Saturday, August 19, 2006

Everything is always great in Utopia, which is why Thomas More's book, the original Utopia, is sometimes tedious to read.

It's hard to believe that there is someplace where everything is great. The idea that everything is great doesn't get more believable when you describe all these little details of how things are set up.

Utopia, by Thomas More is about an island called Utopia--a word More invented. Derived by More from Greek words, it means nowhere.

On the other hand, when More uses the framework of describing Utopia to comment on his own society, things perk up.

"What natural or true pleasure can you get, if someone bares his head to you or bends his knees? Will the pain in your knees be eased thereby, or the madness in your head?"

After the book explains that no one owns anything in Utopia, no one is rich, no one is poor, everyone is provided for, the text goes on like this:

"How could anyone dare to compare the justice of the Utopians with that of other nations? If there is any trace of justice or equity among other nations, may I perish among them! What justice is there in this, that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a moneylender, or some other man who does nothing at all for a living or does something that is of no use to the public, lives a sumptious and elegant life? In the meantime, a servant, a driver, a blacksmith or a farmer works as hard as a beast at labor so necessary that the commonwealth could not last a year without it. Yet they earn so poor a living and lead such miserable lives that their condition seems worse than that of draft animals."

I picked up Utopia partly because it's short, less than a hundred pages, and I thought I could finish off a famous book easily.

No way. Utopia, is, for me, a very tough read. Slog, slog.

I think that's partly because it was written hundreds of years ago. But I think it is also because as More writes it, he is also hiding.

He's a lawyer who sometimes worked directly for the king. He is criticizing the way things are usually run and imaging whole other ways for things to be.

As he does his imagining, he is very cagy.

He says that all this imagining happened in a conversation he had when he was out of England, in Flanders (now part of Belgium.) He says the conversation originally happened in Greek. He is writing about it (really) in Latin. Internationally known smart people like More did write to each other in Latin back then. That also protects him from any charge of rousing the rabble with ideas of extreme change, extreme betterness, in how things were run. People in general couldn't read Latin. (Me, either. I'm reading a translation made in 1949 by H. V. S. Ogden.)

Also this whole thing is portrayed as a conversation More had in Italy, but in the conversation he is not the one talking about Utopia. He isn't the one saying how Utopia is better, or noting that some things in the usual countries, including England, are not so hot. He isn't the guy saying wealth is distributed with extreme unfairness.

That Utopian and critical talking in the conversation is done by Raphael Hythloday, who has travelled much and lived in Utopia, which is a distant from Europe island, for several years.

*Hythloday is from the Greek word for nonsense. It is used only once. Almost always, the man proposing the new ideas and the ideas critical of the current set up is called Raphael, like an angel, a messenger of God.*

Raphael makes the case for doing things differently. More is two people. He is a character in the conversatio,n and he is the author of the book.

It isn't really possible to know how More the character or More the author feel about any of the ideas proposed. The fact that he has written the book implies that he must think some of the ideas are good, but he never says specifically he likes any one of them.

At the end of the book, he says that he and Raphael went into dinner and he hoped that they could talk in greater detail about Utopia some time in the future.

The book ends thusly (in translation):

"I trust such an opportunity may come some time. Meanwhile I cannot agree with everything that he said, though he was singularly well informed and also highly experienced in worldly affairs. Yet I confess that there are may things in the Utopian Commonwealth that I wish rather than expect to see followed among our citizens."

In other words, he agrees with parts of his own book, but he won't say which parts.

I think that hiding energy affects the whole book and is one of the reason it's difficult to read these in the version I'm working with 88 pages.

That and the fact that hope is hard. That sharing property thing has been tried, or various countries say they were trying it, since More wrote and it doesn't always work out well. It seems to hang out with secret police and midnight executions quite a bit.

The distribution of goodies in the Soviet Union was less skewed after the revolution than before. The czar's family, the family of the last czar, being held by revolutionaries, wore dresses that were solid with gems. That slowed down the process of them being shot to death.

No solid gem dresses in the Soviet Union, but the KGB lower level guy in "The Cancer Ward" is stunned that he is in the same 8 person ward with poor people from the poor republics of the Soviet Union that had lots of Muslims. How can this be, he who has always not waited in line, not had to go in the front door, but slipped in the side.

So no property, equality of stuff, equality of opportunity is easier said than done, and reading Utopia now we know that more than More did when he wrote it.

There are two times in the book when More's heart and the bigger reality burst through that make the book feel more alive.

Reality intrudes when the people having the fictional conversation talk about whether or not a guy like Raphael, who is smart, who has travelled a lot, who has great ideas about governance, should work for a monarch.

Raphael says no. The people around the king won't listen to new ideas. It does no good to try to present new ideas in the court around a king.

Thomas More, the character in the conversation, says, sure you can't produce the best ideas, but you can nudge things a little toward the better. Since it affects so many people, it's worth it.

In their several page long discussion of whether Raphael, or any smart person, should work for a king they never discuss the possible disadvantage that actually happened to More.

The king might kill you.

"Utopia" begins saying that Henry the Eighth sent More abroad on a diplomatic mission, and while there, out of England, he had this conversation about radically different governance.

Specifically, "Utopia" begins with this sentence: "The most victorious and triumphant King of England, Henry the Eighth of that name, in all royal virtues a prince most peerless, had recently some differences with Charles, the most serene Prince of Castile, and sent me to Flanders to negotiate and compose matters between them."

That's sort of standard for the time. Books were often dedicated to someone powerful, usually in a kiss-ass way.

Thomas More wanted to have it both ways. As he says as a character in his own book, you can do some serious good having it both ways. A German radical in the 1960's called it "the long march through the institutions." Get inside and change things there. If you're in there, there are moments you can make moves that help thousands of people.

Raphael, the man in "Utopia" who says all the idealistic things, doesn't buy that idea. He says of working in a court and trying to influence some things, if not everything, "The only result of this
will be that while I try to cure others of madness, I will myself rave along with them."

Not a hint of the executioner's axe there. But the king might go mad and be mad at a guy who seemed to semi-fit in and semi-get with the program, and have him killed when he finally wont go along anymore. It happened to More.


So he starts the book "Utopia" praising the king who will ultimately have him killed and he ends it saying he thinks some of the things in the book are a good idea but they won't happen anyway and he won't say which ideas are the ones he hopelessly likes.

Another reason I wanted to read "Utopia," in addition to it being famous and (misleadingly) short was that I really liked Thomas More as a character in Robert Bolt's play and movie "A Man for All Seasons." I thought I should get real and read something by the man himself.

So I do read something by the man himself and there he is, in a fictional conversation, a fictional character created by himself.

One part where it feels like his heart is coming straight through all his caution is when Raphael talks about the hanging of petty thieves in England. It feels like More's voice, longing, wishing, dreaming beyond what he can believe.

Raphael wants, and I think More aches for, an end to hanging petty theives. But the way it's presented is like one of those dreams many of us have--wouldn't it be grand, but I know there is no way.

It's been a while, several centuries, but petty thieves are not hung in England. The United Kingdom has no death penalty. I think More, if you had spoken to him as he had Raphael criticize the hanging of petty thieves, if you had said either of those things to him--no hanging of petty theives, or no death penalty at all--I think he would have been unable to believe that either would come to pass, even several centuries in the future.

He was smart, and his hopes were smarter than he was, though he didn't know it.

***rewritten paragraph followed by new words

Directly criticizing the current laws of his own country is not what More is usually up to in Utopia. He criticizes customs (he has Raphael criticize customs, that is.) He, as Raphael, criticizes how things might be done in France. (In France the king might go to war when he didn't need to and tax the people too much, for example.) He, as Raphael, admires the different ways things are done Utopia.

But it's hanging people for stealing a loaf of bread breaks his heart and opens his mouth in a different way than the rest of the book. Even though the words are still from Raphael, it feels like More himself is speaking, directly and in agony.

"A Man for All Seasons" presents the idea that the lawof England is a great love for More, the love of his life, and he is part of the law and the law is a part of him in a profound way.

So if that represents the actual More in some way, hanging people for stealing bits of food to eat would hurt him with real pain. Not as much pain as the people hung for stealing, but pain.

And in the end, the pain of execution was More's. He was beheaded with an axe, not hung, a class distinction. People above him in class, royal, were beheaded with a sword--Anne Boleyn insisted on it and got it--her last successful power play.

He was beheaded for treason, a crime above the bread thief's orbit--for not saying what the king wanted him to say. The king wanted him to say the usual--"You're right!" and he wouldn't.

And died for it.

"A Man for All Seasons," and the performances by Paul Scofield as More and Wendy Hiller as his wife portray how a man and woman could be strongly bonded in deep love in spite of vast differences in education. She was smart. Could she read? It doesn't come up in the play and movie.

She was smart, and she loved him, and she didn't get at all this thing of dying because he wouldn't say a few words.

His heart was partly made of the law. The law is words. If everyone said the easiest words for them to say, true or not, the law wouldn't work. More couldn't say "You're right!" to the king when he thought the king was wrong.