'Dystopia is very close to us'. A conversation with prof. Artur Blaim

Prof. Artur Blaim

What was Adam Mickiewicz's lost utopia about? Who writes the most popular utopias today? And why does the dystopian vision of the world appear so often in young adult literature? This is what we are discussing with this year's winner of the Jan Hevelius Science Award of the City of Gdańsk in the field of humanities, prof. dr hab. Artur Blaim from the UG’s Department of English Translation.

Marcel Jakubowski: Are you a pessimist or an optimist regarding the world's future?

Prof. dr hab. Artur Blaim: - I am a moderate opti-pessimist. As far as I can see, the long-term predictions about climate change are not very optimistic. In the short term, if you look at what is happening in Europe and what might happen in the US, the potential global scenarios are not particularly promising either. However, the future is an unpredictable thing in more than one sense, and hence my optimism within pessimism. If we look at Thomas More's 'Utopia' - a work from the 16th century - it described things that were absolutely impossible to carry out in Europe at the time. And yet, more than 90 per cent of the positive solutions from More's 'prophecies' were later implemented, in one way or another. It took us more than 500 years, but we succeeded.

- Although not all of them, right? The 6-hour working day or, at least in the Catholic Church, the female priesthood have still not been introduced.

 - Naturally, that's why I'm not talking about the full 100 per cent. Besides, the introduction of all solutions could have disastrous consequences - or at least a great deal of inconvenience. I'm not talking, of course, about the shortened working day or women as priestesses. In ‘Utopia’, for example, there is the motif of forcibly moving people from the city to the countryside to put everyone equally into hard agricultural work. The socialist potato digging, to which the 'townspeople' were sent, was in a sense a carbon copy of More, although on this occasion, the utopian function was transformed into an anti-utopian one. Regular migration between town and countryside also occurs in the present world. People settle closer to nature to work in a large garden or orchard or go out of town for summer holidays. However, they do this of their own free will and mainly for health purposes rather than out of an equality principle, i.e. the assumption that one should experience village life and share in the hard work with others.

- Is the primary value of dystopia and utopia in accurately predicting the future?

- The ability to predict is undoubtedly an attractive feature of uto-dystopian literature. As far as dystopias are concerned, the current dominant discourse visible in series, films or books is of a catastrophic and apocalyptic dimension. Apocalyptic visions mainly have a signalling function, warning us of the consequences of humanity's current actions. Utopian discourse is not particularly popular in our time, but this does not mean that utopia as such has disappeared in contemporary culture. In fact, every dystopia implies a utopia, which is a negation of the oppressive world. Dystopia also has a certain behavioural function: it influences our perception of the realities of our world as desirable, almost utopian. We can also reverse this regularity and say that every utopia has an inherent dystopianising function. If we construct a utopia where everyone is happy, and the audience compares the utopian reality with the status quo, the world in which they exist will appear dystopian to them. It's such a peculiar relationship between utopia and dystopia because, besides the images inspired by the text, the inverse of the presented world also begins to function in the recipient's mind.

- What is your favourite utopian vision?

- I don't think I have a favourite vision - they are all 'perfect' in their own way, although perfection, contrary to popular belief, is not a characteristic of utopia. Authors of dictionary definitions are keen to put an equal sign between utopia and the perfect state. This is, of course, inaccurate since no literary utopia depicts a state of perfection. It displays, as we read in the full title of More's 'Utopia', the best state of the country - the best possible state - and this is the formula that is used in all utopias. None of them implies that what it shows is perfect in every detail. Imperfections can be found in all of them, if only such as the mortality of the inhabitants. People in utopia are not immortal - utopia is not paradise.

- You are leading a project entitled 'The Canon of World Utopian Literature in Polish Translation', which involves translating and editing 37 classics of Western culture. At what stage is the work on this project?

- This project, funded by the National Programme for the Development of the Humanities, has two phases. First, we are translating all the texts, as they have never been available in Polish, except for one whose translation we considered highly outdated. In the second phase, we will take care of the scientific editing, i.e. the introduction, footnotes and clarifications of unclear points in the text. Four of the envisaged 19 volumes are fully prepared for publication.

- How did you select the books for this canon?

- We adopted several criteria. One was the impact of the work on the development of world utopian discourse. Most of the texts on our list are the most discussed utopias in the literature. We also took into account whether an item is translated into Polish. In relation to this criterion, we have introduced 36 texts into our canon that have never appeared in the Polish publishing market - so as to create the broadest possible base for a comparative utopian study. To date, Polish readers and researchers have had translations of a handful of English, American, and possibly French utopias at their disposal, while there have been no translations of German or Russian ones. This is a broader problem, for the Russian utopias we will publish do not function in research in the West either, so the reason for their selection had to take into account not their actual, but their potential literary or political impact. Of course, it is impossible for any canon not to be subjective or ahistorical. We have included, for example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 utopian novel ‘Herland’. While it is now one of the most important texts in the domain of feminist utopia, its impact between its publication in episodes and its first book edition in 1979 was negligible. It was only in the 1970s that feminist utopias were rediscovered as feminist thought became more popular.

- They were ahead of their time. In 1915, there was not even a chance to develop a discussion of feminism on a wider scale.

- I will give you an even more extreme example of the reinterpretation of the canon. In 1666, the Duchess Margaret Cavendish published a bizarre text entitled 'The Blazing World’. Everyone thought the publication was a symptom of madness; the author was called 'Mad Madge'. For a whole 300 years, no one mentioned Cavendish's work; it was only in the 1970s that the text was rediscovered. It now has several editions and hundreds of scholarly articles referring to it. We decided to include it retrospectively in the canon.

- I found some information that the canon is meant to be an introduction to 'comparative research on utopian discourse'. Does it mean that you will be comparing the different visions of the world presented in these books?

- Yes, this will be the next step after completing the project. We want to conclude the project with an extensive international conference where researchers from Poland will present their reflections. Once they are familiar with the canon we develop, I think they will be in a stronger position than Western scholars, who mostly move in the Anglo-French paradigm. Our researchers will have access not only to English or French utopias but also to those written in Latin, Russian, Polish, or German. Strangely enough, the latter are also not included in the history of the genre's development. In general, comparative studies lack successful attempts to compare utopian worlds created in the West with images of utopias created in our part of Europe. This is the kind of scholarly niche that I hope our researchers will fill.

- One of your more acclaimed books is ‘Gazing in Useless Wonder’, an overview of popular English utopias since the year 1516 - the publication of Thomas More's 'Utopia' - till 1800. What function did utopias serve over those 300 years?

- Aesthetic: the designs of ideal lands and states were to be admired, not implemented. It was not until the French Revolution that utopias and their reception were, to some extent, made more pragmatic. Popular in England at that time, utopias presented a holistic design for an ideal society - not perfect, but the best possible. The classical utopia is multidimensional; in other words, it does not focus solely on a selected aspect but moves across the entire field of social functioning. Its various components are generally subject to one overarching principle. For example, the author abandons private property in his utopian vision and thus draws attention to the most varied consequences that may arise, whether in the sphere of the production of goods, the upbringing of children, or relations with the outside world. The dominance of this chosen principle - which is not necessarily the most relevant to the audience of the time or the present - can be well traced in the example of the 'New Athens' of the 18th century. Utopia, which presents an ideal image of a kingdom being part of the Roman empire, is organised around the question of theatre. The reading of the text obviously gives us knowledge of the government, the monarch or the organisation of society, while the dominant feature of this reality is the way the plays are staged. This shows a certain tendency in utopian literature. The authors' interests and idiosyncratic views of the world are translated into the shape of their utopias, which are designed to convey a specific idea, such as the proper staging of plays.

 - You mentioned Polish utopias; they are virtually unheard of...

- Completely, although there are some studies on the subject. Regarding Polish utopia, the first such text is 'Mikołaj Doświadczyński Cases', published at the end of the 18th century, more than 200 years after More's 'Utopia'. This is a serious delay. Some Polish scholars look for utopian elements in Old Polish texts from the Renaissance, but in this literature, we are dealing only with motifs, not with the rules of the genre. Not many Polish utopias appeared after the publication of the 'Cases'. One of them, written in French, would probably have been extremely interesting and widely read, but the problem is that it does not exist. We only know about it from the notes and memories of the author's friends because the manuscript has been lost. I'm talking about the utopia written by Adam Mickiewicz - the first version of the 1829 'History of the Future', which envisaged a massive flourishing of technology and a much different position of women. In Mickiewicz's utopia, women saved Europe from annihilation by China, and it was they who sat in the lower house of the Polish parliament. It is a great pity that none of the seven versions of the 'History of the Future' has survived, as the description suggests that it could have been not only interesting but also a momentous work in the history of the genre’s development. Introducing this item into the canon of literature would probably have changed the utopia status in Poland.

- So, we do not have many Polish utopias from the 20th century? I would expect that the communist era would bring a lot of such ideal communist visions of the world.

- As far as utopias sensu stricto from the communist era are concerned, there are very few; even in the Soviet Union, there were maybe two or three published initially, and then nothing. They were replaced by social realist novels in which utopia was implied. Besides, the Soviet system described itself as a transitional stage to communism, the best of all possible worlds. Achieving a future state of perfection was to be preceded by the necessary transformations to eliminate all elements of the old world. I do not know if you are familiar with such an anecdote, which comes in two variants. It is a conversation either between George Bernard Shaw and Maksim Gorky or between Orson Welles and Stalin. In both versions, the English interlocutor asks the second person what would happen if a little girl were run over by a bus in a communist system. To which the Russian replies that in communism, a bus would not run over a little girl. This shows that communism will create a society where there will be no randomness; everything will be perfect.

- How do you assess the trend of recent years, in which young adult literature most often presents a dystopian vision of the world?

- There are the most varied theories about this. Certainly, the times are such that dystopia is very close to us. Often in dystopias for adolescents and young adults, climate catastrophe and totalitarian tendencies play a vital role, limiting or eliminating indefeasible rights, personal freedom, and the possibility of forming one's own identity. I think there are two reasons for the popularity of this genre. On the one hand, better living conditions in many parts of the world mean that the younger generation matures more quickly and, therefore, assimilates ideological and climate discourse more quickly. Issues with a global dimension are at the centre of their immediate interest, hence the interest in dystopias. On the other hand, there is a new educational paradigm - the infantile cocoon of youth and childhood, which effectively cut off younger generations from reality and instead fed them an idealised image of reality, is a thing of the past. Thanks to the internet, social media, computer games, etc., today's teenagers and young adults are more aware of what is happening around them - able to pick out dangerous symptoms and resist the dystopian nature of both climate and political change.

- Do you recommend any contemporary writers who write different dystopias or utopias?

- I would rather suggest going back to some classic texts because they were translated so late that their reception in Poland did not match the reception in the world. I highly, highly, highly recommend Ursula Le Guin, especially the absolutely brilliant 1974 entry

‘The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia’, whose first translation into Polish appeared twenty years later. Another author who creates extremely interesting worlds is Margaret Atwood, whom I appreciate not only for 'A Handmaid's Tale', but also for her entire trilogy of post-apocalyptic dystopias, which begins with ‘Oryx and Crake’. I recommend these authors and, of course, Phillip K. Dick, who is underrated in Poland...

- Maybe his books, but the films...

- Well, yes, but there are not so many outstanding film adaptations. 'Minority Report'; 'Blade Runner'; there was also a good series based on his short stories. Unfortunately, 'Ubik' still hasn't been filmed, and this is probably one of the most brilliant dystopian novels. On the other hand, I would definitely not recommend most 19th-century literature, which is probably only for researchers anymore.

- In your book ‘Gazing in Useless Wonder’, you subtly put the period in 1800.

- I had planned to write a book on the utopias of the 19th century. I had already gathered English and American material, but at some point, I gave up. There was far too much of it; besides, it didn't add up to anything. In principle, such a book would be sort of an extended bibliography of utopian texts. Of course, I found a few British texts from the 19th century that would be worth compiling academically, but as separate literary works. For example, I can mention the novels Thoth by Joseph Shield Nicholson and The Inner House by Walter Besant, published in 1888. Unfortunately, these texts could not be included in our project because they were not very influential at the time of their publication, and even now they are not popular.

- The Industrial Revolution, fascism, totalitarianism, communism, and other 20th-century events have probably overshadowed the 19th century. These probably stimulated the imagination of the writers of the time.

- There is no doubt that the attempts to realise the communist and Nazi macro-utopia provided the impetus for the development of dystopian literature. It was in the first half of the twentieth century that three classics of the genre were written that did not leave the school reading list worldwide: Zamiatin's 'We', Huxley's 'A Brave New World' and Orwell's '1984'. If we are to talk about 20th-century utopia at all, it should be noted that, in contrast to previous centuries, literary and cinematic utopias are relatively infrequent phenomena. Hilton's 1933 ‘Lost Horizon’ and its 1937 film adaptation directed by Frank Capra belong to the canon. There was also a not-very-ambitious film musical based on ‘Lost Horizon’ in 1973. The utopia I always highly recommend is the 1986 film ‘The Mission’. The film tells the story of 18th-century Jesuits who established missions in South America, partly along the lines of More's ‘Utopia’. The Utopian indigenous communities, created through well-meaning missionary activity, functioned well until it became apparent that they threatened the interests of Portugal and Spain, after which they were razed to the ground.

- Utopia as a film is difficult to show because it is unclear what conflict to give the protagonist. Usually, the main character fights against the system or other people. How do you do that when everything is perfect?

- Yes, this is the basic narrative problem of utopia. Of course, it is possible to create a construction about the creation of utopia or how the protagonist fights against adversity to implement his plan. This resonates in communist cinema, where the hero fights against the bourgeoisie to build an ideal world.

- And can these films be interpreted as dystopias, where the hero fights against an unjust system for utopia?

- Yes - and this is what we discussed at the beginning of our conversation. Every dystopia implies a utopia and vice versa. I also mentioned that utopia is not resurgent on a wider scale in the 21st century. However, if we treat utopia not as a literary or cinematic phenomenon but in terms of 'nebulous utopia', we find that quite a few have emerged. 'Nebulous utopia' is what I call the deliberately detail-free image of a utopian future generated by a slogan - the image is very general so that it can be supplemented with one's own interpretations. During the 2016 election campaign, Trump encouraged people to vote for him with the slogan 'Let's make America great again!'. In doing so, he implied that a 'Great America' was something 'mega-good' that every American should aspire to by voting the ‘right’ way. But what this utopian great America should specifically look like was not within the essence of the Trump utopia. Each voter was to decide for themselves; Trump did not want to alienate anyone with details that could reflect poorly on his electoral outcome.  Needless to say, when Trump took the helm, the implemented vision turned out to be far from the imagination of the majority. We do not need to look all the way to the other hemisphere for examples of nebulous utopia. In the Polish context, there was the 'Good Change' - a slogan that suggested a dystopian past and a utopian future. Orbán, on the other hand, went to the elections with the slogan 'Hungarian Hungary', which, compared to the previous examples, represented a greater but still vague clarification of the vision of the future state. If we look at this kind of practice historically, in the 20th century, we have, for example, the American 'New Deal', the Soviet 'Land of the Councils', and the Nazi 'Thousand-Year Reich' - an extreme dystopia.

- So, the most popular utopias today are written by politicians?

- It would appear so, but they differ from classical utopias in their excessive, albeit fully intentional generalisation - nebulousness instead of specificity of goals and solutions. And that's why they're dangerous: because when it comes to implementation, all these great and good changes generally become quite horrific.

- What does it mean to you to be the recipient of the John Hevelius Science Award?

- I felt very surprised, incredibly honoured, and overjoyed when I received the news that I had been nominated for the award. As a relatively young Gdansker - I have not lived here since I was born - I perceived the fact that I became a laureate as a special honour and something that only confirmed my vision of Gdańsk as a utopian city.

- This is a great culmination of our talk. Thank you for the conversation.

- Thank you.

Prof. Artur Blaim
text and photo Marcel Jakubowski/ Press Office UG