.

All criticisms to one side, these are provocative books on subjects of more than specialized interest. They deal, in fact, with the whole shape and character of modern culture, both intellectual and literary. They challenge us to understand not only a few selected texts but ourselves as well. UMI Research Press should be thanked for rescuing them from the precinct of Purgatory reserved for doctoral theses.


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