Utopia: A Socialist Epoch of Rest

  1. A Definition of Utopia in Literature
  2. Introduction to News From Nowhere
  3. Utopia: A Socialist Epoch of Rest

Utopia is based on the concept of rest, linked up with dreams. In Rip Van Winkle (1819) by Washington Irving, the character falls asleep for 20 years and wakes up in the middle of nowhere, in the theme of “suspended animation”. When Rip wakes up, he has missed the American Revolution: he is a stranger in his own land because of the lapse of time due to an irrational event.

To rip is to tear. He rips the curtains of time. RIP also means “rest in peace”. It symbolises death and resurrection. Rest is therefore the framework of the novel, along with the importance of Marxism. The author cannot help infusing his own beliefs into his programmatic vision. William Morris is “moved by compassion for the working class”.

William Morris’s socialism, inspired by scientific Marxism, emphasises fellowship, happiness, personal fulfilment through work and art, and the role of education in the socialist process. The future of revolution depends on the success of education. His socialism respects individuality and no repression of the varieties of human nature.

It clouds the issues: it is more a matter of time than a place. Nowhere is England and the reporter is addressing an imaginary audience. “Rest” has several meanings. An epoch is a period, a parenthesis in history, just a time-lapse in the future.”Some chapters’ are a few fragments from future history, limited.

Rest and Unrest

Unrest represents social unrest, in the capitalist society. Contrariwise, rest breaks from capitalism, it is a necessary death resulting in resurrection and regeneration, a vital revival after a long period of social turmoil. Rest suggests a historical ordeal, relief and respite after a long struggle. It qualifies Marxist influences.

The first leitmotiv is pleasure. Then it gives way to rest and peace. Words are related to each other. Page 44 shows rest on happiness, peace and dreams. The notion of dream permeates the narrative. The guest is transported to the world of 2103.

Rest might embody work and creative activity. It is the solution to the dichotomy between art and work, between manual and intellectual work. Rest is an attempt to seek reconciliation, a combination of pleasure and work, two elements capitalism had split completely.

The materialistic demands of work and such activities bringing pleasure make Helen’s stimulating equation on the last page: “work which is pleasure and pleasure which is work”.

That’s the specificity of Morris’s Utopia: the core of human pleasure is pleasure. It is the reason why society is happy: it is restful. It is an original trait. Restfulness derives from this unique form of communism: cooperativism or cooperative socialism.

“Obstinate refusers” enjoy their work. Everyone does as they please. Everyone acts only for the sake of pleasure – it’s a restful sort of activity.

The State of Repose versus War and Tensions

According to Morris, a peaceful social environment affects the individual members of society. Beautiful people live longer, which is an idea that opposes Victorians, who are ugly and unhealthy people. William Morris might have been influenced by Peter Kropotkin, a proponent of a decentralised communist society free from central government and based on voluntary associations of self-governing communities and worker-run enterprises. 

Morris was not an evolutionist and did not believe in social Darwinism. He proned the complete absence of competition. The first reason is religious because of the Puritan attitude to leisure. Times of rest were only reserved for God and meditation. The notion of idleness was on the verge of that of laziness. Idleness was leading to sinful behaviour. Morris does not defend idleness but praises rest because it leads to pleasure, leading to real work and real art.

This attitude is subversive in moral and religious terms because it challenges the Puritan basis of Victorian society and tends towards bodily pleasure. It is made flesh in the book, verging on eroticism. Yet, there is no eroticism in Marx!

Page 158,  paragraph 2 was an orgasmic moment, a carnal approach of work, with sexual intercourse. It is a concrete pleasure. Morris’s paradise is earthly, the concrete result of applied arts and techniques/

Satisfaction should be achieved here and now. Hedonism is an appeal to creation: “The reward of work is life”. Pleasure culminates in the arts. All men can become artists and become transfigured by sensuous work (p.122-123). He rejected state socialism and Fabianism and created his own ruskinian idealism and an incentive to work: pleasure (p.76, p.127, p.96: pleasure begets pleasure).

Morris’s vision of the population in News From Nowhere is reminiscent of those found in Time Machine by H.G. Wells. The naive and pastoral environment, the organic love of nature show the simplicity, simple people living in harmony with earth, afraid of abstract knowledge. It is an indirect attack on education.

A dream of community

This post-revolutionary society revives an old dream of a community far away from technology, science, and demography. It is a virtual zero-defect society. Guest is a being from another planet. It is the reverse: wrinkle-free people are more from another planet than Guest. (p.208: “the ever-freshness…”).

Morris’s rejection of Victorian industrialism and the projection of his idealised vision of medievalism created a reactionary and archaic world in the future.

Tellurism is the adoration of the earth. This epoch of rest is the result of Morris’s experience in Iceland, a small island with a strong community. It is a timeless prelapsarian world before the fall of trade with the old, simple and happy life of yesteryears. It is a sophisticated simplicity, as ignorance is bliss in News From Nowhere.

Yet, Morris is longing for the return of barbarism. He keeps talking about rest but slows down the pace of history to a standstill and regression at the end of the book. Chapter 22 is “a resting place”. In the last chapters, upstream is going back in time. Guest fades and disappears. The society outside, beyond history, is a millenarian dream. This world of absolute equality has given up the notion of difference, the core of life.

People are interested in subjects of general ascent: everybody agrees. In the shortest chapter, “Politics”, there is no politics. It conceals a sort of malaise: the absence of debate is typical of dictatorships.

P.176: “Heaven, you like heaven don’t you?”. Nothing is more suspicious than a world without death. There is no mention of death in the book. Nowhere is the timeless place beyond where people rest in peace.

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