Worst Case & Ariel

“You either love it or you hate it” was the slogan for Marmite because the people who did their marketing were smart enough to know this was the truth and they weren’t convincing non-buyers to get it so they just ran with this idea that had fallen into common vernacular. Bands, Books, People could all be described as “Marmite” meaning you loved or hated it, no middle ground. Today this partisan mentality has extended to EVERYTHING, nothing is seen as middling anymore or can simply be ignored, it is either the greatest thing to have ever happened or the worst. It will either save us or destroy us. The thing I found to be most interesting in all this is how this extends to the topic that has been the preoccupation with popular culture for the last 15 years or so: The Apocalypse.

The Left see an imminent apocalypse due to climate change, economic collapse and escalating wars whereas the Right see it in the rise of political correctness, social justice or just anything that doesn’t grossly benefit white dudes. Now the important distinction here is how both define these futures for society and civilization, for the left it’s a Dystopia that awaits but for the right it’s a Utopia. The pejorative use of the word Utopia has always perplexed me. Why is the idea of a prosperous, equitable society that benefits all seen as such a bad thing? I think the first thing to understand is that the people who complain about “Utopian dreamers” are normally the people currently living in a Utopia themselves: privileged, wealthy white people who have never known real conflict on their shores in their lifetime and are rarely said no to or not catered for, but it also seems to boil down to a total misunderstanding of what Utopia is.

I just finished reading Thomas More’s book ‘Utopia’ which is where we get the word and its general meaning from. Unfortunately, little more than a basic precis is given to us by the modern definition of the word Utopia if you haven’t read the book. The book itself is about a mysterious sailor named Raphael who tells Thomas of an island nation that he visited/discovered off the coast of South America. It is a seemingly ancient society and civilization of total harmony and the more it is described the more we realise how difficult it is to see happening at the time the novel was written but thanks to a surprisingly nuanced and detailed explanation of the different aspects of Utopia by Raphael we can see reflections of the country in our own contemporary society, references to courts and policing, sales and taxation and even home ownership and gardens are discussed as the perfect model for a well maintained civilization. Thus, the most striking thing reading Utopia today is that by the book’s definitions it already exists in the western world, but only here and only to certain class of people.

The other thing that struck me was something that seems slightly abstract about the book: it is not a first-hand account, it is an account of a first-hand account. Anyone who is aware of the ‘Unreliable Narrator’ trope in stories will know this is one way of being given a story that may or may not be true. Or both. Any book you are reading purports itself to be the objective truth, be it written first person or not, you take the story at face value even if you know the person telling the story is subjective. In the case of Utopia you are hearing a subjective account of a subjective account and this places Utopia in an interesting place not just as a book but an idea that has come to define the word. Even in the context which defines the idea of Utopia it is seen from a distance, it is a myth even in its own story explaining it. Utopia is a country viewed from afar, never to be landed on, that we see as perfection but can never attain. Perfection has always been unattainable, as any wise person knows, so Utopia can only ever exists as an idea even in its own story. Therein lies the difference between the Left and Right visions of the next stage of civilization, the left knows aiming for Utopia is doomed to failure for “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp” but we equally fear the reality that a dystopia is achievable due to its definition being founded in very real and present concerns. The Right, however, are the opposite. Their Utopian hell is unlikely to ever happen but they inch ever closer to a dystopian present of their liking and design.

Another text that uses a mythical island to confront us with a form of Utopia and Dystopia is Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. Whilst Prospero’s island is not a Utopia, nothing more than a rock really, it is easy to see the way everything on the island, embodied in Ariel and Caliban, is depicted as being Utopian or Dystopian depictions of humanity. Even the way the survivors of the shipwreck see the island is the opposite to one another:

Adrian:            … the air breathes upon us here most sweetly
Sebastian:        As if it had lungs, and rotten ones.
Gonzalo:         Here is everything advantageous to life.
Antonio:          True; save means to live.
Gonzalo:         How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!
Antonio:          The ground, indeed, is tawny!
Sebastian:        With an eye of green in’t.

An island that depicts both the best and worst in people seems a perfect sister to More’s Utopia (a text written 100 years before the Tempest) that reflects the problems of the contemporary England of More’s age to a dream-like, mythical place of societal perfection. Prospero even says in his “we are such stuff as dreams are made on” speech, the implication that everything there on the island is false, this “insubstantial pageant”. At the end of the play both the selfish and greedy Caliban and the righteously furious but altruistic Ariel are freed from their servitude to Prospero by him as the survivors along with the Magician himself and his daughter leave the island to return to the ‘real’ world, this could be seen as relinquishing the notion of the dichotomy presented by the island of good and bad or black and white thinking (Ariel in performance is often White, Caliban is typically depicted as Black). As such we could see Prospero’s island as both Utopia and Dystopia that the characters can return to civilization with knowledge of, in the same way as Raphael returned with an understanding of the Utopians.

The point I am trying, laboriously, to reach is that the Hegelian argument of Thesis and Antithesis (the need for two opposing arguments to decide on a synthesized method to progress with) need not be embodied in reality. Diametrically opposed views are useful in debate and thought experiments as there will always be a counter argument for any point of view or belief but its usefulness in day to day life is not beneficial, as we are seeing today. Whilst this may sound like an attempt to say “Can’t we all just get along?” it isn’t. I do not believe in liberalism or centrism, I believe in everyone being educated and intelligent enough to understand an argument from each extreme and be able to utilize this knowledge to better approach a topic as opposed to simply taking an oppositional or dogmatic stance on any given thing. We need be neither Ariel nor Caliban, we can be Raphael and see the ideas of perfection or corruption without making them a reality and know there is something better to aim towards.

Having said all this, I admit this was one hell of a reach. I based this article on the title which was given to me from an autocorrect mistake by my girlfriend when she meant to say ‘worst case scenario’ but I liked it so much I wrote it down to use as a title later. It kinda makes sense though. And I highly recommend reading Utopia, fascinating reading given the current political climate, especially in the UK and USA. There’s nothing wrong with being a Utopian dreamer, Shakespeare clearly was.

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