Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea

Clare Jackson applauds the stunning illustrations that complement an excellent study of utopianism through the ages

Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea
Author: Gregory Claeys
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
Reviewed by: Clare Jackson
Price (RRP): £24.95

Envisioning a better future is a characteristic of the human condition but Gregory Claeys detects a current confusion and pervasive nervousness about aspirations that take a utopian form. Engagement with utopian thought is, he insists, “manifestly more necessary than ever”.

Identifying plausibility as its defining characteristic, he situates utopianism in the ideological territory between the practically possible and the wildly impossible and sets about excavating its historical manifestations in this densely packed, but eminently readable, volume.

In classical Greece, for example, the reformer Lycurgus’s aim of keeping the Spartans “free-minded, self-dependent, and temperate” inspired Rousseau’s 18th-century vision of a reordered society, while the communist regime of North Korea “can be seen as inheriting aspects of this tradition”.

Meanwhile, a chapter on utopian interest in the built environment juxtaposes the fantastical Renaissance Italian version of Cockayne – a mythical land of gluttony and plenty – known as ‘Cuccagna’ where bridges were constructed from salami, rivers flowed with wine and milk and mountains were covered in cream cheese, alongside more prosaic 19th-century English achievements in utopian urban planning at Saltaire, Port Sunlight and Bournville.

As well as identifying shared utopian elements in western and non-western philosophies, Claeys shows how discoveries in the New World allowed anthropology to rival the use of the imagination in encouraging utopian visions, while voyages to the moon and outer space likewise enthralled writers from the 17th century onwards.

Envisioning a better future has always involved an implied criticism of the present, and often the didactic role of utopia is to admonish. This can pose a puzzle about the ambiguous commitment of authors to endorsing their imagined societies, most poignantly in the defining work of the genre, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516).

There is a darker side to Claeys’s narrative, since the potential for utopia to mutate into dystopia has lurked ever since Aristotle criticised aspects of the ideal society depicted in Plato’s Republic. In a chapter on ‘Utopia, Science Fiction and Film’, Claeys contrasts the irresistible adrenalin and action inherent in dystopian visions with the static perfectionism often associated with idealised societies.

Modern history has often proved more terrifying than imaginary dystopias; indeed, at one point, over half the world’s population lived under putatively utopian systems of communist land ownership in China, Russia and elsewhere.

Today, however, the spectre of ecological disaster rivals totalitarianism as the most imminent dystopian threat, while a broader disillusionment with all political ideologies has encouraged a materialistic obsession with retail therapy. As Claeys muses: “There is nowhere to shop in Arcadia, and there was nothing worth buying in communist Moscow.”

This is a timely book and also a deservedly timeless one. Its only weakness – inevitable, given its vast scope – is an obligation to condense the contents of complex and nuanced texts into a single paraphrasing sentence.

The book’s lavish illustrations are perhaps its most enticing attribute, as every page is complemented with beautiful colour reproductions of illuminated manuscripts, book frontispieces, antique maps, classical frescos, woodcuts, engravings, portraits and paintings.

For once, the publishers have done iconographic justice to the historical richness of utopian literature. At the same time, dystopian depictions are appropriately harrowing, such as a photograph of Congolese slaves whose hands had been amputated for failing to deliver quotas on King Leopold’s rubber plantations.

Without wishing to detract from Claeys’s magisterial narrative, this book is worth purchasing for its wonderful illustrations alone. 

Clare Jackson is lecturer and director of studies in history at Trinity Hall, Cambridge

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