chapter  1
32 Pages

Classical origins and Renaissance locations

No age or ideology can lay an exclusive claim to utopian territory; but certain conditions seem particularly to favour experimenting with radical alternatives to the prevailing culture. Periods of rapid change and instability, when the previously unthinkable explodes into people’s consciousness and basic assumptions disintegrate under the impact of social, sexual, or scientific revolution, tend to generate varieties of utopian text. On the other hand, total disintegration defeats the purpose. A certain level of intellectual activity, and confidence in intellectual debate as a productive and relevant contribution to society, also seem to be a prerequisite. The utopian creator isn’t normally talking to himself or herself. It’s hardly accidental that a number of seminal utopian texts should spring from groups functioning as a kind of self-appointed think tank within their cultures, such as the Socratic circle in fifth-century Athens, which became institutionalised in Plato’s Academy, or the humanists of early sixteenth-century Europe. A t a later date, seventeenth-century sectarians, eighteenth-century savants, nineteenth-century socialists or twentieth-century feminists exhibit a similar phenomenon. The creative temperature rises within a furnace of personalities, fuelled from outside, but fired inwardly by a shared vision: and it fuses together the disparate materials which go to make a utopia. Nor, consequently, is it surprising that formal dialogue and discourse structure utopian writing, even prior to narrative. For all its fantastic imaginings, the genre depends on engaging the ratiocinative powers of the mind (however sceptically these powers may be regarded).