What is a utopia?
When we ask such definitional questions, we often find ourselves starting with a definition. From the Greek, a ου-τοπος is literally a “no-place,” and it is a concept that has been deployed by countless writers and thinkers since Thomas More to describe places, ideas, societies, and conditions that are not. Utopias can be bad or good or morally ambiguous; however, they are often constructed in order to describe what could be, or what one wishes could be. They tend to be worlds in which people get on rather more harmoniously than they do in our own.
For John Addington Symonds, utopia was a world where l’amour de l’impossible was possible. It was a world where human relations were stretched into new permutations, and where the morality that governs such human relations could be bent ever so slightly to accommodate “an intense, jealous, throbbing, sensitive, expectant love of man for man.” Symonds described his impossible love in this way in an 1889 letter to Walt Whitman, and it was Whitman whose own utopic hymn to “the new City of Friends” did so much to shape Symonds’ sense of what could be. In his Memoirs, Symonds wrote that L’amour de l’impossible est la maladie de l’âme (the illness of the soul); in the margins of Whitman’s “Calamus,” he wrote that “Comradeship is… a need of the soul”—medicine for the illness. Through Whitman’s gospel above all else, Symonds kept alive his faith in the achievability of this new world where something crudely degenerate could be exalted, and where Symonds himself could find peace and satisfaction.
What is a utopia? That is one utopia: one where the word “love” is transfigured, and where sexual satisfaction may be glorified. And as Symonds found himself shaping it in his mind, he also found himself beset by doubt in the promise of a different utopia, the one promised by the devout, God-fearing, Low-Church tradition in which he was raised, in which the Kingdom of God awaited the good. Aside from a few exceptions—such as when his eldest daughter died—Symonds had by his late twenties largely moved away from the Christianity that dominated his youth. He fell into its familiar rhetorical strides when writing his sister or his aunt a Christmas letter, and he remained an active patron of the English Church at Davos, Switzerland, where he spent the last fifteen years of his life. But it was in large part a habitual, cultural Christianity: after his undergraduate years, he did not write rapturously of epiphanies achieved while kneeling in chapels—nor even of choristers loved. In Symonds’ adulthood, as alternative gospels assumed priority in his worldview, even his sites of sexual attraction shifted from cathedrals to the secular spaces of schoolrooms, Swiss mountain slopes, and the banks of the Serpentine, as he proposed to live rather more pantheistically in “the Whole, the Good, and the Beautiful.”
But on the last day in July, 153 years after Symonds’ first date (if we may be so presentist to call it that) in the cloister of Bristol Cathedral, a rather old-fashioned sermon was preached in that self-same house of worship about poverty and humility and the Kingdom of God. It ended on R.S. Thomas’s oft-quoted-in-sermons poem “The Kingdom”:
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
What is a utopia? Well, Thomas here offers us another one: the Kingdom of God, where admission is by faith alone, where the good are rewarded with more goodness, where no one covets either riches or each other. And this is the sticking point: a Doubting Symonds Scholar may find herself looking up at the pulpit and thinking, it’s no wonder that a man striving for a world where there are more ways to love and to be loved ceased to seek solace in those men who proposed to speak in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The love of God as delimited by such men can only go so far, then: pantheist and pagan, Symonds may have preferred Zeus, who at least had Ganymede going for him, than the Christian God.
But I think there is also more in the Thomas poem than meets the eye: for it is also promised us that in the Kingdom of God, “the consumptive is/Healed.” When I heard the preacher read this line out, I found myself hearing it as if “The Consumptive” was capitalized, as if it referred to one particular Consumptive: one particular member of this cathedral’s very diocese whose consumption led him away from England and away from its Church. It is a common trope in literature that the homosexual man is wasting away, and I don’t just mean from AIDS: the perceived moral degeneracy of his condition is figured in the metaphorical terms of a chronic illness. So it often seems with the real-life ill health of Symonds, whose consumption was assuredly compounded by the depression and anxiety visited upon him by the impossibilité of his amour. If Symonds were to be healed, it would not only mean restoring his lungs to their former robustness, but also transplanting him into a utopia where love of any kind is not a maladie.
The incredible, awe-inspiring thing about Symonds is that by the end of his too-short life he knew where to find this utopia, how to make it. He knew to look in Whitman, and in others who wrote in transcendent terms, like Goethe; in the newest advances of science, of evolution and psychology; in a canon of writers including Plato and Michelangelo and in the homoerotic, Hellenistic spirit they conveyed; and, yes, in the Hebraic spirit too. For despite all his very deep doubt, despite the clearness to him that the modern Christian world would not admit the possibility of his love (to the detriment of his and others’ mental health), Symonds never really left the faith into which he was born. To read his poetry, into which his tortured, impossible longings are intensely and intently sublimated, is to read, alongside dense references to classical mythology, a constant refrain of trinitarian imagery, and to hear the deliberate echoes of poets who negotiated the boundaries of Christian faith and reason, like Petrarch and Milton. I don’t think these are just the unconscious effects of being steeped in a Christian culture. As he did in so many other instances, I think Symonds is again working as hard as he can to stretch the fabric of the culture just wide enough to let l’amour de l’impossible slip in, allowing Platonic love to nestle neatly alongside Dantesque chivalric love. The Whole, the Good, and the Beautiful were Symonds’ Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—and he too, through the deployment of a doctrine of love, wanted to make utopia here on Earth.
To a devout Christian, Symonds, and indeed I writing (preaching?) here, have stretched and bent and twisted the paradigms and doctrines of Christianity beyond all recognition. In church, there is a line of metaphor and symbolism beyond which the language does not go (and this is why, out of all the bits and pieces of a given Anglican service, the one I the non-Christian do not say is the Creed). There is only so much one can do to bend before the framework shatters and falls to the ground. And yet I do not believe that Symonds thought he had done this, and here is the rub. For Symonds knew better than I that Jesus told His disciples to “Love one another,” and at the end of the day Symonds was all about love. Though he spoke as passionately as perhaps anyone has ever done about the need to repeal the Labouchere Amendment and decriminalize “gross indecency between males,” it was not so much in a literal sense, so that men would be free to have sex with each other. Rather, it was in a spiritual sense—as he wrote in his appendix to Sexual Inversion, it was so that men’s souls might not be destroyed as he felt his had been by the pressures of the double life. He was all about homosexual rights for the sake of making the double life whole—and good, and beautiful—and for the sake of letting us love one another.
And so here we come to the point in the sermon when the preacher, who has rambled incoherently about a few texts for a few minutes, tries desperately to leave her parishioners with the impression that she has half a brain and can tie all the threads together. We ask, again: what is a utopia?
Drawing my answer not from the Bible—or at least, not only from the Bible—but rather from the humanist (what Philip Pullman, lo these many months ago, called the pagan) tradition, I can answer that a utopia is a land where there are many roads to goodness and to love. It is a land where we all toil alongside each other on the uphill climbs towards our own Celestial Cities, each person seeking the best of all possible paths (for this is, after all, utopia), the one that will best help her to make her life whole. It is a land where as well as loving one another we learn from each other, and we feel free to share with each other whatever we hope will help us to stretch the fabric and patch the holes of the belief systems that help us to wake up in the morning and to go to sleep at night having done something worthwhile with the day. It is a land where the impossible is possible, and where pagan humanist Doubting Symonds Scholars find themselves in church on Sundays, hearing (and perhaps even offering a few) prayers to the Christian God.