Friday, 28 June 2013

Utopian Crisis

It’s a point of pride in my life, however unjustified, that when I was barely eighteen, I was able to define the word “dystopia” on an English final by merely recognizing its similarity to the word “utopia” and knowing the general meaning of the prefix “dys”. But this is basically irrelevant.

What I actually want to point out is that, in the current onslaught of dystopian novels and movies, there is pretty well nothing on the other end of the spectrum. How many utopian stories have you encountered lately? I’m willing to bet a hefty amount that most, if not all, of the utopian stories you’ve encountered are actually dystopian stories in disguise. After all, if there’s nothing wrong, there’s no conflict, and therefore no story, right?

Or, could this lack of utopian stories have to the do with the fact that while we are very good at imagining all sorts of awful things, we really just can’t fathom what a utopian society looks like? Can you paint for me your idea of utopia? Does it have unicorns and rainbows and ponies that poop butterflies? Or does no one ever cry, get angry or sick, or make mistakes? What name have you given to your society? Carlaville? Happyland? Heaven? And here’s another question: if you can’t describe Heaven at all, then how can you use it as the balm for all of society's ills?

I was struck with the problem of designing a utopia when reading a passage from Plato's Republic. While Plato seemed to believe he was laying the framework for the best possible society, I would go to extreme lengths to try to avoid actually having to live in such a city. Different strokes for different folks?

My dad once described his version of a perfect society to me. Essentially, in his world, everyone would live in self-chosen communities, with rules of their own choosing for how to behave and how to deal with conflict within the group. If and when someone disagrees with those rules, they remove themselves from that community, and move to or start another one. Everyone has complete choice with regards to how to conduct their lives – total personal freedom – yet the conflict that arises from clashing individualistic values is basically avoided by merely walking away from it.

This wouldn’t work on planet Earth, due to limited space and resources, which would cause conflict between the various factions. But in a setting where resources and space aren’t limitations? Well, C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce describes pretty much the same society in an infinite, limitless setting, and he calls that society Hell, not Heaven. People, he said, would be forever spreading out, into smaller and smaller communities, progressively becoming more and more isolated. So, one person's heaven is literally another person's hell. By the way, my dad has not read The Great Divorce.

Lewis’s version of Heaven, however, also made me scratch my head. I don’t remember many details of it anymore, but the one that struck me the strongest was that people in Lewis’s Heaven were unable to feel any sadness or grief for all the souls in Hell - even if those souls belonged to their former family members or friends. Why? Because sadness and grief is bad, of course. And isn’t it? But the practical consequences of banning negative emotions, to me, seem bizarre. It’s like some kind of happy drug that either makes you deny reality or turns you into a cold and coarse, compassionless being. Wouldn’t compassion be a major necessity for a utopia?

My cousin recently directed me to a short story called Those Who Walk Away from Omelas, which illustrates more or less the opposite utopia to Lewis’s negative-emotion-free Heaven. In Omelas, positive emotions such as compassion, nobility, dignity, etc., are all possible because the citizens are aware of the one wretched, abused little child in their midst. They can appreciate what they have because they can see the pitiful alternative; helping that one abused child would cause their own golden civilization to fall. Never mind ideal. Is this card tower of perfection, built on the injustice done to one innocent child, even morally acceptable? I don’t see how a society built on injustice can itself be considered just. Certainly, atheistic Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov rejects such a claim – and his Christian brother backs him up. From the book:  
[Ivan said] 'Let's assume that you were called upon to build the edifice of human destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let's say the little girl who beat her chest so desperately in the outhouse, and that on her unavenged tears you could build that edifice, would you agree to do it? Tell me and don't lie!'
'No, I would not,' Alyosha said softly.
Everywhere I turn, I see commentaries on utopia, or rather, on the impossibility of having them. Even The Matrix weighed in, with Agent Smith remarking,

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program, entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.

So, does utopia have even a hypothetical existence? Western culture likes to draw hard lines between the good and the bad, isolating one from the other. Eastern culture, on the other hand, tends to view the two as intermingled and inextricably linked. It’s the concept of yin and yang; the world bound up in opposites. Even the Japanese children’s anime Naruto proclaims that so long as there is love, there will also be pain and hatred – though the title character himself very loudly denies this (and plans to bring peace through violence).

But if existence truly is about both the pleasant and the painful, the good and the bad… then how can things get better? And must we worry about them getting worse? It seems to me that things certainly can get better or worse – but are we concerned with quantity or quality of happiness? Or both?

You know… sometimes it’s hard to know how to try to change the world if you don’t know what your end goal is.

“An optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds and the pessimist fears this is true.” James Branch Cabell

P.S. May I also point out, as another tangential but mostly irrelevant note, that I’m not sure there are many stories that describe the descent from a “topian” to a dystopian society. Maybe it’s too depressing for a story? Maybe it’s too terrifying to picture it happening? The descent into dystopia strikes me as one of the more important things that we should be able to recognize and therefore hopefully forestall.

P.P.S. Our basement-dweller Rachel has moved back to Quebec for the summer. She will be back in the fall, but will probably not be living with us.... AND SHE SOMEHOW FORGOT TO GIVE ME A GOODBYE HUG!!! Seriously??

P.P.P.S Post on the flooding to follow soon.


Rachel said...

Sorry again... :( I promise it was not intentional.
Also, I really appreciated the read. Good post!

Art said...

I am not sure what a utopian society would look like anymore. My thinking keeps changing. I sometimes think it would be good for society to eradicate all psychopaths and sociopaths as they are like viruses in the system but even viruses can serve a positive function. Would a child who was raised in a bubble and never exposed to any pathogens be better off than a normal child whose body had learned to fight sickness? Which child would be healthier? Would a utopian society ever face floods, death, malfunctions, storms or Internet outages? It is hard to conceptualize a society that would not have some issues.

I would like to hear what your idea of Carlatopia would be like.