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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Utopian Aesthetics

Should literature change the world? And does utopia have other merits?

One of the first questions I academically considered about literature was the distinction between instrumentalism and aestheticism (this terminology derives from a Humanities course I was taking ); that is, whether literature best exists in its own purely aesthetic realm (the creation of beauty, very broadly and subjectively conceived) or always relates to the more quotidian and utilitarian goals of the human social world. The course furthermore posited halfway positions, so that Anton Chekhov was said to believe that literature helps diagnose the world’s ills, but can’t itself ably resolve them; whereas Lewis Grassic Gibbon was said to value aesthetic quality as a means to create effective, instrumental fiction.

The ‘debate’ strikes me now as artificial, and even in the terms of such a disagreement the positions of Gibbon and Chekhov appear to be variants of instrumentalism rather than a genuine alternative course. That is, Chekhov’s position, which was genuinely the author’s, is making a different point entirely about the scope for fiction’s involvement in the world. Gibbon’s views are a bit more of a truism, but in reality he was more making a complaint that the literature of reactionaries tended to be better than the literature of progressives in terms of its qualities qua literature. And this is so, Gibbon held, because the latter group of storytellers were so sure of the goodness of their work they ignored its quality.

I would encounter the separation between the two possible views of literature again in an essay by a contemporary philosopher I still admire, Raymond Tallis. In ‘The Freezing Coachman: Some Reflections on Art and Morality’, Tallis chose the same champion of pure aestheticism (a position he also defends) as the aforementioned Humanities course, a.k.a. Oscar Wilde. Instrumentalism was here represented by Leo Tolstoy (and somewhat by Bertolt Brecht), and in the textbook for my earlier studies by George Orwell (who, I would argue, shared some of Gibbon’s concerns although not his general answers to them).

Tallis is a philosopher I would unreservedly recommend, and even on the subject of art I admire his work (‘Metaphysics and Gossip’, also collected in The Raymond Tallis Reader, is one of my favourite essays per se), but I did not find the argument here persuasive. Much of the case against art’s capacity for meaningful moral interventions could be applied to any general class of moral interventions (unintended consequences, the moral worthiness of artists, etc.) and the rest is reductive (e.g. it is true that propaganda can make for bad art, as Tallis observes, and it is right that this is because of its tendency to simplify, but it is not true that all moral commentary in literature is propagandistic). I also think this placement of Wilde relies overly on a quite literalistic reading of the opening of The Picture of Dorian Grey, and one that ignores much of the rest of the book.

Having said all of that, I do concur with what Tallis is trying to preserve: something a more philistine moralism is wont to reject out of hand. In essence, I believe the concern being defended is of the value of art’s capacity and right to speak non-morally, the notion that morality is not the only basis (nor, generally, the best) to judge a work of art as art (or literature as literature). As a fan of horror and many other types of books that depict and aestheticise all kinds of incontrovertibly immoral behaviours and terrible happenings, I would sincerely hope criticism can stay above such a sentimental and narrow mode of judgment, which really would tend inevitably to reduce all cultural artefacts to propagandistic tools for a very bland reflection and conservative take on the world.

As any avid readers of my blog know, my favourite genre of literature is the utopia. That is, from the early modern creation of Thomas More to the 70s revival and beyond, ideal societies almost always depicted with some degree of design upon the world itself. It’s hard to conceive of a genre being more uncomplicatedly ‘instrumental’, and so it is amusing then that it is a genre well liked (at least in essence) by both Wilde and Tallis. The former said: ‘Progress is the realisation of Utopias.’ The latter, clearly echoing Wilde, that ‘the hope of progress is implicitly Utopian, inasmuch as it is assumed that progress in specific areas will not be at the expense of progress in others’, as (indeed) all utopian fictions do. And yet utopias (even if they are just sketched loosely in conversation) are invariably to some degree (but necessarily) also works of fiction and art, and all project an authorial view about society and the shape it should take.

William Morris, the writer of the utopia News from Nowhere, made clear in a preface to the selfsame that ‘the only safe way of reading a Utopia is to consider it the expression of the temperament of its author.’ Morris’s utopia emphasises that society (even one that abolished capitalism) is always in a state of becoming, is always an expression of collective historical agency (even if sometimes obscured) and therefore cannot be fully anticipated, or relied on (as the whiggish liberal account expects) to merely incrementally improve on its own. That is, Morris work is very aligned with what Wilde and Tallis talk of in terms of utopias (albeit for more Marxist reasons), but while Morris warns us to see his own authorial limits shaping the text, it is undeniable that the text has a political purpose. Most directly, to counter what Morris took to be deficiencies in Edward Bellamy’s earlier utopia, Looking Backwards.

How, then, do I reconcile my love of art as an expression (however necessarily of a historical moment, expressing contingent social realities) of an author’s vision, one that should not be too shackled to mores, with my love of a genre that is instrumental in its conception and lifeblood? That is, a genre that More certainly wrote in response to specific contemporaneous controversies about good governance, and the consequences of a perceived failure of that governance (for example, as represented by the early enclosures). How can I love most a genre concerned primarily with the good society, and insist literature not be too anchored to any notion of the good when it comes to the merits of an individual work?

Morris’s phrase gets at something I love most about the utopia, and it brings us back to one of Tallis’s complaints against so-called instrumental literature (to use the phraseology of my Humanities course once more). The utopia is a confessional genre, it is a radical opening up of an author’s vision about what is most fundamental to being human: our relationships, obligations, expectations of others. A particularly moralistic rejection of the utopia is just to list the horrors at some point extolled in this or that given utopian fiction. And examples do abound. Utopia itself features slavery and colonialism. More straightforward works depict the limits of their authors; Morris rightly gets criticism for his very limited depiction of women, for instance. There are utopias that champion every oppression, and every heinous state policy (from eugenics to genocide).

But what other genre gets authors to expose the ugly as well as the beautiful sides of their personalities (and the conditions that gave rise to those personalities) so willingly and, in that willingness, with an inherent aesthetic quality? A. L. Morton’s study The English Utopia makes great use of this feature of the genre, charting the social antagonisms and even great despairs as exposed by these author’s works, by dint of the earnestness of the form. He often judges the merits of the works not by their alignment with his own Marxist beliefs, but their honest reflection of their authors’ values. The dystopia certainly lacks this quality, as something detached and satirical, it tends towards the kinds of propaganda being criticised earlier. The dystopia (which has its own merits and can boast many great works) has little skin in the game, preferring reductive critique to the generally more subtle, varied, difficult task of articulating a positive (even courageous) vision, one that will run up against more problems even in a good imaginary realm.

Utopia has its own aesthetics. Or rather, it envisions beyond the quite limiting debate between whether a work of art should try to change the world or only add some kind of beauty to it. It does this simply by imagining the world as a work of art in itself, by being ambitious and quite foolhardy about fiction’s scope to engage with the world. That is not to imply that the work of utopias can surpass the work of, in fact, changing the world, a work that is always that of combined actors in processes of historical agency, but rather that the former is complementary, it provides a motive-force for that historical work (Bellamy’s influence is a testament to that much!), and that motive force is one borne-out aesthetics.


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