the new world as utopia

When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (…) on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? (…) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, “The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico 1517 1521”

Map of Tenochtitlan, 1524. From the letter of Hernán Cortés, Praeclara Ferdinandi Cortéssi de Nova maris Oceani Hyspania Narratio. Unknown, frontispiece to Thomas More, Utopia, 1516 edition

thomas more constructs utopia through two books.  if the first one reflects the old world and its troubles, the second one is a wishful look at the new world and its possibilities.  more locates his utopia off the coast of brazil, tying the vision of the new world to the concept of no place.  his critique of european ills acts as a contrast to his imaginative view of america, a continent named after the very amerigo vespucci mentioned in the narrative.

when hernán cortés arrived at tenochtitlan, three years after more published utopia, the city was bigger than london and to any city in spain (compared to europe, only paris, venice and constantinople were larger).    the regular grids and monumental pyramids of the aztecs were an “enchantment” to europeans used to the broken, cumulative texture of medieval cities and buildings.  although the cities in south america were also built cummulatively, aztec and inca rulers had the power to build large scale developments in short amounts of time, laying out grids[1] according to solar orientations and agricultural platforms that merged landscape with buildings.

this is not to say that more’s utopia is a description of america, but rather a distorted mirror through which we can see the evils he lamented in europe inverted into projections for the new world.  for more, utopia is a land of equality (although hierarchical, most citizens participate in agriculture by taking turns), and efficiency (no wasting resources on clothes or excess of any type).  these virtues are prioritized over independence (better to rule all to be efficient than to allow them to squander resources) and individuality (unless it is the particular talent of a few learned scholars).

we can understand more’s utopia less as a proposal for the construction of a new society, and more as a reverse image or a denouncing of the ills of his own.  he fails to imagine the consequences of this reversal, or the possibility that the utopians might want a different world (in the book, they can always choose but always choose utopia’s way).  in this misunderstanding he showed himself to be as european as his own description: unwilling to accept that other solutions might be worth learning from.

[1] ancient cities such as cusco were laid out using grid patterns by their original builders.  the law of the indies, in these cases, influenced the location of public buildings but was not the origin of the urban texture.  the streets and stone foundations were laid out by the original planners, not by the spanish settlers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
close-alt close collapse comment ellipsis expand gallery heart lock menu next pinned previous reply search share star