chapter  1
21 Pages

Utopian Histories: Retroactive Possibilities

In his Cities of the Red Night (1981) William Burroughs creates a narrative of early eighteenth-century piracy, in order to advance the notion of what he refers to as a ‘retroactive utopia’: a utopia that could potentially have been realised, and yet, as a result of circumstances, was not. In the novel’s opening section, entitled ‘Fore!’, the narrative suggests that pirate communes of the seventeenth century pregured the ideas of both the French and American Revolutions. Telling the story of Captain Mission’s attempts to found a colony called Libertaria off the Madagascar coast, Burroughs establishes Mission’s ideals as those through which ‘the history of the world could have been altered’ (1981: xiii). Burroughs asks readers to imagine a world in which Captain Mission’s Articles were accepted, rather than lost by the destruction of his social enterprise when his settlement was attacked by the indigenous inhabitants. In this world, ‘mankind might have stepped free from the deadly impasse of insoluble problems in which we now nd ourselves’ (1981: xiv).