When students read More’s Utopia, the first thing they learn is that the name is coined from the Greek for ‘no-place’, or ‘no-where’. The second thing they usually learn is that the name Hythloday means ‘peddler of nonsense’. From this spring two responses: either that the tale is fraudulent, and More expects us to ridicule it, or that More wants to publicly disavow the tale to avoid political controversy.
I think both interpretations miss something: that though the tale is fictional, its fiction isn’t supposed to matter. Words are hollow in Utopia, and communication rarely occurs as planned. Messages get lost; topics of argument are forgotten. But that’s okay, because the real value of words isn’t in their center, in the semantics of the message, but on their edges in some fashion – the digressions they lead to; their accidental consequences; the marginalia of a book; as philosophical thought-experiments; where they end up rather than where they were intended to lead.
In this model, it doesn’t matter if the original message was a falsehood, because the message’s ultimate value was never in what it meant to begin with. In fact, I’ll eventually argue that to read the name ‘Utopia’ as signifying the work’s fiction is itself a kind of paradox. This will become clearer later.