Utopian Thought in the Western World
This is an exceptionally substantial and suggestive work, generously conceived, vivaciously written, richly documented, aptly illustrated, and attractively produced. The subject matter is necessarily controversial through its nature; the authors do not shy away from expressing definite opinions of their own; and, besides, it is frequently characteristic of utopian discourse to fall into a dialectical mode. I should therefore like to proffer my warm respects to Frank and Fritzie Manuel at once—to the scope, the quality, and the importance of their joint achievement—so that I may feel free to diverge at times from some of their interpretations and evaluations. Professor Manuel is justly esteemed for his studies in European intellectual history and in historiography, especially during the Enlightenment and the Romantic period. Mrs. Manuel is an accomplished scholar herself, who has collaborated with her husband notably in an anthology of French utopian thought.1 Given the diverse terrains and the intricate topographies that this party of two set out to explore in the present inquiry, they have together covered an immense amount of ground.
Since the exploration could scarcely proceed without a good many frontiers being crossed, we cannot object to the authors’ declared intention of “bypassing a rigorous definition.” Instead they speak of “the utopian propensity,” adopting the noun from William James’s nondefinition of religion. This resembles, though with less emotional coloration, “the utopian longing” of which Melvin Lasky speaks in his recent and stimulating Utopia and Revolution. Lewis Mumford, in his pioneering outline written over fifty years ago, The Story of Utopias, posited a “will to utopia”—which may likewise have been inspired by James, but with a touch of the Nietzschean imperative. “A state of mind is utopian,” according to the almost psychiatric definition of Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, “‘when it is incongruous with the state of reality in which it occurs.” The concept has been set in its broadest context and framed by its most philosophical perspective with the three teeming volumes of the late Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung. Bloch’s principle of hope is virtually an anatomy of the libido in all its longings, stretching from the self-delusions of daydream through the stages when plan becomes action to a culminating renewal of society along neo-Marxist lines.
A bibliography of utopias compiled by Glenn Negley lists 1,608 titles, about one-fourth of which are marginally categorized as “works influential in utopian thought.”2 Though the Manuels have attempted no reckoning, they would clearly take a less formally restricted view; they are more interested in the latter category, whereas Professor Negley and J. Max Patrick (who collaborated with him on an earlier anthology, The Quest for Utopia) are primarily concerned with works of fiction. This can be a fascinating genre, branching out into such overlapping subdivisions as pastoral, dream vision, voyage imaginaire, robinsonade, prophecy, apocalypse, and—with ever-increasing significance—science fiction, not to mention uchronia or dystopia. It can also be boring, since there is all too seldom much correlation between the moral purposes of such writing and its…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.