Sunday, January 25, 2015

Los Pajaros: Utopia Parkway

The Birds provides a name often used to sum up the wishful fantasy of utopian dreams: “Cloud Cuckooland.” But even though utopia is a Greek word, it doesn’t appear in Aristophanes. The elaborated idea of an ideal or at least a better society enters Western literature with Plato, but it was the Englishman Sir Thomas More who gave it this familiar name in the 16th century. His book is called Utopia (which means “no place”) but in it, the fictional society he describes is also called eutopia (the good place.)

 Utopian tales have been told for centuries. More recently, an opposite sort of story has predominated, called the anti-utopia or dystopia. It often takes features of contemporary society to their extreme logical conclusions to demonstrate possible consequences of today. The Hunger Games series of novels and films form a prominent contemporary example, but there are many others.

 So in these terms, is Aristophanes describing a utopia or a dystopia in his play The Birds? Scholars gathered in San Francisco in 1990—about eight years before Culture Clash produced their version—to discuss this question (among others.) The traditional utopian view was seriously challenged by those who consider it dystopian. One scholar called The Birds a classical precursor to George Orwell’s The Animal Farm. Another points out distinct differences between Aristophanes and Plato's utopia in The Republic (Apparently the two didn't like each other.)

Since then the anti-utopian view predominates. But there's still scholarly division on this point--maybe it's basically utopian.

 Still, the two wanderers at the beginning of The Birds are definitely looking for a society more to their liking. The walled city in the sky built by the birds (Cloud Cukooland) isn't an impossible dream: it successfully forces the gods to bow to its power. But there are many complications.
 Yet Aristophanes The Birds has what would become the classic happy ending of comedies: a wedding (or in this case, preparation for a wedding.) The violent ending of the Culture Clash version however is very different. And partly for that reason, it has a clearer sense of utopia sought but dystopia found, or created.

There is a strain in American thought and writing that supports this sense of what HSU production director Michael Fields called “a vacuous quest for Utopia” by those who unconsciously “ end up re-creating the same kind of world they set out to escape.”

 Historian Frederick Jackson Turner proposed a now- famous thesis that the American character was forged by confronting and conquering the western frontier. Others however have pointed out that the frontier was a movable dream that eventually became the same old nightmare.

As civilization moved west, new settlers dreamed of building a different and better place just beyond the latest frontier, only to eventually replicate nearly all that they left. The dream of an American utopia beyond the next frontier ended in California, which was, as the poet Lew Welsh wrote “the last place/There is no place left for us to go.” (At least until there was Alaska and Hawaii.)

 But there were still spaces between the cities, and the utopian dream was transferred to suburbia, which one writer called “the crabgrass frontier.”

 On Long Island from New York City, in an ever-widening concentric circle around Chicago, all along the new freeways in southern California, and most everywhere else in America, suburbia sprouted in the 1950s and 1960s. That these were to be utopian alternatives to the city was an explicit promise, most vividly preserved in one of the new highways built expressly as express lanes carrying commuters from New York to suburbia: the Utopia Parkway.

 But the highways themselves were immediately overcome by reality. Noting that “expressways opened in 1952 were by 1955 carrying the traffic load that had been forecast for 1985,” author Robert Caro observed that these highways, “of dimensions literally unknown in history, could be opened one month—and be filled to absolute capacity the next.”

Suburbia by David Shankbone
 The fateful irony can be summarized in one story: in the early 20th century, doctors on the U.S. East Coast and Midwest sometimes advised severe sufferers of hay fever and other related allergies to head for Arizona, where the air was clear and dry, and hay fever was pretty much unknown. Over the subsequent decades many took that advice, but once there, settlers planted the familiar trees and grass that were the sources of these allergies. By the late 20th century, Arizona had the highest incidence of hay fever and related allergies in the country.

 Fictionally, the unconscious habit of polluting utopia was extended to “the final frontier” by various science fiction writers, notably Ray Bradbury in The Martian Chronicles.

 Utopia has often been ridiculed as naive fantasy, as the name Cloud Cukooland now implies. But the notion of creating a utopia became suspect in itself in the 20th century due to the utopian pronouncements and horrific consequences in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China in the Cultural Revolution, and Cambodia under the Kymer Rouge. The temptations of attaining power is an important theme in The Birds, reflecting Athenian imperialism. It is even more explicit in the Culture Clash adaptation.

 But even though utopia has possibly its worst press in history today, some contemporaries (including science fiction writers like Kim Stanley Robinson) still insist on the need to imagine utopias in which humanity consciously confronts its current problems, including those self-delusions that turn utopias into dystopias. They are needed partly to provide models of a better future, and partly to provide the hope that might motivate attempts to work towards it. Even creators of dystopias are warning against thoughtless acceptance of new technologies and old patterns of behavior.

It’s become a feature of our age that due to the immense power of technology as well as its cost to the natural environment, our civilization may well be left with only two choices. They are, in the words of Buckminster Fuller, utopia or oblivion.

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