By: Anna Shepherd
When I started thinking about what a utopia was to me I found it very easy to define it by negation. Most of what is in the news would not be happening, that’s for sure. There would not be a refugee crisis because world leaders would not let people get that desperate. There would be no terrorists driving them from their homes.
The best utopia I could turn to was, of course, Willy Wonka’s ‘world of pure imagination.
But then I read a little more around the etymology of utopia, coined by Thomas Moore almost 500 years ago, to find that it means ‘no place,’ and to me that holds the capacity to mean any place. Edward L. Surtz, a professor at Chicago university said in 1952 that despite its didactic nature, as a moral state of equity we should strive for, the literature and concept of a utopia ‘also seeks to amuse readers by irony, humour and cleverness.’ And this comment sent my thoughts meandering through all avenues of imagination for what the most delightful place I could imagine could be.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, I instantly went back to the fantastical worlds presented to me in my childhood and the first that came to mind was the scene in Avatar, you know the one, with the effervescent blue plants hanging all around in the immersive forest. I thought of Doctor Doolittle and how much I’d tried to catch my hamster out making an Eddy Murphy voiced joke at my expense. The idea of my toys being able to talk to me (Toy Story) was also one of a utopia, but then again also nightmare (the scene where they attack Sid will forever be in my memory).
I don’t know why communicating with the inanimate or animal world seemed the dream when I was younger, perhaps I was hoping they’d communicate back with me an insight about humanity I couldn’t detect.
One part of my utopia has always been the dream of a zero- gravity switch in the house – I mean it would just be SO MUCH FUN.
The best utopia I could turn to was, of course, Willy Wonka’s ‘world of pure imagination.’ In hindsight, the magical edible garden doesn’t look quite so ravishing- the edible grass for one. But taken with the lucidity of Gene Wilder’s melodic invitation it did seem the best life could get. As if it could get any better than that, the indisputable best scene was the sweet-testing room. A gum that gives you an entire meal sounds nasty but fantastical.
Thinking about this, I finally realized what I actually think utopia is for me. The reason that Willy Wonka’s factory was so mesmerizing as a child was because it looked for the impossible, achieved it but then most importantly, he didn’t stop. He strived for the next best flavour. And, please excuse the tenacity of this link, that is what we are always trying to do; find the next best thing as a society, whether that be in technology or art, and personally with any goals we might have.
Thus, I have found the essence of utopia for me is the very essence of striving. This was spirit of the Romantic movement, something Frederick Schleiermacher called ‘the infinite’- highly subjective and extremely liberating. What I love most about this is its unapologetic subjectivity. Do and be what fulfills you. It is something society screams but people fail to allow all the time.
There are many other dimensions to my, and many others’, utopia; a wish for transparency across politics and production, better equality across global wealth. But the ability to strive captures all.
Everyone has that opportunity, although some more freely than others, so a maxim to always appreciate can be; we are always living in someone else’s utopia.
Professor Espen Hammer writes for the New York Times that there is a ‘vantage point of the utopian imagination’ across history and people have facilitated a ‘steadfast movement toward the sought- for condition’. I take this to mean that imagining what is ‘the ideal’ gives us the advantage of a goal and the opportunity to strive.
Everyone has that opportunity, although some more freely than others, so a maxim to always appreciate can be; we are always living in someone else’s utopia. Finally, as a literature student, I feel the need (and desire) to get some form of fantastic quote in here. And here it is by Oscar Wilde himself; ‘ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.’ I read this in first year in his satire The Importance of Being Earnest. It was written on a post-it and put on my wall but now, although as wonderful as it sounds, I don’t like it. I think the willful ignorance of discovering what utopia might mean for you isn’t ‘exotic’, it is in the discovering and striving that we truly bloom.
Image: Kristian Fagerström via Creative Commons