In Brief

In informal usage a utopia is a paradise, a perfect place, an ideal society. People who reflect on the history of literary representations of utopias starting with Plato's Republic, and on the many failed attempts to put them into practice, will think of the word in the more precise sense of a conception of a perfect place before which real human arrangements inevitably fall short. Readers of the work that coined the term, Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516), will find a still sharper distinction between the ideal and the real. The etymological roots of More's word suggest that Utopia is both a "good place" and "no place," simultaneously ideal and nonexistent. Ithaca uses the word in this third, most stringent sense, directing readers to More's fiction by capitalizing it. The allusion implicitly compares the transatlantic voyage described in More's fiction to the traditional Christian conceit that God, and the completion of humanity, can be found on the far side of the stars.

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More wrote the Utopia in Latin as a dialogue between himself and a fictional traveler named Hythlodaeus, a political idealist who tells More about a perfect society that he encountered on an island off the coast of South America. Although he sees the life lived there as superior in every way to European societies, Hythloday strenuously refutes More's arguments that he should put his knowledge to use by entering the service of a monarch and making things better at home. In his view, politics as it exists in England and other European countries is so deeply corrupt that the idealist would only find himself corrupted, rather than making things a little less bad for everyone else.

The picture of life lived by the Utopians, then, remains an unattainable alternative to actual life, and the Greek roots of More's name for the imaginary place (Hythlodaeus is a student of ancient Greece) reflect that disparity. Utopia is both eu-topos, a good place, and ou-topos, no place. Consequently, it is hard to know how to interpret More's richly detailed portrait of an imaginary society. Does he present it as something to aspire to, or only as a mirror to criticize the reality of his own society? And are its more outlandish ideas presented as truly admirable, or do they reflect the total unreality of the place? Hythlodaeus, itself a compound of Greek roots, means speaker of nonsense, or dispenser of nonsense, or cunning nonsense, or destructive nonsense.

Joyce brings the ambiguities of More's title and artistic conception to bear on the traditional association between the starry heavens and Christian religion. After Bloom imagines the night sky as a heaventree, his thoughts turn to modern astronomical conceptions of the stars as inconceivably vast, radically uncentered and unbounded, and mathematically determined. He asks whether human beings might be able to live on other planets, and if so whether flawed humanity might find its salvation in that adventure. And he decides "That it was not a heaventree, not a heavengrot, not a heavenbeast, not a heavenman. That it was a Utopia, there being no known method from the known to the unknown." In the travelogue of his scientific imagination, aiming for the stars will no more provide the solution to mankind's problems than sailing to South America would in More's opinion. For traditional Christians, heaven, somewhere beyond the stars, is the ultimate "good place." But in the cosmology of modern science the stars lead to "no place." Getting from the known conditions of this life to the unknown paradise of heaven is a Utopian adventure.

These, or something like them, are Bloom's thoughts as filtered through the narrative voice of Ithaca. Stephen thinks more complex and subtle thoughts about Christian religion, but for him too faith is a matter of proceeding from the known to the unknown. In Scylla and Charybdis he presents this idea in terms of paternity: "On that mystery and not on the madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe the church is founded and founded irremovably because founded, like the world, macro and microcosm, upon the void. Upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood." The bond of mother and child is immediate, physical, certain. Fatherhood is uncertain, distant, spiritual, and must be believed rather than felt. In this conception as in Bloom's astronomical meditations, God the Father beckons across "the void." His heaven is in "no place."

John Hunt 2022

Woodcut illustration for 1516 edition of Thomas More's Utopia. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Similar illustration used in the 1518 edition, by Ambrosius Holbein.
Source: www.britannica.com.