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In my first semester I had the college seminar that focused on the idea of Utopia in fiction, politics, and philosophy. Our discussions and readings went through a process of evolution that begin as rather simplistic and then followed a steady path to much more involved. Honestly, a reason that I chose the class was because I had done many of the readings before, but once the work began I realized that myself, and all the others in the class, would be looking at works, such as Candide and 1984, in an entirely different fashion. Many of the stories we read were written a substantial amount of time in the past and it was interesting to see how their meaning changed and evolved over different generations. While reading the books on biological evolution I could not help but see aspects of a desired Utopia in the theory of evolution. In this paper I hope to explore the evolution of selected works from my class last semester and address my feelings on the idea that the theory of evolution is a utopian notion.
One of the works we focused on a great deal was George Orwell's 1984. This counted as a utopian and distopian society because the higher powers in the book were able to control the underlings exactly as they wanted to; whereas the underlings who were suffering it all, lived in great fear and unhappiness. Orwell wrote the book in 1948 as a warning to what he felt the world may become. As we well know, his prophecies were not entirely fulfilled but the meaning of the story has evolved over time and still has relevance in today's society. When 1984 was written it was a lightly disguised reflection of the communism and capitalism. It also served as a warning for where the world might become if there came to power only a few dictators to reign over the entire world. My father read the book in 1983 on the suggestion of my mother and he said that, at the time he only felt like it was fiction but in the newspapers everyone was raving about how IBM and other up and coming corporations were turning into exactly what the book made them out to be. He then added that society today is more like the society in the book than ever before, especially with the war going on.
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Perhaps one of the utopian traditions that went through the most changes was the story of "Cockaigne." Cockaigne was an oral tradition passed around the lower classes about a city made of food. Thought to be originally produced in Italy, there was a different version in every European country. The story was evolved into something more fitting for every culture, seeing as people in France were not as excited about fish as they were about cheeses. A general description of the land of Cockaigne is as follows, "The walls are made of sausages. / Windows and doors, though it may seem odd, / Are made of salmon, sturgeon, and cod. / The tabletops are pancakes. Do not jeer, / For the jugs themselves are made of beer" (Unknown 22-26). For decades in the medieval times this story was told to alleviate the pain and suffering that the lower classes had to deal with. Over the years the idea of a Cockaigne as changed, especially during the post modern art era. Recently, a photograph was shown to the class portraying one of today's artists', Vince Desiderio, vision of Cockaigne. In his painting there are six centuries of Western art scattered on the floor surrounding a table with empty dishes. Desiderio explains his work as "cultural bulimia" relating it back to the original meaning of Cockaigne. The meaning of the Land of Cockaigne began as a gastronomic utopia in the medieval times and evolved into a desire for new and different types of art (the post-modern view: everything has been done before, therefore artists have to figure out new ways of remaking the old).
I have an underdeveloped theory that the story of biological evolution is, itself, a form of Utopia. A large aspect to this theory is my personal belief that no matter how fantastic a created utopia is, there must be at least one member of the community who is not happy in their surroundings. The biological story of evolution includes many individual aspects which make it a whole, including natural selection, new species, and surviving together (parasitic, symbiotic, commensalism). The way that evolution includes all things natural having to learn to cohabitate, and at the top of this line is humans, makes me think of a community living together in a perfect way. Natural selection is a form of elimination by nature, meaning if the species is unable to survive in the habitat they began in, or cannot move to one where they will survive, their species will become extinct over time. Personally, I find this way of eliminating weak and unproductive organisms perfect. Although, according to Timothy Anders (an author of biology), the root of all human suffering, and hence of all created is evolution by natural selection. This proves my speculation that not all find a utopia the perfect place to be.
In conclusion, all stories have the ability to evolve. It could simply be through different versions where either the author or publisher demands that something significant be changed. It could be through translation where words, meaning, and structure are lost (take Cinderella and the fur/glass slippers for example). Specifically, the genre of a utopian story has much room to evolve because time, desire, and access are always changing which causes the view of a perfect world to change a considerable amount. A large discussion in the beginning of this semester was whether or not the theory of evolution is a story; and both Professor Dalke and Professor Grobestein have been pressing the students to see that yes, it is a story. Therefore, because all stories have the ability and notion to evolve, the story of evolution has surely changed over the years. The system of evolution can be seen as a utopia, especially by its creators. They did not agree with Creationism and knew there was another explanation; therefore, they went out into the world and found it, forming it using their own beliefs and knowledge; thus creating their own, workable utopia.
Orwell, George. 1984. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1954.
Unknown Author. This is about the wonderful Land of Cockaigne. NP. NC. ND.