William Morris, News From Nowhere

Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers, and me....
I'm used to making fun of utopia and utopians. The religious, for example: not since falling giddily into Nietzche's The Antichrist when I was 16 have I considered it possible to feel myself one of them. The political: I have not yet said the word "bourgeois" with a straight face, no matter how hard I try, and let's face it, a political belief, openly expressed, is just a plea for abuse. You were asking for it. You were.

But then William Morris.... OK, this utopia isn't for everyone. Set in a near future after a relatively peaceful revolution in early 20th-century England that spread across the world once everyone saw just how terrific socialism could be, gosh darn it, this utopia features beautiful hand-crafted items, no advanced technology, little theoretical learning, and that subjugation of women which comes up so persistently, and one would have to think embarrassingly, in utopian visions. (The women are treated well, they're happy about things, and men honour them, but it's not equality as such.)

Maybe it's just because my emotions are close to the surface these days, I don't know. A succession of long days in difficult weeks. An endless succession of memory songs that iTunes keeps digging up in its ongoing pretense at randomness. That sort of thing.

But this book was really lovely. Dystopia is where I feel more at home, in a literary sense. That's not just because I grew up with Orwell and Huxley and Wyndham in the air, though I did, and not just because I spend so much of my free time reading hopelessly about environmental crisis, though I do, but because work was all around me. My grandparents lost two farms to bankruptcy. Our waterline would freeze every winter, for at least days and once for a month, and our water source would dry up every summer. Chores. Snow. Heat. Slivers in your knuckles that got infected. No wonder I had no time for utopians, the lying liars.

But did I mention that News From Nowhere is really lovely? Everyone wears bright colours; mugs and doorknobs and chairs are beautifully carved; work is shared through voluntary collaboration; nobody's the poor kid in the class. It's a dream and a lie, yes, but it's the most seductive, desirable utopia I've ever read. In the early 1960s Lewis Mumford remarked that it wasn't until the Soviet Union that he recognized that Plato's Republic (the Ur-Utopia, if I can link two cities like that) is the first imagined totalitarian state. I got used to thinking utopias were all like that, but they're not. Morris lets me indulge my small-community socialist fantasies, plus my environmentalist bent, plus my love of all things local. The founding revolution isn't very credible, and its expansion into other nation-states is wildly incredible, and women deserve better, but I could live there. I could.

I would.

Good heavens, I'm a utopian after all.


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