The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 6, No. 1

Utopia, Dystopia, Messtopia!

by Cynthia Ozick

     Utopia, a word compounded from the Greek by Sir Thomas More in the sixteenth century, means “No Place”—which is why Sir Thomas chose it for his fanciful ideal society, one that had not yet come into being anywhere on earth. It also carried, hiddenly, the sense of Eutopia (the Greek prefix eu, attached to all things pleasant, as in euphoria) and was intended to suggest a land both glad and good.
     Sir Thomas envisioned material abundance sufficient for all, so that “no man will ask more than he needeth. For why should it be thought that that man would ask more than enough, which is sure never to lack?” In a despotic age—he was executed as a martyr to his Catholic faith by Henry VIII—Sir Thomas invented an elected officialdom so organized as not “to oppress the people by tyranny,” and a governing council where nothing foolish would ever be spoken. He mandated formal public meals, half supper and half symposium, which would begin with readings “that pertaineth to good manners and virtue,” followed by witty talk, music, and the wafting of fragrant perfumes. His utopia was a wistful fabrication: knowing it to be nothing more than a fiction, he nevertheless longed for it.
     Nearly five centuries later, our longing presses in the opposite direction. If only utopia had been manifested nowhere, if only utopia had never been realized in substance! The old adage applies: be careful what you wish for, or you may get it. In the twentieth century, utopia came to fruition twice, and twice turned out to be hell. In the new twenty-first century, a dread utopia looms again. Perhaps it can be forestalled.
     Consider the twentieth century’s twin utopias. Both were dreams of the ideal, and both were politically rigid; the ideal always adheres to a disciplined design. The first to be born was largely economic, promising unlimited equality. Like Sir Thomas, it had its urtext, its manifesto, a lyrical document promulgating the end of greed, the workers’ paradise, the collective farm as pastoral idyll. “Everything’s changing for the better,” Isaac Babel mockingly described that dawning utopia (which finally shot him at dawn), “miraculous things are trains, free food for’ll have your diamond-studded sky.”
     The last century’s second utopia, while it too had economic goals, was primarily aesthetic in purpose, a painterly dream of a land of perfect unanimity, with no discordant asymmetry. Nothing expressed this artistry more harmoniously than the luminous films of Leni Riefenstahl, with their orderly marches, their stirring music, their identically raised arms, their unified adoration of the uniformed Leader, their brilliant lines of flags in scarlet and black, emblazoned with the broken-legged cross.
     Out of the egalitarian utopia came the gulag and millions of corpses. Out of the aesthetic utopia came the chimneys and millions of corpses. These utopias were modernism’s industrial offspring: neither could have been conceived without the relentless structure of the assembly line.
     The utopia of the twenty-first century is, by contrast, premodern; it has been visited upon us before, most acutely from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. This was the utopia of religious exclusivity: it engaged in the murderous crusade, the Inquisition, the stake, the blood libel, the pogrom, the forced conversion, the merciless expulsion, and all for the sake of, and in the name of, the spiritual revelation of a salvational God. The martyrs then were the victims. The martyrs now, under the dispensation of holy jihad, are the perpetrators.
     Utopia is the imposition of an ideal of purity. Masked as inspiration, it programs civic conduct in conformity to a prescribed definition of virtue; it demands compliance; it seeks ruthless perfectionism. A utopian society, even when it pledges the abolition of tyranny, is tyranny’s dollhouse.
     Let us imagine a different kind of polity: call it Messtopia, meaning, in its careless way, Messy Place. It is characterized by a thousand asymmetries, a thousand dissonances. No arms lift in unison; there is every variety of dress and face. Since family resemblances are infrequent and scattered, it is clear that this cannot be a kinship-based society. What rules here is not blood but the rollicking and mysteriously workable compact of messiness. Every taste, without interference, has its habitation and practice: football fields for some, museums and concert halls for others. Rap vies with Mozart. No religion is officially decreed—as a consequence of which, the range of religious preference is boundless. You are likely to see, on the same street corner, the saffron-clad, the wicca, the black-hatted, the Jesus-intoxicated. Eating habits too are limitless, and often enough as informal as possible; all culinary styles are represented and lavishly accessible, a telltale sign of decadence. Disagreements are conducted publicly in innumerable forums, a cacophony of radio and television, newspapers and journals, and electronic exchanges encompassing every conceivable opinion, whether constructive or dire. Elections are vituperative and contentious (and sometime contended). There is plenty of kitsch, a goodly amount of historical amnesia, and schoolchildren who are noisier and looser in discipline than anywhere else in the world. Conservatives and left-leaning thinkers are regularly in a condition of mutual despising, yet—so elastic and negligent is this higgledy-piggledy polity—they do not shoot each another.
     Negligence—or, more radically, neglect—is Messtopia’s chief trait. No one troubles to require the citizenry to behave alike or think alike. Childhood lasts longer in Messtopia than in any other nation, encouraged by the notion that the young ought to be carefree—an egregious instance of neglect, especially as compared with societies where children under twelve are organized for serious political purposes, and are even urged to carry guns. Nothing exposes the depth of Messtopia’s indifference to societal well-being than the lack of regimentation in all aspects of life. In a more rationally designed and conscientious polity, a poor boy from an undistinguished neighborhood, born into an immigrant minority family, would never be permitted to rise to one of the highest posts in the land. Such unopposed mobility, a salient symptom of Messtopia’s heedlessness, is hardly to be found elsewhere.
     All these matters—these infamous freedoms of faith, choice, opinion, inclination, and the rest—explain why practicing utopians nearly universally view Messtopia as a notoriously rowdy dystopia deserving of erasure. We have witnessed, in the memory of the living, two perfected utopias; two in a span of one hundred years are more than enough. Then hear this, Sir Thomas: fie on utopia, hooray for dystopia! And three cheers for Messtopia, the most scandalous dystopia of all!