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In 2005, J.C. Hallman came across a scientific paper about “Pleistocene Rewilding,” a peculiar idea from conservation biology that suggested repopulating bereft ecosystems with endangered “megafauna.” The plan sounded utterly utopian, but Hallman liked the idea as much as the scientists did—perhaps because he had grown up on a street called Utopia Road in a master-planned community in Southern California. Pleistocene Rewilding rekindled in him a longstanding fascination with utopian ideas, and he went on to spend...
In 2005, J.C. Hallman came across a scientific paper about “Pleistocene Rewilding,” a peculiar idea from conservation biology that suggested repopulating bereft ecosystems with endangered “megafauna.” The plan sounded utterly utopian, but Hallman liked the idea as much as the scientists did—perhaps because he had grown up on a street called Utopia Road in a master-planned community in Southern California. Pleistocene Rewilding rekindled in him a longstanding fascination with utopian ideas, and he went on to spend three weeks at the world’s oldest “intentional community,” sail on the first ship where it’s possible to own “real estate,” train at the world’s largest civilian combat-school, and tour a $30 billion megacity built from scratch on an artificial island off the coast of Korea. In Utopia explores the history of utopian literature and thought in the narrative context of the real-life fruits of that history.
A JOKE Only in us does this light still burn, and we are beginning a fantastic journey toward it, a journey toward the interpretation of our waking dream, toward the implementation of the central concept of utopia. To find it, to find the right thing, for which it is worthy to live, to be organized, and to have time: that is why we go, why we cut new, metaphysically constitutive paths, summon what is not, build into the blue, and build ourselves into the blue, and there seek the true, the real, where the merely factual disappears—incipit vita nova.
The Spirit of Utopia
Utopia is in a bad way.
Utopian thought can be broadly defined as any exuberant plan or philosophy intended to perfect life lived collectively.
As Ernst Bloch suggested, the historical drive toward utopia is best understood as a kind of light, or fire. Utopian thought sparked in antiquity with descriptions of fancifully perfect countries in Plato and Aristotle, smoldered like a coal mine fire through the Middle Ages with early monasticism and portraits of Eden and Heaven, burst into eponymous conflagration with Sir Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516, caught and spread across Europe with religious fervor for 150 years, tacked for a century and turned secular, flared anew with the American Revolution and the French Revolution, burned like wildfire through the nineteenth century, and forged at last the ideologies that squared off in the twentieth century for what Thomas Mann called “a worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that enflames the rainy evening sky all round.” Utopian thought bears its share of responsibility for that scorching of the face of the earth. As a word, it had already acquired a pejorative connotation, but after World War II “utopia” was no longer just a synonym for naïveté. It was dangerous. Now, de cades further on, in a new century and a new millennium, earnest utopian thought and earnest utopians are a glowing ember at best, and utopia’s legion failures seem to suggest that the best course of action would be to crush it—to snuff it for good.
By any rational mea sure, I should suggest this myself. But I won’t.
This is a photo of my brother, Peter, and me in the backyard of our home in a master-planned southern California community in 1972. For six years we lived on a street called Utopia Road.
I’m there on the left, looking a bit too proud of those pants. The hopefulness of Utopia Road is apparent in the staked landscaping, but the dirt on the ground reveals the place isn’t even finished yet. I like it that the bike’s wheels sit right on the edge of the photograph. I’m perched on the rim of the picture’s contained little world.
As a rule, utopias slip. They slip in the transition from conception to implementation; they slip as a result of financial expedience or frail psychology. Utopia Road had slipped from the ambitions of the likes of Frederick Law Olmsted and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement. By the time it filtered down to us the promise of a better life through better suburbs was hogwash. Considering for a moment only its internal effects, the vast shelter of Utopia Road, its informal biosphere, left its children safe but stunted, pure but uncertain. We were innocent, but in for a fall. Utopia Road housed us, but did not raise us.
There are a number of dichotomies in the image of my brother and me. The contrasts of our hair and our shirts, for example. I don’t want to foist an agenda on a simple effort at documentation (the angle of the shot suggests the photographer was my sister, Amy, age ten), but various features of the picture’s subjects do appear to offer commentary on their context. Peter’s erect stance and his hands lodged firm in his pockets suggest the certitude and resolve of a homesteader, whereas my looser pose and my foot ready to crank down on the bike’s pedal fairly screams out for abandoning a utopia already turned dystopian. The fashions of the image—the fifties fins on my Schwin, our sixties hair and seventies clothes—straddle a cultural revolution characterized by a re-kindled, albeit narrowly focused, utopian spirit (i.e., free-love communes). Finally, my brother’s annoyed squint and my goofy grin offer contrasting critiques: Peter intends to stick it through the hard times to make utopia work, while I’m ready to zip out of the frame even with training wheels and an untied shoe.
Like the picture, the history of utopian thought and literature refracts a broad range of dichotomies: rich versus poor, rural versus urban, past versus future, war versus peace, wilderness versus civilization, high-tech versus low-tech.* Even the name is half a duality. In the preface to Utopia, More explained that utopia, Greek for “no place,” would become eutopia, or “good place,” whenever some earnest visionary proved able to realize its dream.
There was no earnest visionary responsible for Utopia Road. It wasn’t ever meant as a good place; it was a scheme to make a buck. The name Utopia Road was some real estate developer’s idea of a joke.
The idea of a joke is central to the history of utopia—or at least to my version of it.
More borrowed from a broad range of classical and contemporary sources in the creation of Utopia, striking them together as flint stones to ignite the utopian blaze. But just how seriously he meant the exercise to be taken has long been a matter of conjecture. The influence of Utopia is undeniable. No quixotic adventure, no bureaucratic catch-22, no charming Casanova, nor even any odyssey home is as universally recognized as the name of the perfect world we forever chase, the bittersweet flavor of hope. Among words that have leaped from fiction to reality, advanced from noun to adjective, it stands alone. But what did More mean by it? Theories characterize the age in which they are professed better than they characterize More or the book. Yet it’s not going out on a limb to suggest that the history of the world since 1516 is a protracted history of not getting the joke of Utopia.
An inability to tell whether he was just kidding describes Thomas More’s personal life as readily as it describes his book. Famous for his wit, More’s friends were quick to note that a taciturn air made perceiving his humor no simple task. He apparently enjoyed this. More’s arid nature is palpable today. Does the poker-faced expression of Hans Holbein’s famous portrait of More disguise a nut flush or a lowly pair? Does More have you beat, or is he bluffing?
Holbein had been recommended to More by the famous humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus described More’s humor as prodigious. As a boy, Erasmus wrote, More was so delighted with puns he seemed “born for them alone.” Erasmus served as More’s confidant during the writing of Utopia; the two were lifetime friends. The inspiration for Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly (1509)—a play on More’s name, morus means “fool” in Latin*—arrived while Erasmus was on horse back on his way to visit his friend. The book, a joking treatise on the stoicism of the age, was written in seven days once he was installed in More’s home.
Utopia borrows from In Praise of Folly as surely as it borrows from Plato. Like the entire genre of literature that would follow in its footsteps, Utopia is episodic and didactic, shifting freely between discourse and description. The book’s structure is itself a dichotomy. Part one is treatise in the form of Platonic dialogue. Part two is travelogue in the spirit of the diaries of Amerigo Vespucci, published eight years before More set to work.
Utopia is set in the New World. A handsome island nation with fifty-four towns that suspiciously match the fifty-four counties of En gland, the country had made of itself a vibrant society despite an absence of natural resources and a pagan world-view. Utopians are happy, safe, fulfilled, and ready for the Christian message once it arrives in the form of traveler Raphael Hythloday, who spends five years in the country. A grizzled sea captain, Hythloday later returns to En gland where, one day, he falls into conversation with fictionalized versions of More and his group of friends. For a time they debate the nature of the best possible commonwealth—private property or no—and discuss whether good-intentioned souls should willingly become counselors to their kings. More and his friends insist there is no state better governed than En gland; Hythloday disagrees. They challenge him to offer one better.
After a recess for lunch, Hythloday describes the island of Utopia—from the broad strokes of its geography to the details of its governance. At the end, the fictional More is hardly convinced that Hythloday has won the point. He dismisses a variety of Utopian laws and customs as “really absurd,” yet concludes the book with a statement that seems designed to enhance its ambiguity:
Meantime, while I can hardly agree with everything [Hythloday] said … I freely confess that in the Utopian commonwealth there are very many features that in our own society I would wish rather than expect to see.
The bulk of Utopia was written as a way to kill time during stalled trade negotiations More was conducting in Bruges and Antwerp. Part one—the discussion of ser vice to one’s king—surely reflects the fact that during the writing of the book More was offered an annuity to join the royal ser vice permanently under Henry VIII. It wasn’t an easy decision. More was a successful lawyer; the job would be a pay cut. More important, ser vice to anything was a sacrifice of autonomy, and how could he be sure that as a counselor to the king he would amount to anything more than a court jester?
Utopia amounts to a duel among jesters. The book is replete with Greek and Latin puns that would have stood out as though embossed on the page to its humanist-schooled intended audience. “Utopia” is the most obvious of these, but “Raphael Hythloday” runs a close second: The name, in degrees of free adaptation, translates as “nonsense speaker” and “bullshit artist.” Hythloday’s seagoing caricature was a hint that his character should be understood, as one commentator noted, as “the Jester’s part in the comedy of Utopia.” The fictional More—morus, the fool—was another. Utopia is a dichotomy of jokers.
Which must have made it frustrating for its author when readers began to ignore the obvious signposts and take Utopia literally. The deluge of imitators—the genre now counts hundreds of novels that borrow the book’s template but ignore its irony—would not begin for a few years, but it became apparent almost at once that some had failed to get the joke. More publicly offered a gentle suggestion that certain readers might consider revisiting the text to more fully evaluate its myriad details. Privately, he lashed out at those who remained cold to the book’s searing humor: “This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke; that fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.”
This last was a real problem. For literature, More claimed, was by far the most effective way to achieve “a good mother wit.” And wit was “the one thing without which all learning is half lame.”
Excerpted from In Utopia by J. C. Hallman.
Copyright © 2010 by J. C. Hallman.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
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