This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. This week's is published slightly out of sequence, but it's a personal favourite from Feb 22 2019. It explores the meaning of the interaction between the utopia and imaginative leaps proceeding it.
Cockaygne (and The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Pomona and other lands of plenty) are the archetypal folk utopia. Cockaygne is an island of infinite plenty and voluptuous idleness, forever reiterated in the dreams of the worst off. In his The Last Utopians, Michael Robertson accurately describes one version of Cockaygne as ‘part soft-core pornography[…] and part glutton’s dream’ as well as an ‘effortless, sensual paradise.’
A.L. Morton, in The English Utopia, notes that ‘it is a land of peace, happiness and social justice’ too; one that bars the underserving rich from enjoying its goods. Morton sees in folk utopia, as well as an answer to the surfs’ neglected needs, ‘a foreshadowing of Humanism, the philosophy of the bourgeois revolution.’ And Morton singles out William Morris’s News from Nowhere as the highest development of utopia, unifying Cockaygne’s pleasures with the ideas of the intermediary philosophical utopias.
Robertson—who also has a lot of time for Morris—sees Cockaygne as foreshadowing something else, too; citing philosopher Louis Marin he evokes the degenerated utopias of Disneyland and cruise ships, ‘fantasies of escape, with one foot planted in Cokaygne, the medieval dreamland of leisure and effortless abundance, and the other firmly planted in contemporary consumer culture.’
This comparison between utopia and cruise ships can be found elsewhere.
The comparison between utopia and cruise ships can be found elsewhere. For example, in Marshall Brain’s 2003 utopia Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future, where a utopian Australia of infinite plenty (facilitated by recycling, machines and AI) is described as like ‘living on a gigantic, luxury cruise ship. The trip is already paid for, for life, and you are free to do whatever you like with your time.’ The desire for idleness and pleasure is strong in utopia.
Although most utopias, including Thomas More’s Utopia, are not at all Cockaygne—emphasising self-cultivation and cooperative work over pleasure and idleness—it is Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 The Dispossessed that most subverts the utopia as Cockaygne trope. Her Anarres is on another planet, in the complex universe of her Hainish Cycle (many books of which are neglected masterpieces of science fiction).
Anarres is a planet of extreme scarcity. It is no cruise ship , but its anarcho-syndicalist philosophy affords other gifts: the freedom not from work, but from alienated work, the abolition of all oppressions and prejudices. By locating paradise in a would-be hell, Le Guin arguably (however ambiguously, as Anarres is ambiguous) demonstrates a profound optimism. And perhaps a profounder rebuke to the later logic of Margaret Thatcher’s TINA (There Is No Alternative).
Moreover, Brain’s Australia might offer plentitude, but its hero Jacob Lewis elects to forgo many of its pleasures and live in a commune recreation of Williamsburg, adopting a way of life more like the communists of William Morris’s ideal future than the tourists populating a pleasure cruise . He describes how his commune ‘worked together to build their own houses, grow their own food, make their own clothes, practice simple crafts and trade with one another.’
Even Brain’s narrator is a little surprised at his own decision, ‘with all this technology available, I choose to live my life by setting time back 300 years and living a very simple, completely physical lifestyle.’ Ultimately, the plentitude of this utopia resolves a different problem than a lack of sumptuous pleasure — i.e. how to live happily while knowing others are not. Once inequity is done away with, Jacob Lewis requires only the simplest existence, free from the risk of illness or destitution. Tamed pleasure is the thing.
As a genre, utopia confronts the most intimate aspect of human imagination: the limits of our desire. Cockaygne articulates our essential needs, while utopias by authors such as Brain and Le Guin go beyond that baseline and arrive at different (even if sometimes comparable) conclusions.
Few other genres focus so directly on this most frightening question: what, precisely, do we want? Here is an opportunity for any author to write in such a way as to show the greatest poverty or richness of their imaginative landscape. To expose themselves completely, if we are to accept Morris’s brave assessment that:
The only safe way of reading a Utopia is to consider it the expression of the temperament of its author.
In Epicurus’s necessary delimiting of hedonism; William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; the Cenobite monsters in Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart; Jacques Lacan’s notion of a jouissance that goes beyond the pleasure principle; Georges Bataille’s handling of transgression and evil; the demonic God Slaanesh in the Warhammer 40,000 miniature wargame, we meet again and again (in philosophy, poetry, horror fiction, psychoanalysis, literary theory, pulp myth) a provocative dialectic that provides the absolute subversion of Cockaygne’s presupposition.
What if pleasure and pain fold into one another?
What if pleasure and pain fold into one another? What if the greatest excesses of one becomes the other; as in the I Ching when Old Yin becomes Young Yang and vice versa. And what if heaven and hell are not distinct, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy, but wed? Perhaps this intuition explains why Brain and Le Guin do not make their utopias primarily about pleasure. Does this metaphysic realisation finally preclude paradise? Or just make of it something so much weirder (and more perverse)?
I would not pretend to have answers to those questions. I doubt that there are definitive answers. Rather, in writing utopia, there is the mere possibility of a new working out of such dilemmas. And that is why it is such a vital genre to keep alive.
The questions of utopia are not addressed properly elsewhere. Alone, dystopia serves only to erect austere walls around the scope of our thought. And rather than being a transgressive genre of social critique, what if—especially as an alternative to the utopia—it merely protects us from addressing the transgression inherent to utopia? The transgression of facing up to social desire?
You are a traveller at sea (under the sea, in space, through dimensions or time, underground), and arrive on the distant island (place, plane, planet) of Cockaygne. At once, everything is possible. And not just for you—you are no atomised Robinson Crusoe—but for everyone within the scope of a whole and living society.
But that everything Cockaygne permits is still without content. Into that fearsome void of potential pleasure, what can you imagine? To echo Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment challenge, do you even dare?
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