Printer Friendly

A religion of solidarity: Looking Backward as a rational utopia.

WHILE the religious dimensions of literary utopianism in the West have been explored in Ernst Bloch s three volume compendium The Philosophy of Hope (1959), Lewis Mumford's well-known The Story of Utopias (1922), Manuel and Manuel's Utopian Thought in the Western World (1979), Ruth Levitas' The Concept of Utopia (1990), and more recently in Barbara Goodwin's The Philosophy of Utopia (2001), the essential role that religion plays at the dialectical level of utopian fiction has been largely overlooked. In fact, the religious dimensions of literary utopias emphasize the dialectical tension between the ideal world and status quo that defines utopia. (1) For the purposes of this study, a literary text becomes utopian when the work portrays a society--earthly or otherworldly--that springs from a radical dissatisfaction with the imperfections of the world and proclaims the amelioration of society.

These religious dimensions of utopian fiction can take many forms, from the formal religion followed by members of a fictional community (like the mix of Hinduism and Buddhism practiced in Aldous Huxley's Island) to the religious themes present in the narrative (for instance, the dedication of Solomon's House to the study of God's works in Francis Bacon's New Atlantis); they can also include ethical and moral codes that help to bring about the realization of a utopian social order (for instance, the belief in continual improvement found in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland). The function of these religious dimensions in utopian fiction is best demonstrated by noting that religion and religious themes, while unique to every fictional society, fall into three broad types (Satirical, Perennial, and Rational), each of which emphasizes one aspect (thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis) of the utopian dialectic. Satirical utopias critique religious and moral systems grounded in history (the status quo) through parody and irony, and therefore, they dialectically emphasize the existing order (thesis). In the Perennial text, utopia is realized in a perpetual moment shot through with meaning, and the character through whom the event is focalized experiences an utterly subjective mystical apprehension of the unity of being, which emphasizes the synthesis pole of the utopian dialectic. Consequently, what one might call the chiliastic, mystical, or transcendental experience is central to Perennial utopias. By contrast, Rational utopias take their name from their tendency to emphasize moral action and to project formal goals that accentuate the ideal pole (anti-thesis) of the utopian dialectic. To borrow a term from Augustine, Rational utopias often point toward the realm of the "Not-Yet," (2) and consequently, they locate the fictional representation of an ideal society in time and draw heavily from the prophetic and millennial themes found in Judeo-Christianity. (3)

In the present study, I interpret Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) as a Rational utopia and find in the text a heightened emphasis on the ideal (anti-thesis) and a central concern with moral action (in this case a society of characters) that brings nearer the promised realization of an ideal social order (the new Boston). Demonstrating that the religious dimensions of Looking Backward operate dialectically to reinforce the opposition between the ideal and the actual (status quo), and that the narrative temporality of the text also heightens the utopian dialectic, is significant because it places religion in these fictions at the heart of the dialectic from which utopia springs.

READERS familiar with the plot of Looking Backward will recall that Julian West falls asleep in 1887 and re-awakens in the year 2000 to a radically transformed Boston, Massachusetts. Crime, war, class struggle, competition, and other social ills have been eliminated, and the state now "guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave" (Looking Backward 43). Bellamy drew heavily from the late nineteenth-century Nationalist movement and portrays the beneficial effects of the centralization of communication, production, and distribution in Looking Backward. Since social inequality has been abolished in the new Boston, the innate goodness latent in human nature finds expression for the first time in history. Boston in the year 2000 is a "new world blessed with plenty, purified by justice and sweetened by brotherly kindness" (Looking Backward 160). For this reason, MacDonald has observed, Looking Backward remains essentially a religious novel, since the principle of the Brotherhood of Humanity governs the world's progress (11, 24). All humankind comes together in a kind of Messianic brotherhood that requires duty and service to achieve a harmonious social order. "Humanity's ancient dream of liberty, equality, fraternity, mocked by so many ages," declares Mr. Barton in his Sunday sermon, "at last was realized" (139). Indeed, "peace, amity, sufficiency and leisure had brought a new Golden Age" (Hertzler 235).

During the 113 years Julian sleeps (years, incidentally, to which very few pages are dedicated and that comprise a large narrative gap filled only by analepsis), Bostonians advance in accordance with moral principles drawn from the Judeo-Christian, Neo-Platonist, and Hindu traditions. This emphasis on progress in accordance with moral principles helps to define Looking Backward as a Rational utopia. In a curious essay written when he was just twenty-four, entitled "The Religion of Solidarity," Bellamy offers an early figuration of the morality of social unity (one that locates the utopian impulse in human nature):
 [T]he emotions of pleasurable melancholy and of wistful yearning
 produced by the prospect of a beautiful landscape are matters
 of universal experience, a commonplace of poetry. Upon analysis
 this mental experience seems to consist, if we may express it, in a
 vague desire to enter into, to possess, and be a part of the beauty
 before the eye, to come into some closer union with it than is
 possible consistently with the conditions of our natures
 (Religion 1).

In this passage, Bellamy's stress on yearning and desire further illustrate the emphasis given to the ideal order in the Rational utopia. These opening lines from "The Religion of Solidarity" also show that selfless action leads to the expression of our true (benevolent) human nature. In "losing our personal identity," Bellamy proclaims, we "become conscious of our other, our universal identity, the identity of a universal solidarity" (Religion 17). Because "the soul of solidarity is primarily an instinct of an identity of oneness" (Religion 22), and the natural outcome of practicing solidarity is service and duty tantamount "to a sense of religious consecration" (Looking Backward 131), self transcendence becomes one aim of Bellamy's morality of solidarity (another, of course, being the realization of a new social order in time).

There also exists an agapistic tendency, a propensity toward love (agape in Greek), in Bellamy's work that recognizes love as the true virtue of religion (Hall 9). In "The Religion of Solidarity," Bellamy writes, "the greatest of all loves, at once the most enthusiastic, the most sustaining, the most insatiable love of loves, is that of an individual for his remnant, the universe. This is the love of God by whatever name men choose to call it" (19). This agapistic love moves the individual out of herself toward the universal love Jesus and Paul outline. In Acts, Paul reiterates the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins (13:38) and warns against covetousness, declaring, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (20:33). In this text, we also find a connection between action and the eschatology of the Last Judgment (Acts 25:14) in Christian thought. This important association emphasizes the influence of both the prophetic tradition and millennialism on Bellamy, a point that has been well-documented by scholars. George Connor observes "there can be little doubt that Bellamy's novels possessed a millennial vision" (2) and Bellamy himself, in a well-known postscript to the novel, leaves little doubt as to his own prophetic vision of Boston in the year 2000:
 Looking Backward was written in the belief that the Golden Age
 lies before us and not behind us, and is not far away. Our children
 will surely see it, and we, too, who are already men and women, if
 we deserve it by our faith and by our works (165).

Other sources for the morality and religious dimensions of Looking Backward include Transcendentalism (through Emerson and Thoreau), Neoplatonism, and quite possibly Hinduism, which was "in the air of nineteenth-century New England" (Hall 1). The impact of Hindu thought on Transcendentalism is also well-known, and the beginning of Emerson's poem "Brahma" (1845) focuses on the fundamental unity of subject and object, a central tenet in the Bhagavad Gita:
 If the red slayer think he slays,
 Or if the slain think he is slain,
 They know not the subtle ways
 I keep, and pass and turn again (626)

Here, bifurcated consciousness that insists on perceiving the world in terms of duality (life and death, good and evil) is overcome. The slayer in Emerson's poem no longer identifies with his own individuality, but rather he has learned to make no distinctions:
 Far or forgot to me is near;
 Shadow and sunlight are the same;
 The vanished gods to me appear;
 And one to me are shame and fame (626)

In the Gita, Sri Krishna, like the slayer in Emerson's poem, possesses a consciousness "free from the pairs of opposites" (40) and a focus on the fundamental principle dwelling "within all living beings [that] remains forever indestructible" (88). Sri Krishna councils Arjuna on the battlefield that he who overcomes duality "knows peace" because he "has forgotten desire. He lives without craving: / Free from ego, free from pride" (44). Likewise, Bellamy's religion of solidarity banishes individuality through a moral emphasis on selfless action, a move that leads to the gradual amelioration of Boston. Neo-Platonic doctrine also influenced Bellamy's formulation of morality in Looking Backward and likewise points to the need for the transcendence of duality. In this tradition, the primary bifurcation of consciousness (into self and other) must be overcome by an intuitive contemplation by which "the soul retains no memory of anything whatever, not even herself as a separate entity" (Wallis 81). The soul's purification results from turning attention away from the material world and learning to apprehend the Divine (the Beautiful) in objects of sense. For the Neo-Platonist, all multiplicity fundamentally constitutes a unity because ultimately all things--all material manifestations--are derivative of the One. As the Soul overcomes her individuality, there takes place an inner identification with the Good, a conversion that heals the primary bifurcation of consciousness. Bellamy took from Neo-Platonism the belief that "Unselfishness, self-sacrifice" was "the essence of morality" because it requires "the sacrifice of the lesser self to the greater self" (Religion 22). Here again, we meet, in Bellamy's morality of solidarity, a central feature of Rational utopias: a progressive striving toward a utopian goal (or ideal) by following a set of morally informed actions aimed at social amelioration.

SINCE Rational texts depict the social realization of the utopian impulse at some specific point in time, (4) the projection of the temporal realization of utopia highlights the anticipatory function of Rational utopias. In the case of Looking Backward, the accentuation of the ideal pole of the utopian dialectic projects the action of the plot to the year 2000. As Paul Ricoeur notes, implicit in all fiction is a narrative configuration of time at the level of emplotment (38). For this reason, the chronological ordering (or emplotment) of a fictional narrative is measured partly by the temporal boundaries of the plot (for example, the twenty-four hours that elapse in Joyce's Ulysses). Yet, within the world of the text, the simple act of a character remembering a past event (analepsis), or conversely a chronological movement forward in time (prolepsis), interrupts the narrative. This interruption creates a juxtaposition of temporal experiences at the level of duration (including ellipsis, descriptive pause, summary, and so forth), at the temporal boundaries of emplotment, and in the subjective perceptions of time by narrators and characters (which include dream sequences, ecstatic experiences, memories and are broadly termed anachronies). (5) Although only some of these ways of measuring time in fictional narrative will be relevant here, I will press indirectly for a general understanding of Rational utopias as what Ricoeur calls "tales about time" (101), since they express an unusual range of temporal experiences (105).

The projection of the ideal Boston to the year 2000 remains the most salient temporal feature of Bellamy's novel, and one that highlights the novel's millennial themes. Frank Kermode, in his seminal study The Sense of an Ending (1966), notes that apocalypse "projects its ... patterns on to history" (14). In Looking Backward, the novel's prophetic temporality is reinforced by the fact that the 113 years Julian sleeps is a time of social transition during which the war and revolution occur, both symbolic auguries of the end of time when the new order, the New Boston, will be founded upon the Earth. Kermode notes that such transition remains an important "element of the apocalyptic tradition" (100) as may be gleaned from this passage in Revelation:
 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of
 heaven from God, prepared as the bride adorned for her husband;
 and I heard a great voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the
 dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they
 shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will
 wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,
 neither shall there be no mourning no crying nor pain any more,
 for the former things have passed away" (21:3).

Here the theme of transition in the Christian apocalyptic tradition manifests itself in images of an old order passing away and the founding of a new order. Bellamy's depiction of Boston at the beginning of the second millennium invokes just such a holy city realized through, as we have seen, the dissolution of the individual through the practice of the moral doctrines of solidarity. Mr. Barton, in his Sunday sermon, declares:
 It is a pledge of the destiny appointed for us that the Creator has
 set in our hearts an infinite standard of achievement ... men
 should live together like brethren dwelling in unity, without
 strives or envying, violence or overreaching, and where, ... they
 should be wholly freed from the care for the morrow (141).

If men of the nineteenth century had been able to envision such a place as the new Boston, Mr. Barton continues, "it would have seemed to them nothing less than paradise" (141). In Looking Backward, the enfranchisement of humanity culminates in a "second birth of the race" (141) that mirrors the prophetic temporality of the apocalyptic tradition.

In terms of the narrative configuration of time at the level of emplotment that Ricoeur identifies, no pages in Looking Backward are dedicated to the transition from 1887 to 2000. Before falling into a deep, hypnotically induced sleep, Julian recognizes only that he "was slower than common in losing consciousness" before "a delicious drowsiness" stole over him (12). He awakens in 2000 and hears Dr. Leete remark to his daughter, "He is going to open his eyes" (13). This narrative gap of 113 story years, filled as we are told later with tremendous social and moral transformation, is illuminated only by way of analepsis focalized through Dr. Leete (who studied the late nineteenth century and knows the history of the evolution of his society). Julian's return to the year 1887 from 2000 in a dream, constituting again a narrative gap of 113 years, likewise receives no treatment. When Julian arose from his slumber thinking himself returned to 1888, he "dressed in a mechanical way" (150) as if to high light his reemergence in a world where temporality was measured by the clock. As Julian wanders the city in a daze until "toward three o'clock," he stares trance-like at the "Business men, confidential clerks, errand boys ... thronging in and out of the banks, for it wanted but a few minutes of the closing hour" (155). These temporal markers and mechanical images (of the rushing, closing, thronging of clock time) highlight the bi-temporality of this text. Moreover, the temporal gap of 113 years in story time creates a dialectic between the existing order (1887) and the ideal (Boston in 2000). While the dark depictions of Boston in 1887 demonstrate the shortcomings of late nineteenth-century Boston (the status quo), the projection of its contents into the future amplifies the anticipatory function of the Rational utopia (typified in the conception of the 'not-yet' formulated by Augustine and picked up by Bloch).

The heightened emphasis on the ideal pole of the utopian dialectic in Looking Backward can be seen clearly in the mere fifteen pages dedicated to 1887 (the existing order) compared with the 136 pages devoted to 2000 (the ideal order). So, even though the novel claims to be looking backward at 1887, it actually looks forward to the new order, as Bellamy makes clear in his post script: "Looking Backward was written in the belief that the Golden Age lies before us and not behind us, and is not far away" (165). (6) Here, the defining temporal characteristic of Rational utopias, namely their projection into time (most often into the future), becomes again apparent, as does the Rational emphasis on progress.

Ricoeur, in Lectures on Ideology and Utopia (1986), notes that time in utopias may be compared to the notion that "history is like individual life with childhood and maturity but without old age and death" (278). The analogy may be awkward, but it is one ultimately useful to this study's emphasis on progress as a defining feature of Rational utopias. (7) In these utopias, (8) Ricoeur observes "a growth toward maturity" within which he finds an embedded "sense of unilinear progress" (278). (9) The difficulty of moving from one time to another (1887 to 2000) for Julian stresses what Ricoeur calls the "confrontation with abolished time" and thereby makes this clash "the main thread of the narrative" in Looking Backward (Time and Narrative 2, 113). Abolished time here refers to time as it is measured in the year 2000, where benevolence and equality have eliminated slavery to mechanical time (symbolic of the nineteenth century in the novel). When he returns to the nineteenth century in his dream, Julian speaks of a "new world, blessed with plenty, purified by justice and sweetened by brotherly kindness, the world which I had indeed but dreamed, but which might so easily be made real" (160). This depiction of Boston in 2000 allows a contrast between temporal experiences that are indicative of two very different worlds, the ideal and the status quo. Temporality at the level of narrative thus reinforces the conception of progress (through moral striving) found in the Rational utopia and shows these texts to be what Ricoeur calls "tales about time."

BY interpreting Looking Backward as an instance of a Rational utopia we have discovered a central concern with moral action that brings nearer the promised realization of an ideal social order in (future) time. In the millennial Boston of Looking Backward, a heightened emphasis on the ideal pole of the utopian dialectic results in the achievement of an altruistic and communal morality that is ultimately informed by the novel's prophetic eschatological underpinning. More broadly, this reading of Looking Backward as a Rational utopia has shown how a dialectical and typological approach makes possible a new understanding of the importance of religion to the utopian project in literature.

Works Cited

Augustine, Saint. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Trans. J. M. Lelen. New Jersey: Catholic Books, 1997.

Bacon, Francis. "The New Atlantis." Three Early Modern Utopias: Utopia, New Atlantis, and Isle of the Pines. Ed. Susan Bruce. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. 149-86.

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward. New York: Dover, 1996.

--. The Religion of Solidarity. New York: Concord Groove Press, 1984.

Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. 3 vols. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1996.

Connor, George. "The Awakening of Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward at Religious Influence." Utopian Studies 11.1 (2000): 38-51.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Brahma." The American Tradition in Literature: Revised. Ed. Scully Bradley et al. New York: Norton, 1962. 626.

Eliav-Feldon, Mirian. Realistic Utopias: The Ideal Imaginary Societies of the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. New York: Dover, 1998.

Goodwin, Barbara. Ed. The Philosophy of Utopia. London: Frank Cass, 2001.

Hall, Richard Spurgeon. "The Religious Ethics of Edward Bellamy and Jonathon Edwards." Utopian Studies 8.2 (1997): 13-31.

Hertzler, Joyce Oramel. The History of Utopian Thought. New York: McMillan, 1926.

Huxley, Aldous. Island. New York: Perennial, 2002.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1967.

Ketterer, David. New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1975.

Levitas, Ruth. The Concept of Utopia. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1990.

MacDonald, Alex. Introduction. Looking Backward: 2000-1887. New York: Broadview, 2003.

Mannheim, Karl. Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Harcourt, 1936.

Manuel, Fritzie and Frank. Utopian Thought in the Western World. Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1979.

Mumford, Lewis. The Story of Utopias. New York: P. Smith, 1941.

Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1965.

Ricoeur, Paul. Lectures on Ideology and Utopia. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.

--. Time and Narrative. 3 vols. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1983.

Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita. Trans. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. New York: Penguin, 1972.

Toolan, Michael J. Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Wallis, R.T. Neoplatonism. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972.


1) As Mirian Eliav-Feldon observes, utopias are invitations to perceive the distance between things as they are and things as they should be (1).

2) A place where "future things do not yet exist, they are not yet, and if they are not yet, it is not possible for them to be seen. However they can be foretold by means of present things that already exist and are seen" (Augustine 346).

3) For a complete explication of this religious typology, see "Religion and Literary Utopianism." Diss. University of Denver, 2004.

4) Because Rational texts project utopia in time, either into the past or future, examples of this sub-category are numerous and highlight the paradigm's implicitly anachronous character. Examples of the Rational paradigm include Christianopolis (1619), City of the Sun (1623), The New Atlantis (1627), The Isle of Pines (1668), Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), A Voyage to Icaria (1840), News From Nowhere (1890), A Traveler from Altruria (1894), A Modern Utopia (1905), Equitania (1905), Herland (1916) and may also include many depictions of the golden age, such as the Garden of Eden in Genesis and the lost island of Atlantis in the Timaeus.

5) The narratological terms employed above come from Toolan's Narrative: A Critical-Linguistic Introduction (1988).

6) The equation of the world in the year 2000 and the millennium, observes David Ketterer, is essentially metaphorical and a "part of that undermining substructure that is an inevitable consequence of attempts to communicate utopian designs in the quasi-realistic form of apocalyptic fiction" (105).

7) Ricoeur, in this section of Lectures, discusses Mannheim's typology of utopian mentalities and particularly 'liberal' utopias. What utopian principles Mannheim terms 'liberal,' when manifested in fictional works, correspond generally to Rational utopias in the typology employed in this study (though my typology has been formulated to account for broad religious themes in literary utopias while Mannheim's is sociological).

8) Rational utopias in my paradigm and the liberal-humanitarian mentality in Mannheim.

9) No character in Boston in the year 2000 could doubt that the United States had progressed.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Marquette University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Ferrara, Mark
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Previous Article:Presence, silence and the holy in Denise Levertov's poems (1).
Next Article:Tolkien's females and the defining of power.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters