The Shifting “Horns” of Thomas More’s Utopian Womb
To begin at the beginning of Book II of More’s Utopia, I begin with a footnote: “[Utopia] is about the size of England; it is the shape of an atoll or (for the Freudian-minded) of a womb” (31). While still trying to repress my own latent Freudian thought (my honor’s thesis advisor as an undergraduate, Richard Wheeler, is a psychoanalytic critic), the description of the island is not only open to a psychoanalytic reading, but also one can buttress this idea with an understanding of Renaissance representations of the “womb” (my attempt to kill the father by combining my repressed psychoanalysis with cultural poetics). Hythloday opens his “description” of the island with the island’s geography.
Utopia “is two hundred miles across the middle part where it is widest, and is nowhere much narrower than this except toward the two ends. These ends, drawn toward one another as if in a five-hundred-mile circle, make the island crescent-shaped like a new moon” (31). While this description alone would lend itself to a psychoanalytic reading of the description of the island, the next sentence refers to the two “ends” as “the horns of the crescent.” What is particularly important for my reading is that the use of the word “horns” operates in the lexicon of medical/ anatomical representations of the female body.
The problem here is that the horns of the crescent island of Utopia are near the opening rather than at the top, and would consequently appear more cervical rather than ovarian. While the horns of the island seemingly do not properly map onto the island-as-uterus, the reference in combination to the similarity to the island-as-womb does suggest a connection. In anatomical and obstetrical books contemporary to More’s Utopia, the “horns” of the uterus were either placed near the top of the uterus or at its bottom. Some depictions of the womb included “horns” at the top of the uterus:
While one can find images where the “horns” are placed in their “correct” anatomical position, one also finds anatomical depictions of the womb where the “horns” lie closer to the bottom of the “matrix” as one can see in the following image from the 1530s:
In the Norton critical edition, the translation translates (repetition intentional- so Repetition is possible- take that Kierkegaard) the word “cornua” for “horn,” which maintains the connection to the reference as taking part in the lexicon of anatomy (cornua uteri is still the medical term for the connection between the fallopian tubes and the uterus). What is interesting about Utopia as womb is that there are various defense methods mentioned in this section that allow strangers to enter safely or to be killed instantly, for “with the shallows on one side, and rocks on the other, the entrance to the bay can be very dangerous.., [and] since… other rocks lie under the water, they are very dangerous to navigation. The channels are known only to the Utopians, so hardly any strangers enter the bay without one of their pilots; and even they themselves could not enter safely if they did not direct themselves by some landmarks on the coast. If they should shift these landmarks about, they could lure to destruction an enemy fleet coming against them, however big it was” (31).
Obviously, it is important for the way the Utopians live to have an impenetrable (when necessary) and highly defensible island, but this passage combined with the inference that the island itself is womb-like carries with it interesting valences. The womb in the Renaissance represented a place that was at the same time ideal and dangerous, generative and destructive, hidden yet often expressive, a “good place” and a “no place.” It was a place valorized and important for creating legitimate heirs, suspected in reference to bastard children, and scorned as a possible breeding ground for monsters. In Utopia, strangers only enter if the inhabitants themselves allow them to, and the literal “signs” on the coast can be manipulated in order to destroy unwelcome guests. This description of the island, in effect, gives birth to the text of Book two and Hythloday’s encounter with the Utopians allows a “stranger” to tell the tale to his listeners, just as More’s (the narrator’s) encounter with Hythloday allows him to tell the tale of the tale, just as More’s (the man’s) encounter with his own imagination (also often associated with the womb) also spawns the entire narrative. The problem here is who controls the landmarks at the shore? Do we engage with the text as if Utopia is an ideal or do we deal with it as full of potentially dangerous ideas? Are we to be allowed direct access to Utopia or will we be destroyed upon the rocks? We have a stranger’s account of a stranger’s account of a place that does not exist, but to complicate matters More (the man) created the text without the assurance that Hythloday has within it.
When More (the character) objects “that men cannot possibly live well where all things are in common,” Hythloday responds: “I am not surprised… that you think of it in this way, since you have no idea, or only a false idea, of such a state. But you should have been with me in Utopia, and seen with your own eyes their manners and customs as I did-for I lived there more than five years, and would never have left, if it had not been to make that new world known to others. If you had seen them, you would frankly confess that you had never seen a people so well governed as they are” (29). The repetition of the appeal to actual physical perception within the text makes sense, but outside of the text the possibility of “seeing” them is foreclosed, and by this foreclosure understanding or learning from the Other (imagined race) MAY also be foreclosed.
The text ends with More stating his persistent doubts about the question, and he will probably remain in such ignorance (at least according to the logic of the text) because he can never acquire the epistemological certainty Hythloday possesses. From this assured perspective, Hyhloday sets out to “describe” the island to his listeners, but he does attempt to “defend” them. This presentation of the entire fiction as a type of “description” is complicated because to “describe” implies a simple relation of facts, while in fact the act of fiction making fabricates those facts the entire time. This circles us back round, in crescent-like fashion, to the womb, because in the Renaissance there were also debates over the female’s function in the creation of children (for some the womb was simply a warm place for the seed to grow, and for others the woman supplied the body while the man supplied the soul, and for yet others that they both took part in the creation of the soul and body- but often in these passages there is a movement to suggest that the man had a more important role in generation- for reasons I will not go into now).
To “describe” would seem to map onto the idea of the womb as simply a place to translate spirit into matter, a passive act of translation, while in fact the text is wholly generative, and the fictionalized account gives birth to the narrative. As Margaret Tyler proclaimed in the letter to her the readers of her 1578 translation of The Mirrour of Knighthoode, her text is implied to be a product of her “sport” with the original text (an intellectual rather than physical sexual act). Like Hythloday’s description of the island (and further, English translations of More’s Utopia) Tyler’s translation is the offspring of such an encounter, but the question is whether or not this offspring is legitimate or a monster, and her act of the seemingly passive act of translation also becomes a point of resistance, for “seldom is [a] tale carried clean from another’s mouth” (A.iii.).
More, Thomas. Utopia. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
Ortúñez de Calahorra, Diego. The mirrour of princely deedes and knighthood. Trans. Margaret Tyler. London: Thomas East, 1578.