Utopias Unlimited, Part I

This essay on the ethics of W.S. Gilbert has been revised and considerably expanded.

The future has been all the rage for the past two centuries. Modernism, as an ideology, might almost be defined as the cult of the future, whether in science fiction or in Utopian political creeds like Marxism and Classical Liberalism.  Even in its death throes modernism was able to spawn "futurology," a pseudo-science as richly comic as phrenology.

Readers who take delight in human folly may recall such names as John Naisbitt and Alvin Toffler, Herman Kaan and Peter Bishop,  Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon, or such high profile movements as H.G. Wells' Foresight or The World Future Council  or The Rand Corporation or The Club For Growth, but these are only a few of the  names and labels for the more prominent con games.  Even to provide a list of movements and organizations would require more pages than this essay takes.  My favorite is that exemplary American known as "the Amazing Criswell," who would begin his presentations with the statement: "Greetings, my friends.  We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives."

There are many statements about the reality or non-reality of present, past, and future, and, while much depends on what we mean by "reality" or "existence," it is clear to me that only the exists.  The future, however we imagine it, does not not yet exist and, if we mean what everyone means by the word "future," namely our own projections from current experience,  most certainly never will.  Well, then, surely the present, the here and no is the only reality, but, alas, "present" is nothing but an arbitrarily placed frontier between the present and the past.  If the present does exist, it is like one of those subatomic particles, churned up by an accelerator, to exist for a millionth of a second.  No, only the past exists, but that is a depressing fact for modern men to acknowledge, since it would require them to study history and to acknowledge rather severe limits on the human capacity to work mischief.

An obsession with the future is usually taken as a sign of naive optimism, but the most original and influential futurist of the century, H.G. Wells, was profoundly pessimistic, and if his heirs—the Tofflers and their disciple Newt Gingrich, for example—exhibit a cheery confidence in what the future holds, it is only because their writings are the intellectual equivalent of a lobotomy.

On the verge of despair, we put our faith in the future: We spend hard-earned money on lottery tickets, change jobs after reading the message in a fortune cookie, pick stocks on the basis of a lucky number or on the recommendation of a broker adept at churning accounts. Confirmed atheists on their deathbed call for a priest, not necessarily because they have become believers, but because eternity is the only future left.  Horace, advising a mistress against astrology, gave his famous advice to "seize the day, putting as little stock as you can in tomorrow." 

Not just unstable individuals but entire societies may become infected with futurism, and since the Renaissance, as our social conditions have become more and more detached from the roots of human experience, intellectuals of every kind have been constructing Utopias—architectural sketches “for the world tomorrow” that no one will ever, in his worst nightmare, inhabit.

Progressivism in any form--optimistic, pessimistic, or simply zany--is an indication of alienation and discontent. In the so-called Middle Ages, on the other hand, which must have been as uncomfortable as any since men learned how to smelt copper, most people knew the difference between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man. The interest that a Christian people takes in the future should be limited to practical and down-to-earth questions: Whom should I marry?  Under what moon should I sow the rye?

In those days literate men looking for clues to the future would perform the sortes virgilianes by opening a text of Vergil at random. The practice has not died out, entirely, and there are people who leaf through Shakespeare or the King James Bible as if they were taking the auguries. In Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, the house-steward begins his account by citing an appropriate passage of Robinson Crusoe, which he had come upon by accident. "If that isn't prophecy," he asks, "what is?" The steward had worn out seven copies of his favorite book, while I, on the other hand, have gone through any number of recordings of The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance, and Iolanthe. The disks have exhausted themselves keeping the promise the Queen of the Eairies made to Strephon (in Iolanthe): 

"Shouldst thou be in doubt or danger, 

Peril or perplexitee, 

Call us, and we'll come to thee!" 

And over the years I have come to realize that my views on equality were shaped by The Gondoliers, my distaste for feminism fortified by Princess Ida, and my contempt for social and political idealism—and ideology—nourished by W.S. Gilbert's satires on the rigors of class structure, chauvinism, party loyalty, and sentimental love.

Invective and realistic social criticism, which satisfied later less-gifted  writers like Ibsen and Shaw, were not in Gilbert's line. He preferred to construct Utopian fantasies and upside-down worlds in which his contemporaries could see themselves as in a funhouse mirror. In 1875, his play Topsyturvydom portrayed a country where people are born old and wise but gradually youthen and forget everything. In the stage set, the chandelier rose from the floor, while the furniture was fixed to the ceiling. Jane Stedman (in W.S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and His Theatre) describes Gilbert's vision of a "double world: one part consisting of things or principles as they are, and the other consisting of ideas about or attitudes toward these things and principles; a world of truth and a world of what we think is reality—two separate worlds which are only intermittently synonymous."

Topsyturvydom was produced only months before the firs successful collaboration between William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, Trial by Jury, but Gilbert's technique was already well-advanced in his Bab Ballads, where we meet the prototype for Topsyturvydom as well as the originals of characters made familiar in the Savoy operas: the common soldier who discovers that he and his general were switched at birth, a curate named George, the son of a fairy who objects to his High Church proclivities 

To this Papal rule-ish 

Twaddle put an ending; 

This a swerve is 

From our service 

Plain and unpretending.

When the bishop finds him embracing his young and beautiful mother, he refuses to believe she is not a hussy of two and twenty. The curate takes umbrage: "George the point grew warm on; / Changed religion / Like a pigeon, / And became a Mormon!"

My favorite topsyturvy ballad concerns "Gentle Alice Brown," daughter of a family of Italian robbers. Alice falls in love with a poor but honest man and goes to make her confession to the village priest, who is indulgent toward her peccadilloes of kidnapping, burglary, and murder: 

You mustn't judge yourself too heavily my dear. 

It's wrong to murder babies, little corals for to fleece; 

  But sins like these one expiates at half-a-crown apiece.

But, when she confesses her innocent dalliance, the good father is outraged:

  This dreadful piece of news will pain your worthy parents so!           They are the most remunerative customers I know;

  For many many years they've kept starvation from my doors; 

I never knew so criminal a family as yours!

The hapless young man is chopped into particularly small pieces, and Alice is wed to her father's lieutenant.

To be continued....

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Michael Strenk says:

    So far, so engaging. The tedious bit must be yet to come.

    “…exhibit a cheery confidence in what the future holds, it is only because their writings are the intellectual equivalent of a lobotomy,” is my favorite bit so far and had me laughing out loud as I considered some of the commentators holding forth on recent events, promising that the “white hats” have everything under control and the golden age of humanity lies moments away when the regime is swept away in a whirlwind of democratic outrage. “Back to sleep, back to sleep” I can almost hear them intone. Sheep to the slaughter, one is tempted to judge, except that sheep have a much higher sense of self-preservation and, possibly, a slightly higher level of intelligence than the average denizen of the Western (and Eastern) land of fun and fantasy.