Monday, January 17, 2011

Utopia—An Enduring Obsession

Utopia inc. by H.E. GieskeNearly five hundred years ago, Sir Thomas More published Utopia.  As a result of his classical work, the terms “utopia” and “utopian” have long been part of our lexicon, suggesting a  perfect or ideal community.  

More was a noted English public figure, Renaissance writer and   a  martyr and saint of the Catholic church.  Utopia is the best known of More’s many works.   The book profiles an imaginary island called “Utopia,” which roughly translates as “no place” in Greek. 

There is no private ownership and no one is wanting in this land.  While there are some artisans, agricultural work is universal.  On Utopia there is peace, mutual respect and general tolerance.  Social relationships are handled in a civil and structured way.  Indeed, the whole society is broadly regulated.  As a result, happiness reigns.

While the meaning of Utopia has been debated for centuries, two issues  stand out.  One is whether More, a devout Catholic, was arguing for communism.  The other is whether this is a blueprint for recasting or reforming society or whether it is simply a satire.

In addition to the idea of a utopia becoming synonymous with perfection--albeit perhaps unobtainable--More spawned a cottage industry of books.  Among 20th century writers there were utopian works by H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley. 

There also are books by lesser-known writers, who show the staying power of the concept.  One of these is the fairly obscure Utopia, Inc.: The Story of a Modern Atlantis, published by journalist Herman Everett Gieske in 1940. 

Gieske’s book is not a literary gem.  It features purple prose, stilted character development and a number of highly improbable events.  And yet, it provides an insight into how utopias have come into common discussion and also what sort of issues might have constituted an ideal world at the dawn of  World War II.

At the outset of the book, the world’s moguls come together to transform Bermuda into Utopia.  There, the great scientists of the world, unfettered by outside influences, work to rid the world of its problems.  One significant early invention is a gigantic road-paving machine destined to elevate China out of poverty. 

The protagonist of the story is David Haldane, a decent but underappreciated telephone lineman.  He dreams of joining the ranks of Utopians and perfecting his pet project, a much improved television.

Alas, there is a enemy of this idealistic enterprise, the Soviet Union, which fears that Utopia’s success will boost capitalism and discredit communism.  Surprisingly, Germany is never mentioned in the book; Soviet communism is the great evil.

Through a sequence of chicanery, the Soviets launch a squadron of planes to poison everyone on Utopia.  But their heinous effort is thwarted by a secret radio-propelled type of Star Wars defense.  The noble experiment is saved to further help humanity but not before it is clearly emphasized that science and religion are clearly compatible.

The idea of a utopian community, promoted and satirized, represents an important literary genre.  And, indeed, it is not surprising that humans would be interested in the idea of perfectibility.    Thomas More long ago tapped into that desire, and more utopian writers are yet to come.

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