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!