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“UTOPIA IN TEXAS” by Glen Newey in the London Review of Books, January 19, 2017, provides counterpoint to my recent review of four dystopian novels here at SimanaitisSays. Not that I’m ready to run off to Utopia, or to Texas for that matter, but Newey’s piece offers a bunch of great lines that simply must be shared.
Newey’s review is prompted by two recent translations of Thomas More’s classic work. Though More was English, Utopia first appeared in Latin in the Flemish Brabant city of Leuven. It was published in 1516, less than a century after the 1425 founding of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, the largest and oldest university of the Low Countries.
More served as a councillor to Henry VIII and Lord High Chancellor of England, 1529 to 1532. A Roman Catholic, he opposed the Protestant Reformation and Henry’s contribution to this movement. More was convicted of treason and beheaded in 1532 after refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging Henry and his Church of England.
Over the years, More’s reputation has improved. (How could it not?)
It took awhile, though: In 1935, Pope Pius XI canonized him as Saint Thomas More. Since 1980, More has been liturgically recognized as a martyr by no less than the Church of England. In 2000, Pope John Paul II declared him the “heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians.” And the Soviet Union honored More for his communistic views on property rights as expressed in Utopia.
High, and varied, praise indeed.
Author Newey shares a tale about this Soviet adulation: In pre-revolutionary 1914, an obelisk was erected in Moscow’s Alexander Garden to mark the tercentenary of the Romanovs. After the revolution, “Bolsheviks re-engraved the obelisk with More’s name and other mooted harbingers of communism. In 2013, the Russian Ministry of Culture dismantled and completely refurbished it; along with the others, More’s name was effaced. Now the monument stands dedicated again to the tsar….”
You’d think the plaque might be Velcro-backed.
Newey observes that More’s Utopia (Penguin Classics) “stands at the confluence of three currents: Renaissance humanism, the print revolution, and what is sometimes called ‘the age of discovery’—notably of the Americas, though these lands probably hadn’t escaped the notice of the peoples who had lived there for 12,000 years before the Europeans showed up.”
I love the LRB for its wonderful writing.
More’s Utopia, envisioned as an island in the Atlantic, wasn’t alone in this celebration of the New World. Newey cites Mundus Novus, a pamphlet perhaps containing words of explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Like Utopia, its first publication was in Latin, in 1502 or 1503. Promptly translated into Italian, it “titillated Europeans with tales (and lurid engravings) of New World natives cavorting naked and chowing down on human-leg fricassee…. along with such further tokens of barbarism as Amerindians’ indulgence in sweat lodges and eating without tablecloths.”
More’s Utopia wasn’t much fun. “As Ralph Robinson’s English version of 1551 puts it, Utopians enjoy ‘neither wine-taverns, nor stews, nor any occasion of vice or wickedness.’ ”
“It all sounds rather Calvinistic,” Newey says. The Utopian “ideal is not emancipation but control, and its token is docility: After all, the beast that Christians usually hold up for humans to mimic is not the lion or the fox, but the sheep.”
Newey notes that “the More of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a … credible heretic-burner bent on martyrdom.” He also cites More’s “unnatural fondness for torture,” balanced by one recent Catholic apologia arguing “that his use of it was only intermittent, which seems a bit like saying that most days Ted Bundy didn’t kill anyone.”
More’s Utopians practiced slavery, about which Newey observes, “Utopia is a singular society, in which nothing is owned except for human beings.” Also Utopians hired overseas mercenaries to fight their wars. “Turning a foreigner’s cheek,” Newey says, “is an interesting reworking of the Sermon on the Mount.”
On More’s relationship with Henry VIII, Newey observes, “England under Henry VIII—Donald Trump with a codpiece—was never likely to conform to More’s aberrant Catholic vision, as underlined by his execution for failing to endorse the Henrician Brexit from Rome.”
In concluding, Newey shares a tale of a professor at the University of Texas, Arlington, who assigned students to write how Arlington might be transformed into utopia. One student asked, “What if I believe that Arlington, Texas, is utopia?”
Golly, where do you begin? ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017