CanCon 2015, day 3: The Renaissance vision of utopia

Mini disclaimer: These are my notes and may contain errors. If you have corrections, please email me at melanie (dot) marttila (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll amend the post directly.

Presenter: Professor Cristina Perissinotto, University of Ottawa


My apologies, Cristina, for my poor photography skills 😦

Utopia is from the Greek, meaning ‘no place.’

More’s Utopia was published in 1515. He’s an important scholar. He was essentially optimistic. The king sent him to Flanders where the concept of the book was born. More visited Erasmus and was introduced to a Portugese sailor named Hythloday. The book documents their discussions of Utopia, the miraculous land Hytholday discovered in his travels.

The inhabitants are peaceful, they dress the same, they distribute goods equally among the people, they don’t engage in war, and they don’t use money except when they need to in their dealings with other nations.

The principle explored was this: that humankind, with good laws and education can create a good society.

It hearkens back to Plato’s Republic, which was a philosophical treatise on the nature of justice. The principles of Republic were applied on several occasions, but failed to take hold.

In the Renaissance, it was rediscovered.

Aristophanes, a comedic playwright, wrote The Assembly of Women, which suggested that women would institute a utopian society.

There are also elements of monasticism in utopian societies. Monks are communal, but set apart from society.

There is also the legend of Prester John, who was said to have founded a Christian Kingdom somewhere in Africa. Travelers would return with stories of strange beings with wolf heads, mono-pods, and people with faces on their chests.

The land of Cockaigne is another mythic place. The people there never speak of work or war. They only eat, drink, sleep, play, and dance. Real life is topsy-turvy. Nature is overwhelming. It’s a hedonistic place where people satisfy their needs and wants. There is no spirituality. They espouse anti-Christian values. It’s a symbol of lower class paradise.

Utopia is different.

Everyone works in Utopia. It’s like a machine that only functions if everyone does their part. It’s thought that the idea of Utopia was inspired by tales of the New World.

Arthur Morgan claimed that nowhere was somewhere. He posited that the Incas were the inspiration for Utopia. They had grain warehouses to feed everyone.

A utopian society needs to be insular, however.

Every utopia has the seed of its own dystopia within it.

The Italians loved the idea of utopia, but their efforts to create a utopian society were not focused on the happiness of the people. They aimed at the harmonic ideal. The pre-planned cities of the Quattrocento were an attempt to design such a utopia.

Utopias are not free. In More’s Utopia, there is no travel, a restriction on procreation, and the population is controlled by a pre-determined death age. So that they wouldn’t be a burden on the rest of society, women were killed at 45 and men at 50. Women were relegated to the role of housekeeper and mother. Because the model was a monastic one, it was hard to find a place for women within it.

Dystopias are dysfunctional utopias. 1984, Brave New World. Ernst Callenbach wrote Ecotopia in 1975. It was an ecological utopia.

We don’t believe in the idea of utopia anymore.

The first ‘gated community’ appeared in Florida, run by Walt Disney. It was an attempt at a modern utopia in the 50’s.

Findhorn is a Scottish commune started in the 70’s. It’s a self-sufficient community with green roofs and windmills for energy.

Modern attempts at utopian societies engage with reality. Writers can dream about possible futures.

The bosco verticale, or vertical forest, in Milan is another attempt at an ecological utopia. They want to green the city, use solar and wind power, clean the environment.

The proposed Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid in Tokyo Bay will eventually house a million people.

As we move into the age of space exploration, the search for utopia becomes a blank canvas. It is what we make it.

And that was the end of the last presentation I attended at CanCon 2015. I hope you’ve enjoyed my session notes.

My next convention won’t be until the end of April. Until then, I’ll attempt to entertain you with all the wonderful stuff I’ve learned from movies and television recently, and I might have a book review or two to share. Aside from that, I’ll still be writing my monthly next chapter updates.

Hope everyone has a fabulous vernal equinox. Spring is here (finally)! Though, as usual, we probably have a few more weeks of snow and cold to go around the Sudz.