Monstrous Societies

I haven’t purposely adhered to the current “dystopian novel” trend, yet my three latest reads have all held striking elements of it.

First is the famous Utopia, a complete contradiction to its name.  This was a really bad book, to put it simply.  The fictitious island of Utopia is a society of Mary Sues, where everyone is so good and kind and noble-hearted.  It made me sick.  Not because I don’t like nice people, but because these are phony, utterly unrealistic nice people.  Plus, they’re not as nice as they look.  They think slavery and arranged families and shared houses are ok–well, not only ok, but just splendid.  The more I read, the more I noticed another disturbing trend: elderly guys are at the top, women and children (and slaves) are at the bottom.  Gerontocracy, I think.  Religion in Utopia is a bona fide mixing of faiths where everyone worships at the same church, and if your beliefs extend beyond a “one size fits all” worship service, you have to complete your worship at home.  The tip of the iceberg was the part where the women and children must fall on their knees before their patriarch and confess their sins to him, before going to church.  (And he is always the saintly member of the family, I suppose?)  This is just a sample of Utopian joys.  By the end of the book, it really was like a bad dream.

To quote Wikipedia, there is a lot in this book that seems “to be polar opposites of More’s beliefs and the teachings of the Catholic Church of which he was a devout member.”  Some reviewers of Utopia say you must read it as a joke; I would at least label it as such, but at this point in history the humor is gone, and there is little in the book as a whole that leads me to think it isn’t serious.  It gets a generous 1 out of 5 stars.

Moving on to Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise.  This book zeros-in on a segment of Parisian society in the late 1800s, chiefly greed-driven businessmen like Octave Mouret, owner of the Ladies’ Paradise, and a number of his employees and customers whose lives are also governed by their materialism.  As if this form of self-indulgence weren’t enough, many of them are also obsessed with sex or using it to obtain quick fortunes.  Mouret is a nasty pervert.  Madame Marty also makes me furious with her addiction to spending, which forced her husband to get an extra job.  I will be so glad to get away from this group of characters (only four chapters left!).  The only character I particularly like is Monsieur Baudu, a small-business owner and the uncle of the heroine (Denise Baudu).  He’s not perfect, but he seems to recognize some fundamental values (like family life) that other people avoid.

The third lovely society I stumbled across is Edgar Allan Poe’s The City in the Sea,” read by Basil Rathbone.  Perhaps those other two books made me understand this poem, which depicts the ruin of a (apparently) corrupt city.  It is rather depressing, but the poetry is magnificent, and so is Rathbone’s recording of it.  It increases my eagerness to re-read Poe’s poetry, too.

Nightmarish Utopia

Utopia.orteliusI believe Sir Thomas More meant well when he penned Utopia (1516), but it is quite possibly the worst book I have ever read.

Given the standard of living for the majority of human beings in the early 16th century, More’s dream of a perfect nation must have sounded as idyllic as it gets.  Yet even so, 16th-century Europeans hardly lived sheltered lives.  By what reasoning, then, could More ever seriously imagine the existence of a Utopia, in either reality or fantasy?  In his world, all men have the will to be saints, and if not, then their angelic neighbors find the power to overcome all evils of society.  He speaks of shared gardens, and shared houses, and property that belongs to no one because it belongs to everyone.  He talks of quasi-elections and rulers for life, in the same breath.  Human nature, if it exists in Utopia, is easily kept in check by the noble ideals that all the citizens yearn for, as well as their continuous eagerness to work together.

I am far from finished with this book, but already it’s a struggle.  The overdose of either extreme naivete or wishful thinking is hard to read.