Science Fiction Studies

#24 = Volume 8, Part 2 = July 1981

Donald Watson

From Fantasy to Feasibility; or, the Romance of the Future

Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel. Utopian Thought in the Western World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1979. 896 + vi p. $25.00.

The Manuels have written an interesting and impressive book, full of convincing analyses of the lives of the writers they discuss, of sound textual interpretation, and of useful historical insight. Personal and college libraries should certainly acquire it for their collections; given these inflationary times, the price is right for this hefty and handsome volume of almost 900 pages. It is an enjoyable book, written in a very fine and sometimes elegant academic style, and it is a very good book; but, I'm afraid, it is neither a magnificent one nor a definitive one nor, finally, a very important one. What the Manuels do they do very well; and one can easily believe that they have been at this project for more than 25 years, as they tell us in the first paragraph of their preface. But they have in Utopian Thought in the Western World avoided defining their subject matter, and at times only haphazardly followed through on their own framework of "seven major utopian constellations," the structure which is meant to unify the 34 chapters and suggest "general lines of development" from Thomas More to the present. To be sure, the Manuels' analyses of individual writers can be brilliant and engrossing, and often sequences of three, four, or five chapters can be persuasive, solidly and tightly written. But Utopian Thought in the Western World lacks an idea (not that it does not abound in ideas large and small), a conception which will provide a focus for all their meticulous scholarship, offer a viable approach to the mass of materials which may be considered "utopian," and produce a book that is a book, and not just a series of studies arranged in roughly chronological order. Moreover, as I will argue, the Manuels ask some very interesting questions of their "great utopians" but they do not ask the right ones of the subject matter.

Where do the Manuels go wrong? It is worth examining their approach, I believe, and useful to suggest, as I will attempt to do later, how a critical approach to utopian writing might be undertaken.

1. First, the reader of Utopian Thought in the Western World is never given a definition of what constitutes a "utopia" or what makes thought "utopian." To say that it is "that myth of heaven which lies at the heart of utopian fantasy" (p. 1) which defines the following 814 pages of expository prose is to define the subject matter so vaguely as not to define it at all. Alternatively, to suppose that all "who have renewed the myth of paradise in a secular translation" (Preface) are utopian thinkers is equally imprecise. Not all of the writers considered here are fantasists; some are most certainly political theorists, some ideologues, some philosophers of history. In a similarly evasive manner, the Manuels abjure other distinctions, such as "the established oppositions between utopia and ideology, utopianism and millenarianism, the utopian and the pastoral" (pp. 12-13). Despite the historically conditioned nature of Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia (first published in 1929), one of the enduring differences Mannheim points to is that which gives his classic study its title: "utopias" are essentially fantasies, ideologies are essentially about the solutions which are feasible. Secondly, Mannheim's taxonomy of utopian thought--there are four basic types of utopia: chiliastic, liberal-humanitarian, conservative, and socialist-communist--is at least a place to begin. Nowhere in Utopian Thought will the reader find much of an attempt at any similar distinctions or taxonomy. At times, the Manuels refer to the utopia which is a "speaking picture" (Sir Philip Sidney's term for More's Utopia in his Defence of Poesy) as opposed to the utopia which is an "action program" (the Manuels' own term for practical suggestions for improved structures), but the difference does not really mean much in their book. Similarly, they add "euchronia" and "eupsychia" to "eutopia" as part of the necessary glossary for the reader, but never do these terms result in useful distinctions for approaching the contrasts within "utopian thought."

Without any workable definition, Utopian Thought in the Western World becomes a somewhat eccentric selection of mostly European and a few American writers who have published their thoughts, in a widely ranging number of generically disparate forms and formats, about "what if" such-and-such were different in the future.

The vagueness of Utopian Thought about the nature of "utopian thought" becomes fairly clear at the very outset. The Manuels posit something they label a "utopian propensity":

The bypassing of a rigid definition may distress some philosophical intelligences who demand that at the opening of an inquiry its terms be spelled out in contractual language; but as the whole of this work is intended to endow the idea of utopia with historical meaning, those looking for a dictionary label or a pat phrase had better try elsewhere. Utopia acquires plural meanings in the course of our study, in which we presuppose the existence of a utopian propensity in man as William James in his famous lectures assumed a "religious propensity" while pointedly refusing to define religion. We aim to communicate the diversity of experiences in which this propensity has manifested itself in Western society. Experience here is a mental act that takes the form of speech. The utopian propensity is no more equally distributed among men in all times and places than the religious propensity, though it is doubtful whether anyone is totally devoid of it. There may even be a utopian vocation. (p. 5)

While the reader may readily agree that there exists such a "propensity," he may also wish to have it distinguished from other "propensities" which he would probably also readily recognize: man's religious, aesthetic, moral, reproductive, and nostalgic propensities, for example. To say, to put it very crudely, that man always imagines images of the future to guide his approach to it would offer a starting point, but the reader is not given even that much.

Here the Manuels miss a wonderful critical opportunity for defining the relationship of the utopian and the religious propensities. In their analyses of most of the writers in the Middle Ages through the 17th century, and even the 18th for the most part, they are continually collapsing the utopian thought of their texts into the religious backgrounds and hopes of those who produced superficially secular versions of a future paradise on earth. Leibniz is, for the Manuels, motivated by the love of God. The Prior Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de l'Aulne, is returned to the adventures of theodicy; the motive for his theories of progress is reduced to the quotation from his discourse on universal history: "The universe viewed in its totality, in the whole range of the progressions, is a most glorious spectacle, witness to the wisdom which presides over it" (p. 484). Even Rousseau is brought back to the fold in the Manuels' analysis of his yearning to be "a citizen of the moi commun of a Heavenly Geneva" (p. 452). In at least half of their book, therefore, the Manuels could very well regard "utopian propensity" as a subspecies of the "religious propensity."

Apparently, the Manuels would rather keep this aspect of their subject matter--an aspect which seems fertile ground for analysis--vague and mysterious:

The origin of the utopian propensity is, in an absolute sense, not knowable; its application and incorporation in given utopian configurations or constellations are. These become the main subject of our inquiry. Commentary upon them, with psychological knowlege of persons and historical analysis of circumstances, constitutes the body of this narrative. Historical analysis involves recognition of the persistence of symbolic and residual utopian forms, as well as consciousness of the "hot" motivation generated by immediate socioeconomic, political, or philosophicoreligious dissatisfaction and anguish. (p. 13; it is revealing that the worst prose of the book occurs in the first several chapters.)

The Manuels proceed to follow this method faithfully, except for a few chapters in which more than one thinker is discussed.

While I certainly do not wish to question the legitimacy of psychological and historical analysis, their approach tends to isolate the thought and the thinker within a biographical and historical frame, so that the chapters become portraits in a gallery, discrete units, with often the most tenuous and fabricated relationship to a "major utopian constellation." First, the reader is given an author's background, then the psychology which emerges from the biography, then interpretation of the author's works in general, and then commentary on a specific "utopian" text, which in turn is related to the psychology and other writings. Each of these portraits, with a few exceptions, does help the reader understand, and some of them are quite fascinating; but the method is limiting and, worse than that, requires that the Manuels turn up a psychological key to unlock every door, since they are assuming that all doors are locked.

The assumptions behind providing the reader with each utopian thinker's economic, familial, and religious background, along with his sexual eccentricities or normalities, are never really spelled out anywhere. No doubt, knowing that Restif de la Bretonne was a shoe-fetishist and the son a of a peasant or that Condorcet spent his first eight years in skirts and was therefore soft and servile in his "intimate relationships" (p. 488) yields some insight into their utopian thinking. The reader does need to know that Auguste Comte at the age of 19 became Saint-Simon's secretary and "adopted son" (p. 717); but should the student of utopian thought care that Comte, estranged from the family of the woman whom he had fallen in love with and who was dying of tuberculosis, bolted the door of her sickroom so that she "died in his presence alone" (p. 719)? While such biographical keys seem appropriate to the discussion of a "queer duck" like Fourier, at other times they are definitely digressive, an obligation to the intimate portrait.

What bothers me about such matters of psychoanalyzing biographies is the implicit Freudian assumption that writers in their publications are unconsciously seeking the means for satisfying the libido which are unavailable in reality. In his many remarks upon the relation of art and neurosis, Freud found the wishful thinking of fantasy compensation for reality's repressed or failed erotic and ambitious wishes. The Manuels leave the reader with little doubt that they agree in almost every one of their psychological portraits. Though it would be unfair to say that the Manuels ever use the biography exclusively to "explain" the utopian thought, again the stress upon the individuality of their authors separates the chapters rather than unifies their study. If these men were strongly motivated to make over the future to fit their idiosyncrasies, this Freudian bias clashes with the seriousness which the Manuels have devoted to their project. Again, their utopians become portraits in a museum; perhaps it is my bias, but I would prefer more emphasis upon what is still living in their writings. When the reader is told that Saint-Just "is an interesting type case" (p. 564), he begins to wonder just what sort of inquiry Utopian Thought is.

These little psychodramas abound, sometimes becoming wildly speculative. Babeuf's revolutionary fervor, for example, is attributed to his rebellion against a father over 70 and to the continual humiliation his "tender soul" suffered in the houses of the nobles who employed him as a feudiste (title searcher): "The final wound," write the Manuels in explaining the birth of the Conspirator of the Equals, "was perhaps inflicted by the tone of his employer's voice or the disdain in a grimace" (p. 569).

Less irritating but equally problematic and certainly more crucial is the Manuels' notion of major utopian constellations. These are formed by the common elements of utopian thinking within "reasonably well marked timespace perimeters" (p. 13), contemporaries having more resemblances than predecessors or descendants. Sometimes this works out quite well--as we might expect it to: problems in the same century in the same geographical area evoke related attempts at solution. However, if de Sade, Restif de la Bretonne, Saint-Just, and Babeuf form a "constellation," the critical historian of utopian thought must persuade the reader that they do, rather than merely group them together, and convince him that these "four" form a major utopian constellation. The section in which the Manuels' concept of a constellation works best also demonstrates the weakness of their organization. Part III, "Flowering and Death of the Christian Utopia," begins with a convincing chapter which identifies "Pansophism," the dream of uniting religion and science within one order of knowledge, as the common element shared by 17th-century utopians. The thesis stated here--"The seventeenth-century utopian philosophers shared a presupposition that the reorganization of knowledge was fundamental to the reform of society" (p. 213)--helps the reader to understand the intellectual relationships among Bruno, Bacon, Campanella, Andreae, Comenius, and Leibniz: each was in his own way attempting a utopian synthesis "for the spiritual renovation of all mankind" (p. 288). But between Comenius and Leibniz come intervening chapters on the English and French utopians. Although Hobbes might be thought of with this group, the utopias of the Levellers, Diggers, and Fifth Monarchists have nothing to do with pansophism,; they are legalistic, constitutional, moral, religious, or millenarian. Vairasse's little-known History of the Sevarambians is interested in the state's regulatory power to create a highly virtuous populace, and Fenelon's Arcadian shepherds in Telemachus know nothing of the new science, content as they are in their Greco-Roman pastoral simplicities. Once the Manuels return to the theme of Pansophism in the following chapter on Leibniz, they become persuasive again, though the preceding essays on the English Civil War and the enemies of Louis XIV still seem interruptions, clusters of minor stars which do not belong to this major utopian constellation.

2. Since I have been in these pages so critical of the kinds of questions Utopian Thought in the Western World asks and of the ways in which it structures its answers, I should briefly suggest what I believe would be better ones. As a professor of literature, my mode of discussion may seem somewhat slanted toward the genre of fiction we call utopian, but by no means do I wish to exclude the philosophers of history who have believed in the ideal of progress, the philosophical anthropologists who have discovered the nature of human nature, the political theorists who have devised perfect states, the religious prophets who have seen into the future, nor any others who have done their utopian thinking in discursive prose. Because utopian thinking is primarily the imagination of forms of social harmony or cultural unity which will permit the optimal circumstances for the individual's pursuit of happiness or virtue or wealth or salvation or whatever, both fictional and discursive utopias should be open to the kind of analysis we apply to any work of imagination.

Although utopians have told of their travels to foreign lands and have tried to restore the ideals of past cultures, Utopia is essentially the romance of the future, that always present, uncharted territory of hope and fear, enormous possibility and limitless anxiety. Because fictional utopias assume the task of mapping out this unexplored land (the temporal translated into the spatial), they belong within the literary category of romance, as also does their kin, SF; however, though they share many of the same narrative characteristics with the stories of Chretien de Troyes, Edmund Spenser, Sir Walter Scott, and Ursula Le Guin, utopian fictions have their own definite varieties of romance conventions. The differences result from the likeness of purpose with the discursive utopia: to present a convincing portrait of social harmony. If we use a simplistic chart such as this:

Mode: Fiction                                                        Argument

Form: "Speaking Picture"                                    "Action Program"

Genre: Fantasy                                                      Theory

           Romance                                                    Realism

Method: Satirical Inversion                              Critical analysis

Subject: Mythical places with                            Development of

      alternate social                                              alternate social

      contracts and                                                contracts, laws,

      customs                                                        and institutions

we may see that the two approaches to utopian thinking are not so far apart and that each influences the other or, rather, that the translation of fiction into argument or argument into fiction often requires little sleight of hand. Both modes of utopian thinking must answer the same fundamental question: what is the nature of human nature? The answers--often the hidden assumptions-- will provide the shape of the utopia; more important perhaps for the historical analyst, they will shape the utopian dialectic of the work, be it fiction or discourse.

The Manuels pay too little attention to such considerations, considerations which would unify their studies. When they do--and it is rarely--they fail to exploit their generalizations:

Were mankind aligned on opposite sides of the nature-nurture controversy, the utopians among them would be found in the camp of the nurturists. Since the fifteenth century, secular utopians have believed, almost without needing to make their views explicit, that the environment in which children are reared and mature persons go about their business is the major determinant in fashioning their character and subsequent pattern of conduct. They may have differed about which aspects of the environment exerted the most potent influence--was it the architecture of the city, the educational system, social and political arrangements, the organization of work relations. the form of religious worship?--but they would join in agreement on the power of human institutions to create both good and evil. (p. 682)

Here is an important debate--between soft and hard primitivism, to use A.O. Lovejoy`s terms--one largely initiated by 16th-century travellers' reports and one to which Montaigne's Of Cannibals and Shakespeare's The Tempest are "utopian" contributions. An even more fruitful dialectic for the study of utopias lies within the "nurture" side of this debate. Is man essentially destructive? Do his activities tend toward conflict--the acquisition of status, property, pleasure, and inequality through violence of one sort or another? Given a "yes," the utopian model will be restrictive, social institutions performing the role of eliminating aggression through control and restriction. Is man essentially cooperative? Do his activities tend toward justice, equality, and other forms of creative sharing? Given a "yes," the utopian model will be advisory and assertive, social institutions making recommendations to promote man's creative tendencies and assisting him in carrying them out. Of course, a few utopian thinkers follow either definition of human nature, and therein lies the dialectical nature of utopian thought. One recurrent movement in the utopian dialectic is from a restrictive to an advisory model. Man has to be educated in his goals, wants, and needs; he has to be retrained in what to desire.

This need not take the extreme form of behavioral engineering and the types of conditioning advocated by B.F. Skinner; it is clear enough in More's Utopia. Another possibility is the division of society into a governing class and a labor class. This need not take the form of guardianship as in Plato's Republic; it may result in the benevolent amelioration of work conditions: shorter hours, mechanizations and computerizations, Muzak, and non-toxic workplaces. Yet it should be no surprise that most dystopias posit a society built on just such a division. Again, such a realization should lead us to see neither blueprints for reform nor more equitable distributions of goods as the basic subject of the utopian dialectic. Utopias teach man what to desire, what pleasures to yearn for, what goals are the best possible; the creation of the best possible world provides the encouragement for dreaming such desires possible of fulfillment.

If the discussion of a utopian dialectic is necessary, so too is the outline of a utopian logic. The utopian thinker recognizes one or two fundamental aspects of human nature as responsible for the ills of society and sets about creating social frameworks to discourage or eliminate those tendencies. Thomas More saw pride as the root of all evils, and with this assumption his utopia becomes committed to certain strategies of fiction. All emblems of pride must disappear: jewels, houses, money, dress, and all other elements of personal property, including most of those socially conferred: rank, title, and so on. The specifics of the work obey the logic consistently; granted More's assumptions, the frequent comparison among critics between Utopia and a monastery is hardly surprising.

Second, the logic of utopian thinking calls for an encyclopedic method. If the utopia is to be an anatomy of a better society, all institutions which are crucial must be at least sketched, and the controlling "root of all evils" eliminated in their re-creation. In utopian fictions, because of the encyclopedic survey, most of the "characters" are types of social occupations. If they are not abstract and one-dimensional, they generally fall into two categories: the committed raisonneur and the naive listener to whom the former does his explaining. Similarly, because the utopia has resolved all conflicts, there exists little drama except in the intellectual process of discovery by the newcomer.

Third--and this applies to fictional and discursive utopias as well-- utopian thinking involves the transformation or transvaluation of images, conventions and customs. This transformation is often implicit in the Manuels' analyses but the reader must see it between the lines. For example, Condorcet explains the aberrations of human history by concluding that what seems evil is good in the long run; the belief in "progress" has replaced the belief in God, and irony replaces providence as a mode of explanation. The principle of transformation is clear also in Turgot's belief that "the battle between the spirit of novelty and the spirit of routine, between the desire for movement and the tendency toward quiescence, was the underlying conflict of human destiny, a new philosophical version of the religious war between good and evil" (p. 464). Such changes in the terms of explanation without substantial changes in the structure of explanation are typical, I believe, of utopian thinking; at least, this type of consideration would provide questions we could ask of all utopian thinkers.

The transformation of imagery in utopian thought has been examined recently by Melvin Lasky in his Utopia and Revolution; there he has shown the limitedness of the utopian and revolutionary vocabulary of images and rhetorics. I might add that the utopian logic I have been describing works as well in anti-utopias and dystopias. Usually, the dystopia begins with the description of a false utopia in which these three conditions--the elimination of aggression through the eradication of the "root of all evil," the encyclopedic anatomy, and the transvaluation and transformation of images and conventions--have been met. The dystopian then proceeds to unravel this placid harmony by introducing an element of conflict which destroys the entire structure; the logic fans apart. These too are romances; if they seem more realistic, it is because they attack the romance conventions of the straight utopias.

3. What motivates the maker of utopia? How do we evaluate a utopia? What social function does it fulfill?

Aristotle writes in Book VII of the Politics: "Before we can undertake properly the investigation of our next theme--the nature of an ideal constitution--it is necessary for us first to determine the nature of the most desirable way of life. As long as that is obscure, the nature of the ideal constitution must also remain obscure" (1323al4; Barker's translation). Utopia-making involves more than the array of various arrangements of political institutions and distributions of public offices. Creating the best state depends upon creating in man the desire for the best way of life. It should be no surprise that education is most often the central institution in the utopian society. Only superficially is the utopian motive to draw a definite blueprint for the future. Utopias educate their readers' imaginations.

The motive for utopian thinking implies reexamining how utopias are evaluated. If we judge the utopia by criteria of feasibility, in terms of viable social reform, we shall badly misinterpret the work; if we judge it according to stylistic yardsticks, in terms of its narrative interest and vitality as prose, and even if we evaluate it in terms of its logical consistency, we may only see a part of its social and psychological energy. The best utopias radically alter personal and social conceptions and perspectives, and, historically, utopias have often had an impact upon a far greater number of readers than later historians of literature and political thought think reasonable; for example, the influence of Harrington's Oceana and Bellamy's Looking Backward seems far beyond their intellectual or literary merit. The "life" of the utopia often is more historically meaningful than its ideas themselves.

Utopian thinkers also have defined and sometimes introduced the terms of political debate which in turn have influenced other forms of discourse, and this contribution makes any survey of utopian thought very difficult. Aldous Huxley's response to H.G. Wells's SF and George Orwell's response to Huxley's Brave New World in 1984 can represent a large part of the utopia/anti-utopia debate within five decades or more of political thought. Similarly, part of the "constellation" of 20th-century utopian thought must be the perversions of utopian thought in the very real world of action: the programs of Mussolini and Hitler, for example. The Manuels totally neglect the ugly face of utopia. Significantly, such experiments are formally identical to other utopias: the citizenry is "educated" in the superiority of one way of life, of the state's institutions, of its national mission. Together with other modern instances, China and Cuba, for example, these recent experiences have generated a fear of utopia among many, and this marks a radical change in one's attitude toward the social function of utopian thinking.

On the other hand, sometimes an entire period may be characterized as "utopian," at least in one of its dominant perspectives. Besides the philosophers of civic humanism and architects of ideal cities, discussed by the Manuels, many other Renaissance thinkers were involved in the utopianism of the renovatio mundi: Calvin's regulations for Geneva, Erasmian reforms in England and elsewhere, the educational programs of the Humanists, the elegant courtesy of Castiliogne's Urbino, the pastoral comedies of Tasso and Shakespeare, the virtuous "cannibals" of Montaigne, and so on. These Renaissance thinkers were concerned with the best way of life, with the future, or with social improvement and harmony, or with all three. That these efforts did not always take the "form" of utopias should not diminish their contributions to the underlying debate about human nature and should once again suggest the necessity of defining "utopian thought."

The importance of these larger historical contexts lies in the utopia's tackling the issues, the debate, head-on. In turn, the direct encounter of the nature of human nature defines utopian thought and the utopian motive, for though a "romance of the future," that future is one immanent in the present, a future available to man, given his willingness to embrace the "best way of life." We must not be confused by the various means provided--equality through law, the ideal constitution, the elimination of poverty, the advancement of science, the free play of sexual desire, the restriction of technology, or whatever--nor by the social systems imagined to create those means or promote and accelerate the existing machinery of those means. The utopia-makers themselves are often guilty of confusing ends and means, prompting one popular definition of "utopia" as an unrealizable fantasy and diluting the utopian motive with personal and ideological ones. To analyze such confusions seems an important task for the historian of utopian thought.

4. Unfortunately, most utopias fail to stir the imaginations of 20th-century readers and failed even to stir those of their contemporaries. Of the 17th-century pamphleteers, the Manuels write: "Most of the verbal energies were spent in disputing present horrors and foretelling the vengeance of the Lord. By the time the utopia proper was reached, the vital spirits were exhausted, invention was drained, and the prospect was flat and dry. Of course, the same charge may be made against virtually all utopias...." (pp. 3442). When the prospect is less commonplace and more scenic, utopias achieve their ends: the education of the readers' imagination of alternate futures, of hope, of change for the better if not the best. Even the flat and dry has its rewards, if only to remind us of the seriousness and urgency of the utopian endeavor.

Undertaking its history must, in my opinion, involve some sort of structural or theoretical attempt to define "utopian thinking" and to distinguish it from other forms of thought. Perhaps only then may we discover its vitality for our own time.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)  Back to Home