Utopia & Dystopia

Listening to Johnny Cash on his last few albums I was struck by the number of songs referencing “home” or “going home” or getting on a train, or setting out on the road again. Crossing Jordan. Four strong winds (. . . that blow lonely, Seven seas that run high, All these things that don’t change, Come what may – Neil Young). I’m leavin’ now. Waiting for the 5:09. Catching that final train. With emotional triggers evoking the place we think we belong music can take us places we don’t usually get to and they’re not the same locations we travel to as wandelaars.

But when wandering we do not always or only seek home. We’re maybe just curious, because the map looks interesting, because there’s a weird place name, or because someone told us about somewhere that fascinated them. Neither does the wandelaar seek utopia, but who knows what you might find with a bit of luck.

Utopia – the idea seems to arise from the yearning for a better world.


Thomas More’s vision still stirs

Like Thomas More’s imaginary island of 1516, the word ‘Utopia’ may conjure for us a radiant vision of future society, of peace and harmony, technological progress, and economic prosperity. From the Greek eu, ‘good’, and topos, ‘place’, Utopia also conveys a sense of optimism, dreaming and imagination without limits; in short, a brave new world in which anything is possible.

However, Utopia has another, darker side, and is more commonly translated as ‘no- place’. From here emerges not only the impossibility, but the failure of Utopia: the dystopia, or the Utopia of the few at the expense of the many, and the abandoned, ruined or forgotten Utopia. All this must lead us to ask: what is Utopia, and to whom does it belong? And what is to become of the ruins of Utopia?

Here’s a link to the PDF those words came from.


Utopia just happens to be the poorest location in Australia, located 325km north-east of Alice Springs and the subject of a film by the radical journalist John Pilger. There’s an insightful review and commentary on it here, from The Australian Doctor website. 


Utopia in the Northern Territory

This central Australian town is actually dystopian by any accepted standard of civil society, such as health statistics, facilities, education, communication, urban maintenance, social advancement and economic opportunity. Yet kids still play there and people form friendships and build family cohesion. As well as reflecting all those negatives of social life such as jealousy, greed and disappointment. In many ways it’s not that different from most other human settlements throughout history, despite it being a disgraceful blight on modern Australia’s racial and social policies.

Is it possible to define “utopia” and “dystopia” in a way that makes sense of our roaming? Is it possible to stand outside the labels and just describe what we see or experience?

Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World after visiting America in the 1930s; he was shocked at its prevalent materialism, commercialism and its apparently utopia-engendering nature. So he wrote a classic description of dystopia. A more recent equivalent would be the film Bladerunner, based on Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

We haven’t been to Utopia itself, but we have visited nearby Hermannsburg, Alice Springs, King’s Canyon. And we’ve roamed up the centre from the Flinders Ranges to Kakadu, not seeking utopia as such but marvelling at this country and its sky, it’s stars and its vast horizons. Near Wilpena Pound we stood before the Cazneaux Tree photographed by Harold Cazneaux in 1937 as The Spirit of Endurance.

Cazneux tree

Harold Cazneux’s photo, 1937

It’s now on the National Trust’s Significant Tree Register. Cazneaux himself described it as “the spirit of Australia” and you can find more about it here. His photographic work is showcased by the Art Gallery of NSW here.

Cazneaux Tree

My own photo of the Cazneaux Tree near Wilpena Pound. It’s the one at the rear.

Not all that far from there, a bit further north, is Arkaroola. Walking through ancient gotrges we felt ourselves

Not all that far from there, a bit further north, is Arkaroola. Walking through ancient gorges we felt ourselves part of earth’s pre-history and at one point, in the middle of a 40 degree day, climbing down worn rocks that at an earlier time had been a waterfall, we found a dirty green-brown pool. Something was moving there, on the edges. We climbed right down to see more clearly and watched tiny tadpoles swimming to the edge and losing their tails and growing legs. Over an hour or so we watched animal life forming and transforming in this driest and harshest environment. The tiny new frogs crawling up the rock face to disappear into the crevices and find new living spaces.


Frogs emerging from a pond at Arkaroola

New life emerged as it had done for thousands or even millions of years. The first Australians who lived here for forty thousand or so years, their descendants now sentenced to places like Utopia, would surely have been in tune with these facts of life. Did they have utopian dreams? We don’t know, but why would they need to? And therefore, visiting places such as these we know that we ourselves are not seeking utopia. Neither are we “going home” because we are already at home here.

The paradigmatic music of Americana conflates the dual notions of utopia and one’s true home, using the power of both language AND of music to control the discourse so that we then assume those songs and ideas explain our yearnings truly. However, when we wander the world with open eyes we find things even more wonderful.

Suzanne Joinson, on the blog Lithub, believes writing and traveling belong together. “While I’m writing, I’m far away; and when I come back, I’ve gone,” said Pablo Neruda, and the South African, Damon Galgut, in the The Paris Review explains that what looks like “travel” is in fact memory:

Think about the voice . . . Is it speaking with the authority of memoir or travelogue? No, this is a voice that switches continually between first and third and second person, doubling back to correct itself, musing about how unsure it is of this or that detail. It’s the voice of memory, in short, which is also the voice of fiction. What do I mean by that? Well, firstly, there is the obvious point that none of us remember the same events in the same way. You only have to listen to witnesses speaking in a courtroom to be sure of that. But also, maybe less obviously, I believe that we construct our memories in the same way that a story-writer constructs a fiction. The memory of any moment or event is made up of a disparate jumble of impressions and perceptions, out of which we pick in retrospect what we think of as the “central” or “meaningful” ones. And we do this far more keenly when we link events into a narrative, which a journey or a relationship inevitably is. One thing leads to a second thing, which leads to a third … but the links are a form of meaning we bring after the fact. We raise certain memories into prominence and drop others out of sight to serve this purpose. All of us do it, all the time, making up the stories of our lives as we go along. How is this different to the fiction writer creating meaning?

So here on Wandelaars we have words and images, memories and fictions, jumbling against each other and striving for meaning.


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