” CAN SOCIALISTS BE HAPPY?”: WHY DOES UTOPIA NOT WORK?

I have just been reading Orwell’s essay entitled “Can Socialists Be Happy”?” it sounds a challenging title, particularly from a writer of the Left who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s. Interestingly Orwelll was encouraged to ask the question by comparing the writings of Charles Dickens with a number of more recent writers who had tried to make Utopia convincing. He discusses H.G. Wells who wrote among other things science fiction including Utopian novels (eg. A Modern Utopia, The Time-Machine, War of the Worlds, Men Like Gods).

Here you have a picture of the world as Wells would like to see it. It is a world whose keynotes are enlightened hedonism and scientific curiosity. All the evils and miseries that we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear. overwork, superstition all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that it is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things that Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia?

Well perhaps Wells is the wrong writer to read to make Utopia appealing. So Orwell looks wider. He tries the early Fabian Socialist William Morris. But Morris’ News from Nowhere is as unattracive as it sounds : “It is a sort of goody-goody version of a Wellsian Utopia. Everyone is kindly and reasonable, all the upholstery comes from Liberty’s, but the impression left behind is of a kind of watery melancholy.”

What about the further-back past? Orwell turns to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The early parts are ” “probably among the most devastating attack on human society that has ever been written”

claims Orwell- a judgement to ponder- but he goes on:

In the last part, in contrast with the disgusting Yahoos, we are shown the noble Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses who are free from human failings. Now these horses, for all their high character and unfailing common sense, are remarkably dreary creatures. Like the heroes of various other Utopias, they are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, “reasonable ” lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from “passion”, including physical love. They choose their mates on eugenic priciples, avoid excesses of affection, and appear somewhat glad to die when their time comes. In the early parts of the book Swift has shown where man’s folly and the scoundrelism lead him, and all you are left with, apparently, is a tepid sort of existence, hardly worth leading.

Against these Utopias Orwell points to Huxley’s Brave New World as actually reflecting the fear we might have of these organised Utopias: A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which is within his power to create.

Huxley’s “rationalised hedonistic society” is a society in which sex is so readily available that it has become vacuous; in which promiscuous relationships have taken the place of marriage and the requirement of raising a family is state- provided. The living connections between what Burke pointed to as the unborn, the living and the dead have become severed. Meaningful living is unavailable to a generation uprooted from the past dwelling in such a society.

Readers can make up their minds how close we are to this whether we desire it and the kinds of alternative to it.

But to get back to the title. In showing imagined Utopias as undesirable Orwell. asks where in literature we find a living sense of happiness to pose against these failed Utopias. It is Dickens he points to: the Dickens of Pickwick and the concluding scenes of Christmas Carol where the Cratchit family are shown enjoying their Christmas dinner.

the Cratchit family do give the impression of enjoying themselves. They sound happy as, for instance,the citizens of William Morris’s News From Nowhere don’t sound happy. Moreover -and Dickens’ understanding of this is one of the secrets of his power- their happiness derives mainly from contrast. They are in high spirits because for once in a way they have enough to eat…. The steam of Christmas pudding drifts across a background of pawnshops and sweated labour…

Dickens is master of showing human enjoyment and happiness. This may surprise readers who also know his novels -the later ones- as dark. But as Orwell points out the two go together. He prizes the creative enjoyment and revelry of the poor because he knows how hard won it is.

So if Utopias are to be desired but yet fail where does this leave us?. It is worth reminding ourselves that the Judaeo- Christian narrative begins with a kind of perfect world- the Garden of Eden which cannot last. Ever since humankind has had to take account of sin and death and also the difficulties of earning bread (“In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread” Genesis 3:19).

The Bible suggests however the struggle is not mainly socio-economic (which does not stop the prophets speaking out about exploitation and justice to the poor is a preoccupation) but to do with our relationship with God; so to imagine a society- Socialist or whatever- in which our social problems are resolved is unrealistic. The struggle for meaning and meaningful living is central to our human search; and that search cannot be resolved by a Utopia- socialist or otherwise- that attempts to take the struggle away.

CATHERINE OF “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”

“I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is, or should be, an existence of you beyond you. What were the use of my creation if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning; my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished and he remained, I should still continue to be ; and if all else remained and he were annihilated the universe would turn a mighty stranger. I should not seem part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware as winter changes the trees -my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath- a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff-he’s always, always in my mind-not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself-but as as my own being….” Wuthering Heights Ch. 9

When I first read Wuthering Heights I found Catherine irresistible. Many students, I later found, shared my feeling. She combines a winning charm (who can forget her response, as a child, to her aging and often impatient father complaining of her mischief ” Why canst thou not always be a good lass, Cathy?” to which she answers “Why cannot you always be a good man, father?”), with courageous rebelliousness ( when Joseph seeks to make her read a “good”- that is deadly boring, book suitable for Sunday reading, she “took my dingy volume by the scroop , and hurled it into the dog-kennel, vowing I hated a good book”), as well as acting like a free spirit, ranging the moors with Heathcliff. For a bookish, shy teenager like myself she was what I dreamt of being.

The quoted speech is perhaps the most central of the novel. It has been much referred to and debated by critics. It comes from the time when Catherine, having decided to marry Linton, uses Nelly (the narrator) as her sounding board for convincing herself that she is right to choose him before Heathcliff.. For Nelly the distinction between the two possible lovers is clear. Edgar is a gentleman of property and also in quality. Heathcliff at this stage of the novel l has been degraded by Hindley ( now master), brutally treated, an outsider whose doubtful background is made to justify his treatment as an outsider.

In the earlier part of the scene Heathcliff has been a listener. He has heard Catherine say it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff and after this Nelly becomes conscious of him leaving the room. (Thence he leaves the area for years before returning completely altered from the gauche brutalised adolescent he has been). His later behaviour in relation to Catherine indicates his passion for her is as necessary to him as hers for her.

The intensity of the speech is made to sound religious. She is clearly thinking hard to get the words right: “What were the use of creation if I were entirely contained here?” We see her pointing toto herself trying to make clear to Nelly what she means. Yet what she identifies herself with-her extended self-is not God but Heathcliff. The contrasting imagery of foliage and rocks brilliantly contrasts the nature of her feeling. “Foliage” has the potential to be beautiful and attractive but it is temporary; it dies back in winter. The rocks made “eternal” last permanently.

Some see the deep bonding of Catherine and Heathcliff as a kind of solidarity formed out of their mistreatment after Hindley takes command of the house. I noted above the passge from Catherine’s diary desribing the rebellion of Heathcliff and she against the oppressive Sunday atmosphere under the assigned control of the bigoted Joseph.

It could also be seen as a primitive kind of religious bonding. There is the freedom they share scampering over the moors as adolescents. Is the feeling sexual? Despite the passion and though Catherine speaks of marriage there is little sign on her part of sexual love. As children they slept in the same bed (she refers to this in the delirium scene) so sexual feeling would be close to incest. On Heathcliff’s side the description of digging up the corpse to hold her has been linked to necrophilia. What it underlines perhaps more , however,is Catherine’s pronouncement “if he were annihilated the universe would turn a mighty stranger” To Heathcliff death must not be allowed to separate them. Existence continues-he has known for years her troubling presence as a ghost-and in death, both physically and spiritually they continue together.

What do you think?