Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Book Selection: "Peaceable Kingdoms"

The 1971 utopian anthology Peaceable Kingdoms, edited by Robert L. Chianese (not a Maoist, as far as I know), defines utopianism broadly enough to include writings inspired by political utopianism but also, wisely I think, various psychologically-similar impulses.

Chianese includes Campanella’s The City of the Sun, which I described yesterday, and News from Nowhere, William Morris’s low-tech, greenish response to Edward Bellamy’s immensely popular Looking Backward (about which, more tomorrow).  But Chianese also includes the noble-savage-popularizing “Supplement to Bougainville’s ‘Voyage’” by encyclopedist and philosophe Denis Diderot, Kant’s proto-globalist “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” pacifism from Emerson, idyllic anti-rat-race thinking from Thoreau, and modern ecological doomsaying from Robert Heilbroner (complete with vintage 1970s moralizing about the threat of a human-induced ice age).

(Kant might have found this passage from Campanella about the City of the Sun’s inhabitants’ attitudes an impediment to international harmony, by the way:  “To the heroes and heroines of the republic, it is customary to give the pleasing gifts of honor, beautiful wreaths, sweet food, or splendid clothes, while they are feasting.  In the daytime, all use white garments within the city, but at night or outside the city they use red garments either of wool or silk.  They hate black as they do dung, and therefore they dislike the Japanese, who are fond of black.”  But can City of the Sun inhabitants beat ninjas?)

Chianese also includes pastorally-inclined and spiritually-charged statements or poetry from the Books of Isaiah and Matthew, from Ovid, and from Marlowe, Raleigh, and Blake.  That makes sense, since (as White argues in his intro to Famous Utopias, the anthology discussed yesterday) the whole naive idea of a perfected human community no doubt arises more from a timeless longing for escape from the misery of the mundane real world (by any means) than from a rational analysis of what can realistically be done with that world.

He concludes the volume with three documents interesting mainly for their similarity to each other, which will no doubt become only more obvious with passing centuries: a Romantic political manifesto from Percy Bysshe Shelley (as I’ve noted with awe before, the husband of sci-fi’s founder and the son-in-law of the founders of anarchism and feminism), our own Bill of Rights, and the 1966 party platform of the Black Panthers.

As with the constitutions of Europe, the Black Panther platform should be seen as a flattering reminder that even people who like to think of themselves as working in opposition to mainstream-U.S.-style capitalism and individualism (and are quite explicit about it in the case of the Black Panthers) often mimic the Declaration of Independence and Constitution in their rhetoric, implicitly treating those documents with respect and entering into a dialogue with them, all within what will be easily read as a single broader tradition by the inhabitants of the Mars Colonies or what have you four centuries hence when economics as we know it has given way to life as holographic cyber-organisms without politics.

And speaking of the future: tomorrow, the sci-fi-like socialist classic Looking Backward.

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