“It was a pleasure to burn” opens Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’ which, as any good English student can tell you, is the temperature at which books burn. Our pleasure at burning is reflected in our attraction to imagined places more fiery and hellish than our own. Dystopias have become almost more popular than realist fiction in recent years, especially among teenagers.
However, our fascination with imagined places is by no means a contemporary phenomenon. Christopher Marlowe’s pastoral poem ‘The Passionate Shephard to His Love’ describes a utopia where the speaker can exist with his lover in harmony. A hundred years’ later a similar desire for such a paradise emanates from the work of Andrew Marvell: “Had we but world enough and time, this coyness, lady, were no crime.” Whilst being a poem about trying to get into his lady-friend’s pants, it achieves something more – it imagines a place in which time was infinite so that there was no hurry to copulate. Marvell explains that in this infinite, imagined place they would “sit down, and think which way/To walk, and pass our long love’s day”.
This poem might objectively be quite funny to the contemporary reader but it also enhances our understanding of human desire for, and projection of, such imagined places. They provide a place of escape, whether worse or better than our realities. Imagined places exist in many forms, from the bizarre to the scarily similar. But those we return to are frequently the extremes, worlds heavenly or hellish.
Perhaps then we ought to question why it is that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries we seemed to stop searching for utopias and instead resort to dystopias. With the rise of novels like ‘Brave New World’, 1984 and more recently ‘Cloud Atlas’, it is almost as if we need to make ourselves feel better about our current ‘reality’ by setting it against an imagined, though often gruesomely realistic, ‘living-hell.’
One of the most important facets of a ‘dystopia’ is its ‘otherness’ as exemplified by Andy Warhol in his auto-biography and self-acclaimed “philosophy”:
“I wake up and call B.
B is anybody who helps me kill time.
B is anybody and I’m nobody. B and I.
I need B because I can’t be alone. Except when I sleep. Then I can’t be with anybody.”
Warhol’s fear of ‘being alone,’ and by extension being ‘other,’ indicates the need for something physical (or at least made manifest imaginatively) in order to liberate oneself from solitude. He creates ‘B’ who becomes ‘the other’ – a displacement of the self and human anxieties onto an external being.
Ironically, Warhol also reduces himself to ‘A’, ‘A’ specimen, ‘an’ example. Conversely B is female (and by implication then not just ‘other’ but also ‘lesser’). Warhol’s ‘B’ functions like a dystopian novel: being worse so he looks better.
Perhaps our new obsession with dystopia as the most popular of imagined worlds can be related to our current age of pessimism. In an age of Donald Trump and Brexit, it might sometimes feel like we’re living in a dystopia – waiting for the right moment to pinch ourselves and wake up from the nightmare of it all.
Dante descends into Hell so that when he returns to Earth, it appears a paradise. To see what we have, we must lose it all – but just with words, just with a tricky game of language. We can bet everything upon a metaphor or imagined world only to vanquish it when it serves us no longer. We can do as Wendy in Peter Pan – we can “grow up”.