Sharing, investigating, and celebrating the unreal, the surreal, the strange, and the amusing in contemporary literature and culture

Posts tagged “Candide

Got dystopia? The history of our hunger for the nightmare society

Dear Magically Real:

I have some questions for you.  What’s a dystopia and where does the first one show up?  What do you think of the Hunger Games?  Are you excited about the movie?  I love the way those people look in the trailer they are showing!  They remind me a little of the Marie Antoinette movie that came out a while back.  Do you  think there’s a connection?  What about all the other dystopian fiction stories out there right now?  Does this all go back to the Terminator movies ?  Also — Why did Thomas More write a book called UTOPIA when it’s obvious that dystopia is so much cooler?

Thanks for your help.


Digging the dark


Dear Digging – At least in Western Culture, the first artistically depicted dystopia – aka, an impossibly horrible society that is the antithesis of a utopia, a term, coined by Thomas More – is of course the Christian Hell:  specifically Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Pandemonium (Paradise Lost).  But the dystopia in the modern sense is indeed an 18th Century phenomenon, originating arguably in the nightmare world of Voltaire’s Candide. Mary Shelley imagines a an empty world devoid of human life in her novel The Last Man, but dystopia goes into hiding until HG Wells’s The Time Machine and the German film Metropolis.  These bleak glimpses into the future deeply influence subsequent 20th Century renderings.  In just about all modern and postmodern fictions, the dystopic society becomes connected to future-oriented vision of human society — often linked, in turn, to some kind of police state and/or a post-nuclear apocalypse.  These narratives generally attempt – like Voltaire’s novel did – to satirically critique the society in which the authors and their audiences currently find themselves.

At this point, the fictional landscape looks more familiar and we find books like We, 1984, Brave New World, Ira Levin’s less known but fascinating This Perfect Day, and a gaggle of film and film adaptations that I will mention in no particular order: The Terminator films, the Matrix films, A Boy and his Dog (based on the short story), The Road, (based on the novel), the Mad Max films, Blade Runner, THX 1138, Logan’s Run and so on.  And let’s not forget Octavia Butler’s Parable novels and Margaret Atwood’s grim visions in the Handmaid’s Tale and elsewhere.  Finally, let’s not leave out the late, great Russell Hoban  and the late great Anthony Burgess and their two almost incomprehensible novels written in futuristic English, Riddley Walker and A Clockwork Orange.

Wait — And it’s not just Anglo-European lit!  What about Battle Royale and The Fat Years!

Heaven’s, there’s alot, isn’t there?!

What this all means is a tougher question.  At least since the 18th Century, the dystopian has been used as a way to shock the moral/political sensibilities of audiences, in order to provoke progressive change, and many of the texts cited above are trying to urge political/moral/psychological alteration in their readers/viewers (arguably of course, visions of Hell were supposed to do this too — I seem to be going in a dystopia replaces Hell sort of direction in this blog post).

But what happens when audiences become so used to being shocked, scared, amazed, and awed that this method no longer works for them?  This problem — the failure of the satiric/critical — might be precisely what the Hunger Games novels, and I imagine the film, are grappling with, because they imagine a nightmare world which survives and thrives precisely by means of its ability to charm and fascinate audiences through television!

A French philosopher named Baudrillard argued, that we are so addicted to watching simulacra on a screen that we are basically dead inside (he said this in a fancy, French way, but you get the idea…[think Fahrenheit 451 {there’s ANOTHER one}]).  In a similar vein Frederic Jameson has maintained that late capitalism has got us so under the spell of consumerism that we’ll consume anything, including the very idea of consuming. I’m guessing that the Hunger Games is somehow engaging with these ideas.

As I write this blog, the Hunger Games movie isn’t out yet, but I saw the trailer too and I’m sure you’re right about the Marie Antoinette connection vis a vis the costumes.  What better way to “indicate” both the ultimate oppressor society and the society of spectacle than by riffing on the aristocracy of the French Monarchy? These were the people who “played” at being farmers and country-people.  Isn’t it interesting that even when imagining the post-Apocalypse… we’re still thinking about the time BEFORE the French Revolution — which was also Voltaire’s time…?  It’s very American, somehow, don’t you think — this obsession with the European aristocratic pre-revolution?

Since the dystopian is so rife – and I think it’s everywhere in young adult fiction, as a recent New Yorker article has observed – then perhaps, the more interesting way to go artistically is with the utopian. Which brings me back to ADVENTURE TIME — a big favorite here at Magically Real.  This cartoon show seems to take a post-apocalyptic space as its base and then craft it into something else: a place where humans are no longer central, but where there seems to be hope, change, and even gratitude.

I’m wondering if at this point, imagining the good, the just, and the happy isn’t the most politically and artistically radical possible statement you can make.
More on these questions if/when I see/read the Hunger Games.  Thoughts, insights, and ideas from you are very welcome. So please post them.

Thanks for writing.

Regards –

Magically Real HQ

Thanks to Lillian, Mandy, and Mureall for getting me thinking about these ideas.


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