Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Myth Of Utopia

Five hundred years ago, a book was published, the title of which, combined with a general misunderstanding as to what the book was about, was to enter common language usage. This was Thomas More's "Utopia". It was a book that was to become - if this can be said of the sixteenth century - a bestseller. Originally in Latin, it had seemingly been intended for the high-bred and high-educated. While Classical Latin was enduring and was to endure, by the time More wrote it, the various Vulgar Latin common speech spin-offs had long been transformed via the process that was to bring about modern Romance languages, such as Spanish and Catalan, or had simply been displaced, as was the case with, initially, Old English. In order to reach a wider public, translations were required: Classical Latin was, by then, an obscure language for the common people of western Europe.

There are all manner of interpretations of More's work and there are also competing ideas as to why he wrote it. The story is that it came about through a meeting with a Portuguese sailor to whom he was introduced after mass at Antwerp Cathedral in 1515. Or at least, it was this sailor who was to allow More to locate the island of Utopia in the New World. Crucially, though, More was friendly with various Renaissance Humanists. That they could converse and share ideas had everything to do with their knowledge of a common language: Latin.

"Utopia" was, in a sense, a pan-western European venture and a kind of manifesto. It wasn't necessarily seeking to establish a different form of society but it provided - to use current parlance - a form of roadmap towards that society. Competing theories suggest that it was intended as more of a satire, thus rendering its vision unworkable and unrealistic; even sympathisers were inclined to believe it was all rather simplistic.

A curiosity of More's work was that it should have come from him at all. The tolerance of "religions" as they existed in "Utopia" was at variance with his own alleged persecution of Protestants (something else that has long been debated). He himself of course incurred Henry VIII's wrath by not supporting the separation from the Catholic church and was executed.

"Utopia" was to subsequently be seen as something of a blueprint for Communism on account of the generally egalitarian society it envisaged, but its importance in this regard can be overstated. Karl Marx and others were to also view the work as simplistic. But its central thesis was predicated on the need for an ordered society, which is where the great misunderstandings have occurred. In current-day usage, Utopia has become a euphemism for paradise, a vision of idyllic island life in which everyone co-exists in harmony. More appeared to have been advocating some form of social engineering as opposed to a paradise. He didn't, for instance, bar slavery.

In essence, two distinct branch lines of Utopia were to form: one political, the other more spiritual. In Mallorca, there were those in the last century who craved their own pieces of Utopia. Adan Diehl, the founder of the Hotel Formentor, was one. Josep Costa i Ferrer, the driving force behind Cala d'Or, was another. Both from an artistic/literary background, they shared visions of havens of educated good taste, ones littered with those from the arts fraternity. Diehl's vision was a total disaster, one that left him financially ruined. Don Pep's was to be altogether more pragmatic.

Diehl had returned to Argentina by the time the Civil War had started. Whatever Utopia he or Don Pep had desired was shattered; the collision of Fascism and Communism (with anarchy included in the Spanish version) well and truly did for their more heady ideas of a Utopia. There was, however, some kind of notion of a Utopia in both Fascism and Communism. The problem with both was that social engineering to attain this state was based on hatreds, intolerances and authoritarianism. There had been a necessary system of authority in More's vision, but it was one that was to be taken to its absolute extreme.

To come to the current day, it might be argued that political change in Spain is about a wish to establish a new type of Utopia. With Podemos (and others) there is an unmistakable undertone of quasi-Communism. It can be easy to, therefore, dismiss this based on precedent. Crucially, however, this contemporary vision is one in which political power is inherently limited and is subordinate to the democratic will of the citizenry. It is an enticing vision but one for which there is no precedent and is also one that inevitably leads to conclusions of all power eventually corrupting the self-proclaimed incorruptible.

More's vision was unworkable. Other visions have likewise been proved to be unworkable. Utopia, in every sense, especially politically, is a myth.

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