“Utopias have a long mixed history in Left movements. Sometimes they have propelled our imagination toward what better worlds might look like. Other times they have trumpeted heaven on earth, a world for angels rather than mortals, a far-fetched leap to the impossible, where birds can play guitar and human beings are able to flap their arms to fly” (Spannos, 2008:3).
Midwinter (1994) once listed the compromises within social policy as being along the following lines: public/private; central/local; domestic/institutional care and cash/services in kind. His discussion demonstrates how social policy is a negotiated practice along the lines of ideals versus the practical. So, the over-riding compromise is: how do we balance imagination, fantasy and wonder with the practical and the possible. This is explored in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time.
Connie, the central character of Woman on the Edge of Time, can time travel. To demonstrate my position along the continuum of fantasy versus real world I have to state that time travel is, of course, ludicrous. So, as I read the book I spent my time providing a secondary narrative, my own director’s commentary to account for the moves between a contemporary version of New York and Mattapoisett, a future world. The novel allows me to do this. I can chose to buy into the idea of “catchers” and “receivers” who make links between different timescapes. Or, I can choose a more rational approach of hallucinations, fantasy, and imagination employed as a means of escape or a product of poor mental health.
Connie’s time-travelling, however, is simply a literary device to allow the writer and reader to explore imaginative alternatives. The format follows a tradition in speculative, utopian writing. Thomas More’s Utopia (1516, 2012) set a template for this genre of writing. A traveller moves from an imperfect but recognisable state to a more egalitarian but unrecognisable state. What is important about More’s vision is that according to Morton (1952, cited in Moyal, 1986: 2) it was written at a time of
“…despair and hope, of conflict and contrast of increasing wealth and increasing poverty, of idealism and corruption, of the decline at once of the local and international societies in the face of the national state which was to provide the frame within which bourgeois society could develop”
The establishment of the Tudor state does not sound so far away when written in this way. The description is familiar. It relates closely to what Bauman (2012) calls the contemporary state of ‘interregnum’ and ‘liquid modernity’, our current flux with its widening inequality and lack of rules and sympathetic structure.
In employing the literary device of time-traveller, Piercy like More, is discussing current times as much as proposing an imagined future. There is more to the novel than juxtaposing a perfect future against an imperfect present. Where I have connected with Woman on the Edge of Time is in its consideration of the role of dreaming, desire and wishes in understanding oppression. Utopian visions are not just a product of time travel.
Connie is a Mexican American woman subjected to racism, sexism, grief and state mistreatment. When we enter the novel, Connie is assaulted by Geraldo, her niece’s pimp. Connie’s passion to protect her niece is borne out of a dream of the future where she can live with Dolly and her children as a family. Stable family life is Connie’s greatest desire and it is supplemented by other dreams such as going to college, having an office job, receiving the same maternal love as her brother. When considering the role of social work within the text, there is even evidence that the life of Connie’s social worker Mrs Polcari is a Utopian fantasy for Connie.
“After Mrs Polcari left Connie stared in the mirror over the sink, touching her cheeks. How did they stay so young? Did they take pills? Something kept them intact years longer, the women with clean hair smelling of Arpege. The women went on through college and got the clean jobs and married professional men and lived in houses filled with machines and lapped by grass. She had not looked that young since – since before Angelina was born”
Woman on the Edge of Time is a deeply human book. It explores the role of dreaming and fantasy in a marginalised life and establishes it as a form of knowledge.
Defending utopia entails insisting that the identification and expression of the deepest desires of our hearts and minds, and those of others, is a necessary form of knowledge and of truth. (Levitas, 2013: 3)
When Connie travels to/dreams of Mattapoisett she is letting us know what is missing in her current life and why this matters.
Mattapoisett is not my Utopia. There is much to commend it – it is small-scale, rural, collective, ecologically aware, technologically savvy. It has envisioned a new way of working with gender, which in part I admire for its fluidity and in other parts I find difficult or perhaps naïve. The issues of ‘race’, ethnicity and racism seem removed from the histories that have forged them and is replaced with a colour chart for skin. However, there is also this statement:
“You mean a second time? No. Second time someone uses violence, we give up. We don’t want to watch each other or to imprison each other. We aren’t willing to live with people who choose to use violence. We execute them.”
This statement does not work for me. I don’t have a necessarily better solution to the issue of crime and punishment, because whilst not wanting to be a person who watches or imprisons others, I also do not want to kill them. The problem with Utopias returns. I love that human beings are many things including being flawed. I don’t want a society where people aren’t flawed, where mistakes aren’t possible. Nor do I think that a society in which we are never compelled to act selfishly or irrationally can be constructed. But Utopia’s matter because human beings dream and imagine and this can change things. Perhaps the most famous example of Utopian political engagement of the last century, Martin Luther Kings’s “I have a dream speech” was so powerful precisely because it could point to a better future. Imagination, fantasy, dreaming mattered in the path to civil rights. Within the space of a paragraph I return to the dilemma – fantasy versus the possible.
However, thankfully Ruth Levitas (2013: xii) has covered this when she says:
“For those who think that Utopia is about the impossible, what really is impossible is to carry on as we are, with social and economic systems that enrich a few but destroy the environment and impoverish most of the world’s population. Our very survival depends on finding another way of living”
We need to dream and our dreams need to be educated by our understanding of the real world. Connie has a particular understanding of the world because of where she is situated and how others can position her. As she says:
“You don’t understand. Never in your life have you been helpless –under somebody’s heel. You never lived where your enemies held power over you, power to run your life or wipe it out. You can’t understand. That’s how you come you stand there feeding me empty slogans”
Utopian thinking can therefore function in a number of ways: it can provide hope; it is a form of knowledge of current situations and possibilities; it is a wake-up call away from myths about meritocracy; it can disrupt the taken-for-granted “the discourse of inevitability” (Davies, 2008) within current structures and neo-liberal thought.
Woman on the Edge of Time is generally regarded as a classic and is variously described as science-fiction, feminist, utopian, radical. It should also be noted that in places it is funny and astute. As I rail against managerialism within social work, I treasure this throwaway line from the future:
“We share the exciting jobs and the dull jobs. We don’t think telling people what to do is a real world skill…”
Currently austerity and managerialism, it strikes me, are two key ways of reducing the ability to think about problems creatively. This novel suggests resources to combat this imagination deficit – in particular it suggests that we look to the margins. I use this phrase borrowing from bell hooks (1984) work on From Margins to Centre and her discussion of the position of black women in political theory. She asks us to consider what happens to our thinking when we place a different body or being at the centre of thought, when we displace a particular kind of male, white, middle-class, non-disabled (even disembodied) subject and place a marginalised person there. Marge Piercy takes on this imaginative task. This book takes as it starting and central point the character of Connie. She is disempowered and discredited but imbued with wisdom and insight. Whether this wisdom comes from time-travel or not, is for the reader to decide, but it is means the book is an entertaining and edifying adventure.
Bauman, Z. (2012) Liquid Modernity [2nd Edition] Cambridge: Polity Press
Davies, B. (2008) “Practicing Collective Biography” in Hyle, A. E., Ewing, M. S., Montgomery, D. and Kaufman, J. S. (eds.) Dissecting the Mundane: International Perspectives on Memory Work Maryland: University Press of America
hooks, b. (1984) Feminist Theory: From margins to center Boston: South End Press
Levitas, R. (2013) Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society Hampshire: Palgrave
Midwinter, E. (1994) The Development of Social Welfare in Britain Berkshire: Open University Press
More, T. (1516) and Baker-Smith (Translator, 2012) Utopia London: Penguin Classics
Moyal, T. (1986) Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagianation New York and London: Methuen
Piercy, M. (1976, 1988 reprint) Woman on the Edge of Time London: The Women’s Press