Return to Utopia
By MICHAEL CAINES
I've possibly mentioned the 500th anniversary of Thomas More's Utopia on this blog already . . . Anyway, this time it's with just two small things in mind:
1) The recording of the panel discussion about Utopia that I chaired at Kings Place recently is now available for all to hear, as an episode of our podcast TLS Voices. As above. It was a great pleasure listening to Matthew Beaumont, Chloe Houston and Nicole Pohl share their thoughts on the subject, although I wish my memory hadn't deserted me at precisely the moment somebody in the audience asked us, quite originally, about John Lyly's play The Woman in the Moon – which is set in Utopia.
2) "Visions of Utopia" is now installed in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Gallery, and is well worth a quick look if you happen to be in the area. . . .
It's a display that manages to be modest and magnificent at the same time. Modest because it fills only three display cases, and is surrounded by textual wonders such as Codex Sinaiticus and Magna Carta. Magnificent because it runs from early manuscripts by More (his "Rueful Lamentation on Death of Queen Elizabeth" of 1503) and Erasmus (his letter to Henry VIII of 1499) to modern descendants such as H. G. Wells's Modern Utopia next to Aldous Huxley's Wells-mocking Brave New World.
You stop on the way at The Blazing World of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the form of a fine first edition of 1666, open at her husband's tribute to her "creating Fancy" and "pure Wit". Then there's Louis-Sébastien Mercier's L'An 2440, a hit with English, French and German readers of the late eighteenth century. And a page from J. G. Ballard's Super-Cannes shows that the great dystopian fabulist of our own time once thought better of a character hoping to "knock a ball around the tennis court", and had him "fix a martini" instead. Overall, the emphasis is too secular – Utopia being an intervention in current theological debates of the time, apart from anything else – but perhaps that comes with the emphasis on historical diversity. My fantasy of a grand exhibition that sticks to More's own time will have to remain, like the Duchess of Newcastle's Blazing World, strictly in my own head.
In particular, if these "Visions" do entice you into the BL any time soon, pray consider the assorted early editions of Utopia and what they imply about the literary and intellectual life of Europe 500 years ago. For More's satirical, visionary book was partly written abroad, first published at Leuven, then Paris, then in various places where there were humanist scholars and printers to appreciate it; the first English translation wouldn't appear until well after More's execution for refusing to subordinate his religious beliefs to his monarch's dynastic/libidinous whims. Is there a moral in that for these referendum-troubled times? There could be, I suppose – one to bear in mind, perhaps, as you're reading next week's TLS, in which a symposium of leading cultural figures considers, among other things, the question of what leaving Europe could mean for cultural life on both sides of the threatened divide. . . .