“Everything Possible with Everything Given”

There are so many utopias. Could one be a small collective of nuns, performing their chores, far from the disasters of the 12th century?

The medieval abbey at the center of Lauren Groff’s latest novel, Matrix, seems as supernatural as the chivalric romances that inspire it. The abbey’s nuns, led by the visionary Marie de France, build an immense labyrinth around their home. With indecipherable twists and turns through the forest, the labyrinth deters outsiders, invaders, and especially men. In this way, the nuns and the villeinesses on their lands “would be removed, enclosed, safe. They would be self-sufficient, entire unto themselves. An island of women.” A minor utopia.

Groff herself says that Matrix, her first novel since the 2016 US presidential election, emerged, in part, from a wish to write about “a kind of ‘feminist separatist utopia,’ an island of women, freed from the moral burden of bearing and coexisting with so many loud and angry men.”1 Since 2016, the possibility of even minor utopias seems more implausible and, thus, more necessary than ever (the momentum of the anti-abortion right is just one of the starkest indications). Things are apocalyptic: a novel virus has killed millions; the far right is resurgent worldwide, and a centrist status quo is toothless against it; climate disasters fueled by more fuel are commoner and worsening.

Apocalypse is familiar terrain for Groff. Arcadia (2012), for instance, projects uncannily into a near future plagued by an airborne virus. Meanwhile, the stories collected in Florida (2018) are tinged with climate anxiety. Groff’s earlier fiction is a kind of eschatology, and Matrix is no different in this regard. But even while immersed in the end times, her fiction does not despair. Instead, it hungers endlessly—for community, for hope—for more from the blighted world than it wants to give up. In its insistence that the world should just be better than it is, an earnestly utopian hunger sets Groff’s writing above most.

“It is 1158 and the world bears the weariness of late Lent” when Marie de France, 17 years old, arrives in England at an impoverished abbey stricken by “a strange disease that made the flesh of the sufferers blue as they drowned in their own lungs.” Marie is an illegitimate half-sister of King Henry II Plantagenet—but too tall, too ugly, too educated, too fey. A poet, crusader, and virago who rides a great destrier. Too much. Unmarriageable. Accordingly, Marie is dismissed from court by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine to take her vows and become prioress at the seemingly ill-fated abbey.

Almost nothing is known about the historical Marie de France. She may have been a royal bastard; she may have been an abbess. She authored a collection of 12 Breton lais—a key text of medieval francophone verse—and a book of Aesopic fables. Historical fiction can often constrain because its characters are at risk of becoming mere vehicles for events. For example, we know there’s only one ending in store for Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, but what makes those novels successful is how historical events become vehicles for the elaboration of character. In Groff’s case, Marie’s absence from the historical record grants her complete ownership of her character.

Like other Groffian protagonists, Marie hungers awfully. For the ambitious young Marie, the abbey is a punishment, a death sentence to a greatness she knows is in her. The hunger of artistic, usually female, ambition is a Groff hallmark (cf. Mathilde Yoder in her breakout 2015 novel, Fates and Furies). On one level, then, Matrix is a tale about how patriarchy and empire trample everything interesting and new to preserve their own toxicity. Marie, for whom narrow-mindedness and shortsightedness are signs of humanity’s twilight, implicates the reader in these sources of her disappointment: “In a thousand more years, humans will be as thoughtless as the cud-chewing kine of the fields.” To Marie, everyone—present and future alike—is damned and damnable.

Upon arrival at the desolate abbey in a “damp stinking mud-befouled corner of Angleterre,” establishing a separatist utopia of women is farthest from Marie’s mind. She pours her artistic ambitions into a collection of lais designed to tempt Eleanor to summon Marie back to court. Condemned to squalor and anonymity, Marie finds hope in poetry. “The world of the abbey is the dream. The set of poems she is writing is the world.” Except—as Marie will quickly learn after being denied her return to court—the world is the world.

Unappreciated but unthwarted, Marie determines instead to “do all that she can do to exalt herself on this worldly plane.” She turns her hungers toward the abbey itself. Marie is unapologetic about her greatness. And, like the Trumpism against which Matrix was conceived, she is shameless in how she does politics. Marie plays the long game, gathering power in a silent coup, gaining influence over the nuns and the abbey to the point that “[t]here would be no authority but Marie’s authority in this place.”

Except, unlike Trump, Marie has good ideas and wants good things for other people. Matrix suggests that a true visionary has a duty to others to share their work, whether an artistic breakthrough or a plan to lift an abbey out of penury. The historical Marie expresses a similar sentiment in the prologue to her lais: “One whom God has given knowledge / and good eloquence in speaking / should not keep quiet nor hide on this account / but rather should willingly show herself.”2

Matrix is an artist’s novel, but rather than merely telling a tale of how Marie writes her lais, Groff sidelines Marie’s masterpiece at the outset. Instead, she gifts Marie with another kind of breakthrough vision. Years later, after half a life spent struggling to lift the abbey from decline, Marie is granted a “long, cold clarity” in the form of apocalyptic visions from the Virgin Mary. Transcending her wish to return to courtly life, Marie kindles a new ambition to fortify the abbey against the end of times.

But until those arrive, Marie’s abbey is also constantly threatened by external forces—disease, starvation, poverty, rapists, greedy church officials, the crown—and from within—from huckster mystics and the nuns’ own ossified thinking, asceticism, and female self-abnegation. By middle-age, Marie replaces the abbess who let the abbey slide into ruin and, with this new authority, channels her artistic vision into a different kind of creation. To protect her nuns and the villeinesses on their lands, Marie makes the abbey into an “extension of her own body. Her actions always in reaction to the question of what she could have done in the world, if she had only been given her freedom.”

Marie’s first vision from the Virgin shows her how to insulate her daughters from the world’s apocalypses. She instructs the nuns to build the labyrinth, and, like the islanders of another utopia—Thomas More’s (1516)—they carve away the isthmuses attaching them to a fallen world of lack, of hungering. During Marie’s tenure as abbess, the abbey thrives under her no-nonsense management. The abbey becomes privately wealthy and self-sustaining. “So many hours have been forever lost through feebleness and reluctance,” Marie thinks. “Surely god, who has done all good work, wants work to be done well.”

An earnestly utopian hunger sets Groff’s writing above most.

This call for good works echoes the quasi-religious utopian thought of Ernst Bloch, the Jewish German philosopher best known for his monumental, three-volume The Principle of Hope (published between 1954 and 1959). Having fled Nazi Germany in 1933, Bloch persisted in imagining the prospects of utopia under an actually existing apocalypse. Crucially, Bloch distinguishes between two utopias: abstract and concrete. Abstract utopia is the stuff of dreams, compensatory fantasies and castles in the sky that never lay foundations in the material world of hunger. And what better example of such dreaming than the religious afterlife, a paradise we shall receive to compensate for the abstention and deprivation of this earthier world?

Conversely, concrete utopia happens where dream stuff connects with real life. Concrete utopias are revolutionary advances that, for Bloch, signal paths toward better worlds already latent in what exists, “stepping stones and indications of what the human individual and the world could become.”3 They are anticipatory, presaging the possibility of more humane worlds—think the Paris Commune, general strikes, intentional communities, Indigenous land and water protection, or the global anti-racist movements of last year. For Bloch, “[r]eality without real possibilities is not complete.” An impoverished world stripped of utopian hope “deserves as little regard, art, or science as the world of the philistine does. The concrete Utopia stands at the horizon of every reality.4

But utopias, while latent within reality, are never guaranteed. Marie’s utopia—a model of a genuinely alternate way of collective human life—remains imperiled by famine, plague, and imperial rise and ruin. And though Marie doesn’t exactly live with philistines, she does live with many unequipped to understand a concrete utopia when they see one. Ever aware of the harsh realities of the world, Marie must manage the possibility that some of her nuns might betray her to the church hierarchy.

But, while the demolition of her utopia always looms, it is, in the meantime, it is a thriving place exempt from the violence of “the distant wide world.” Not all the nuns are visionaries, but many thrive under Marie’s governance. For instance, subprioress Goda is uniquely brilliant at animal husbandry. Nest, the infirmatrix, has unparalleled knowledge of medicine, healing, and sex, an expert hand at helping the other nuns climax. Asta has a mind for engineering and makes infrastructural plans to construct the ideas Marie gleans in her visions, including the labyrinth, an abbess’s house, and a dam and sluice gate that will irrigate the abbey. Other nuns manage the cellars, do farm work, or blacksmith.

The unexciting thing about utopia—perhaps what makes it so hard to envision—is that it might be incredibly boring. Utopia might just be a place where “the works and the hours go on,” life as good work and a community to work in:

“The scriptrix nuns are bent over their manuscripts, the spinster nuns are spinning their yarn, the webster nuns weave the cloth, the baxter nuns are baking the good fine bread of evening meal. And all around there is industry: the kiln has baked bowls and cups all day, broken things are being mended, habits are being sewn, stockings knitted, gossip and stories drawing the nuns closer.”

The nuns are gifted, industrious, and innovative. They rise and grind, but, unlike us, they do so without the manufactured scarcity of capitalism (which is not to valorize the scarcity of medieval feudalism). On the island of women at the center of the labyrinth, the nuns simply make their lot better, despite the apocalyptic realities unfolding beyond their walls. In this collective work, there is a genius burning as intensely as Marie’s own.

It has been almost a millennium since the real Marie’s life and writings. It is 2021, and the world bears the weariness of everything. Like Marie, I feel unsated, except perhaps by a novel called Matrix. I feel that the absence of hope is not just a lack felt in heart but a deliberate feature of our world meant to keep us isolated from each other. I feel hunger for justice, reciprocity, a habitable climate, for more. For less, even. For a world that’s just less shitty than it always is.

Groff’s Marie de France is impatient, angry, intolerant of sloppiness, stupidity, ignorance, small mindedness, of people without vision. I wish that I, that we all, could summon a zealotry like Marie’s and crusade for something actually good for once.

“Collapse is the constant state of humanity,” Marie thinks in her final years:

“The story of the flood … is only the first refrain of a song that is to be sung over and over, the earth’s gradual and repeated diminishment, civilization after civilization foundering to dust … In the end, the earth will crack, and the wicked will be cast into the lake of fire. Marie suspects this fiery end would be the stone and the soil and the waters of the earth itself, through human folly and greed made too hot for it to be willing to bear anymore life upon its back. So it will go, and so it would be.”

Invoking the future catastrophes of climate change, Marie portends our own present and the apocalypse we all see happening before our eyes. Understanding better than most the reality of things, Marie dies well. “She has had an eternity of community” and, on her utopian island, “[e]verything possible with everything given has been done.”

After Marie’s death, the new abbess, Tilde, finds a book in which Marie had recorded her visions. Tilde had always thought Marie’s visions “were not true visions, but rather ideas that she worked up into vision form to sell her building projects to her sisters. Tilde did not truly believe her abbess to have been an actual mystic. Mystics are ethereal creatures, and Marie was the opposite of ethereal. She was massive, fleshly, ruled by her hungers.” To Tilde, Marie’s visions were not holy but human, as though they “have not been given, but wholly created.” A great work of art or social planning—either way—is heretical.

To her credit, Tilde considers hiding Marie’s book until she can understand what hidden wisdom it might hold. But she is disturbed by another nun and, panicking, tosses the book into the fireplace where it burns to cinder. Tilde “feels a terrible sort of dark and tarry joy spreading inside her … the profound pleasures of destruction.” She does not understand what she has destroyed: “visions that might have showed a different path for the next millennium. The strong stock for a new graft gone. How slow the final flowering of good intentions can be, the poisonous full bloom taking place centuries beyond the scope of the original life.”

Matrix is not really about Marie’s art but rather the utopian possibilities that come out of making art or creating something new. It’s about what we might do if we had Marie’s courage to bring ideas into the world, rather than exalting in their burning. “Such fires, so small in themselves,” our narrator predicts, “will heat the world imperceptibly until after centuries it will be too hot to bear humanity.” And so they have. The poisonous bloom unfurls.

Our world has everything to give us, but we have not yet done everything possible. So—crusade or apocalypse?


This article was commissioned by Tara Menonicon

  1. Sophie Gilbert, “The Writer Who Saw All of This Coming,” The Atlantic, September 7, 2021.
  2. Marie de France, The Lais of Marie de France, translated from French by Claire M. Waters (Broadview, 2018), p. 49.
  3. Jack Zipes, Introduction to Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, translated from German by Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg (MIT, 1988), p. xxvii.
  4. Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, p. 155.
Featured Image: 'Nunnery' by Kevin Dooley / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)