Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World
On November 29, 1935, Berenice Abbott photographed Henry Street, on New York’s Lower East Side. Two rows of tenements dominate the picture, their façades an indecipherable hieroglyph of messy fire escapes, mismatched cornices, car-wash signs, and posters. In the background, far beyond them, rise three skyscrapers, tall and pale. The vertical city, modern, massive, and stark, overwhelms the melancholy disorder of the low tenement street. Yet traditions cling to the steel frames of these immense buildings. Their crowning pinnacles are garlanded with columns, obelisks, and moldings: em-bodiments of the new, they still claim the aesthetic protection of an an-cient architectural code. And Abbott’s mesmerizing black-and-white image, mechanically produced and modern as the movies, also harks back in its composition to an ancient source, the New Testament Book of Revelation: “And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her bridegroom.” When skyscrapers and tenements confronted one another in Abbott’s viewfinder, old images provided her striking iconography. The age-old conflict between heavenly and earthly cities, Utopia and Dystopia, still framed the visual drama that she set in the black-and-white New York of the Thirties.
A new exhibition, created in collaboration by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the New York Public Library, sets Abbott’s image and many more in their millennial context. Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World traces the history of Western culture’s protracted effort to imagine—and sometimes to create—a perfect society. Ranging widely in time and space, the show draws an explosive energy from the dramatic projects and projectors it describes. It bursts through the bounds not only of the Gottesman Exhibition Hall but, literally, of the library itself. To reach the twentieth century, perhaps the richest part of the exhibit, one must climb to the Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor, and the final segment exists only on the World Wide Web.
Utopia confronts the visitor with an extraordinary range of images and experiences. Downstairs, lush medieval illustrations of Eden, glowing with ripe fruit and populated by charming animals, and sixteenth-century maps of Thomas More’s imaginary land, Utopia; upstairs, Life‘s panoramic photos of Levittown and a replica of the murderous female robot created in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Downstairs, meticulous Renaissance and eighteenth-century plans for real and ideal cities, microscopically detailed posters describing the new systems of weights, measures, and dates of the French Revolution—not to mention the steps of a Shaker dance and the white vest of the Saint-Simonian entrepreneur Father Enfantin, its buttons set in the back to force him into cooperation with his fellows even when dressing. Upstairs, Raymond Loewy’s teardrop-shaped airplanes and passenger ships of the future and Soviet posters of a New Society being created are set off, dramatically and terribly, by dark, tiny photos of life in a Stalinist labor camp and handsome color portraits of modern voluntary communities from around the world.
Both downstairs and upstairs, clear plexiglass shelves rise from the floor. Richly stocked with modern paperback editions, inscribed with titles and the names of authors, they show that the utopian tradition lives even in a post-utopian world. Behind the dignified lions, the immense staircase, and the massive white façade, visions of the future can come in like colors and shapes in an immense kaleidoscope. In the library’s virtual space, www.nypl.org/utopia, still more texts and images whirl. Experts discuss the utopian potential of cyberspace, that Noplace where communities are voluntarily joined and personal identities are a matter of unconstrained individual choice.
The Public Library makes a perfect setting for this show. More than its great French counterpart, which evolved from the collections of the French royal house and the nineteenth-century empires of the Bonapartes, it is a utopian enterprise in its own right: a palace for the people of readers, where anyone, as Alfred Kazin loved to point out, could come in, find a seat at a vast shiny oak table, and read rare books, fragile documents, or flaking periodicals, without being asked to produce credentials or offer explanations.
The library, moreover, is richly stocked with manuscripts and printed books, maps, and prints of great age and beauty. Its vast holdings—together with magnificent books, charts, prints, and objects borrowed from a number of collections in Paris—vividly document not only the long history of utopias and their many sources, but also the relatively brief history of revolutionary time—the period, stretching back no more than five centuries, during which Western intellectuals have not contented themselves with dreaming about utopia, but have tried to create it, whether in Paris, Nauvoo, Lanark, or Jonestown.
Ideal societies, as this exhibition shows, are almost as old as literature, whether described in the Old Testament or Plato’s Republic. But the formal utopian tradition came into being at a very particular time and place: in 1516, when Thomas More published the first edition of his On the Best Form of a State, and on the New Island of Utopia. More’s book portrayed a just, egalitarian society set far away in the newly discovered lands that he had read about in Amerigo Vespucci’s account of his travels. But distance did not imply detachment. Like most utopian writers since his time, More made clear that he meant readers to contrast his imaginary society, in detail, with the real world he and they inhabited. The first book of Utopia savagely dissected an England where poor men, thrown off their lands by greedy landlords eager to expand their flocks, were forced to beg, and soldiers too old to fight could do nothing but steal. Worst of all, the authorities, instead of finding ways to help, punished the poor for the crimes that they could not avoid committing. In More’s England, as one character unforgettably put it, the sheep were devouring the people.
It is by no means clear how accurately More anatomized the society he lived in and served as an official, first of the city of London and then at court. But it is certain that he envisioned the authoritarian communist world of his Utopia, with its universal requirement of six hours’ labor a day and a population that flocked voluntarily to improving pre-dawn lectures, as a detailed and practicable alternative to it—a thought experiment that might induce men like himself to take practical action, by building poorhouses if not by creating perfect cities.
The exhibition’s displays also offer a remarkable variety of the ideal societies that had crystallized in the imaginations of writers and artists before the Renaissance. The Old Testament portrayed the Garden of Eden as a peaceful, hospitable world from which man had earned expulsion by sinning. It also described Jerusalem as a golden city from which the Jews were driven for their sins by the Assyrians. Plato evoked a powerful image of Atlantis, the great city located outside the Pillars of Hercules that had once challenged Athens herself, which he described in considerable urbanistic detail. Medieval peasants calmed their children’s hunger pains by telling them of the Land of Cockaigne, where mounds of rich butter invited indulgence, and roasted chickens fell from the sky. The New Testament prophesied the appearance of a new Jerusalem, more splendid than the old, which would descend from the heavens at the end of time. Social and religious radicals invoked Revelation as their authority for holding that revolutionary action might usher in a messianic age in which social hierarchies and unjust laws would disappear.
Renaissance architects filled their notebooks with symmetrical diagrams of clean, orderly cities. Equipped with everything needed to achieve autonomy and public peace, from sewers and brothels to temples and libraries, these were protected by the complex star-shaped walls that had recently proved effective against enemies armed with cannon and that gave a pleasing impression of harmony and order, despite their warlike origin. Thomas More, a sophisticated civil servant, a brilliant amateur theologian, and a deft classical scholar, traded learned quips on equal terms with Erasmus, whose ideals of perfect friendship inspired his vision of community. He knew all of these traditions, which are richly documented in the Public Library’s exhibition. But he also fused them to create something radically new: a text that offered a crisp blueprint, rather than a gauzy vision, of the ideal society, and did so to put forward a searching and detailed analysis of social and political injus-tice in the real world. More described his ideal state, moreover, not as created by Providence or revelation but as designed by a single human founder, Utopus. From his time onward, utopias were usually depicted as the creations of men, not God or gods: they were the product of a Promethean human power.
Utopian thought developed in a complex dialectical relationship with the larger world in which its creators lived and worked. Eventually, it inspired efforts to transform the world, which in their turn transformed the substance and texture of utopian thinking. The discovery of the New World—where some explorers reported encountering peoples who lived naked and held all things in common, while others marveled at the splendid temples and fortifications of great Mexica and Inca cities—helped to stimulate More to create the first Utopia.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so historians have often argued, idealist readers of More and other utopian writers tried to make the New World a utopia. Jesuit missionaries who had read More and Tommaso Campanella set out to create just societies in Paraguay. Strict Puritans hoped to do the same when they founded Boston, the City on a Hill. In the same period, new technologies—the compass, the cannon, and the printing press—transformed the world, enabling Europe to expand its empires into the Americas and Asia. Utopian writers like Campanella and Francis Bacon responded to this evidence of man’s power over nature. They imagined ideal cities ruled by sages and dedicated not only to establishing justice and order, but also to designing and executing large-scale experiments: Baroque precursors of Los Alamos. In Campanella’s City of the Sun, for example, astrology prescribed couplings between thin men and fat women, fat men and thin women, in the hope that they would produce a race of offspring with none of the infirmities and diseases that he saw around him in Naples and the poor country towns of Calabria. From this time on, utopias came equipped with statues of and monuments to great inventors and brilliant scientists—a vision of secular sainthood which found magnificently weird expression in Étienne-Louis Boullée’s design for a spherical cenotaph for Newton, and would eventually materialize, in altered but recognizable form, in the Panthéon in Paris.
Utopia had its heyday in the two centuries between 1789 and 1989. No dream was too fragile, no criticism of existing society too idealistic to leave its residue, whether in a big book, a little commune, or a social revolution. The exhibit lavishly illustrates all of these. A rich series of posters, texts, and cartoons records the flowering of French utopian thought and action, the age of a million competing millennial dreams and dreamers—like Charles Fourier, who claimed that as society reached perfection, not only would human passion be gratified, but the seas themselves would turn to lemonade. Lush woodcuts and splendidly printed books recall the utopian vision of William Morris—and the idealistic workshop community that he founded at Merton Abbey. Even more striking are the materials assembled in the Salomon Room. These graphically recreate the mechanical and human Utopias to which Futurism, Nazism, and communism aspired in the twentieth century, and the striving, sometimes terrifying visions of powerful machines and human bodies drilled to emulate them—as well as the dystopias that Nazis and Communists actually created.
Honest and erudite, the exhibition and the richly illustrated catalog that accompanies it make clear that utopia has always been a complex as well as a dangerous concept. Utopias—like totalitarian states—set themselves to deny the power of time. They introduce new calendars, replace the old, decadent theaters with new, purified public spectacles, and tear down intricate palimpsests of old streets and buildings, replacing them with symmetrical, perfect networks of streets and walls. Like the children in Jane Eyre’s boarding school, they are the children of Grace, not the children of Nature—or of History.
Yet More himself acknowledged that utopian laws and rituals would not transform human nature, and allowed some aspects of the ideal state—like its cities—to develop over time, as J.C. Davis shows in one of the most brilliant of the catalog’s essays. Some of the most profound visions of utopia—like Karl Marx’s—have allowed for long periods of evolution in their ideal states. And more than one of the catalog essays—like the architectural historian Françoise Choay’s discussion of utopia and “constructed space”—ends up showing how complex, and sometimes contradictory, these apparently simple, lucid plans for ideal societies have proved to be. A number of other historical questions arise—for example, the extent to which utopian plans actually had an impact on the savage process of colonization and conversion to which Europeans subjected the inhabitants of the New World. The exhibition explores such consequences of utopian ideas through rich case studies and does not try to dispatch them with easy capsule formulas.
Both catalog and exhibition have small flaws. The translated articles in the catalog, for example, sometimes read like parodies of French academic discourse, and many of them are pocked with unexplained allusions. There are also one or two substantial gaps in the exhibition itself. As the pioneering literary historian Frank Lestringant points out in his essay in the catalog, the Protestant Reformation witnessed some very prominent—and very frightening—efforts to create ideal societies on earth. None sent more powerful shock waves across Europe than the Anabaptist Kingdom of God in Münster in 1534-1535, which he analyzes. Radicals expelled the Catholic bishop of this West German city from his see and created a heavily armed, authoritarian commune, ruled by a king who claimed to be the successor of David. He exerted absolute control over the property and even the sexual lives of all citizens, expelling or executing all dissidents—until the Kingdom of God was destroyed, in scenes of massacre, by the bishop and his allies.
This extraordinary event—like Thomas Müntzer’s militant demands for solidarity with all creatures, so dear to the East German authority on Utopias, Ernst Bloch—hardly figures in this exhibit, which displays more interest in Catholic traditions. Yet neither the show nor the catalog makes it clear enough that Campanella, a Dominican widely read by other Catholics, meant his City of the Sun as more than a literary scheme. His plan for an ideal society had many period features—for example, its seven concentric walls, encrusted with images of stones and fish, bodily organs and stars, which made it resemble an enormous Wunderkammer. But he also saw it as a concrete project for a social revolution. Campanella himself tried to lead such a revolution—a crime for which he spent many years in prison, in the harshest of conditions. And his City of the Sun, not coincidentally, would continue to inspire political radicals as well as literary utopians. Lenin drew from it his plan to make the city walls of Moscow speak. His belief that hordes of statues and floods of posters would effectively transmit the messages that could make new men and women derived, like other radical programs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from much earlier sources. Robespierre and Louis Blanc, in other words, were not the first to take the Promethean chance, to try to build Jerusalem in their own green and pleasant lands. That enterprise began in the Germany of the Reformation and the southern Italy of the Counter-Reformation.
Utopia encourages all sorts of untimely activities—from thinking comparatively about the intellectual history of Western Europe to entering with sympathy into the minds of utopians and dystopians alike. In an age whose besetting errors include self-satisfaction, when some students ask why they should read about utopias at all when they live in a perfect society, it argues the unfashionable case that the utopian tradition still matters. But it does not conceal the death and destruction that utopians and totalitarians have wrought when they tried to realize their plans.
Above all, the exhibit challenges visitors to think again about the city they will encounter when they leave the library’s enchanted palace of illuminated manuscripts and fanciful maps. One point that the show and catalog make, but could have explored further, is that certain historical communities have taken on the identity of realized utopias and dystopias—and by doing so inspired love and fear, political and military action. Calvin’s Geneva, for instance, was Utopia, at least so far as many of the settlers of Puritan New England were concerned. It embodied the ideal of virtuous austerity that they strove to realize in the New World. During the Spanish Civil War the Barcelona of the anarchist POUM became Jerusalem, at least for a while, in the eyes of that very critical observer George Orwell. It supplied him with his most moving images of human solidarity—images that matter just as much as the recently fashionable dystopian ones of Animal Farm and 1984. The dark, dangerous London of the late nineteenth century, as W.T. Stead revealed, was a modern Babylon—the harlot city doomed to fall. Moscow was seen in all three ways—sometimes, over the years, by a single observer.
Leave the library, stand on its main stairway, and you find yourself confronted by another city that has somehow taken on utopian status. Isn’t New York, after all, Utopia? This bright city of the Gap and Starbucks, Barnes and Noble and the Sharper Image, Disney and Warner Brothers, fashion shows in Bryant Park and bistros in the meatpacking district, certainly can look like a neatly planned, appealingly ordered alternative to chaos, crime, and sorrow. A brilliant flag of magazines that say as much flies on every metropolitan newsstand. But it could also be an eerily disguised dystopia, the banal twin to Berenice Abbott’s magnificently energetic city of steel masts, as the New Babylon of franchised commerce quietly subverts and replaces the older New Jerusalem of urban energy and life. And if you step into New York’s schools, social agencies, or jails, or go outside the boundaries of its new commercial development, the impoverished society that Abbott set in the tenement streets reappears in all its sadness. Some New York streets, after all, are still inhabited by the homeless, unwanted men and women that the first utopian thinkers wanted to imprison or reform.
The splendors and miseries of utopias past make us think harder, not only about the possibilities of political thought and the limits of state action, but also about our own most energetically sanctified city. Seen from a distance, it promises “a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty,” as it always has. Examined closely, it may inspire lamentations. Berenice Abbott’s holy city of the new seems just as distant from the bright new Times Square as it was from the dark, battered streets of the Lower East Side. What should we cry? “I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven”—or “Come back, come back, o glittering and white?” Utopia poses the question—and in doing so, the library once more serves its city well.