Utopian Dreams

Note 2: Francis Bacon: The New Atlantis. 2/14/99

The first four words of Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis (1626), "We sailed from Peru," create a dramatic tension in the work which plays itself out in a comparison between the world as everyone at the time knew it to be and a totally different place that existed in Bacon's vision of what the world should have been instead. The work is closely related to medieval dream-vision and is unlike the kind produced in the Middle Ages only in respect of the fact that Bacon presents the vision as an actual event in the life of his narrator. Chaucer, who wrote several dream-visions, The House of Fame, for instance, being one of them, was always careful to make the dream quality of the work apparent to the reader from the first word ("God turne us every drem to goode!"). Bacon omits telling the reader that his "recollections" are invented facts of narrative fantasy. The effect of telling the reader that the work is a dream-vision consummates every opportunity the reader has to protect him/herself from the fabrications the author intends to use in the creation of the mythic world of his/her dream. Chaucer's intent, as the first line of the poem suggests, is to turn every dream to a good purpose. His sense may be an ironic one in as much as he uses the Proem of the House of Fame to debate the issue of whether dreams are good or not. Bacon, on the other hand, does not give the reader an opportunity to fend off the violation of reality that his vision embraces and embodies. The reader is not even aware of the potential for fabrication being at the ground of Bacon's narrative. This fundamental difference may turn out to be significant in the long run; at the moment, however, it is meant only as an observation of a differential element involved in fourteenth and seventeenth century narrative techniques, as an indication perhaps that Europeans had grown more sophisticated in the uses of fabrication from Chaucer's day (1400) to Bacon's (1600).

As the story itself unfolds, we learn that the 51 individuals housed on the ship which sailed from Peru were attempting to cross the Pacific to reach China but, because the winds were unfavorable, they became lost in the vast ocean and were driven nearly to death by the wayward winds. Eventually, they came upon an island somewhere to the west of Peru and seemed to be saved from the certain death that awaited them, from starvation and thirst, if they did not reach landfall. As they approached the island, however, they were met by a boat carrying several well-dressed dignitaries of the government and were informed they would not be allowed to land and must sail away again in sixteen days. Bacon describes the clothing worn by these islanders in considerable detail and quite carefully. At the bottom of the proclamation that was read to them the narrator notices that a cross had been inscribed by the people of New Atlantis. After negotiation with the island's dignitaries, which consisted in giving the answer to a single question, namely "Are ye Christians?," which they answered in the affirmative, the boat-people were allowed to leave ship for land if they swore an oath that they had not killed, lawfully or unlawfully, any other person in the past forty days. A notary came aboard to record the oaths and everyone was allowed to leave the ship.

In juxtaposing the question that magically grants entry to the sealed off world of salvation with the swearing of an oath that they had not killed anyone recently, one could take away the impression that the second act, swearing the oath, was meant to protect the islanders from admitting Christian's into their kingdom, since the boat-people were, of course, and in fact, Christian. As it turns out, however, the islanders unaccountably follow the same religion and always ask that question when determining whether or not to allow strangers to enter their land. Bacon does not say that the islanders do not admit non-Christians to their island but that implication does seem to exist in the context of the ritual examination required to determine a stranger's intent and likely behavior if he/she is admitted.

Leaving Peru and entering Atlantis are two actions and two places that are meant to stand in opposition to one another in Bacon's narrative where both metaphorically and simultaneously take the place of everyone's homeland in Europe. Peru is hardly mentioned in the narrative after we learn that the ship and its crew began its journey there but in everything that is said about the New Atlantis the reader is invited to compare it to both Europe, explicitly, and Peru, as a type for the New World, implicitly. In the single passage that refers to conditions in the New World, as it was found to be by European explorers, the governor of the city where the ship of lost seamen come to reside after their rescue explains how the New World came into the state in which it was found:

"So as marvel you not at the thin population of America, nor at the rudeness and ignorance of the people; for you must account your inhabitants of America as a young people, younger a thousand years at the least than the rest of the world, for that there was so much time between the universal flood and their particular inundation."

The explanation given here for the "thin population" of the New World, that it was the result of a recent flood, at best elides the truth, and at worst is meant to conceal it completely, where what is true is the fact that diseases introduced by Europeans were the actual cause of the thinning of the native population in places like Peru, Central and North America. The universal flood, of course, refers to Noah and the sense of this statement suggests that America was somehow spared the effects of the first flood, due to the innocence of its people perhaps, since there is no mention of America's participation in the sin that caused God's retribution against man in the Biblical text of Genesis, but that later, as much as a thousand years later as it were, America too was punished by a flood of its own. One must remember too that the flood itself occurred in time only a few thousand years before the current age since people in the seventeenth century believed that the world had been created as little as 5000 years before their own time. So, the "rudeness and ignorance" of native Americans was explained by Bacon's imaginary hosts on New Atlantis as being the result of youthfulness since they had emerged from the devastation of the flood as little as a thousand years before Europeans discovered them. They were then considered to be "children," recently born, who needed the guidance of the wiser, more disciplined, more knowledgeable European father.

The governor explains several other conditions that are apparent in native American culture by suggesting that native American's survived the flood at all because some were able to escape low-lying areas along the coast, which were inundated, into more mountainous regions inland, which were not. This circumstance reflects Peru's natural geography, of course, with its western coastal plain giving way to the rise of the Andes mountains in the east. After the waters receded,

"the poor remnant of human seed which remained in their mountains, peopled the country again slowly, by little and little, and being simple and a savage people (not like Noah and his sons, which was the chief family of the earth), they were not able to leave letters, arts, and civility to their posterity."

Not being "like Noah and his sons" naturally prevented native American's from learning the arts of writing, music, painting, and self-government, which is obvious to anyone since they were a "simple and a savage people." In Peru, as was the case in most other areas of the New World, Europeans saw only what they wanted to see. The Incas, like the Mayas in Central America, had developed a complex, extensive, and sophisticated civilization with arts and letters, and systems of governance that rivaled anything which had ever existed in Europe during a comparable period of time. The habit and practice of native American nakedness, which was always a crucial elements in the comparison between cultures, was explained by Bacon's govenor of New Atlantis in the following way (this is clearly meant to contrast with the well-dressed dignitaries who are seen everywhere on New Atlantis):

"and having likewise in their mountainous habitations been used, in respect of the extreme cold of those regions, to clothe themselves with the skins of tigers, bears, and great hairy goats, that they have in those parts; when after they came down into the valley, and found the intolerable heats which are there, and knew no means of lighter apparel, they were forced to begin the custom of going naked, which continueth at this day."

Surely one of the most preposterous statements to emerge from the early encounters between Europeans and native Americans is Bacon's assertion that the people of the New World were unable to devise a "means of lighter apparel" to replace the skins of "tigers, bears, and great hairy goats," which they had grown used to wearing in the colder regions of the mountains when they came back down to the coastal plains after the flood that never happened in the first place had receded. The Incas, themselves, had elevated the art of weaving, as did many other native American people, to a level hardly matched by Europeans to this day, and were never found by anyone to be wearing animal skins for clothing, except in cases of ritual related to the ceremonies associated with clan activities. This statement is so ridiculous indeed that one can only wonder and marvel at the profound need to untruthfulness that is displayed in Bacon's account.

One way to explain the distortion so apparent in this statement is to recognize the existence of "false consciousness" at the heart of ideological discourse as it is created in the reader here by Bacon's fabrications of facts and impressions of the new and different world that Europeans were forced to explain as their voyages of conquest and exploitation turned into a profound political need to justify the devastation their activities engendered. Blaming a mythical flood for the "ethnic cleansing" that the conquest of Peru became, in pursuit of the "rooms" of gold and silver that Pizzaro demanded as ransom after he kidnaped and executed Atahualpa for the crime of polygamy, the precious metals (to Europeans) that the Incas used for mere decoration, being too unsophisticated to perceive their value as money, was simply one step among many others that demonstrated the validity and necessity of Eurocentric genocide against native populations. Bacon's work in this area of ideological discourse, in the creation of "false consciousness," is as ingenious as it is demonic. To suggest that Bacon might have been unaware of the insidious nature of his own work, that he was somehow the victim of bad and inaccurate reporting, as some people might be inclined to argue, simply ignores the sophistication of the narrative he wrote.

That ideological construct begins when the lost seamen are informed that they must remain "cloistered" in the "strangers' house" on the island for three days while the inhabitants and rulers of the New Atlantis decide their fate, whether to drive them away or allow them to remain ashore. The narrator takes it upon himself to caution his fellow seamen against behaving badly while the residents of the island are considering their fate. He notes for instance that they are "beyond both the Old World and the New; and whether ever we shall see Europe, God only knoweth." Being caught between the old and the new leaves them in a place so dangerous that only God Himself can bring them safely back to one world or the other but clearly all thoughts of return are centered, as they always already are in Eurocentric discourse, on Europe itself. There is no hint that anyone in the company wants to return to Peru. After this beginning, the narrator goes on:

"we are come here among a Christian people, full of piety and humanity. Let us not bring that confusion of face upon ourselves, as to show our vices or unworthiness before them. Yet there is more, for they have by commandment (though in form of courtesy) cloistered us within these walls for three days; who knoweth whether it be not to take some taste of our manners and conditions? And if they find them bad, to banish us straightway; if good, to give us further time. For these men that they have given us for attendance, may withal have an eye upon us."

The thing to do then in this dangerous and precarious situation is to be suspicious of the motives of good Christians, who are "full of piety and humanity," to fear, if not expect, that you are being watched and spied upon, and therefore must be on your best behavior if only for three days, from crucifixion to resurrection perhaps, so that you will win the right to more time in the sanctuary of protection that your hosts have so far granted to you. This discourse is clearly directed back at the way native Americans received Europeans when they first reached the shores of the Western hemisphere. Atahualpa was clearly a fool and deserved his fate because he was not in the least bit suspicious of the motives of Pizzaro and agreed to meet with him alone and without protection. Pizzaro demanded these conditions, captured the Inca leader, tried him for polygamy, and executed him. The way the New Atlantians conduct themselves, and execute their affairs, is how native Americans should have behaved when the Europeans first approached their shore. They could not do this, of course, because they were not Christian but were a "simple and a savage" race who apparently trusted too much in the motives of the other.

Sailing, then, from Peru to the New Atlantis gives rise to the possibility of contrasting the failed world of native America to one that is clearly superior, not only to the place left behind and abandoned, but also to the home-world itself in Europe. which is discovered, as the New World was from the Old, by profound accident when wayward winds chance to drive the ship into port in a land no one even suspects might exist anywhere at all in the world. That the New Atlantis is better even than Europe is made clear by the concern the narrator expresses to his companions about their need to behave without bringing "that confusion of face" upon themselves which will reveal their own vice and unworthiness. How New Atlantis became Christian in the first place is a matter of concern to the wayfarers who ask the governor a first-granted question about that very happenstance. The question itself much gladdens the heart of the governor ("Ye knit my heart to you") because it demonstrates that the strangers "first seek the kingdom of heaven." The story he tells them, of course, contains several elements of the miraculous, as it certainly must, because there is no record whatsoever in European history that such a world as New Atlantis exists.

The governor, recounting the story of origin, which is not unlike the Eden-myth itself, explains that a great pillar of light, with an even brighter cross crowning it, appeared near the eastern shore of the island at about the same time that Christ was crucified and rose from the dead. The island's wisest men approached the sign and one of them, who had prayed more fervently than the rest, was allowed to approach more closely than the rest. However,

"ere he came near it, the pillar and cross of light broke up, and cast itself abroad, as it were, into a firmament of many stars, which also vanished soon after, and there was nothing left to be seen but a small ark or chest of cedar, dry and not wet at all with water, though it swam; . . . and when the wise man had taken it with all reverence into his boat, it opened of itself, and there were found in it a book and a letter, both written in fine parchment, and wrapped in sindons of linen. The book contained all the canonical books of the Old and New Testament, according as you have them (for we know well what the churches with you receive), and the Apocalypse itself; and some other books of the New Testament, which were not at that time written."

The supplementary texts mentioned here serve as a kind of proof that the New Atlantians are better at being Christian than the Europeans are. Another aspect of this story which suggests the same thing concerns the miraculous nature of the book and the letter themselves, in as much as,

"the book as the letter, wrought a great miracle, conform[ing] to that of the apostles, in the original gift of tongues. For there being at that time, in this land, Hebrews, Persians, and Indians, besides the natives, everyone read upon the book and letter, as if they had been written in his own language. And thus was this land saved from infidelity (as the remain of the old world was from water) by an ark."

This linguistic twist is similar to the kinds of miracles that accompany the very Logos itself, needless to say, since the book and the letter quite obviously are examples of the living power of the divine Word of God. The miraculous coming of the true Word of God to the island makes it a better place than Europe has come to be because the transition of truth is somehow more incorruptible in the unknown world of New Atlantis than it was, or ever had been, in Europe itself.

One of the ways Bacon transmits the knowledge that New Atlantis possesses a better form of Christianity than Europe does, or ever did, is drawn out of a discussion the narrator has with a Jew who lives on the island. Bacon notes that the man is worthy and is allow to remain on the island, even without converting to Christianity, because he is not like the Jews of Europe. The Jew characterizes the people of Bensalem, the city in New Atlantis where the wayfarers are housed, in the following terms:

"there is not under the heavens so chaste a nation as this of Bensalem, nor so free from all pollution or foulness. It is the virgin of the world; I remember, I have read in one of your European books, of a holy hermit among you, that desired to see the spirit of fornication, and there appeared to him a little foul ugly Ethiope; but if he had desired to see the spirit of chastity of Bensalem, it would have appeared to him in the likeness of a fair beautiful cherub."

Clearly, then, and by the authority of a worthy Jew, the Christians of New Atlantis far exceed their counterparts in Europe, even to the point of being angelic. The comment about the hermit who wanted to see the "spirit of fornication" and saw the "foul ugly Ethiope" simply reinforces the contrast between "Peru" as a place where people of color live and the "fair beautiful cherub[s]," who occupy civilized nations and islands. This discourse points the reader toward what everyone always already knows about native American, that the people living there have no moral values, a point made here implicitly by virtue of the fact that Pizzaro was forced to execute the leader of the Incan empire because he was guilty of polygamy, a crime well within the limits of a "spirit of fornication."

A final element of this telling of a Utopian dream, concerns the fact that concepts of hierarchy are simultaneously transmitted to New Atlantis by virtue of its having received the true Word of God. This fact is made evident in a purely unconscious mannerism that accompanies Bacon's telling of his story. When the wayfarers are first shown the "strangers' house" on the island their guide explains to them that certain of the rooms have been reserved for the highest ranking members of the crew, while the rest are to be divided among the others. The narrator reports that the guide had told him that "four of those chambers, which were better than the rest, might receive four of the principal men of our company; and lodge them alone by themselves; and the other fifteen chambers were to lodge us, two and two together." That class stratification naturally accompanies the dissemination of Christian belief, even when it is by miraculous means, should not surprise anyone since the point of Bacon's New Atlantis is to preserve the essence of the Utopian dream acquired from the Biblical myth of Eden, whose purpose has always already been to justify genocide by virtue of its exclusionary impulses to purify and cleanse society in order to make it perfect for those who truly deserve the boons of coming to live in paradise.

Bacon's movement from Peru to a New Atlantis and back again to Europe, if the wayfarers are fortunate to make it back there, and more importantly if any of them actually want to return, since they have the option to remain forever in Atlantis, demonstrates that, while Europe may be flawed in certain imprecise ways, the world of native America, from which the castaways have escaped, is much worse than any conceivable human condition known in the world at the time. That message is inscribed in Bacon's text as a "false consciousness" that makes it not just possible to destroy the native world, but demands that such worlds, wherever they are found, must be destroyed if Europe is to thrive and prosper. A few "rooms" of silver and gold, after all, are a small price to take for the right to murder indiscriminately entire races of human beings, people so savage that they have not got beyond believing gold and silver are only worth as much as any other transitory decoration. Since natives do not honor what Europeans value most (money, wealth, possessions beyond imagining), they do not deserve to live. By ignoring the Peruvian context from which his own story springs, Bacon inscribes that message in the text beyond question, beyond doubt.

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