By J. Rodolfo Wilcock, from The Temple of Iconoclasts, recently published by David R. Godine. Wilcock (1919–1978) was an Argentine poet, novelist, and translator who emigrated to Italy. Translated from the Italian by Lawrence Venuti.
Utopians are heedless of methods. To render the human species happy, they are prepared to subject it to murder, torture, lethal injection, incineration, deportation, sterilization, quartering, lobotomy, electrocution, military invasion, bombing, etc. Everything depends on the project. Somehow it is encouraging to think that even in the absence of a project, men are and always will be prepared to murder, torture, sterilize, quarter, bomb, etc.
Aaron Rosenblum, born in Danzig, raised in Birmingham, also resolved to bring happiness to humanity. The injuries he caused were not immediate. He published a book on the topic, but the book long lay neglected, so he garnered few adherents. If he had enjoyed a following, in all likelihood Europe would now be without a single potato, street light, ballpoint pen, piano, or condom.
Aaron Rosenblum’s idea was extremely simple. He wasn’t the first to think of it, but he was the first to pursue it to its utmost consequences. Only on paper, however, since humanity does not always desire to do what it must to be happy. Or it prefers to choose its own methods, which, as with the best global projects, also entail murder, torture, imprisonment, exile, germ warfare, drug therapies, etc. Chronologically, Rosenblum’s utopia was unfortunate. The book destined to bring him fame, Back to Happiness; or, Joyride to Hell, appeared in 1940, precisely when the intellectual world was busily defending itself from another, equally utopian project of social reform — total reform.
Rosenblum first asked himself: Which was the happiest period of world history? Believing himself to be English, and as such the trustee of a well-defined literary tradition, he decided that the happiest historical period was the magnificently exciting reign of Elizabeth I, under the sage guidance of Lord Burghley. Or at least this was the moment when Shakespeare emerged, England discovered America, and the Catholic Church was forever defeated and forced to seek refuge in the remote Mediterranean. Rosenblum had himself been a High Church Anglican for many years.
Hence, the project of Back to Happiness was this: to return the world to 1580. To abolish coal, machines, engines, the electric light, corn, petroleum, film, asphalt streets, newspapers, the United States, airplanes, the vote, gasoline, parrots, motorcycles, the Rights of Man, tomatoes, steamships, the iron and steel industries, the pharmaceutical industry, the Eiffel Tower, Newton and gravitation, Milton, Dickens, Mickey Mouse, turkeys, surgery, railroads, aluminum, museums, anilines, guano, celluloid, Belgium, dynamite, the weekend, the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century, the twentieth century, mandatory education, iron bridges, the bus, light artillery, disinfectants, coffee. Tobacco could remain, seeing that Sir Walter Raleigh smoked.
By the same token, it was necessary to reestablish: debtors’ prison; the gallows for thieves; slavery for blacks; the stake for witches; ten years of compulsory military service; the custom of abandoning babies by the road at birth; torches and candles; the practice of dining in a hat with a knife; the use of the rapier, cutlass, and poniard; hunting with bows; brigandage in the woods; persecution of the Jews; the study of Latin; the prohibition against women appearing on the stage; buccaneers attacking Spanish galleons; the use of the horse for transport and the ox for motor power; bearbaiting; primogeniture; the Maltese Knights at Malta; scholastic logic; the plague, smallpox, and typhus as forms of population control; respect for nobility; mud puddles in central urban streets; wooden buildings; bloodletting; swans breeding on the Thames and hawks in castles; alchemy as a pastime; astrology as a science; the institution of vassalage; trial by ordeal; the lute indoors, the trumpet in the open air; tournaments, damascened armor, coats of arms; the chamber pot — in a word, the past.
Now, it was obvious, even to Rosenblum’s eyes, that the planning and realization of such a utopia in 1940 would require time and patience that exceeded the enthusiastic collaboration of the most influential segment of public opinion. Adolf Hitler, it is true, seemed disposed to facilitate the most compelling aspects of the project, especially those involving eliminations. But like a good Christian Aaron Rosenblum could not but notice that the German head of state was letting himself get carried away by tasks that were ultimately secondary, like the suppression of the Jews and the military domination of Europe, instead of seriously applying himself to staving off the Turks, for example, or spreading syphilis, or illuminating missals.
Furthermore, however much Hitler lent the English a helping hand, he seemed secretly to nurture a certain hostility toward them. Rosenblum realized that he would have to do everything by himself — mobilize public opinion, and solicit signatures and support from scientists, sociologists, ecologists, writers, artists, and, in general, lovers of the past. Unfortunately, three months after the publication of the book, the author was recruited by the Home Guard to watch over a warehouse of absolutely no importance, in the most deserted area on the Yorkshire coast. He didn’t even have a telephone at his disposal. His utopia ran the risk of foundering.
It was he who foundered, however, and in a most unusual manner. As he wandered down the beach, gathering cockles and other sixteenth-century items for lunch, he was killed in an air raid, apparently an exercise, and blown to pieces in a pit. His remains were immediately swallowed by the sea.
Mention has already been made of the utopians’ lethal vocation. The bomb that destroyed Rosenblum also bespoke a utopia, one not very different from his, even if it appeared more violent. Essentially, his project was based on the progressive rarefaction of the present. Starting not with Birmingham, which was too dirty and would have required at least a century of cleaning, but with a small provincial town like Penzance, it was simply a question of delimiting a zone — perhaps acquiring it with funds from the yet-to-be-founded Sixteenth-Century Society — and excluding, with the most fastidious resolve, each and every thing, custom, style, musical composition, disease, and word dating back to the incriminated centuries, that is, the seventeenth, the eighteenth, the nineteenth, and the twentieth. A fairly complete list of excluded objects, concepts, events, and phenomena fills four chapters in Rosenblum’s book.
At the same time, the sponsoring institution, namely the Sixteenth-Century Society, would provide for the reintroduction of the aforementioned items (brigands, candles, swords, codpieces, beasts of burden, and so forth, through another four chapters of the book). This would be sufficient to convert the nascent colony into a paradise, or something very similar to a paradise. From London people would hasten in throngs to take the plunge into the 1500s — to wear doublets and ruffs, to crack nuts at the Globe Theatre, to empty their chamber pots into the open sewers. The resulting filth would immediately initiate the process of natural selection necessary to reduce the population to 1580 levels.
With the contributions of visitors and new members, the Sixteenth-Century Society would find itself in a position to enlarge its field of action, gradually expanding even as far as London. Sweeping four centuries of houses and iron manufactures from the capital was a problem that required a separate solution, probably the announcement of a competition for projects open to all young lovers of the past. The other utopian, the One Across the Channel, seemed already to have something like this in mind. Unsure, Rosenblum opted for encircling: perhaps a mere cincture of the sixteenth century around London would suffice to precipitate a total collapse.
The project, as imagined, proceeded rapidly to cover all of England, and from England, Europe. In reality, the two utopians were heading for the same goal by different paths: to ensure the happiness of humankind. Hitler’s utopia, meanwhile, fell into that extreme discredit with which everyone is familiar. Rosenblum’s, in contrast, resurfaces periodically in different guises: some favor the Middle Ages, others the Roman Empire, still others the State of Nature, and Greenblatt even favors the return of the Ape. If the estimated population of the chosen period were subtracted from current figures for the world, one would find that billions of people, or hominins, were condemned to death, in accordance with the project. These proposals flourish; Rosenblum’s spirit continues to wander the globe.