Utopia

(Review of Utopia exhibition at New York Public Library on 42nd St. October 14 2000-Jan.27 2001).

“…we can still imagine another world which man can embellish not just with his own hands but by the mere fact of living, of existing. I know: we have now taken a leap into the kingdom of Utopia. But were it not for Utopias man would hardly be more ingenious or more unhappy than many other creatures”- Eugenio Montale, Poet In Our Time.

Every writer knows the importance of a good title. But the all-time champion has to be Thomas More whose ‘Utopia’, published in 1516, not only invented the word, coining it from a Greek original that means “a good place” as well as “no place”, but also launched it on a long and frutiful career in English. Adding a word to the language makes a writer a member of an exclusive club, especially if that word is a workhorse like “utopia” . You can come across it a dozen or more times a week, used in everything from an academic book review, which employs it in More’s original sense of an invented society, to the political columns of a newspaper, where it’s a term of praise-or more often abuse-in reviews of government policy, to casual, everyday conversation where “utopian” has become an adjective describing any unrealistic or wildly optimistic hope or scheme. Then there are all the knowing plays on the word in advertising and show business-surely at least one indie rock band is called Utopia-as well as its role in science fiction, where the tradition of inventing imaginary socieities qua worlds, of which More and Plato are the classical exponents, finds a modern home.

We can only hope the runaway success of his title compensates More’s ghost for the neglect of his actual book. Although ‘Utopia’ is a slim volume, a mere 103 pages in the Penguin Classics edition, no one reads More any more unless they have to- a fact which says less about the failings of the author than the form. Whatever their philosophical or political significance, utopias were always a bad idea in literary terms- clunky hybrids too scholarly for popular readers and too popular for scholars. As More himself recognised when he pulled out all the stops to jazz up the dry-as-dust Platonic original for a Tudor audience. His resulting text comes with all the bells and whistles of a post-modern novel: fake correspondence; an invented language; the author as a character in the story; historical figures mixed in with fictional characters etc. etc.. Anything to add interest and increase the versimilitude. Perhaps More’s most successul twist was to give his utopia a geographical location, an (invented) island off the coast of South America. When you add in More’s fellow utopian J.V. Andrae’s wheeze (in his ‘Christianopolis’) of having his narrator discover utopia after being shipwrecked on a remote island, you have the creative template for ‘Robinson Crusoe’.

More’s inspiration produced an unlikely bestseller for himself and a craze among his fellow European intellectuals for writing their own utopias that lasted for the rest of the 16th and the first half of the 17th centuries. By then, of course, Sir Thomas More was long dead, a Catholic martyr to the English Reformation. More’s real work had been as a churchman-politician, a dangerous calling in the 16th century and doubly dangerous if you happened to be an Englishman. In England, religion became intertwined with the Tudors’ attempts to establish their royal dynasty and, with it, the modern English state. More’s downfall came when his master Henry Vlllth broke with Rome and declared himself head of the English church. More’s silence on the subject was not enough to save his life in the treacherous world of Tudor high politics. In Robert Bolt’s famous play ‘A Man for All Seasons’ More appears as the archetypal intellectual in politics, so disgusted by the constant compromises involved that he ends up making a stand on an issue of principle, infallibly chooses the wrong one, and ends up beheaded for his pains.

In between all his high-wire political, theological and personal manouevering, More wrote ‘Utopia’ as a scholarly jeu d’esprit, a form of mental relaxation traditional among academics. In fact, it’s still practised as such and sometimes produces work of real quality-for example, with the Inklings, a group of Oxford dons in the 1930s and 1940s, whose creations include C. S. Lewis’ science fiction novels and J.R.R. Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, itself a quasi-utopia with magical elements.

The writing of ‘Utopia’ had nothing to do with More’s fate, which fits the way we think of utopias anyway, as a harmless, slightly eccentric pursuit, like compiling crossword puzzles. But in the decades after he launched (or re-launched) utopia as a fashionable form, utopias did take on a political significance. As the golden promise of the Renaissance darkened with Reformation and Counter-Reformation, amid the gathering threat of religious war in Europe, utopias became the coded expression of the hopes of liberal thinkers, seeking to avoid a final conflict by means of universal religious reform. Their plans were, as we would say today, “utopian”. But for a short time, “utopia” entered the real world, albeit by the back door, and people like Thomas Campanella (author of the utopia ‘City of the Sun’) joined with the circle around Johann Valentin Andrae across the Alps in what the historian Frances Yates calls the ‘Rosicrucian Enlightenment’.

The Rosicrucians are one of several important omissions in the Bibliotheque Nationale and the New York Public Library’s joint ‘Utopia’ exhibition, which they describe as covering all aspects of “the search for the ideal society in the Western world”. Since the Rosicrucians never existed, we might forgive the librarians for leaving them out. But their mysterious Manifestoes caused a sensation throughout Europe at the beginning of the 17th century. (No one knows who wrote them. In his later life, Andrae claimed, or rather owned up to, their authorship. While it’s been widely accepted, his claim leaves many unanswered questions about the origins of the Manifestoes which are very different in tone and imagination from Andrae’s other, frankly rather dull writings). Purporting to be the work of a secret brotherhood of idealists a.k.a. utopians, followers of the mythical Christian Rosenkreutz, the Manifestoes called for a golden age in Europe after a general reformation. With their Hollywood-style mumbo-jumbo about hidden tombs, books of occult wisdom and secret societies, the Rosicrucian Manifestoes seem to have been a brilliant PR stunt on behalf of the liberal reformers, hemmed in as they were from both sides by the increasing fanaticism of Catholics and Protestants alike.

Since the Rosicrucians proclaimed they would keep their identities secret, while inviting all men of goodwill to join them, anyone could claim to be a member-or to have met a member-of the Brotherhood. The result was a pan-European “hunt the Rosicrucian” craze which caught up the young Descartes among many others. He actually travelled to Germany looking for the Brothers. By the time he returned to Paris in 1623, and found himself suspected of being a Rosicrucian himself, the mood had changed. What would have been a compliment had turned into a dangerous slur Descartes had rapidly to disavow. By then, the reformers had lost, and Europe plunged into its worst crisis between the Middle Ages and 1914. The New Age of the 17 century was characterised not by alchemy or religious toleration or pansophic ideas of universal harmony, but by the Inquisition, witchunts and the 30 Years War. Utopia moved from being the pipe-dream of scholars in their studies to the signature of a politico-religious ideology whose adherents risked torture and death.

By any account, this should be a crucial episode in a history of Western utopia. Its absence is symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with the New York exhibition, which has little sense of history at all. Instead, the show substitutes a barebones chronology which takes More and his contemporary utopians as its half way mark. The first, pre-More half of the show is much the most successful. Here, the organizers’ grab-bag approach pays off by showing us the astonishing variety of ideal societies that were in the air, or rather on the page, long before More’s seminal book. They range from numerous variations on familiar concepts like Paradise and the Garden of Eden to less-familiar themes such as Prester John’s kingdom and maps purporting to show the precise location of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

My personal favourites are the charming City of the Ladies, a utopia of virtuous women written in the 15th century by a female author (Christine de Pisan) as a riposte to the negative view of women taken by Christian theologians and philosophers; and the Irish Legend of St. Brendan, a work called “a Christian Aeneid”. According to the legend, 14 monks led by St, Brendan sailed for seven years seeking the Promised Land of the Saints. Every Easter, they found themselves back at the same spot in the sea, on the back of a giant fish named Jasconius, where they celebrated the Passion. At the end of the seven years, the company finally landed on the Isle of the Saints; but after fourty days on the island, a young boy came to Brendan and told him he must leave forthwith-but that he would return to the Promised Land when he died.

To those of us who, influenced by Plato’s “Republic”, think of utopias as rather dry, logical constructions it’s a revelation to discover the rich store of legend, myths, visions and poetry that lies behind them. By More’s day, this sort of material was everywhere. The Age of Exploration had greatly increased the potential stock. There were travellers’ tall tales galore, some of which turn up in Shakespeare whose “Tempest”, on one level, is a drama about the impossibility of realizing utopia, even if you start with your own island and a magic wand. Then the travellers’ tales were trumped- though by no means rendered obsolete- by the discovery of the New World (a name that could easily be the title for a utopia), which was like a blank page everyone rushed to fill with his or her utopian fantasies. Some people thought of America as the site of the original Paradise. Others set out to create a new Paradise, an ideal society, in its wilderness. As for the the indigenous people, the Native Americans were like a gift from Central Casting, available, depending on your chosen scenario, to play the noble savages from a pre-Christian Golden Age or savage primitives ripe for extermination.

Like the typical traveller in a fictional utopia, the exhibition loses its way once it gets past More and the settlement of America. The all-inclusive approach that worked in its favour in the first half, when it brought to light interesting connections and influences on the idea (or should it be the genre?) of utopia, turns sour once More’s bestseller has been written. In the extended second half of the exhibit, the curators seem to think that any idea or event which involves a plan, dream, hope or design for improving the human condition can not only be described as “utopian” in the broad sense but is directly related to their theme.

If everything is utopia, then nothing is Utopia. “Gulliver’s Travels” may be a defensible choice, for instance, but I’m not convinced that the 17th century (French) fad for ballooning belongs here. And the exhibition’s coverage of the 19th century is perfunctory. The organisers seem to think they’ve done their duty by displaying the Communist Manifesto alongside the various colonies and plans for co-operative communities produced by people like Robert Owen. But commune-building was a minor theme in the real story of the 19th century when the whole idea and tradition of utopia became the property of the political left seeking to explain how a socialist society of the future might work. 19th century utopias were overwhelmingly communist- so much so that the early socialists were dismissed, by Marx and Engels, as the “utopian socialists”. Marx and Engels critiqued the utopians like Fourier, Saint-Simon and Owen and effectively replaced them, but they took some important ideas from them, while the young Marx himself admitted to being a fan of Campanella’s City of the Sun.

Things get downright gloomy when we hit the 20th century, as if the curators were having second thoughts about the whole thing, both their exhibition and the concept of utopia itself. There are lengthy presentations on Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, featuring the usual suspects in the form of gulags, camps, secret police and so on. While this material has its own power, regardless of how many often we’ve seen it before, I’m not sure that classing them as utopian systems sheds any new light on the nature of the Third Reich or Stalin’s Russia-or on the notion of utopia.

By now, though, the visitor is starting to become aware that something else is going on. There’s a hidden agenda under way. Once the exhibit’s curators get past More, they roll up their ideological shirtsleeves and go to work. What they want us to understand is that there were good utopias (the American and French Revolutions, give or take a few Gallic excesses) and bad utopias (Socialism; Communism; Nazi Germany; Soviet Russia). Even at the time of the worst utopia (the USSR), there were “good” utopians in the world ie Americans who kept the faith (cue sketches of ideal American homes from the 1950s; examples of technological progress; early NASA paintings of projected space colonies). Meanwhile, among the bad guys, as the exhibition brochure informs us, “the bloody events in Paris of 1871, known as the Commune, were hailed by Marx as the first realization of his ideals; the full consequences of a large-scale experiment with communism would not be known until many years later.”

This is history rewritten as propaganda. The blood spilled in the Commune was spilled overwhelmingly by the Right which repressed it savagely, massacring thousands and thereby contributing directly to the paranoia that accompanied all later revolutions, and the Bolshevik Revolution in particular. As E.H. Hobsbawm wrote, after the Commune “..the social revolutionaries knew what awaited them if they did not manage to maintain power.”

The second half of the ‘Utopia’exhibition is in the spirit of Karl Popper, the philosopher of science who began his career with an influential foray into political theory called ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’. Popper claimed to have identified a fatal flaw in Western thought, from Plato through to Hegel and Marx, that led directly to the rise of totalitarianism. After Popper’s book appeared in 1945, at the start of the Cold War, it became a popular favourite in Western universities. They were still peddling his stuff when I was in college twenty years later. The second half of ‘Utopia’ simply repackages Popper’s dubious argument under a new title (or rather an old title, the one belonging to Thomas More) and throws in a dash of De Toqueville, the Karl Popper of the 18th century, for good measure. We are meant to conclude that with utopia, as with democracy for De Toqueville, a little goes a long way but that any attempt to realize the whole project spells disaster.

The baffled visitor who started out looking at medieval illuminated manuscripts now feels as if he’s strayed into a replay of the Cold War. The exhibition’s organizers get in an even worse muddle when they reach the 1960s. They have no idea what to do with the Sixties- or even what attitude to take to them. Were they a Bad Thing being left-wing and utopian? Or a Good Thing because they had groovy posters and great music? The exhibit’s developing ideology, according to which utopia equals revolutionary politics equals totalitarianism, falls apart once the Revolution Comes Home-to adapt a Sixties slogan. Their Sixties segment is a random collection of Sixties memorabilia: buttons; first editions of some famous novels from the period; recordings of rock tracks and Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. What the criteria were for their selection and what any of them have to do with utopia, except in so far as the protean Sixties can be made to stand for almost anything you like, escapes me.

This juggernaut of a show ends, or rather breaks off abruptly, with a series of colour photographs of what in the Sixties were called “communes” but are now, according to the catalogue, known as “intentional communities”. This could have been interesting. But the only thing the exhibit has to say on the subject is that there are 700 “intentional communities” listed in a worldwide directory. Yet here is a 20th century phenomenon that suggests a direct line back through the various 19th century ideal communities which tried to palliate the evils of the Industrial Revolution as well as to ideal religious communities constructed in America from the very earliest days of its settlement. From one point of view, America has been such fertile soil for would-be utopians that the whole mighty enterprise of colonising and settling the U.S. has been a series of attempts, stretched out over 200 years, to create utopia, the “city on the hill”, the New World’s New Jerusalem. Communes, collectives and co-operatives are a part of the American tradition, but they’ve been as often the work of religious cults as radical sociopolitical experiments- or of a peculiarly American intertwining of the two.

An exhibition along these lines might have had something to say to us about the fate of utopia since More. How can you mount a survey of Western utopia that leaves out not only the Rosicrucians but also Monte Verita, for example? The group of vegetarians, naturopaths, proto-hippies, early feminists, occultists, communards, bohemian artists and radical politicos who gathered on the ‘Mountain of Truth’, a hill outside Ascona in southern Switzerland, in the early 1900s mounted the first wholesale rejection of the modern world and mass society outside of the creations of artistic Modernism, as well as anticipating the Sixties by half a century. These are the tracks the history of utopia runs along, not some stale cliches about the Nazis and Stalin, yet the exhibition totally ignores them. The protesters against the World Bank and the WTO, the anti-globalisers, the environmentalists who camp in trees to oppose motorway-building, the prophets of organic farming, the animal activists, the whole range of so-called “alternative” lifestyles and ideas which show that the utopian impulse is alive and well in the contemporary West- none of which are represented here- all owe their origins to the pioneers of Monte Verita.

As Monte Verita demonstrates, utopias are more interesting in real life than they are on the printed page- a curious reversal of the way we think about “utopia” and “utopian”. Literary utopis are boring. If no one reads More any more-and if we read Plato for the brilliance of his arguments rather than the substance of his proposals- it’s because literary utopias all fall into one of two predictable categories. If they’re written by intellectuals and serious thinkers, they end up hopelessly repressive and authoritarian in their search for a rational order to social life. If they’re imagined by the poor and unlettered, like the splendid 18th century Land of Cockaigne, they’re all beer and skittles, one long high day and holiday where everything is permitted.

As a genre, utopia was at its most creative before it found its name, in those centuries before More, when it was a natural reflex of the age of faith. Faith gave literary and artistic utopias a life that even attempts to marry the form to modern technology, as in science fiction, fails to do. As faith has waned, and the market for philosophical utopias gone stale and musty, the one thing that still gives utopia its force, its energy, is, paradoxically enough, the attempt to realize it in practise. We sneer at anything utopian nowadays but many of us are still willing to work for utopian causes.

Stephen Bronner has argued that, “ Utopia is "nowhere." But its traces appear every time solidarity triumphs over self-interest.” That’s not just a subversive thought but an essential one because it redeems utopia for reality. Utopia becomes no longer an imaginary offshore island but something woven into the fabric of everyday life, a fundamental human reflex, the subtext of all worthwhile endeavour. “Speaking about "the end of utopia"….thus simply misses the point”. Listen rather to the old utopians, men like Oscar Wilde, who declared that no map is worth having that does not contain Utopia; or the Martinique poet Edouard Glissant, who said, “Utopia is not a dream. It’s what we lack in the world”.

In other words, utopia in modern times is political or it’s nothing. The exhibition is quite right in wanting to see things that way; but it should be called “Anti-Utopia” not “Utopia” because what the organizers want to say is that political utopia is wrong. Any attempt to improve the lot of humanity leads directly to the Gulag. To them, wisdom, which is the same as realism (and therefore the opposite of utopia) lies in understanding that free-market capitalism plus some degree of more or less representative democracy is the best anyone can hope for.

That’s not the history of Western utopia in particular, or of Western political and social idealism in general. But it is one version of the history of American idealism and its accomodation to the rise of America as a world power. It’s only one version since, in other moods, America remains a messianic state, given to calling itself things like “the hope of the world” and “the beacon of liberty and justice”. The New World was the natural focus for utopianism from its discovery onwards: indeed, to many contemporary Americans, patriotism remains a positive value precisely because it contains a generous measure of utopianism. But the nAmerican Republic Thomas Jefferson once described as “the Empire of liberty”, (thus encapsulating its future contradictions in a phrase) has had its own problems balancing liberty’s utopia against the booby prize of superpower. Hence the generally anti-utopian trend of this exhibit and the rather sour smell it exudes of bad faith.

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014