Spring 2001

Without Shadows: Histories of Utopia

Allen S. Weiss

Follower of Faustino Bocchi (attrib.), The Fertility of the Egg, c. 1700–1750. Courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum.

Utopias that collapse, gates of Eden that close behind you everywhere...
—Claudio Margis, Microcosms­

We each value one utopia; all others are hell.­ Indeed, how many utopias have vanished in our lifetime, how many recent events mark further failures in this history of ideals and perfections: May ’68; AIDS; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the year 2000? Every epoch, if not every generation, renews this impossible history. But to what ends?

One of the works displayed in the exhibition “Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World” organized by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and The New York Public Library is an engraving printed in Paris in 1848 by Frédéric Sorrieu, Universal, Democratic and Social Republic: The Pact.1 This celebration of the humanist ideals of the revolutions of that year depicts a vast procession of people—mixing nations, classes, sexes, ages—marching together toward a statue of the Republic with, above in the heavens, Christ, surrounded by the heavenly hosts, offering a benediction upon human fraternity. One need not be a deconstructionist (just a bit cynical) to note the irony, indeed the internal contradiction, inherent in this image. (Hanging in my library is a fin-de-siècle engraving based on the same iconographic model, though totally melancholic and macabre: A mélange of people march determinately, if not all joyously, toward the gaping jaws of a huge death’s-head, with an empty sky offering no icon of resurrection or hope.) It is no wonder that this erudite and massive exhibition ends on the most somber of notes, displaying a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, harbinger of the Nazi dystopia which is a model of a certain purity, transparency, and subordination—all utopian ideals.

Utopia. No place. As named by Thomas More in 1516, such is an imaginary country with an ideal government. Henceforth, the title became a generic appellation for the greatest diversity of projects, from the sublime to the ridiculous. There are utopias of the past (The Garden of Eden, The Age of Gold, The Sacred Isles, The Lost Continent, Arcadia), utopias of the present (quests, revolutions, enlightenments, technologies, exoticisms) and utopias of the future (Apocalypse, Millennium, Socialism, The New Jerusalem). Whether critical or constructive, these are well-formed lands, of impeccable order and imperious lucidity, where psychological and social contradictions are annulled in collective bliss. A perusal of this exhibition reveals that the imagination of utopia can be schematized according to a number of classic oppositions of European thought: natural (Hesiod, Works and Days) / technological (Karel Capek, R.U.R.); local (Claude Nicolas Ledoux, the city of Chaux) / global (Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities); terrestrial (Thomas More, Utopia) / celestial (Saint Augustine, The City of God); rural (Ovid, The Metamorphoses) / urban (Hugh Ferriss, The Metropolis of Tomorrow); religious (The Bible) / secular (Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto); stable (Antonio Averlino, Codex Magliabecchianus) / mobile (Jean Wauquelin, Chronicles of Alexander); scientific (Francis Bacon, New Atlantis) / fantastic (Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels). However, one major opposition is missing here, “individual / collective,” for the structural key to this exhibition is the notion that utopia is, if not always a collective project, at least a fantasy of collectivity, since here individuality is anathema. To speak of collectivity and utopia is a tautology. Utopia is based on a totalizing, if not always totalitarian, impulse, entailing a coherent law and a stable symbolic, eschewing the aleatory and the deviant, eliminating accident and disorder. Indeed, it is interesting to note what seems to be a geometrical imperative to the imagination of utopia: A large percentage of the images displayed in this exhibition depict round or spherical spaces and objects, whether they be gardens, cities, islands, the earth, the moon. Mathematical elegance? Aesthetic perfection? Panoptical possibilities?

What does it mean to include a copy of the American Declaration of Independence in an exhibition on utopias? How does this transform our notion of political philosophy—or of utopia, for that matter? Might it not suggest that while most literary models of utopia are closed, if not totalizing, other forms exist: pragmatic, indefinite, open works? What possible effects can this have on theories of jurisprudence?

Could one imagine an exhibition based on the notion of private utopias? Would this not pose epistemological problems parallel to those evoked by Wittgenstein’s critique of the notion of private languages? Might this not be the history of reverie? Would this be madness? Such a project would entail a celebration of individuality, of impurity, of shadows, of silence, of perversity. We need not access psychoanalytic theory to realize that perversion contests the law of the symbolic, and that no utopia can contain a society of radical individuals, a community of those who disavow community. But this is another matter, the subject of another exhibition... (If such a project were possible, it might well be inspired by Harald Szeemann’s exhibition, “Les machines célibataires,” based on the book of the same title by Jean Carrouges, or else by André Blavier’s anthology of eccentric and impossible projects, Les fous littéraires. And one should not forget that creator of so many small perfect worlds, Joseph Cornell, who spent his entire life on Utopia Parkway...)

Upon leaving the Bibliothèque Nationale, I walked along the quay, wondering about what form this review might take. Who wouldn’t consider, however briefly, a Borgesian schema, that of a labyrinthine universal library (pace Alain Resnais’s documentary on the old Bibliothèque Nationale, Toute la mémoire du monde—“all the memory of the world”), where each reader is lead through a surreptitious but efficacious rhetoric to his or her own utopia? Or perhaps, in hermeneutic legerdemain, the totality of the exhibition could be considered in its very heterogeneity, such that each utopia would act as an explicit critique of every other one (like Christ vs. the Republic, rather than Christ and the Republic, in the engraving described above.) Or in a clever moment of auto-reflexivity, the utopian quest could be condensed into a literary cabinet of curiosities, echoing the deep structure of Cabinet. (Isn’t it for such moments of authorial hesitation that we take pleasure in reading the explanatory notes and the textual variants at the end of certain authors’ complete works!?)

As I mused upon these ultimately unsatisfying possibilities, I came upon the great gardening store, Truffaut, situated on the Quai de la Gare. Needing a few items, I entered, and with sudden recognition and delight realized that the arrangement of this store—reflecting its ideals: the perfection of nature in an urban setting—is a strictly utopian organization! (The major Parisian competitor of Truffaut, Vilmorin, bears the motto “The enchanted space.”) One need not seek the utopia of the 21st century only in cyberspace, with its malleable spatiality, heterogeneous semiotics, and fluidity of identity. Utopia can be an intimate, sensual, moveable feast. I bought a huge flowerpot, perfectly round and celestial blue, in which to plant a bush of white roses.

  1. The exhibition catalogue, edited by Rola­nd Schaer and Lyman Tower Sargent, is accessible on the internet at ­www.bnf.fr­.

Allen S. Weiss teaches at the Performance Studies and Cinema Studies departments at New York University. He is the author of numerous books, including Phantasmic Radio. Weiss is an editor-at-large at Cabinet.