Utopia and ‘the Thing which is not’: More, Swift, and Other Lying Idealists
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JENNY MEZCIEMS Utopia and 'the Thing which is not': More, Swift, and Other Lying Idealists 'Tis manifest, what mighty Advantages Fiction has over Truth; and the Reason is justat our Elbow; because Imagination can build nobler Scenes, and produce more wonderful Revolutions than Fortune or Nature will be at Expence to furnish ... and so the Question is only this; Whether Things that have Place in the Imagination, may not as properly be said to Exist, as those that are seated in the Memory. (A Tale ofa Tub, section IX) IDEA AND EXPRESSION Early in his career as a writer Jonathan Swift expressed with dry irony his awareness of the power of fiction to persuade, and made clear the rigorous control which reason ought to exert over a human inclination to prefer illusion to the discomforts of truth. Utopian ideals are expressed in fiction, and the concern of Swift and other utopists is as much with the presentation as with the idea. Their concern is also with the parts played by imagination and reason in the grasp of concepts beyond experience and with the question of moral responsibility in the handling of persuasive rhetoric. It is on aspects of presentation that I wish chiefly to concentrate. One of the functions of a utopian fiction is obviously to portray an abstract ideal by comparison with which the corruptions of real life may appear shocking. But when it is described in language the ideal partakes of the nature of reality and is subject to its corruptions; language is a partial realization. That a utopia realized is no longer a utopia is the essence of those works for which Plato's Republic is the classical model, though there are 'romantic' utopias, to be glanced at in due course, which contradict the basic premise. Plato allowed that his Republic would be possible when philosophers became kings, but, having prescribed this unlikely condition, he assured us that the ideal society would begin to degenerate as soon as it became fact. Thomas More in Utopia and Swift in Gulliver's Travels take up Plato's point, teasing us with their understanding of the way words themselves pull the ideal towards the material, using language and other features of presentation to illustrate strenuous oppositions and irresistible fusions: between truth and lie, fact and fiction, identification and distinction. The pun in More's title is not UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 52, NUMBER 1, FALL 1982 0042-0247/8211000- 0040-0002$01.5010 © UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO PRESS LYING IDEALISTS 41 incidental; 'Utopia' first becomes a place by virtue of having a name, yet it is neither 'Outopia' (no place) nor 'Eutopia' (happy place), and its 'reality' is made questionable by the concepts on either side.' Swift's title, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, makes a bold claim on reality, but the contextis that ofa long tradition of travel tales rightly open to the charge of fantasy and charlatanism while seeking authority as fact. When the reader finds that a fantasy presents a morally superior reality, an acute discomfort arises in the conflictbetweenhis imaginativeresponse and his rational judgment. The Houyhnhnms have no imagination. What they do not know does not exist. Their pure reason imposes limits on truth that would not be possible in the human world. 'The Thing which is not' dismisses with a nameless circumlocution Gulliver's account to his master of the real world and his travels: 'I came over the Sea, from a far Place ... It was with some Difficulty, and by the Help of many Signs, that I brought him to understand me. He replied, That I must needs be mistaken, or that I said the thing which was not. (For they have no Word in their Language to express Lying or Falshood.) He knew it was impossible that there could be a Country beyond the Sea.'2 In human terms the circumlocution can be given a variety of interpretations in words that mean something other than 'non-fact': it may be 'a lie' (as Gulliver understands it) or, less pejoratively, 'a fiction' or, more purely and baSically, 'an idea.' For the Houyhnhnms the entire middle ground is missing in which human...


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