Looking Out: Morris

Industrialism as Progress

Looking Out: Morris

The term fin-de-siècle already tells us that theirs was a crisis of ending. When one of Oscar Wilde’s characters utters the phrase, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the response is a slant echo, “fin-du-globe.” The end of the century as the end of the world. In some cases, this could be rather literal, as when the insights of thermodynamics began to reveal that the universe itself was running down—and that the date of its demise could be readily calculated. But more often it meant the end of the known world, the familiar world, the Victorian world.

It certainly meant the end of runaway progress. Slowly but unmistakably, that grand, resistless force came to seem less certain, less absolute, and less trustworthy. There were a number of reasons for that, but chief among them was the widespread perception of economic decline. Like so many periods of historical crisis, that is, the final decades of the 19th century were also years of economic malaise—or, at least, they were felt to be so. The best information we have today seems to suggest that the long recession of 1873-96 never was; there was no deep, 20-year depression, no long contraction of GDP and no great fall in industrial output. There were brief periods of decline, certainly, but overall the fundamentals of the economy were sound enough. Yet, contemporaries across a wide swath of professions and locales felt themselves to be caught in an economic crunch, thanks to a number of forces that made the economy look more sluggish than it was (deflation, shrinking profits, the uneven distribution of suffering.) What brewed, in response, was a ferment of new political organization and new ideological exertion. Bloody Sunday and the Dock Workers’ Strike, the SDF and the Socialist League, the Fabian Society and the New Unionism—all of these belong to the 1880s and all owe a good deal of their force to the sense that the system was beginning to flag.1 Tennyson, himself, worried that “a mighty wave of evil” was hastening towards the shore. “All ages are ages of transition,” he wrote, echoing Mill, “but this is an awful moment of transition” (rpt in Rosenberg 3). Many indeed felt the gnawing fear that despite the power of industrial progress there might be, in T. H. Huxley’s words “no hope of a large improvement of the condition of the greater part of the human family” (Kidd 4).

There was also a utopian side to this era of economic decline, political fractiousness, and hysterical self-diagnosis. Partly, it took the form of cultural politics: experiments in identity, pleasure, and the limits of the permissible.2 But there was also a stricter kind of Utopianism, a new approach to age-old questions about the structure of the good society which brought eu-topia into strange new contact with decadence and degeneration. Indeed, the paradoxical argument of this chapter is that while the fin-de-progrès looked, to some, like a terrible crisis, to others it looked like a rare opportunity to rethink the requirements of Utopia.

It is Wilde, once again, who shows us the depth of this connection, this time in his unaccountably earnest “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” That Wilde even wrote such a Utopian tract is still something of a surprise, given his generally more anarchic commitment to wit and irony. But “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” is an unabashedly political essay, written for the Fortnightly Review not long after the release of Morris’ News from Nowhere.3 It is a thorough, boisterous, occasionally idiosyncratic defense of socialism as the only just organization of society and the surest basis for the flowering of human beings. In Wilde’s view, once private property is abolished, there will be no poverty, no dull labor, no crime, no punishment, no marriage or traditional family life, no public opinion, no authority, indeed no compulsion of any sort. In their place, there will be “true, beautiful, healthy Individualism” (8), the fulfillment, by each person, of his own truest personality, which the grubbiness of contemporary life has twisted or destroyed.

One particular, and justly famous, image in the essay crystallizes not only Wilde’s idea but the broader aspirations of fin-de-siècle Utopian fiction.4 It stands as Wilde’s strongest defense of both the grandeur and impracticality of his vision—in a word, its rank utopianism:

Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sails. Progress is the realization of Utopias. (16)

There is a familiar line of thought running through this passage, the line of thought that treats Utopia as a spur to development, an imaginary place which inspires real change. To use Anatole France’s words: “Without the Utopians of other times, men would still live in caves, miserable and naked” (Qtd. in Mumford 22). Wilde’s thoughts run parallel to those of France, but they also have there own eccentricity, especially in that second sentence. Utopia, as Wilde has it, is not the imaginary place towards which humanity is forever sailing; instead, it is “the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” But when, exactly, has Humanity ever landed at Utopia? And then why, if we did land there, did we choose to leave? The idea that we could be lured away from an existing Utopia by the promise of a greater Utopia is a deeply anti-Utopian notion. It makes Utopia just another name for the empty promise of progress itself—forever beckoning us onward towards the New and the Next. Indeed, it makes Wilde sound something like Ulysses, come to take his mariners away from the contentment they have found on the island of the Lotos-Eaters. What kind of Utopian could find Utopia unsatisfying?

I should say that I do not think this reading is actually fair to Wilde. Despite his strange suggestion of a journey from Utopia to Utopia, Wilde’s essay is hardly an apology for endless progress. His is a defiantly Utopian vision. Yet, what the confusion of this passage points to is a newly fraught relationship between these two ideas: Utopia and progress. Whatever “Progress is the realization of Utopias” means, it manifestly does not mean: “Utopia is the realization of Progress.” Utterly foreign to Wilde’s essay is the idea that progress might be leading us towards a genuinely Utopian tomorrow. And yet, he also doesn’t want to let go of either term. Precisely what their relationship is—or should be—I do not think Wilde quite knows, but the very fact that he is interested in imagining a new relationship between progress and Utopia puts him squarely inside a much larger intellectual effort, an effort common to Utopian writers of the moment, as well as fabians like Shaw and Webb, socialists like Dilthey, and imported prophets like Nordau and Henry George. It was the effort to save progress from itself, to keep alive the happy future which progress was always targeting, even if that meant disabling progress itself.

Utopian writers like William Morris and W.H. Hudson pushed this logic to its most tortured conclusion, making the fulfillment of progress depend, perversely, on its complete rejection. For them, reaching a place of Utopian happiness required neither growth nor advancement but rather decline, decay, and degeneration. These utopianists, in other words, accepted that progress had stalled and that society was decaying, only they found in this decay a new Utopian hope. They embraced the logic of degeneration and followed it to what they considered its surprisingly happy end. If we wanted happiness—and with it Utopia—then we had to abandon this drive towards complexity and turn progress in the opposite direction. That, in essence, was the key to their Utopias. The bright future that Victorian society had long apotheosized was not, they insisted, to be found at the top of a hill. It lay, instead, at the bottom of a long, downward-sloping path—accessible only by embracing the possibilities for human degeneration and by finding ways to live, for long periods of time, with boredom.5

If we followed that path, then eventually there would be happiness—though, to be precise, it still would not be our happiness. Even committed Utopians, like Morris, felt themselves to be constitutionally unfit for Utopian life. Real Utopia, as they understood it, required new human beings, and that meant generations, if not centuries of preparation. And if, as my title suggests, they were looking for a way out of progress, it was not because they felt they could be happy without it; it is because escaping from the pull of progress was the only way to make future people happy. Their job, simply put, was to act in a dramatic, radical, and revolutionary way so that someone else, generations later, might eventually be happy. It was a matter of starting down the path to Utopia and then waiting until others degenerated into the kind of species that might finally live there. Only in that way could the promise of progress be finally salvaged and the chance for fulfillment redeemed.

Urban Degeneration

Degeneration is hardly a novel thing for a literary critic to bring up, but generally it serves to enrich our understanding of late-century gothic and decadent fictions.6 In many cases, in fact, this pairing is treated as something natural and inevitable. Progress breeds confidence, and degeneration unleashes madness, as Regenia Gagnier nicely summarizes:

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the narratives of progress were less likely to terminate in Reason or Freedom in their Hegelian or Kantian senses than in (1) the sublime and irrational images of degeneration, devolution, or fear of engulfment in the late Victorian Gothic or in (2) economic rationality and the individual’s freedom to maximize self-interest. …As psychological models were replacing the sociological by the fin de siècle in both aesthetics and economics, deep, disturbed Unreason, on one hand, or economic rationality and instrumental reason, on the other, were replacing Reason as the mind’s divine capacity to improve its own condition and that of others. (103)

The first thing I want to say—in response to just the opening sentence—is that I hope I’ve already shown that nineteenth century narratives of progress were never likely to “terminate in Reason or Freedom in their Hegelian or Kantian senses,” at least not in British literature; comforting endpoints like these had been swept away by industrial progress.

My more specific point is less contentious, though. I don’t think Gagnier is wrong to note the prevalance of “Unreason” and “instrumental reason,” as the narrative carriers of degeneration. These things are certainly related. But there’s another link in this chain—less direct and also less well understood. The declining idea of progress didn’t just make space for dark degeneration; it also made space for Utopia. Strangely enough, the turn from progress to degeneration brought some writers closer to Reason and Freedom than they had been for most of the century.

In order to see this, the first thing that must be recognized is that degeneration is not the antithesis of progress. We are not talking about a return to the old, enlightenment debate between those who imagined society falling away from a richer past and those who envisioned it moving forward towards a glorious tomorrow. For all their doomsday histrionics, the theorists of degeneration do not actually insist on the inevitable decline of civilization. To the contrary, they demand that civilization be saved from decline and restored to its rightful, progressive path. Degenerationists were in fact among the staunchest supporters of progress, only with a heightened sense of its precariousness. No longer an implacable force, that is, progress seemed to them rather more fragile, a delicate system that has to be regularly tuned in order to work properly—and the late-19th-century system seemed badly out of tune. The world was moving quickly in the wrong direction, and it needed, just as quickly, to be righted.

The many different versions of degeneration—and there were many—all shared this fundamental belief that the work of industrial progress had been somehow sabotaged, that a stick had been poked through the wheels or a bug introduced into the code. Where they differed, however, was in the way they imagined that bug. Some thought of it as a neuro-biological defect which spread through families, leading to crime, sterility and death. Others imagined it as an evolutionary glitch, which made species fit for survival by diminishing their capacities. Still others saw it as a sociological distortion that allowed the push for growth to actually weaken the social body. From the perspective of Utopian fiction, the most important of these was undoubtedly the second—the evolutionary glitch—but as an introduction to the unacknowledged and unusual interaction between these genres, it is worth beginning instead with a more specific degenerationist obsession, the city.

There was much to fear in the late-century city—cities really were slum-ridden, poverty-stricken places with reduced life expectancy and abysmal sanitation. But even these real blights could hardly compare to the fears and anxieties which circulated in pamphlets and public lectures like “Degeneration Amongst Londoners” or “The Town Dweller”— both of which surveyed the flagging minds and bodies of London denizens and blamed, for a surfeit of reasons, London itself.7 Cities, it was believed, deprived people of elements essential to the maintenance of human life (like ozone, exercise, and fresh food) while, at the same time, stressing the human sensorium in unprecedented ways. The combination, for obvious reasons, was thought to be devastating. To detractors, late-century cities seemed like overstuffed menageries of the dehumanized and the unnatural. As the author of “The Danger of Deterioration of Race” phrased it: “A murky mass hangs like a shroud over the city—a dismal list of noxious gases is so intimately diffused throughout the air that neither can the earth’s heat radiate into space nor the warm beams of the summer’s sun thoroughly dissipate the suspended canopy” (Morgan 29). No light could penetrate nor fresh air enter. And worse, even as this “murky mass” kept out the sun, it still drew people inside, absorbing hale country laborers and infecting them with what one critic called “urbomorbus,” city disease (Cantlie 24).

Among the many dire causes of urbomorbus, none was more visible than poverty. “The poor you will always have with you” is a biblical line that Dickens, among others, liked to repeat, but the problem of urban poverty seemed especially pressing at the fin-de-siècle. For most of the century, poverty had been imagined as a temporary problem, a matter of transition which could be overcome with little more than a few cycles of progress (compare, for instance, the Mill’s words from the introduction). By the 80s and 90s, however, the continued entrenchment of urban immiseration gave the lie to this idea, sapping faith in the progressive waiting-game and inspiring poetic lines like the following, from Tennyson’s late sequel to “Locksley Hall”:

Is it well that while we range with Science, glorying in the Time,
City children soak and blacken soul and sense in city slime?

There among the glooming alleys Progress halts on palsied feet,
Crime and hunger cast our maidens by the thousand on the street. (217-220)

A full century of social and economic improvement had done shamefully little to ease the burden of crime, hunger, and disease for the London residuum, leaving Tennyson’s lines to bear the same anger and pathos that Blake’s “London” had blasted in the 1790s. A glance at the misery of the urban poor—who continued to suffer under the same conditions as their grandfathers and great-grandfathers—seemed like a vision of progress halting. And urban degeneration provided a ready explanation: the city itself was immune to progress, a kind of no-progress zone where history was as stagnant as the air. It was not just sunlight, in other words, that was relegated to the boundary of the city; progress was as well, checked by the open circuit of country bodies pulsing into diseased cities and fizzling out.

What is more, as those country bodies pulsed into the urban miasma, they were also pulsing out of the countryside, depriving it of its own most needful element: healthy young laborers. And this was the most constant lament of urban degenerationists. As surely as it vilified the city, urban degeneration championed the country, lamenting the damage done to the once-proud world of English agriculture, now suffering—or so it seemed—from an economic disease that crippled the countryside by luring its most virile members into the fetid city and trapping them there, to moulder. As the Illustrated London News put it: “Nearly half a million of fresh-bodied units …arrive in our great Babylon every year. They settle down, marry, and for a time stay the degenerative process by the infusion of healthy life …two or three generations of London life see them out and as extinct as the dodo itself” (rpt. in Greenslade 41). With a vivid image, urban degeneration seemed to answer two of the era’s most disconcerting questions: why was English agriculture stagnating? And why had a century of progress done nothing to alleviate urban poverty? And that is one reason it found its wide audience.

Another reason that this fantasy of urban degeneration took such deep root in late-century England is because it resonated so strongly with the still-profound influence of early-century Romanticism, which had painted a similar vision of the country as fresh, free and communal, and the city as frantic, overwrought and full of commotion.8 Over the course of the time, this contrast had only intensified. As the number of cities exploded—along with their populations—during the decades of Victorian industrialism, so too did concerns about city life. At the turn of the nineteenth century, London was essentially the only major city, and most Britons could still boast of country lives. By the end, a critique of the city was a critique of England itself, now a nation dominated by urban spaces and overwhelmed by urban dwellers (something Baudelaire and Benjamin both recognized, from the outside).

It was only at this stage of urbanization that a vigorous defense of the country could require a new Utopia, rather than a simple vacation. And late-century Utopian fiction offered just such a defense. Rather than champion the great achievements of urban capitalism, it heeded the warning of degenerationists and sought refuge in the country. That alone is revealing for a genre that had for so long been consumed with the details of rational urban organization and strict institutionalization. As the great diagnostician Northrop Frye once put it, “Most Utopia-writers follow either More (and Plato) in stressing the legal structure of their societies, or Bacon in stressing its technological power” (27). Fin-de-siècle Utopias do niether. Instead, they banish the city altogether, turning their backs on the stagnant air, the entrenched poverty, and the risk of urbomorbus. At the fin-de-siècle, Utopian life meant, above all, rural life—or even better garden life.

That word—garden—is one that H.G. Wells’ time traveler uses to describe his future world. “The whole earth,” he says, “had become a garden” (cite). And Wells’ idea of the world as garden is already just an echo of Morris, whose own time traveler finds that while England was “once a country of huge and foul workshops …It is now a garden”—its inhabitants being in fact so fully naturalized that they can be found: “mingling their kind voices with the cuckoo’s song, the sweet strong whistle of the blackbirds, and the ceaseless note of the corn-crake” (105, 218). The Edenic ideal has fed back into the Utopian one to produce a new vision of the future as another happy garden: beautiful, warm, green, fecund, and organic. And that last term, organic, is actually the most important. Indeed, what makes these texts fully Utopian—rather than wistfully Arcadian—is that their chief concern is not happiness, per se, but the organization of happiness. They return to nature not because they are searching for some originary bounty but because they see in nature a model for the non-rational organization of complex, interacting (biological) systems. And that model then becomes the paradigm for their own efforts to reimagine the system of social life.

The general pattern for this new Utopian order was set by Richard Jefferies’ After London: not a Utopian text, exactly, but still a story about the transition into a radically new future. In his long introduction, Jefferies writes as if from the perspective of that radically distant future, raking over the artifacts of the 19th century like an archaeologist. As the title would suggest, however, his most vibrant and horrifically gleeful language he reserves for the fate of once-great London:

Thus the low-lying parts of the mighty city of London became swamps, and the higher grounds were clad with bushes. The very largest of the buildings fell in, and there was nothing visible but trees and hawthorns on the upper lands, and willows, flags, reeds, and rushes on the lower. …The flags and reeds are coated with slime and noisome to the touch; there is one place where even these do not grow, and where there is nothing but an oily liquid, green and rank. It is plain there are no fishes in the water, for herons do not go thither, nor the kingfishers, not one of which approaches the spot. …For all the rottenness of a thousand years and of many hundred millions of human beings is there festering under the stagnant water, which has sunk down into and penetrated the earth, and floated up to the surface the contents of the buried cloacae. (49-50)

This is the graveyard of the urban, and the fulfillment of everything the urban degenerationists predicted. Nothing of the excitement or energy of urban life remains, only the waste and the rottenness. Indeed, this city is not only foul and diseased, perilous for its inhabitants and plagued by poverty, it is so toxic that it has become anathema to life itself, a true thanatopolis. No fish can swim in the waters above its bubbling cloacae, nor can any plants take root. Life begins instead on the outskirts, at first hesitantly with trees and hawthornes and then more lavishly with the “Great Forest” that covers all of England. For Jefferies, too, the city is a place of death and the country a place of life. But it is the movement from one to the other—from the England of fetid cities to the England of great forests—which stamps his text as the hinge between late-century urban degeneration and the Utopian fictions of the same moment. After London does something more than dismiss the city as a fetid, dehumanizing miasma; it buries the city and restarts society on a new footing. With its insistent association of life with nature and its continual privileging of ecology over economy, Jefferies establishes a key paradigm for Hudson and for Morris.

Hudson’s Crystal Age admits no distinction between technology and biology. Architecture, humanity, and nature all belong to the world in the same way. Nowhere is this clearer than in the description of houses, which are less like structures and more like host organisms. Each community has its own house—or, more accurately, each community develops alongside its house, growing with it and thriving with it. As one Utopian puts it, houses are “eternal”, “like the forest of trees, the human race, [and] the world we live in” (37). In News From Nowhere, the penetration of the organic is, if anything, deeper and more elaborate. Morris shows us the organic Utopia in its fullest flowering, a self-generating and self-sustaining system focused entirely around the needs of life—be it social life, human life, or natural life. In this Utopia, there is no room for industrialism, no need for progress, and no chance for the city to reassert itself and spread its noxious vapors. All is integrated into a perfect, unregulated system that effortlessly harmonizes pleasure with necessity and production with consumption without recourse to social or economic abstractions: no consumers, no producers, no investors, no markets, no laws, no hidden hands. In a system like this, where labor is pleasure, technology is optional, and all the old economic questions are answered by a natural equivalence of needs and means, there is no need for rationalization, no interest in economies of scale, and no place for the city. Utopia itself has been naturally reshaped to forego the strictures of urban life and meet the concerns of urban degeneration.9

Degenerate Utopia

Urban degeneration was not the only strain of degenerationist clamor that echoed through England at the end of the nineteenth century. Nor, indeed, was it the most consequential for the writing of Utopian fiction. That honor belonged instead to evolutionary degeneration—which, as the name would suggest traced the flagging vigor of progress to a problem of natural selection, rather than urban blight. Evolutionary degeneration drew its critical energy from faint dissonance between two terms that are almost, but not quite, synonyms: progress and evolution. For most of the century, those terms had seemed like natural partners—not identical, perhaps, but mutually reinforcing.10 What Spencer called the law of Progress in 1857 he renamed “The Law of Evolution” by 1867—without altering the underlying theory. By the end of the century, though, their difference was becoming more apparent and more menacing. Progress, remember, names the belief that society is moving in a desirable direction. It does not tell us exactly what is meant by desirable—it could be richer, happier, more ethical, more equal, more knowledgeable, more intricate, inter alia—but it assures us at least of increasing states of desirability. Evolution, on the other hand, cannot guarantee even this. What it promises, instead, is fitness. Fitness, alone, determines which species thrive and which die out. And fitness itself is no surety of improvement.

On the whole, Darwin was relatively confident that improvements in fitness would generally lead to more desirable evolutionary arrangements, but he couldn’t be sure.11 Even successful adaptation, as Friedrich Engels noted, “can mean regress just as well as progress.” Under the right conditions, it could well happen that less sophisticated species might still outperform their more sophisticated competitors, proving more fit despite being less desirable. (Qtd. in Pick 224). That, at least, is what the Darwinian acolyte E. R. Lankester began to argue. For the sake of precision, Lankester tried to distinguish between desirable and undesirable kinds of evolution. The one he called elaboration, the other—not surprisingly—degeneration. Following Spencer’s approach, Lankester thought of elaboration as a process that made species more intricate and degeneration as one that made species simpler. Or, in his words, “Degeneration may be defined as a gradual change of the structure in which the organism becomes adapted to less varied and less complex conditions of life; whilst Elaboration is a gradual change of structure in which the organism becomes adapted to more and more varied and complex conditions of existence” (26-7). Left to its own devices, evolution could work in either direction: it could contribute to the elaboration and advancement of a species or it could result in simplification and decline. Findings like these fed the degenerationist argument that evolution was running in reverse, that humans were becoming more degraded, and that progress was beginning to falter.

It was H. G. Wells who brought this problem into literature and whose 1895 Time Machine made it newly vivid.12 Indeed, the gap between evolution and progress presides over Wells’ story like an uncanny fear. His two future species, the Eloi and the Morlocks, are perfectly fitted to their worlds. Their relationship is elegantly symbiotic, with the shadowy Morlocks producing life’s necessities for the delicate Eloi and the Eloi furnishing (themselves as) food for the Morlocks. From an evolutionary perspective, both groups are quite well adapted, physically and mentally, to their different roles. But what they are not—at least not in any way that the narrator can see—is advanced humans. The Morlocks are hunched and brutish while the Eloi are effete and child-like, devoid of all grit and character. In Lankester’s terms, they are clearly degenerate species whose transformation into lower-order animals proves that evolution may, over time, actually reverse the difficult and important work of Victorian progress.

What the more earnest fin-de-siècle Utopias would seem to suggest, however, is that this need not be cause for concern; it might rather be an opportunity. Wells’ whole approach depends on Lankester’s (and Spencer’s) association of desirability with complexity—and on that score the life of an Eloi or a Morlock must be counted less desirable, since each has roughly half of our complexity. But it could be that the complex is not always desirable. Perhaps simplicity and degneration are exactly what modern society needs. Would it matter, for example, that the Eloi were degenerate and delicate if they were also happy?13 Is it possible to imagine them being both simpler and more content? This may seem an odd question for The Time Machine, given what we know about the cannibalism of the Morlocks and the slaughter of the Eloi, but it is actually a question that the novel itself raises in the narrow window of time after we meet the Eloi but before we learn the truth about their predation. For that brief narrative moment, the narrator seems genuinely ambivalent, torn between a kind of grudging envy for the childlike simplicity of Eloi life and a rather lofty pity. “It seems to me,” he says, “that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane”:

I thought of the physical slightness of the people, their lack of intelligence, and those big abundant ruins, and it strengthened my belief in a perfect conquest of Nature. For after the battle comes Quiet. Humanity had been strong, energetic, and intelligent, and had used all its abundant vitality to alter the conditions under which it lived. And now came the reaction of the altered conditions. …We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity, and, it seemed to me, that here was that hateful grindstone broken at last! (47-8)

There is something triumphant in that final exclamation point, with its ring of liberation from all work and want, but there is also some regret. To rid itself from “pain and necessity,” humanity has had to sacrifice its strength and its vitality; it has become newly free but also newly slight, which is a kind of freedom that makes the narrator decidedly uneasy. Is it worth it, he wants to know, this loss of keenness in the name of contentment? Ultimately, of course, he never has to decide. The moment he discovers that the Eloi are, in fact, domesticated animals reared for slaughter, the question simply dissolves.

But that same question keeps popping up elsewhere, as for instance in Jerome K. Jerome’s 1891 story “The New Utopia.” Though, in that case, all of the ambivalence which pervades Wells’ text is absent, having been replaced by a self-contented disgust. Jerome’s narrator, a politically naive, Fabian-sympathizing, Lafitte-drinking businessman, falls asleep after an enlivening night at the “National Socialist Club” only to awaken one thousand years later in a world of actually existing fabianism. The reign of equality is everywhere ensured by ruthless rationalization: names have been abolished in favor of ID numbers; family life has been replaced by barracks life; all citizens are fed, washed, and cared for by the state; and no one works more than three hours per day. Most obscene, whenever a person of excessive physical or mental prowess is born, he must be levelled down—either by having an arm removed or his brains softened. Naturally, the narrator finds this future appalling and cannot understand why the citizens of the 29th century do not rebel, or failing that why they do not commit mass suicide. Such a thing, he realizes incredulously, “never occurs to them” (359). The only explanation, he decides, is that they are no longer fully human. And, looking around him, he finds his suspicions confirmed: “I looked at the faces of the men and women that were passing …it was just the quiet, troubled, wondering expression that I had always noticed upon the faces of the horses and oxen that we used to breed and keep in the old world” (359). What allows these people to tolerate their lives of grotesque equality, in other words, is that they are not people at all—they are animals.

Waking up in his own bed the next morning, the narrator is glad to discover that his whole journey was just an alcohol-induced nightmare and thrilled to hear the comforting sounds of 19th-century life still roaring about him: “Through the open window I hear the rush and roar of old life’s battle. Men are fighting, striving, working, carving out each man his own life with the sword of strength and will” (360). Those forceful participles—fighting, striving, working—are primed to overwhelm a whole set of fabian concerns—starving, exploiting, eating. And the narrative as a whole is meant to show the dehumanizing consequence of socialist policy. And yet, the text gives us no reason to actually doubt the happiness of Jerome’s Utopians. Unlike the Eloi, they have no predatory Morlocks to concern them, nor are there any other wrenching risks or dangers. We know from the story that they spend their leisure time talking about “how wretched life must have been in the old times, and about how happy we are now” (358). We might not like the stifling sense of conformity or the gruesome practice of leveling down, but these features of Utopian society do not seem particularly unattractive to the Utopians. If they did, there would be some sign of discontent, and there is none. Only the narrator is disappointed. He alone is eager to return to a life of “fighting,” “striving,” and “working.”

Once again, then, the real question is: what if happiness requires loss, a decline in the complexity or sophistication of humanity? For Wells, that diminution is gently figured as “physical slightness” and “lack of intelligence.” For Jerome, it is more brutal and more shocking, what with the severed arms and softened brains of all those people deemed too strong or too smart. But the two visions still run parallel. Jerome, too, shows us a society that is diminished, yet happy, and he too rejects it in the name of “old life’s battle.”14 Such happiness is, for him, not a fulfillment but a travesty of Utopia, a betrayal of the full richness of human potential. For Wells and Jerome—as for Lankester—human development means increasing complexity, and complexity requires dissatisfaction. Indeed, as one of Lankester’s early reviewers noted: “We seem to learn from [his theory] the absolute necessity of labour and effort, of struggle and difficulty, of discomfort and pain, as the condition of all progress, whether physical or mental, and that the lower the organism the more need there is of these ever present stimuli, not only to effect progress, but to avoid retrogression” (Rpt. In Pick 217). To Wells’ “hateful grindstone” and Jerome’s “battle,” we can now add this “necessity of labour and effort”; all three authors imagine humans not just as creatures who happen to toil painfully, but as creatures who must toil painfully if they want to develop as a species and maintain their distinction from mere animal life.

Another way to phrase this would be to say that Wells, Jerome, and Lankester want to wrangle the Lotos-Eating mariners from their island happiness, drive them back to their ship, and force them, once again, to climb the climbing wave. Or, perhaps they want to drive the speaker of “Locksley Hall” from his own island paradise, or the speaker of “Le Voyage” from his rendez-vous with desirable death. They don’t care what these characters actually want; they only care that they keep working, that they toil to defeat the threat of degeneration and safegaurd the great promise of progress.

Morris and Hudson fundamentally disagreed. For them, diminution was the very essence of Utopian life and the surest guarantee of happiness. The difference, in other words, between fin-de-siècle Utopia and anti-Utopia is largely reducible to the question of whether one is willing to trade complexity for happiness. Anti-Utopians are not, but Utopians are. They therefore approach the whole question of the “hateful grindstone” through the opposite lens, insisting that if—as the anti-Utopians insist—painful struggle is necessary for development, then it is equally true to say that development consigns us to a life of pain and struggle. Real happiness, for that reason, can only come through a rejection of development. And this, in essence, is what the fin-de-siècle Utopias try to imagine: a life that is happier because it is simpler and less complex.

The simple life, I should add, did not mean the primitive life. There is very little noble savagery in these fin-de-siècle Utopias, largely because the noble savage was imagined as being somewhat too active, too virile and too independent.15 The downward-sloping path to Utopia followed a slower, less rugged route to the simple life. “When man is happy,” Wilde says, “he is in harmony with himself and his environment” (36). And this harmonious happiness, rather than rousing struggling or enlivening pain, is what he means by Utopia. Morris’ ideal, as developed not only in News from Nowhere but also in more polemical essays like “The Society of the Future,” is even more explicit:

Or again, some may say such a condition of things might lead indeed to happiness but also to stagnation. Well, to my mind that would be a contradiction in terms, if indeed we agree that happiness is caused by the pleasurable exercise of our faculties. And yet suppose the worst, and that the world did rest after so many troubles—where would be the harm? I remember, having been ill once, how pleasant it was to lie on my bed without pain or fever, doing nothing but watching the sunbeams and listening to the sounds of life outside; and might not the great world of men, if it once deliver itself from the delirious struggle for life amidst dishonesty, rest for a little after the long fever and be none the worse for it? (202-3)

The central image here is of progress as disease, a sickness whose most debilitating symptom is not that it makes us struggle but rather that it makes us believe there is no life but struggle. And, again, it is an effect familiar from “Ulysses,” and “The Lotos Eaters.” We do not just live through progress; we belong to it, and because we belong to it we cannot imagine happiness in any other way. For the early Tennyson, this was a milder kind of anxiety, well outweighed by the prospects of growth and development. By Morris’ time, however, those prospects seemed much dimmer, and the anxiety much more disturbing. If we have become infected by the disease of progress, and if the prognosis is not as promising as it once was, then it may be time to look for a new treatment.

The treatment Morris proposes is something like bedrest. If the only cure for progress is stagnation, Morris is perfectly willing to accept it. He feels he can safely “rest for a little after the long fever and be none the worse for it”—which is to say that he does not think resting threatens some deep-seated human need to struggle at life’s grindstone. Unlike Tennyson, Wells, Jerome, and Lankester, he is untroubled by the thought of a sojourn on the island of the Lotos-Eaters. In fact, the narrator of News from Nowhere says exactly that, while rowing down the river on a warm, bright, windless day: “It was the sort of afternoon that Tennyson must have been thinking about when he said of the Lotos-Eaters’ land that it was a land where it was always afternoon” (204). That line has come a long way from Tennyson’s pages through Baudelaire and into Morris (I should add that Carlyle made his own use of that poem. Whiling away in Yorkshire, he expressed his mixed sense of comfort and idleness by noting that it was “as if for the time one had got into the country of the Lotos-Eaters” (Kaplan 322).)

In Tennyson, the repetitions of land and afternoon signal a problem—a formal problem that rebounds upon its subject. In Morris, that formal problem becomes a virtue. The same two words are repeated—land and afternoon—only this time for emphasis, as if to reinforce the glorious nature of this endless Utopian afternoon. Repetitions, in News from Nowhere, are no longer suspect. They are to be treasured as part of the landscape of ease and simplification that makes Utopian life possible. Morris, himself, may have been a full-blooded socialist, one of those who dared to cross what he called the “river of fire” and embrace radicalism as a political necessity, but there is still something of the paradis artificiel in his Utopian vision, something that resonates with even the more solipsistic utopianism of a Baudelaire or a Des Esseintes. In this passage, it is not the worker so much as the convalescent who best approximates the pleasures of Utopian life, and those pleasures are like nothing so much as lying in bed watching the sunbeams. From that minimal experience springs the whole of Morris’s Utopian world, where a people who are simpler and have less—less stimulation, less differentiation, less commerce, less struggle—somehow find greater happiness.

This is not to say that Morris was immune to the doubts of a Wells or a Jerome. His own Utopian narrator—the aptly named William Guest—experiences something of their unease. He, too, wonders whether Utopian happiness has cost too much in the way of human sophistication, and he too cherishes his old life of pain and struggle. In that sense, he is just another in a long line of Utopian visitors who discovers that he cannot tolerate Utopia. It is rare that Utopian fiction tells the story of a person who stumbles upon Utopia, learns the ways of the Utopians, and acclimates to Utopian life. Much more often—though not always—it tells the story of a person who stumbles upon Utopia, learns the ways of the Utopians, and discovers that he cannot stand Utopian life. In that regard, at least, the tensions of Utopian fiction are quite consistent with those of anti-Utopian fiction; both depend on the narrator’s discomfort with the constraints of a new world. Just as Wells’ narrator is sickened by the delicacy of the Eloi and Jerome’s is appalled by the reign of brutal conformity, Guest is fatigued by the dullness and boredom of everyday life.

This is despite Guest’s enthusiasm for the organization of Utopian society. From the beginning, he is wholly enamored of this garden-world, with its pleasurable labor and beautiful citizens. But he feels, throughout, that it is not for him, and the Utopians feel it as well. “You will be happy there,” the knowledgeable Hammond tells him, “for a while” (NFN 162). But only for a while. Hammond seems to know that sooner, rather than later, Guest will swim back to the 19th-century world, lured there by a song so deeply ingrained that it cannot be resisted. In the end, Guest is not torn away from Utopia, or otherwise forced to leave. He wakes up in his own bed at the very moment when he wishes to, the moment when Utopia begins to seem less desirable than the life he knew. That is why he is, as he says, “not so despairing” about having returned:

All along, though those friends were so real to me, I had been feeling as if I had no business amongst them: as though the time would come when they would reject me, and say, as Ellen’s last mournful look seemed to say, ‘No, it will not do; you cannot be of us; you belong so entirely to the unhappiness of the past that our happiness even would weary you …Go on living while you may, striving, with whatsoever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness.’ (NFN 228)

Faced with a choice between the wearying happiness of the Utopians and the pain of a life in progress, Guest chooses progress—precisely as do the narrators in Wells and Jerome. Nor is it a difficult choice, since Guest knows that he is not fit to enjoy the happiness of Utopian life. His nerves still crave excitement, his mind activity, and his soul discontent. He belongs all too fully to the familiar world of unhappiness, where “living” is a matter of “striving” and illness the normal state of things.

There is, however, this difference, which is the real difference between fin-de-siècle Utopia and anti-Utopia: Morris does not color his Utopian world with Guest’s discomfort. Guest can be uneasy and Utopia still ideal. Put differently, the mere fact that Guest is not happy in Utopia does not imply that no one is happy there—as it does for Wells and Jerome. Ultimately, that is, what News from Nowhere imagines is the possibility that Utopia might be undesirable for humanity as it is but still preferable for humanity as it might be.16 And the key shift, at the end, is that even though Guest himself cannot enjoy Utopian happiness, he still respects the Utopians’s happiness. More than that, he wants to use his life to build a future for these diminished Utopian people.

Utopian Nature

In a sense, though, Guest’s choice is too easy. Yes, he commits himself to other people’s happiness, and yes he chooses to work for a Utopia that he can never inhabit—building up “little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness” (228)—but in the meantime, he gets to wake up in his own, comfortable bed and enjoy a painful life free from stultifying satisfaction. He is not compelled, as he might have been were he forced to stay, to work little by little to adapt himself to a Utopian existence he was unfit to enjoy. The reason he can choose Utopia, in other words, is that he does not have to live there.

Hudson’s narrator does. Smith, as he is called, has also slept his way into the future, and he too has found a race of people perfectly adapted to their own deep content. They are hard-working and healthy, but also delicate and refined, lacking any real vigor. Over time, Smith comes to understand the pleasure of their restful lives, and even at one point feels himself approaching their “serene, enduring bliss” (249). Passion, however, keeps him from contentment, specifically his deep and growing passion for a woman named Yoletta, who can never return his affections because she, and her people, feel only familial love, not eros. They have lost that vital emotion, in their slow descent towards happiness, leaving Smith the lone desiring human, doomed to a life of unfulfillment. Overcome with disappointment, he too feels the lure of his old unhappy life and the desperate desire to “repeople the peaceful world with struggling, starving millions, as in the past, so that the beautiful flower of love which had withered in men’s hearts might blossom again” (304).17

Unfortunately for Smith, there is no going back—no chance of magically awakening in his old bed, alongside Jerome and Guest, or hopping into a still-functioning time machine. His past is truly past, leaving him no choice but a Utopia that he feels he cannot bear.18 It is at this point that he finds a bottle of liquid, inscribed with the lines: “When your soul is darkened, so that it is hard to know evil from good, and the thoughts that are in you lead to madness, drink of me, and be cured” (305). Of the many possible interpretations, Smith settles for the most appealing. Being desperate to shed his skin and his painful passion, he takes the words to mean that if he drinks the liquid, he will be cured of his love for Yoletta and free, finally, to become fully Utopian.

After drinking, however, he finds himself plunged into darkness, and only then does he realize that the liquid is in fact a poison and its promised cure is death (305). The story ends with Smith drifting into oblivion while surrounded by the mourning members of his Utopian community, but despite the narrative fade-out it is still difficult to say exactly what this death means. Has Smith died in the sense that his heart has stopped beating and his body begun to decay? Or has he died in the rather different sense that he has lost his identity and become a kind of being who is no longer Smith? These are very different outcomes, but both fall within the orbit of this word death, which, as Fredric Jameson has recently argued, always haunts the idea of Utopia. In Jameson’s words, “The fear with which this prospect [of total systemic change] immediately fills us is then to all intents and purposes the same as the fear of death” (52). This is what Smith discovers in his final moments: that, from his perspective at least, becoming Utopian is indistinguishable from dying. Regardless of whether the elixir is magical or poisonous, it will put an end to Smith.

As so often in these tangles of progress and death, there is another perspective. When Carlyle’s Phoenix dies, it is in preparation for rebirth (she immolates herself so that “she may soar the higher and sing the clearer.”) When Baudelaire’s speaker sets off for “la mort,” he is also setting off for a new life (he grasps at poison in order to finally find something new.) In the same way, Smith’s death may also be a kind of birth, the birth of a being finally fit for Utopia.

Trying to reconcile those two perspectives—that of Smith, who sees only death, and that of his successor, who may be taking his first breath—is all but impossible, and yet their coexistence is central to late-century Utopian fiction. On the one hand, that is, these Utopian novels narrate the absolute impossibility of becoming Utopian, the failure of the narrator (whether Guest or Smith) to adapt himself to a Utopian life that they nonetheless envy. At the same time, however, they show us the lives of Utopian people who have quite successfully adapted themselves. I say adapted because we can rule out the possibility that these Utopian people have always been Utopian. These are not island Utopias, set off in uncharted waters and populated by a distinct human race; they are British Utopias set in a future which has developed directly out of the 19th-century British world. Green and fecund the countryside may be, but it is still the same country, and its population consists entirely of what we would call posterity, the descendants of 19th-century England. So although the narrators cannot resist their restlessness, their progeny eventually do. Somewhere along the line, the inhabitants of Hudson’s Crystal Age shed their sexual desires, just as the citizens in Jerome’s dystopia lost their attachment to privacy, and the people of Morris’ garden-world lost their addiction to struggle.19

In the case of News from Nowhere, we are actually privy to the story of how society accomplished this feat, how it reconciled itself to boredom. In the early years of Utopia, everyone was bored, and for a while it seemed that the curse of boredom might imperil the prospects for happiness.

…When men began to settle down after the war, and their labour had pretty much filled up the gap in wealth caused by the destruction of that war, a kind of disappointment seemed coming over us, and the prophecies of some of the reactionists of the past times seemed as if they would come true, and a dull level of utilitarian comfort be the end for a while of our aspirations and success …But, after all, this dull thundercloud only threatened us, and then passed over …The remedy was, in short, the production of what used to be called art, but which has no name amongst us now, because it has become a necessary part of the labour of every man who produces. (160)

In the years after the revolution, a whole generation of Guests found themselves disappointed with the “dull level of utilitarian comfort” that seemed the only fruit of their socialism. But quickly enough, they found a new source of stimulation: art. Unalienated, aesthetic labour was always Morris’ singular ideal, and in News from Nowhere it became his solution to the problem of Utopian boredom. If you find yourself unable to bear the contentment of everyday life, produce beautiful things and be cured.

That, however, can’t be the only solution—not even for Morris. If aesthetic labor were enough to make one Utopian, then Guest could surely stay. No one would have to warn him, as they do, that his happy visit must end or tell him, as they do, that he “cannot be of us.” Instead, they would simply encourage him to attempt his own art-work. The fact that they do not points to a deeper, and more complex problem with Utopian boredom. Doing art-work is not enough; first, you have to become the kind of person who can find real satisfaction in art-work, and that takes a good deal of time, even in Nowhere:

…they were puzzled as to what to do, till they found the feeling against a mechanical life, which had begun before the Great Change amongst people who had leisure to think of such things, was spreading insensibly …in the half-century that followed the Great Change it began to be noteworthy; machine after machine was quietly dropped under the excuse that the machines could not produce works of art, and that works of art were more and more called for. (201)

Notice how tentative the language is: “spreading insensibly,” “began to be noteworthy,” “quietly dropped.” And even this tentative beginning is spread over a “half-century.” More time is required—perhaps much more time—for the habit to be ingrained and for artisanship to fully supplant boredom. The real reason that Guest cannot devote himself to art-work is that he is not yet ripe for that, having missed the long, intervening period of insensible change. He has only his lifetime to work with, whereas any effective adaptation to the dull reality of Utopian existence requires generations.

Guest’s problem is a secular version of the old issue of the Israelites in the desert. To the question, “why were the Jews compelled to wander for 40 years,” one longstanding answer has been: so that a generation raised in slavery could die out and cede its place to a new generation raised in freedom. As Marx himself put it, with the revolutions of 1848 in mind: “The present generation is like the Jews whom Moses led through the wilderness. It has not only a new world to conquer, it must go under in order to make room for men who are able to cope with a new world” (Qtd in Walzer 54). Our narrators are like those doomed wanderers, fated to die so that a new, degenerate, unspoiled race of humans can cope with Utopian life. They are the ones who must go under. Though there is at least this difference from the biblical story: in the 19th-century, one dead generation is no longer enough. Evolution, along with geology, had expanded the scope of historical time and slowed the expectations of historical change so that, in these fin-de-siècle Utopias, multiple generations must go under, each sacrificing itself for offspring who will be slightly more well-suited to happiness until, after many iterations, a Utopian child can finally be born. In Morris, fifty years is only enough for a beginning, whereas Hudson allows one hundred centuries to complete the change. It is a matter, ultimately, of giving degeneration enough time to change human nature.

That phrase, “human nature” may sound a bit dated, perhaps even quaint. Certainly, it is not one we often associate with Utopia. Indeed, one of the bedrocks of Utopian thought is precisely that humans are not bound by their natures, that they can become different under difference circumstances. Wilde, for his part, thought human nature a conservative bugbear designed to stifle the political imagination, and he quickly dispatched it in favor of his socialist ideal:

It will, of course, be said that such a scheme as is set forth here is quite unpractical, and goes against human nature. This is perfectly true. It is unpractical, and it goes against human nature. This is why it is worth carrying out, …A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to …The conditions will be done away with, and human nature will change. The only thing one really knows about human nature is that it changes. (31)

As Wilde sees it, there is no such thing as human nature; there is only the nature of humans under particular conditions. Change the conditions and you change the humans. If the humans you know seem violent or grisly or selfish, that is actually a reason to build them a Utopia. Their brutishness does not prove their unworthiness; it shows that they have been brought low by brutish conditions and need new ones.

For his part, Morris more than equaled Wilde’s contempt for the idea of human nature. “What human nature?” is the cry of News from Nowhere, “the human nature of paupers, of slaves, of slave-holders, or the human nature of wealthy freemen?” (118). More generally, it might even be said that the very mention of human nature within Utopian fiction merely begs the question. Which human nature do you mean? The human nature of the narrator or the human nature of the Utopians. Those Utopians are, after all, humans of a different nature—”utterly unlike any fellow-creatures I had ever encountered before” (13), as Hudson puts it, with a perfectly balanced emphasis on their otherness and their fellow-ness? Utopian fiction is built on this multi-human basis, involving as it does the representation of two very different kinds of human beings. That alone should suffice to upset any more orthodox understanding of human nature.

And yet, these fin-de-siècle Utopias seem to accept that human nature is, in fact, an obstacle to Utopia. In particular, they acknowledge some fundamental limit to the pace, if not the scope, of human change. If, as Wilde has it, “the only thing one really knows about human nature is that it changes,” he is equally convinced, as he says only a few pages later, that “the evolution of man is slow” (35). These two positions are perfectly compatible, even if they point in different directions. Humanity is, in the long run, infinitely plastic, capable of limitless change and infinite adaptation. But for now, for the living, and for the foreseeable future, the force of habitus remains stubbornly intractable. Our tics, our habits, the way we think and speak—these things have settled so deeply into the fabric of human life that they can only be slowly cleared away. New worlds, in that sense, cannot turn us into new people; all they can do is make us slightly new, and our children slightly newer, and their children slightly newer. Human nature crawls along at the speed of evolution.

There is a classic Utopian shortcut, a way to overcome the slow, incremental pace of human change. It is another “eu”-term, like eu-topia, only it refers to the good race rather than the good place. Eugenics—a new word for an old idea—was experiencing a revival at the end of the 19th century, thanks in large part to the influence of Francis Galton, the late-Victorian polymath who set about trying to actively and scientifically enhance the capacities of human beings. Long before Galton, however, the search for a program of rapid human alteration had been central to the work of Utopian fiction. In the words of one critic, writing before fascism had besmirched the eugenic dream: “Plato and More, and Campanella and Bacon after him were the prophets of the modern eugenics movement” (Hertzler 288).20 These early Utopian writers embraced eugenics because they understood that their new worlds required new people and they wanted, each in his own way, to hasten their arrival.

By contrast, the fin-de-siècle Utopias do no such thing. Hudson’s only eugenic concern is to ensure some minimal reproduction (which is obviously difficult, given that his Utopians have lost all sexual desire). Morris eliminates even this constraint, allowing for sexual partnerings of any consensual type and trusting to organic life to manage the balance. Precisely at the moment when eugenics was first becoming an organized science, it lost its place in the Utopian imagination. And though there are a variety of reasons for this—including the turn to the organic—none was more important than the new, Utopian attachment to degeneration. Eugenics, after all, is a science of human enhancement, and enhancement is precisely what Morris and Hudson reject. They were committed, instead, to the idea of a lesser human nature, because they hoped this lesser nature might allow for greater happiness.

Radical Evolution

Ultimately, then, these Utopias were stuck with the problem of human nature. Even if, in the long term, they felt there was no such thing, the short-term still set a terrible limit to their Utopian dreams. There could be no instant Utopia, no shortcut-wormhole, no set of legal or political changes that would bring Utopia to life. Reaching Utopia would now take vast stretches of time. And yet—and this is another of the peculiarities of late-century Utopian fiction—it might still require revolution. Indeed, revolutions, of a sort, occur in both Morris and Hudson: in Morris, it is a rally-turned-uprising which becomes a civil war and leads, eventually, to the overthrow of capitalist society; in Hudson, it is a plague of worms which decimates the population and forces the survivors to rebuild on a new footing. Obviously, these visions are rather different—worms and workers being very different sorts of revolutionary agents—but it is nonetheless essential to both texts that human history be utterly transformed with a single stroke at a single moment. Somehow, reaching Utopia still requires revolutionary change, even though the inertia of human nature ensures that no such revolution can actually get us there. Nothing—not even the most radical revolution—can alter the fact that Utopia takes time. But it also seems to be the case that time alone can do nothing without a prior revolutionary act. In some unspecified way, these acts set in motion the long, gradual process that leads us to Utopia. Revolution is what makes evolution possible and only their conjunction makes Utopia possible.

This argument—that fin-de-siècle Utopian fiction reveals the deep, though often obscured coupling of radicalism and evolution—is rather different from the conventional understanding of the politics of the genre, and far removed from the traditional Marxist stance. Utopia is something of a bad word in classical Marxism, thanks to the sustained critique Marx and Engels leveled against it throughout their writing, from the Communist Manifesto to the later Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. In their view, the trouble with Utopia was that it always risked becoming a mere idealism, an escapist fantasy which left behind the material conditions of historical becoming in favor of a programme for better living, Fourier’s phalanstery being the best example. More recently—beginning with Martin Buber but coming to a head with the second edition of E. P. Thompson’s biography of Morris—there has been some attempt at reconciliation. To quote Thompson, Marxist writers have finally stopped “running away from the acceptance of utopianism as a valid imaginative form, because of a fright given to us by Engels in 1880” (797). If they have stopped running away, however, there is still a good deal of fast walking. Utopia has its Marxist champions, but what they choose to celebrate is something other than the picture of future happiness. The real value of Utopian fiction, they argue, lies instead in its ability to take us outside of history, to provide some distant vantage point from which to reevaluate our own historical moment.21 As Paul Ricoeur has phrased it, “From this ‘no-place’ an exterior glance is cast on our reality, which suddenly looks strange, nothing more being taken for granted” (16).22 What matters is neither how we might get to Utopia nor what we would do after we arrive; the point is simply to see our present selves anew.

This approach to the politics of Utopia takes its newest, most sophisticated form in the work of Fredric Jameson. His book, Archaeologies of the Future makes otherness—radical otherness—the very keystone of Utopian fiction:

For it is the very principle of the radical break as such, its possibility, which is reinforced by the Utopian form, which insists that its radical difference is possible and that a break is necessary. The Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible, that there is no alternative to the system. But it asserts this by forcing us to think the break itself, and not by offering a more traditional picture of what things would be like after the break. (231-2)

For Jameson, Utopia is not just a different place; it is a radically different place, a place set so far apart that it is no longer recognizable as a human place. And therein lies its real value as a political construct and a literary form. It offers us something more than just a distant platform from which to re-view ourselves: an opportunity to think about leaping towards that distant platform. Utopia, in other words, confronts us with the choice of radical change, the kind of change which changes everything and which cannot be accomplished by reform alone.

There is a good deal of evidence for the Jamesonian view in the texts we have been examining. In Morris, as in Hudson, Wells, and Jerome, we do confront the possibility of radical change; we watch as the narrators stumble into worlds so alien that they simply cannot make themselves fit, however much they may wish it. Between our world and the Utopian one is a chasm so profound that crossing it, as Smith discovers, is like nothing so much as death itself, the relinquishing of everything that we call life. And this, clearly, is one way to envision the prospect of radical transformation.

Unfortunately, though, it is quite literally half the story. There is discontinuity in these 19th century Utopias but also continuity, a strange combination of the radical and the gradual. Smith may have to drink poison in order to become Utopian, but his offspring have managed to do so without any such aid. Indeed, if these fin-de-siècle Utopian fictions do, as Jameson suggests, show us the radical side of Utopian change—the fact that becoming Utopian looks like nothing so much as death—they also describe the long, slow, gradual journey to Utopia, the fact that given enough time humanity can become Utopian without ever leaping. There is continuity, in other words, lurking beneath the radicalism that Jameson finds at the heart of Utopian fiction, a slow change that testifies to the most profound idea of the fin-de-siècle Utopia: the idea that radicalism happens over time. To put it more concretely, there are two reasons that the narrators cannot stay in Utopia: first, because the change is too radical; and, second, because it is too protracted. No single person can survive the transition, but if generations are allowed to go under than at some point the transition will have happened. These Utopian fictions compass both types of change: the radical and the gradual. Through the eyes of the narrator, we see the otherness of Utopian life and the existential divide that separates our societies. Through the eyes of the Utopians, however, we see the lightly-graded downhill path that winds its slow way from our world to theirs. It is the combination of these perspectives that constitutes the real power, and the real politics of these narratives. Impossible though it may be for the narrator and the Utopians to share the same historical perspective or inhabit the same world, it is still crucial that they inhabit the same text. Only together can they generate that binocular view of history which characterizes fin-de-siècle Utopian fiction, the view which sees social change as both radical and evolutionary. So that what is finally at stake in these Utopian fictions is nothing less than the nature of historical change itself, the strange and powerful entanglement of revolution and evolution, discontinuity and continuity, praxis and patience.

Whether this counts as a politics is a difficult question. There is a strong revolutionary demand, but very little faith in the power of revolution; there is vigor, but little conviction that vigor alone can accomplish much. Time can prepare the changes necessary for Utopia, but the stretches of time involved defy the resources of active politics. Fin-de-siècle Utopian fictions thus involve a strange kind of radical fatalism. Radicalism alone, they know, will not suffice; regardless of how radical our actions may be, a good deal of waiting will still be required. At the same time, though, only such inadequate radicalism can create the conditions necessary for proper waiting. These Utopian texts are, in that sense, half-political, making equal claims for action and for waiting. They ask us merely to put ourselves in a position to wait in the right kind of way: to find the waiting room for decay and degeneration rather than the waiting room of progress and development—and then to wait there until we die. More to the point, they ask us to act radically while offering as their sole justification the far-distant happiness of a people quite unlike ourselves. That, in essence, was the great wager of fin-de-siècle Utopian fiction: that the grand future once promised by industrial progress could yet be saved, but that doing so would require the most intensely attenuated kind of political commitment. Only a combination of revolution and degeneration, radicalism and slow decline, could lead to happiness. And even then, it would not be our happiness. But acting radically, right now, could conceivably enable some future people to escape from the endless compulsion of progress and gradually achieve the happy end we always wanted.


1 As the historian Gareth Stedman Jones has it, the mid 80s are comparable only to the Chartist agitation and the Second Reform Bill for the anxiety they generated among the propertied classes (189-90).

2 Excellent work has been done on this by Judith Walkowitz, Jonathan Dollimore, Richard Dellamora, and others.

3 The essay was widely read and even more widely translated. It has been the subject of a great deal of critical attention and the chief object of many efforts to pin down Wilde’s slippery politics. For more, see Danson, Eagleton, Gagnier. For others who have dealt specifically with the relation between Wilde and Morris, see D’Amico, Lesjak.

4 The most interesting attempt to make sense of this passage—in Blochean terms—is in Beaumont.

5 For more on Wilde’s relation to boredom, see Nunokawa.

6 Exemplary among the treatments of gothic degeneration are Hurley’s The Gothic Body and Greenslade’s Degeneration, Culture and the Novel. More general studies of degeneration include Pick, and Chamberlin.

7 Here is Stedman Jones’s description of urban degeneration and its late-century context: “Between 1880 and 1900, the agricultural depression, the rural exodus, the growing predominance of urban England, the increase of working-class discontent, fears about foreign competition and doubts about free trade were all inter-connected. The theory of urban degeneration is best understood within this complex of middle class beliefs” (150).

8 On this, see Raymond Williams, The City and the Country .

9 Lesjak offers a fuller account of the revolutionary implications, working also with Morris’s essays.

10 For some examples, see Greenslade.

11 For more about Darwin’s thoughts on the subject, see Ruse, Monad to Man .

12 Hurley and Greenslade both deal with the complex of issues connecting Wells, evolution, and progress.

13 Lankester’s answer to this question is a resolute no. “It is possible for us—just as the Ascidian throws away its tail and its eye and sinks into a quiescent state of inferiority—to reject the good gift of reason with which every child is born, and to degenerate into a contented life of material enjoyment accompanied by ignorance and superstition. The unprejudiced, all-questioning spirit of childhood may not inaptly be compared to the tadpole tail and eye of the young Ascidian; we have to fear lest the prejudices, preoccupations, and dogmatism of modern civilisation should in any way lead to the atrophy and loss of the valuable mental qualities inherited by our young forms from primaeval man.” (48-9)

14 His characters, in fact, are aware of this tradeoff, and they freely admit “that it was a pity we could not level up sometimes, instead of always leveling down; but, of course, that is impossible” (354). For them, however, it is a minor issue—a matter of this happiness or that, this equality or that.

15 One exception to this would be Alfred Wallace, whose Malay Archipelago does imagine a kind of simple, primitive Utopia, especially at 456-7.

16 Fredric Jameson discusses the importance of choices like this for Utopian fiction in general, and in particular the delicate balance between the otherness of the Utopians and their shared humanity ( Archaeologies 168).

17 It is worth noting that the question of sex in Utopian fiction is very closely tied to the question of human nature. Is sex possible between Utopians and visitors? Procreation? Do they belong to the same species? In anti-Utopias, it frequently happens that the secretly unhappy Utopians find themselves attracted to the visiting narrator, which stands as a proof of his superiority. See Bulwar-Lytton and Wells.

18 As it happens, there is a special place marked out for Smith in this Utopian world which will allow him to fulfill his passions and finally embrace Yoletta, but he doesn’t realize it until it is too late.

19 MichelHouellebecq’srecent Les particules él émentaires isanovel—toldfromtheutopian perspective—about the pre-utopian people who made happiness possible.

20 See also Lewis Mumford, Patrick Parrinder.

21 See, for example, Barbara Goodwin, who argues that “Every Utopia by its very existence, constitutes an ad hoc criticism of existing society” (29).

22 Similar ideas can be found in Trousson (15), Goodwin and Taylor (29, 211).