My research for this capstone project began in one serendipitous moment: an oversized book in the library stacks caught hold of my elbow as I walked by. The protruding offender was The Log of Christopher Columbus (1492-93), a text that documents Columbus’s first voyage to the New World. Columbus carefully recorded in the ship’s log, among other things, detailed observations of the geographical formations and spectacular social interactions with the Arawak (Taino) Indians he encountered in the Caribbean islands in 1492. Intrigued, I sat on the floor and read it cover to cover and placed it back on the shelf. It wasn’t until the following semester in Dr. MacKenzie’s Renaissance class that I noticed echoes of the ship’s log in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516).
More, who coined the word utopia from the Greek “ou” (“not) and “topos” (“place”), created within the human imagination a place or state of things in which everything is perfect and yet, because it is perfect, ultimately unattainable. Utopia, meaning nowhere, stands contrary to Columbus’s somewhere; and yet, placed side-by-side the two texts show uncanny similarities on many levels.
Generally, the two texts align in style, form, content, and function. However, even certain puzzling ambiguities in Utopia, ones that have been swirling around in critical circles for the last 500 years—the abundance of glass; cloaks and bird feathers; incubation of poultry; two doors to each house; and so on—can be linked to the writings of Columbus. This perspective suggests that Columbus’s ship’s log acts as the impetus for More’s masterpiece. In short, I explore More’s Utopia as a text through which history becomes recognizable.
In January 2015, I was lucky to be in London where a first edition of Utopia, published in 1516, is located. But first, in order to see the rare copy at the British Library, I had to jump through a few administrative hoops: apply in advance for a Reader Pass; provide a special letter of intent from our Graduate Program Director; reserve a Reading Room; reserve the text for a specific day and time. The whole process was fascinating and worth it! I sat at the designated Rare Book table (under the watchful eyes of a librarian) staring at Utopia—literally staring, since the original was written in Latin. Nevertheless, it made me wonder about the life of the text and more urgently, perhaps, how we understand the term utopia today.
In my research, as the spirit of More’s Utopia emerges from Columbus’s descriptions in 1492, utopia (the concept) proves trickier to trace. The utopian concept develops through five centuries of utopian/dystopian literature, art, ideologies, and so on, arriving in its current role as something of a touchstone we refer to when we describe the perfect setting, people, or society we know can never be, paradoxically filling both a hopeful and melancholy space in our lives. It represents conditions and ideas that may complicate our natural way of thinking, frustrating our views of current society and governance.
In the English lexicon, utopia (the concept) shifts easily into a socio-political safe haven protected by virtue of its non-existence. For if we believe the concept always to be impracticable and unattainable (brought only to our attention through More’s imagination) then what viable thought spaces allow for us to radically confront our present social structures, governing methods, and ideologies? In other words, what matrices allow for imaging a possible alternative existence if the very paradigm itself is inherently self-defeating? Somewhere along its history, utopia (the concept) possesses the ability to constrain, or even shackle, our boundary-less imaginations and, more importantly, our propensity to act on them.
What emerges from my interrogation is a distorted understanding of a concept that began as a reproduction of the real. To clarify this interpretation, I implement Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacra to illuminate an evolution of the concept of utopia that has seemingly detached itself from history. Perhaps “perfection,” I argue in my essay, in the utopian sense today should be simply eliciting the latent realization of illimitable possibilities.
After graduation, Lindy Hensley is relocating to Denver, Colorado where she plans to pursue teaching opportunities. Beyond academia, her continued interests revolve around theater production.