In casual use 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 attempts to put them into practice, will think of the word as referring more narrowly to the conception of a perfect place before which real human arrangements inevitably fall short. Readers of Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516) will find the contrast between ideality and reality formulated still more sharply. The etymological roots of the word that More coined 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.
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
Joyce brings the ambiguities of More's language to bear on
religion. After Bloom imagines the starry night sky as a heaventree, his thoughts
turn to astronomical accounts of the stars that do not promise
an ascent to God. 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." For Christian believers heaven is the
ultimate "good place," the safe harbor where mankind's
perennially frustrated hopes long to anchor, and for the
Christian poet Dante the starry heavens were the seas leading
to that harbor. But in the cosmology of modern science the
stars lead to "no place." There is no way to get from the
known conditions of this life to the unknown paradise promised
in the Bible.
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."