Want to know how to navigate the Victorian Web? Click here.
Probably the most famous nineteenth-century traveller into the future, the Time Traveller of The Time Machine (1895) by H.G. Wells, tests his newly invented time machine to explore the exotic spaces of the future. Importing the intellectual baggage of his time, he expects the realisation of nineteenth-century prophecies of evolution. At first, he takes the betterment of mankind for granted and believes he has reached the Golden Age of the future, disregarding possibilities of regression and the undesirability of certain Utopian ideals. Ignoring the signs of disease on the decaying Sphinx and “the condition of ruinous splendour in which [he finds] the world” (ch.6, 34), he expects to see the realisation of confident “visions of Utopias and coming times” (ch.8, 48): “It was natural on that golden evening that I should jump at the idea of a social paradise.” (ch.6, 38)
The chapter “In the Golden Age”, however, is ominously juxtaposed with “The Sunset of Mankind”. In “The Death of the Sun: Victorian Solar Physics and Solar Myths”, Gillian Beer has emphasised the “urgent propinquity in Victorian thinking” caused by the “contradiction between evolutionary ideas of sustained development and physicists’ theories of the dissipation of energy” (219). This debate focuses the Victorian vacillation between optimistic hope of evolutionary progress and anxieties of decadence, which come to be manifested by conceptualisations of degeneration and by fears of the sun’s death. What Jerome Hamilton Buckley has termed the contradiction of the “great polar ideas of the Victorian period” (13) — the idea of progress and the idea of decadence — is articulated by contemporary scientific theories, which inform and are transformed in fiction.
The Time Traveller has to realise the risibility and fallibility of Victorian optimism: “The memory of my confident anticipations of a profoundly grave and intellectual posterity came, with irresistible merriment, to my mind.” (ch.5, 31) In a gruesome realisation of a “balanced” society, mankind has split into two divergent species. The Eloi are “indescribably frail”, resembling “the more beautiful kind of consumptive” (ch.4, 28). “Indolent [and] easily fatigued” (ch.5, 33), they are living seemingly idyllic lives in fatuous bliss. What the appearance of the Morlocks – “so like a human spider” (ch.8, 54) – proves is the possibility of atavism: “This bleached, obscene, nocturnal Thing, which had flashed before me, was also heir to all the ages.” (ch.8, 54) What is particularly striking and relevant to my focus on homesickness in Utopia is, firstly, the undesirability of this outwardly Utopian society, and, secondly, the Traveller’s feelings of dislocation even before he realises the shortcomings of this “Golden Age”. Upon arrival, he is confronted with a feeling of temporal displacement: “I felt naked in a strange world” (ch.4, 28). Such alienation is experienced not only in Dystopia, but also in societies that are meant to be strictly Utopian. This brings us to the third aspect of homesickness in Utopia that I want to emphasise – the shifting line of demarcation between Utopia and Dystopia.
Utopia is an elusive place and a metamorphic genre. The coinage of the word “utopia” points emphatically at a duality of ideality and non-existence. The term and its intrinsic ambiguity have been devised in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). Utopia is both the best of places and a non-existent place. In other words, ideal space is non-existent; and the non-existent (distant, lost, temporally and/or spatially displaced) space is longed for. In recasting legendary Golden Ages of the past, fictional Utopias describe desirable regions of the mind. While most are set in the future, what Allienne R. Becker has termed “lost-worlds romances” range from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869) to Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes (1912) and are located in remote places, not in a remote time. More’s Utopia – like most Utopian blueprints, even when they are fictional – is of course not a lost worlds-romance, even though it partly conforms to its paradigm, in which a voyage is taken to a remote part of the earth where a lost world is discovered (Becker, passim). Utopia lacks the element of romance. Its subject is the practical feasibility of New World colonisation. What is proposed as an ideal discovery is a land inane ac vacuum, idle and waste, which provides an opportunity – and justification – for colonial homemaking. In Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), Bensalem is conflated with Eden: “For we that were a while since in the jaws of death, were now brought into a place where we found nothing but consolations.” (202) It is nonetheless an ideological blueprint, as are most Enlightenment Utopias, regardless of their satirical or pre-Romantic charms.
Late nineteenth-century Utopias employ evolutionary theories, use the fears fostered by what has been called a “loose assemblage of beliefs which can be marked out as ‘degenerationism’” (Greenslade, 2), play with eugenic concepts, and thereby epitomise the creation of imagined communities at its most dangerous. Yet Utopian narratives also use romance-plots that stand uneasily amidst the political blueprinting, at times undermining the Utopian project altogether. Conversely, the “scientific” rewriting of the Atlantis-myth, Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), has been described as “an unwitting act of fiction or as a prolonged poetic trope” (Anderson, xi). As a work of popular science, it seeks to demonstrate the existence of a legendary world, to rediscover lost inventions, lost civilisations. Atlantis is figured as the nostalgic space of human myths: “It was the true Antediluvian world; the Garden of Eden; the Garden of the Hesperides; the Elysian Fields […]; representing a universal memory of a great land, where early mankind dwelt for ages in peace and happiness.” (1-2) In its twentieth-century spin-off, Chariots of the Gods (1968), Erich von Däniken similarly postulates “the probability that finding out about our past will be even more mysterious and adventurous than finding out about the future” (9). The search for Atlantis is informed by Utopian conjectures; Utopias are, vice versa, also informed by nostalgia.
Utopias are, in fact, often engendered by the desire to recover a lost grandeur. As a propagandistic elaboration on the topos of the homecoming, Theodor Herzl’s Utopian novel Altneuland (Old New Land, 1902), for instance, exemplifies the centrality of the theme of regeneration in nineteenth-century and in particular fin-de-siècle thought: “The ‘Old-New-Land’ had been fructified into a garden and a home for people who had once been poor, weak, hopeless, and homeless.” (244) Friedrich Loewenberg, “an educated, desperate young man” (19), lovesick and sick of life, joins Kingscourt, a misanthropic nobleman, in his escape from mankind’s follies on an island in the South Seas. On their way to their self-chosen exile, they visit the Palestine of 1898, remarking that the “milk and honey description is no longer true” (46). Returning in 1923, they are astonished to encounter a thriving cosmopolitan society in place of decay – a New Society set up “on our precious old soil”, where everyone is welcome regardless of “race or religion” (66). This multiethnic Utopia is proud of its free education, of its lack of an army, of immigration laws that have nothing to do with ethnicity or nationality.
Yet this blissful world is ominously overshadowed by “the patriot, the
nationalist” Geyer with his “anti-alien slogan” (138-139),
who still has to be defeated in an election. The book concludes with the triumph
of the newly elected president David Littwak, once a starving beggar boy, who
reveres Friedrich for his financial generosity to his family in fin-de-siècle
Vienna. Friedrich marries David’s sister, Miriam, and old Kingscourt is
so infatuated with David’s infant son Little Friedrich that he remains,
too. The most touching part of the ending is the death of old Mrs Littwak, which
successfully ousts the political aspects of the plot, as David does not even
consider attending the election while watching at his mother’s bedside.
What is more, the impending marriage of Miriam and Friedrich is the more important
event, while David attempts to refuse the presidency. In Herzl’s novel,
this emphasis on individual happiness in a communal society is central to the
Utopian ideal. In a plethora of nineteenth-century Utopian novels, however,
romance and family melodrama disrupt the Utopian project, at times underlining
a dissatisfaction or homesickness that threatens to redefine the depicted society
as Dystopian. It is these incongruities of longings for and in presumable Utopias
that I shall map in this chapter. This excursus will form, I hope, an apt conclusion
to a study of nostalgia that emphasises its versatile potential.
- An Introduction to Victorian Holocausts and their Literary Legacies
- Looking Backward: The Inadvertent Dystopia and the Nostalgic Subversive
- Looking Beyond Looking Backward: Dystopian Reactions
- Subversive Nostalgia and Pastoral Utopia: William Morris
Last modified 11 November 2002