A Utopian View of Creativity

A Utopian View of Creativity
It is practically impossible to predict or to create the conditions which give rise to great literature, art or music. The introduction to the sixteenth century in your anthology discusses broad topics such as humanism, nationalism, and the Reformation which played major roles in stimulating a literature of unusual quality. It is intriguing if somewhat fruitless to speculate about our own century--to ask whether similar cultural earthquakes are occurring that will someday make the end of the twentieth century a period to reckon with. One can also speculate about a particular culture. Are Mennonites poised at the edge of an artistic breakthrough which will rival the creativity found in our history and our theology that came into its own during the past 50 years?
I believe that a literary awakening finds its roots in a new awareness of one's heritage, in the attempted resolution of conflict, in the experience of suffering and in the emergence of new world views. The Renaissance period fits those criteria. Both the humanists and the Reformers went back in time, drawing their inspiration from the ancients and the early Christians. Those sources assured them that the human spirit was capable of unusual achievements. The wealth of knowledge from the Greco-Roman civilization was supplemented with the new scientific and geographical discoveries taking place during the sixteenth century. This combination spawned a vigorous literary quarrel in France called the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. Scholars debated whether or not it was possible to rival or surpass the Greek and Roman writers. Did they set an ideal standard impossible to achieve or was literary progress a real possibility? The Reformers with their negative view of human nature were no less optimistic about human accomplishments. But for them it meant rediscovering the purity of the early church, transferring authority from corrupt church leaders in Rome to scripture, to a national church (or to the community of believers in the case of the Anabaptists) and then counting on God's grace to miraculously redeem the soul instead of relying on good works specified by the Church. In each case, the liberation which comes with new knowledge and a sense of forgiveness also provides a release for the writers, a willingness to try new forms, to take new risks.

The Renaissance in Mennonite history is usually linked with H.S. Bender and his call for the recovery of the Anabaptist vision. It provided a philosophical grounding for Mennonite young people moving literally out into the world--overseas through MCC service or into higher education at home. Perhaps it is no accident that the most noteworthy achievements in the arts grew out of the Canadian experience which was tied more closely to a past steeped in suffering.

I would challenge you to think seriously about your own creative efforts. Where do you stand in relation to your ethnic identity, your religious faith, your national heritage, your view of the world? To what extent are the conditions "right" for you in order to stimulate quality work this semester? Don't satisfy yourself with one reading of the introduction in Abrams. As you review it, analyze the various elements which contributed to an unusual burst of creativity during the sixteenth century.

Don't be satisfied to accept everything you read or afraid to take issue with what the experts say. For example, in an article found in More's Utopia and Its Critics Russell Ames claims that "great writing gives us not only the rich patterns of life as it is but some glimpses of how it must be one day when man will control nature and himself" (136). Ames cites fourteen possible interpretations of Utopia and then asserts his own thesis--that the book is not "an accident of individual genius but a product of capitalism's attack on feudalism" (136).

In the early sixties when I was teaching in Africa, I remember a Mennonite anthropologist reflecting upon the utopian nature of our communities. I was vaguely troubled at that time by his suggestion that the very intensity of our efforts, the comprehensiveness of our culture, and our insulation from the outside world also contained the seeds of our destruction. I saw the Mennonite way of life as a realistic blueprint for right living--quite removed from the concept of an imaginary utopia.

In an article in the September 1, 1991 issue of the Washington Post entitled "The Last Refuge of Utopians," E.J. Dionne Jr. observes that the "Soviet Union has been history's greatest utopian experiment" and that "the quest for grand utopia is--let's put it gently--quite wrong-headed" (C1). He goes on to define utopians as "people . . . not burdened with flawed natures. They can formulate political systems capable of creating New Men and New Women" (C1). Dionne targets the free market utopians whose faith "seems to imply the rise of a perfected New Businessman and Businesswoman whose social impact will always be beneficial" (C1, C4). He concludes with a call for a running argument between "democratic capitalists," who accept a role for government but lean toward the market, private endeavor and risk-taking, and "social democrats," who accept the market but tend to think more about the state, the public interest and social insurance (C4).

In other words, with the fall of communism, we should accept no prescription from either the Left or the Right which would create a perfect society. The best we can do is accept the flawed nature of reality and work with it. Dionne's conclusion: "Critics of utopia unite. You have nothing to lose but illusions" (C4).

I have always felt uneasy about utopian schemes. I remember reading B.F. Skinner's Walden II at the same time that my oldest son was born. Dead serious about his formula for a clean and efficient world based upon positive reinforcement, Skinner inspired a good number of followers in the '60s but failed to produce a quality novel. I remember the contrast I noticed between my hope for the future of my child and the skepticism I felt about Skinner's "ideal" society.

A verse in Job which I have chosen to deliberately read out of context supports my case against utopias. Job says, "Though I were perfect, yet would I not know my soul; I would despise my life. This is one thing, therefore I said it, He destroyeth the perfect and the wicked" (9:21, 22 KJV). I am fascinated by the possibility that perfection is closely allied to wickedness. By its very nature perfection (whether applied to individuals or groups) values control over the messiness of freedom. Every utopian project pursues a kind of perfection whether it be the Tower of Babel or a Hutterite colony, Voltaire's Eldorado or the Marxist vision of a classless society.

I realize that science has given us more and more powerful means of controlling ourselves and each other, but we have yet to see technology shifting the balance towards goodness. Human beings respond with various forms of self destruction in their efforts to escape coercion. Thus, I do not celebrate with Ames his belief in a future that will find humans in control of themselves and nature.

More's Utopia, however, differs markedly from Skinner's Walden II; there is no hint of ambiguity or irony in the latter. Walden II is a rigid prescription for a better world whereas Utopia can be interpreted in many different ways as is evident by the list which Ames establishes: (136). Utopia is a great work appearing at a crucial time in English history; its complexity allows the reader to critique the flaws of society without necessarily selling out to an all-encompassing utopian scheme.

I have come to the end of my long, extended example which has by now overwhelmed my essay. While I agree with Ames that good literature does more than represent reality, I must quarrel with his desire to control humankind and nature. Perhaps I have simply misunderstood the intent of his statement. In any case, the value of my response will be found in the way I attempt to make my argument--not in an arbitrary determination of who is right or wrong. To state my opinion without any concrete support would prove nothing. Thus I challenge you and myself to enter wholeheartedly into the material of our course, aggressive enough to take issue with what the "authorities" would have us believe, prudent enough to defend ourselves with specific examples, and humble enough to admit our limitations.

A Utopian View of Creativity 8 of 10 on the basis of 4423 Review.