Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Utopian Bliss - graded blog

What I want to talk about is Camelot. This might not end up being about that.

In my high school when we read The Once and Future King (to be honest they read it. I got through about a third of it and decided I’d gotten the gist) there was a lot of talk about how Camelot was the ultimate utopia. Sure, there were evils to vanquish and grails to seek, but really, Arthur’s unification of Britain under one rule (and more particularly, against the Saxons) was the perfect little place. Heaven on earth, Camelot is the hotspot, the awesome club everyone wants to go to, full of heroes and wizards and actresses and football stars. Troy Polamalu parties in Camelot. Blah blah yaddah yaddah. This seems to be the case across the board as far as literary references are concered.

In the very beginning, however, Hank sees Camelot, and it’s people, more specifically, in something of another light.

”Yet there was something very engaging about these great simple-hearted creatures, something attractive and lovable. There did not seem to be brains enough in the entire nursery… but you didn't seem to mind that, after a little, because you soon saw that brains were not needed in a society like that, and indeed would have marred it, hindered it, spoiled its symmetry -- perhaps rendered its existence impossible.”

A brainless utopia? Bill Joy would cry. And so should Twain, given the society he comes from with steam boats and railroads and all sorts of wonderful new things that require thought and ingenuity to come upon at all. A society without brains is society at all. If he were living in the here and now, I think that that comparison might be more acurate, but let’s not bring my political views into this. Hank realizes, though, that this utopia cannot exist without these sort of mindless innocents in charge. So we give up paradise for knowledge? Apparently, considering that well-known story of the Garden of Eden.

What does Hank do, then? He dangles an apple in front of those that are most hungry, knowing that it’ll be their downfall. He wants to destroy this existence because there is no progress. Is Twain, who I think would be comparing Camelot to plantation life and Arthur and his Knights to plantation owners, saying that this is a necessary fall? He and Hank seem to agree that some sacrifices will have to be made to bring this ignorant world into a better way, but the comparison between Hank and Sir Kay can’t be overlooked when we’re talking about the irony of Hank agreeing that this place is utopia and thn wanting to change it.

Before Sir Kay relates his tale about how it came to be that those prisoners who were rightfully Launcelot’s were presenting themselves to the queen in his name, there is this premise: ”He got up and played his hand like a major -- and took every trick. He said he would state the case exactly according to the facts; he would tell the simple straightforward tale, without comment of his own.” Doesn’t Hank begin his story in the exact same way? That he’s without poetry or feeling, and yet he spins this story like he is a storyteller. He makes judgments on the people he’s surrounded by at every turn, how do we know really that he’s not exaggerating bits just like all the other knights seem to have a tendency to do?

Of the blogs that I’ve read from this assignment, it seems clear that one of the larger ironies in this work is that The Yankee is exactly what he tells the audience he is not. He himself is a world of opposition, recognizing the greatness of Camelot for all its blissful ignorance, but on a quest to better it somehow. The difference between Twain, who wasn’t a big fan of slavery or anything having to do with it, is that Twain isn’t taking society into his own hands.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

Nice way to approach the whole utopia/dystopia thing from a slightly different angle. Although it's worth noting that the Britain of Le Morte D'Arthur isn't the White's utopia: Mallory has few rivals when it comes to portraying real monsters (like Hannibal Lector bad) when he wants to.

Interestingly, I can't think of any brainless utopias before Twain, but it becomes a powerful tradition (A Brave New World, etc.) after him...

You could have done more to explicitly discuss irony here, but what you do cuts to the heart of the text: the Sir Kay/Hank comparison is perfect, and the whole plantation thing just as much so.

In case anyone is listening (not just Nik, now), it's worth mentioning that Twain spent a lot of time and effort attacking the works of Sir Walter Scott, who wrote romance-novels very popular in the old south - Twain literally blamed the stupidity and quasi-utopianism of the old south on Walter Scott, an issue which Nik is addressing here, even without realizing it...