Utopia after the pandemic

An intriguing aspect of Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men (2006) is the praise it received across the political spectrum. Depending on one’s allegiances, the movie could be interpreted as a parable of the destructive forces of late capitalism, or as a clarion call of the need to uphold liberal democratic values, which have been the bedrock of western states since the 1940s. Even if one puzzled over Children of Men’s extract meaning, it still seemed incontrovertible that the film should be described as dystopian. Its central conceit, taken from a novel by P.D. James, is that human beings cannot reproduce, and have not done so for nineteen years. Science has been of no assistance. This dispiriting place is a childless fraught England of 2027, dilapidated and jingoistic, beset by terrorism and murderously hostile to the legions of undocumented immigrants who have washed up on her shores.

The film has a quest narrative. It follows the attempt of its dishevelled middle-aged protagonist to protect a young immigrant woman against various threats and depredations. Miraculously, she has fallen pregnant. Part of the film’s appeal is its distinctive look, with a bleached palette, long immersive tracking shots, and welter of set detail, all accompanied by John Taverner’s luminous score. The film is not without sardonic observation. In the background of one scene, there’s a giant dirigible pig, suspended above Battersea Power Station as a recreation of the cover design of the 1977 Pink Floyd album, Animals; and various characters intone ‘Shantih, shantih, shantih’. This is an ancient Sanskrit text, the end of an Upanishad, which means ‘the peace which passeth understanding’. The chant also concludes T.S. Eliot’s best-known poem, titled appropriately for this contemporary vision of cruel England, The Waste Land (1922).

Cuarón insisted the film was rooted in the moment of its creation. And it seems plausible that it encapsulates the spirit of the age, the invocation of a bleak terrain, an expression of widespread disillusionment. However, given a sufficiently long timeline, this emphasis on the dystopian looks anomalous. Political writing in the classical period was concerned with conceiving of ideal states against the dysfunctional and domineering character of actual ones. When Thomas More coined the term ‘utopia’ for his short eponymous work in 1516, he was offering an imaginary island as a corrective to the defective political model of European monarchies. And there is a playful ambiguity in his usage. The Greek root, ‘utopia’ suggests both a good place and no place. In The City of the Sun (1602), Thomas Campanella imagined an alternative metropolis with seven concentric illustrated walls, an egalitarian theocracy liberated from the oppression of the Spanish monarchy and the Vatican. And in News from Nowhere (1890), William Morris provided the prospect of a ruralised anarchic future, a counterweight to the sootiness and alienation of late Victorian Britain.

There were anti-utopian works before the twentieth century, and one can certainly still detect strong utopian currents in the art and literature of the last century, such as in Le Corbusier’s urban planning and architecture and Piet Mondrian’s abstract painting. The English author, H.G. Wells embraced both polarities writing utopian and dystopian romances, often consecutively. Yet the overall trend has been for the increasing dominance of the dystopian over its opposite, and Cuarón’s film is also indicative of this prevalence by dint of its suggestion of a utopia located in the Azores, a hazy notion beyond the scope of any proper conceptualisation. Children of Men may be a dark mirror for the first decade of the twenty-first century, but there is still, perhaps, a tangential connection to be drawn between the film and our recent experience of pandemic. The movie’s premise is an event with uncertain origins, and with destructive global implications, touching nearly everyone. Yet, there is a manifest difference as well, in that it has been the extraordinary scientific and technological achievement in the rapid development and production mRNA and viral vector vaccines which has substantially reduced mortality rates and hospital admissions. It would be glib to cast pharmaceutical companies as the saviour of humanity, but by the same token, science has not been the hapless and impotent pursuit as envisaged in Cuarón’s dystopia.

One might also speculate whether Covid-19 will result in a shift in the dynamic of the dystopian and utopian. The imagery of the pandemic is a reality which seems to be uncomfortably close to the kind we associate with dystopia, whether those be deserted urban centres with confined populations, or drone aerial photographs of multiple funeral pyres. That might encourage a turn to a more hopeful and constructive vision of what alternative societies look like. Destructive fable and omen are diminished when the present moment or the moment which has just past exceeds them in the sense of disorientating upset. The inverted sense of personal solace which the dystopian spectacle can produce correspondingly wanes. It is difficult, of course, to predict what such a future utopian art and literature might actually look like. But it seems possible that it will be concerned with light instead of darkness, that it will be an expression of optimism and hope, that it will still have to engage with environmental challenges and the various ways in which political and social justice are conceived. And one can be certain that if such utopian expression and representation is to last, then it won’t be narrowly defined by immediate preoccupations, in the same way that Children of Men endures, transforming its speculative materials into a paean of suffering and redemption.

Sebastian Mitchell

Arts Matters

At the College of Arts and Law, we explore what it means to be human – in historical and cultural contexts, within ethical and legal norms and through languages and communication.

Arts Matters is a series of lunchtime lectures from across the College’s wide range of research disciplines. Each week our researchers discuss their work, sharing the concepts and ideas that matter to them - and why these matter to all of us. 

From 27 October 2021, a new lecture will be broadcast on the University’s YouTube channel, every Wednesday at 1pm.