12 October 2001 static utopias

Had I the plantation of this isle, my lord,-

He'd sow't with nettle-seed.

Or docks, or mallows.

And were the King on't, what would I do?

'Scape being drunk for want of wine.

I' th' commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit: no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known: riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure:
No sovereignty;-

Yet he would be King on't.

The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.

All things in common Nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but Nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.

No marrying 'mong his subjects?

None, man; all idle; whores and knaves.

I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T' excel the Golden Age.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 1, with my apology for the colours - which I hope clarify without completely disrupting the poetry (which returns if the words are spoken evenly, without emphasis).

16:34 Outdoor cafe.

Thinking of Gonzalo's commonwealth, Plato's Republic, Thomas Moore's Utopia, even William Morris's News from Nowhere, and of all the science fictions that take, like George Orwell's 1984,the negative form of a prison society, I realise that what they have in common is fixity. The author assumes that, once achieved (and few say how), the social paradise, or hell, will continue forever unchanged.

And, as soon as I noticed this, I felt I'd found the critical fault - and the way to write my own social fiction - as a flux, an extended not a frozen reality, a world as unpredictable as is history, perhaps more so.

As I write I see before me a man with white hair, white beard and a tall stick, who is reading a newspaper. ITV faces ratings slump- I read a headline just before he turns the page. He looks like the kind of wise man one might meet in Utopia!

And just now a small girl fell down some shallow steps and lay there inert and crying until a woman rushed to help her up and to comfort her. She wasn't hurt and could have got up on her own but she seemed to me to have been taught to cry and to expect rescue from every accident or difficulty (from the variety inherent to life, I thought).

Why is there so much suffering in the world, asked someone. To thicken the plot, said John Cage (I can't find the reference at the moment).

Utopia - a form of government ideally suited to those who don't need it, those who can govern themselves. That is my memory of something written by William James, in The varieties of religious experience - but I can't find the page.

Without having thought through the reasons I imagine that both of these sights (the educated man reading and perhaps believing a newspaper, and the child brought up to expect physical perfection) are models of our model society, the eighteenth century model of rational humanism. The one we inherit and inhabit - and which is changing so greatly at present. I think it will soon become something quite different. Perhaps it already has and some of us are pretending or wishing that it hadn't?

Later: So why do utopianists, and dystopianists, assume social fixity? ... is it because they copy the main error of hierarchy, of actual government and management - that it is singular, meant to be unchanging, eternal, intended as the fixed frame of existence, off-stage, unquestioned (or treasonable to question it, a false extension of the divine right of kings) whereas all other forms are not apart from the flux of life - they are life itself, the social ocean ... Yes!

So can we trust it, can we trust each other, and ourselves? That is the question, William Shakespeare. You trusted and gave freedom to each character, perhaps, but not to utopias, nor even to kings? Not quite. And you portrayed no totally fixed society, no 1984.