In Utopia


I've been having a hard time lately getting into novels. I've tried realist and absurdist, whimsical and heavy, and every time period from the Renaissance to the 21st century—nothing seems to fit my mood. Even A.S. Byatt's Possession, which I can tell would normally be un-put-downable for me, is proving only moderately enthralling in my current fiction funk. Luckily, I finally figured out what I AM in the mood for: nonfiction! Not just any nonfiction, but the kind of smoothly-written, thoroughly-researched book that inspires me to utter exclamations like "Really!" and "No way!" and read passages out loud to whomever might be present. All of which description J.C. Hallman's In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise fulfills perfectly. What a relief to pick up a book and be immediately engaged, rather than wondering what's wrong with me for not connecting with it.

My late-summer malaise aside, Hallman's book is fascinating and unerringly entertaining. In it he interrogates the idea and cultural history of the utopia—from Thomas More through Charles Fourier and beyond. He discusses the fundamentally literary, and often non-literal origins of the idea: most actual utopian schemes that real people have attempted to put into practice have owed a debt to utopian novels—in many cases, including More's novels that were not intended to be taken seriously in the first place. Having studied Utopia in my senior seminar in college, and spent quite a while with More, I very much enjoyed revisiting his difficult-to-pin-down philosophical style. As Hallman writes early in his book, "the history of the world since 1516 is a protracted history of not getting the joke of Utopia. Even scholars disagree about the extent to which More was kidding when he penned his faux travelogue-treatise—it's plain that certain parts are jokes, and plain that other parts are more or less serious, but much of the book falls into the no-man's-land between those two extremes. Its history, though, is one of being taken completely seriously by many of its readers, even to the point where Spanish missionaries in the New World attempted to replicate its supposedly ideal society among the Native Americans, interpreting More's jokes as the direct voice of God. I thought Hallman was particularly insightful in speculating about WHY Utopia was often taken so seriously, particularly in Italy:

A compilation from 1561 demonstrated clearly that the joke had been lost: Utopia was listed alongside seventeen other societal systems, a few of which happened to be real. More's perfect commonwealth tickled no Italian funny bone because it was just another layer set atop a utopian spirit already well established in Italy. For years Florence had been thought a perfect system, and by the 1500s Venice had been an ongoing republic for eleven centuries, without internal strife and without ever falling to foreign rule. Now, borrowing More's template, utopias were written starring Venice as unironic protagonist.

All of which brings me back very pleasantly to college, reading Jacob Burckhardt's chapters on Florence and Venice from his famous The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy against Utopia—and it now occurs to me, somewhat belatedly, that Burckhardt's depictions of Venice could actually be subtly influenced by More's Utopia, even as More was quite probably inspired to create Utopia in the first place by the reality of Renaissance Venice. The whole broad utopian project is scattered with this kind of double-reverse: at one point, Hallman discusses a utopian novel inspired by a real-world utopian settlement, which was in turn inspired by an earlier utopian novel.

But, as fun as these metatextual discoveries are, they do not make up the bulk of Hallman's book. As his title suggests, he instead gives us six main chapters, each taking on a different modern-day utopian experiment. In the process, he makes the point that "utopia" need not be a place: true, it could be a return to an edenic wilderness like that envisioned by the advocates of "Pleistocene Rewilding" (Chapter 2), a long-lived hippie commune (Chapter 3), or an uber-modern techno-city built by a contracting firm on land back-filled by the Koren government (Chapter 6) but it could just as easily be the act of journeying aboard a massive cruise ship that becomes home to its inhabitants (Chapter 4) or even a gustatory philosophy like the Slow Food movement (Chapter 5). Hallman immerses himself in each of his six subjects, traveling around the world and linking these modern-day phenomena into an ongoing history of the many stages and facets of utopian thought.

One of the techniques I found particularly effective in his book was the simultaneous integration of historical backgrounds with contemporary case examples: Hallman uses each chapter to explore a different aspect of the history of utopias, so there's no big information dump at the beginning of the book before getting into specifics. Not that historical backgrounds are necessarily dull (far from it!), but Hallman does a great job at weaving the past and present together into an ongoing discussion of the pros and cons of utopianism, and why it's both ridiculous and necessary. After all, he points out, as wacky as it is to look back on many utopian notions of the past—and it's often VERY wacky, as in the excellent late Futurist exhortation

To work, my aeropainters and aerosculptors! My aeropoetry will ventilate your brains like whirring propellers!

—there are also many things we now consider "normal" that were once viewed as crazy utopian schemes, such as free public school systems and a bicameral legislature. Hallman argues that while too many failed experiments and abuses of power perpetrated in the supposed service of the "greater good" have caused the very idea of utopianism to fall out of favor, it actually represents something on which he doesn't want to give up: the hope that human society has the capacity to improve itself.

Another aspect of Hallman's book I appreciated was that he frankly acknowledges his own reactions to each of the modern-day utopias he visits. This was welcome, not only as an acknowledgment that all authors have some bias, but as an example of the point that one person's utopia is another's dystopia. Hallman explores this idea explicitly in the final chapter (which deals with a nascent town of gun-enthusiasts out in the Nevada desert), but long before then I had started thinking about it. When Hallman writes about his growing (and then waning) enthusiasm for the Twin Oaks community, for example, for the freedom of abandoning regular showers and monogamy, living in 100 square feet of personal space and sunbathing naked while topless women worked in the vegetable garden, it makes me think about what my own utopia might look like—because that is most definitely not it. Twin Oaks was founded in Virginia in 1967, and I couldn't help but wonder if the fact that I live in the millennial Pacific Northwest might contribute to my lack of enthusiasm for the freedoms of Twin Oaks—it's totally legal to walk around naked in Portland if you want to, and people do it fairly frequently. Similarly, I know plenty of folks in non-traditional, non-monogamous romantic relationships; if that kind of thing appealed to me (which it doesn't), I would hardly need to give up my personal space and private property in order to follow my dreams. Which, of course, marks the difference between me and the Twin Oaks people, for whom the lack of private property and the emphasis on community-wide decision-making is presumably a check in the plus column, rather than a horrible nightmare. It was interesting to read an account from an outsider to whom the whole idea appealed much more than it would to me, and good to be reminded that different people have very different notions of how an "ideal society" would look and feel.


Thanks to the author for sending me a review copy of this book. I very much enjoyed it!

Now that I've finally realized that my current reading mood lists toward nonfiction, I'll probably be picking up a lot more of it in the coming month—I started the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir's memoir last night, and have fascinating-looking studies on disgust, female comic-book heroes, and famed early blues artist Memphis Minnie on my shelves, so there are plenty of choices!


  • I love your commentary here on the different ideas of "ideal" society. I, too, would not find Twin Oaks my cup of tea, but I come from the more socially restrictive Bible Belt south where people most certainly do not walk around naked - unless you count what most teenage girls are wearing as nudity . . . and I do.

    Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts on this one and will definitely consider it for an upcoming nonfiction foray. I also appreciate the funk - I've been sort of dwindling in my reading enthusiasm lately, too. Glad you found a fix.

  • I thought you'd enjoy this book and I am glad you did! it's a fascinating read and it will be interesting to see how the South Korean project turns out when it is completed. You are right that it all makes you think about how different people's ideal society is. At first I thought it was sad that we couldn't all agree but the more I thought about the more glad I became that we don't agree. Not only does it keep things more interesting that way but I think more and better ideas bubble up and get talked about than would if we all agreed.

  • wow, a fiction funk with the antidote being nonfiction...not an illness I've ever suffered from. Nonetheless, fascinating review. I especially enjoyed hearing about the technique yof weaving the historical backgrounds of utopias with the present day examples.

  • Sounds fascinating! One of my favourite courses at university was on DYStopia -- something always go wrong somewhere. Really neat places to visit in fiction, but I don't think I'd want to live there in real life.

  • Sara: You know, now that I think about it I didn't want to give the impression that I loved the community of gun nuts MORE than Twin Oaks, haha! But for some reason that was the section that made me think about what makes a personal utopia. Anyway, glad to know I'm not alone there, and good luck on recovering in your own good time from your reading slow-down. :-)

    Stefanie: Yeah, that's a good point about more discussion & better ideas being generated by our disagreements. I'd say I came away from the book feeling grateful that there's enough room in the world for many different kinds of utopian experiments, and that I'm not forced to live in any of them! Really interesting stuff to think about, though.

  • Cynthia: It is indeed a strange and exotic illness. Let's just be glad I was able to diagnose it properly. :-)

    Isabella: Hallman definitely touches on the sometimes-thin line between utopia and dystopia, and how utopias tend to "slip" into the dys category (fascism, for example). I would love to take a course on dystopias, how fascinating!

  • I'm glad you've found a way to deal with the reading funk -- and it's a great method, I think! I love a good work of nonfiction of the sort that has interesting information and interesting ideas and manages to blend the two together well.

  • I've been curious about Hallman's fiction ever since I enjoyed the book The Story About the Story, which he edited. But you make this sound very interesting, so I guess I'll try this first. Thanks Emily!

  • Dorothy: Yes, I'm still going strong with the nonfiction, so I guess that's just what's calling to me right now. Thank goodness it occurred to me!

    Mark David: I know Stefanie of So Many Books has read some of Hallman's fiction, and I think she liked it. I don't read that much super-contemporary fiction, but maybe I'll give it a try someday, too.

  • Although I'm not as utopian-happy as you, Emily, I enjoyed this post and your discussion of Hallman's work. Sounds interesting, but I know I'd prefer your bite-sized analysis to a full-length book on the same. Meanwhile, I'm licking my lips waiting for that Memphis Minnie post from you! Used to review stuff like that in another medium and have missed running across music stuff in the blog world. Thank God for the old fanzine scene, I tell you!

  • Richard: Hell yeah, glad to have a vote for Memphis Minnie in the house! That book is so DIY it's almost an overgrown fanzine itself. Gonna be GREAT.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography