“A map of the world that does not include a utopia,” said Oscar Wilde, “is one not even worth glancing at.” Having also written “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” we can imagine that Wilde was deeply engaged in the intellectual cartography of this map. Today, you can go online and find caches of obsolete maps at various points in human history that advertise a utopia, and always at their origin you’ll find the civilization that drew them. Now the maps have all been completed (there isn’t an inch of this planet we don’t have a satellite image of now) and no civilization can any longer claim the right to place itself at the center. The only place where utopias can still be found is where they’ve always been found: in books. One of these books––Thomas More’s book––which gave the genre its name, turns 500 this year.
Utopia was conceived in 1515 over the course of three months while More was stationed in Belgium negotiating the interpretation of a treaty that would give his king, Henry VIII, control over the wool and cotton trade in Europe. This visit provided the book’s mise-en-scène: there More met the Peter Gilles, who appears alongside More’s textual persona––and Raphael Hythlodaeus––a fictional companion to real Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (after whom the New World continents would later take their name). Hythlodaeus is the book’s central voice, a scholar and world traveler who narrates an account of a society that is described by Gilles as, “like Plato’s Republic, only better.”
Since its publication, Utopia has been, ironically enough, an object of disputed property rights. Disparate and contradictory schools of thought have all claimed ownership over it.