University of Chicago Press, 2017
ISBN 9780226470306 (paper) $22.50
ISBN 9780226470443 (e-book) $18.00
Published in the UK and worldwide by Influx Press.
THE ABIDING DESIRE FOR NO PLACE
The Thirteenth Hour
T he future will be old. It may be bright and shiny, terrible and wonderful but, if we are to be certain of anything, it will be old. It will be built from the reconstructed wreckage of the past and the present and the just-about possible. ‘The future is already here’ according to William Gibson, ‘it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ You sit amongst fragments of it now.
All prophecies are intrinsically about the now. When George Orwell, slowly coughing himself to death on the wind-scoured island of Jura, wrote 1984 (under the original title ‘The Last Man in Europe’), it was a reversal and critique of the year in which he wrote it, 1948. This was the cracked mirror of the present. When he wrote of doublespeak, he was writing not just of the future and the Soviet Union but of traits he identified and deplored in his fellow journalists, imperial bureaucrats (carving the earth up at Versailles and contemporaneously at Tehran) and the politicians of Britain, the proto-Airstrip One. Orwell took the threads of his day and followed them to their logical and horrendous conclusions. So perceptive was his take, influenced heavily by Zamyatin’s exceptional We, that it rendered the vast majority of jumpsuit-wearing dystopian literature to follow as somehow naïve. One edge he had was an awareness that things will not entirely work in the future. The architecture of his future London is a transposed version of his contemporary city, yet to recover from the Blitz and mired in widespread poverty; ‘Were there always these vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses. . . their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions? And the bombed sites where the plaster dust swirled in the air?’
In the future, there will be not only flux but pointlessness, frivolity, inefficiencies, all these things that make us human by accident and which we rail against daily.
There are exceptions:
The Ministry of Truth – Minitrue, in Newspeak – was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air . . . Scattered about London there were just three other buildings of similar appearance and size. So completely did they dwarf the surrounding architecture that from the roof of Victory Mansions you could see all four of them simultaneously.
They gazed at everything and were blank in response. Orwell knew that totalitarianism would obliterate not just satire but the very meaning from words. Objective truth was illegal if not unknowable. Black was white. The daily torrent of lies was provided and monitored by the Ministry of Truth. Continual war was waged by the Ministry of Peace. Austerity was provided by the Ministry for Plenty; ‘The Ministry of Love was the really frightening one. There were no windows in it at all.’
It would be a mistake to see Orwell’s vision as an extreme one, unique to the world’s obvious tyrannical regimes. Orwell knew that the instincts and interests behind the world of 1984 were evident everywhere. Ideology is faith; irrespective of whether that’s in god, dialectical materialism or the invisible hand of the markets. It is faith and in this there is absolution and condemnation. It is this that proves Orwell’s warnings so perpetually apposite. The powerful of every conceivable political and corporate variation will employ faith. Questioning and a fidelity to the objective is the only bulwark against it. And yet if and when the worst comes, life will go on, due to Humanity’s resilience, often when it seems like it shouldn’t. We would do well, as Orwell counselled, to see the traces of the dystopian around us, to find the ends of those threads and how far along we are; the most accurate prophecy being that people, and the allure of domination, never really change. We can Copenhagenise our future cities, make them as green and smart as we can, but provided we are still embedded in systems that reward cronyism, exploitation and short-term profiteering, that require poverty and degradation, it will be mere camouflage. Dystopias will have cycle lanes and host World Cups. What may save us is, in Orwell’s words, a dedication to ‘common decency’, and the perpetual knowledge that it need not be like this.
The future may well fail but the urge for the utopian is a valid one. It emerges from the failures and unsatisfied wants of the present. Inventors identify problems of the present, vacuums to fill and preferable end-results to backcast from. The shadow and dynamo of aspiration is present misery and the utopian impetus contains tragic often-untold real-life stories. It’s no accident that Hansel and Gretel find the cottage made of sweets and gingerbread when they are at the point of starvation or that Harry McClintock sang of arcadian joys during the Great Depression. For all its jaunty wide-eyed delinquency ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ is a song of shadows and implications. It speaks, as nursery rhymes do, of pestilence and regicides, of police brutality, starvation, drought and exposure to the elements. Utopia here is simply an escape into a parallel world of fairness, justice and comfort. In medieval times, the popular myth of the land or city of Cockaigne gave vent to these same notes of protest and yearning.
Work was forbidden, for one thing, and food and drink appeared spontaneously . . . One could even reside in meat, fish, game, fowl and pastry, for another feature of Cockaigne was its edible architecture. The weather was stable and mild—it was always spring—and there was the added bonus of a whole range of amenities: communal possessions, lots of holidays, free sex with ever-willing partners, a fountain of youth, beautiful clothes for everyone and the possibility of earning money while one slept.
In a version inscribed in an Irish monk’s manuscript (circa 1350), Cockaigne was linked to biblical promises of rivers of honey for the righteous but turned subversively against heaven:
Though paradise be merry and bright,
Cokaygne is yet a fairer sight . . .
There is no thunder, no hail,
There is no vile worm nor snail,
And no storm, rain nor wind.
There no man nor woman is blind . . .
There are rivers great and fine
Of oil, milk, honey and wine.
The verse then spins off into a ribald account of amorous monks and nuns, as well as a desire to escape the darkness of the buildings of the time:
When the monks go to Mass
All the windows which are of glass
Turn into bright crystal
To give the monks more light.
Here is the vacuum speaking; the need for technological solutions (the electric light, mass-manufactured glass etc.) to rescue the hours, amounting to years, of darkness spent in stone cells huddled next to reeking candles of animal fat. The absence of this once-common state is an indication that we exist without realising it in what once would have been sought after as an improbable utopia. This is to say nothing of how we can now communicate instantly across the globe, live vastly longer lives, see worlds from the microscopic to the cosmic that we scarcely knew existed, listen to and watch performances by the dead. Despite this, we doubt the existence of progress, partly because we have the luxury of doing so.
The Brothers Grimm speak of Cockaigne with the insightful absurdism of the nursery rhyme: ‘There I saw a plough ploughing without horse or cow . . . and I saw two gnats building a bridge . . .’ with the proviso, ‘have I not told enough lies?’
Look beyond the nonsense and you can see it is a future of automation they are willing. This is most evident in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s version Het Luilekkerland where men condemned as lazy and gluttonous are nevertheless allowed time to sleep or simply stare at the sky, as automated creatures scurry around serving them; an egg with legs, a suicidal roasted pigeon, a suckling pig running around peeling itself. This is a future life of leisure and farmyard robots, granted by the freeing of hours from rudimentary tasks. It is a utopia of time; the ability to waste time as we choose by being freed from the wasted time of obligations. Today, we have never had more labour-saving devices of convenience and yet the blissful life is suspiciously fleeting and elusive.
‘A joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling.’ Nietzsche wrote in Human, All Too Human. Perhaps Cockaigne momentarily eased the pressure of a life lived in struggle and penury. It became, as popular jokes of its kind do, a competitive sport with each teller outdoing the last. In its extravagance, Cockaigne exposed the comparative meanness of reality, where farce and tragedy are intrinsically wedded. Yet there was always the outside possibility, even in the wildest of renditions, that this was a physical place of some description on the face of the earth and escape to it (the realm of the idle rich) might be possible, however remote. The urge for the utopian is strong in the desperately poor, meaning that missionary forces promising better worlds in this life or the next tend to find a ready ear and a base to exploit. It is also proof that utopias were not the sole preserve of indulgent philosophers. By denying the utopian as some kind of failed parlour game, we exclude ourselves from understanding its appeal and the power it still grants those who can offer it. We know Cockaigne does not exist but that doesn’t mean we don’t believe in it.
Reprinted with permission from Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson. © 2016 Published in the United States by the University of Chicago Press and in the UK and worldwide by Influx Press. All rights reserved.
Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities. He writes on architecture, culture and technology. Anderson is a former co-editor of The Honest Ulsterman, and is also the author of a 33 1/3 study of Histoire de Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg. His forthcoming memoir, Tidewrack, about the river Foyle in Derry, will be published by Chatto & Windus.