Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea

Wonderful illustrations don't make up for a failure to get to grip with ideal worlds, Fred Inglis finds

April 21, 2011

Generalisations about popular sentiment or the dominant mood at a historical moment are only to be risked in a surge of more or less drunken enthusiasm. But in 2011, with two 10-year-old wars still crackling at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, guns in the streets of half a dozen of its capital cities and bankruptcies threatening all around the inland sea, let alone across the Atlantic, it isn't promising weather for the idea of Utopia.

Nothing daunted, Thames and Hudson, always such beautiful bookmakers, have taken Gregory Claeys' compact yet copious directory of an idea and turned it into a magnificent picture book, gorgeously illustrating the madly protean nature of the hope and despair of humankind as it takes the measure of the gap between how things are and how they ought to be.

The splendid and numerous illustrations challenge the reader, of course, to express amazement at the author's omissions (why no sign of Renaissance paintings such as Piero di Cosimo's The Forest Fire or Piero della Francesca's Ideal City?). But this would be churlish when there is such a glorious and unexpected profusion of both little- and well-known imagery.

The closer one looks at the sheer variety, however, the more blurred become the purpose, the argument, the very category of the book, and the nearer it moves to the edge of that catch-all sitting-room synecdoche, the coffee-table book.

Not that that would be a disgraceful thing to do; enlightenment and delight may well be served up with biscuits, but it surely isn't what Claeys intended. He is professor of the history of political thought but there is, alas, very little record of thought in his book, and no history at all. It is as if the enormous intellectual effort expended in building the stout architecture of Cambridge historicism these past 40-odd years had never been.

Take Claeys' treatment of his great original, Thomas More. He retells More's tale quite simply, but in a series of shameless anachronisms, describes his Utopia as "essentially democratic", purses 21st-century lips over 16th-century "imperialist tendencies", and subsumes More's most radical principle, which was the outright abolition of all private property, into vague acknowledgement of "More's socialism".

This lack of any exploration of the change in meaning of such key concepts as "pleasure", "happiness", "equality" and, indeed, "production" marks what is so misleading about the very title of the book, and leaves its author simply enumerating an enormous but fairly familiar reading list. Even so, there are curious omissions, such as the history of "la bonne vaux", inaugurated in the late 18th century by Nicolas Restif de la Bretonne in Monsieur Nicolas, and consummated in the early 20th century by Alain-Fournier in Le Grand Meaulnes, and no use made at all of Simon Schama's monumental 1996 book Landscape and Memory.

Claeys' uncertainty about the kind of book he is writing regularly transpires in downright banality, such as telling the reader that "In Genesis, God is described as creating the first man, Adam, and then the first woman, Eve", and when, a few pages later, he also captions Hans Memling's triptych The Last Judgement by telling us that "In Catholic belief, good souls and bodies would be reunited in heaven, while the bad would go to hell", even the mildest reviewer might become ribald.

The controlling narrative runs from the beginning to the end and, as the end becomes nigh and dystopia replaces Utopia in Claeys' vision of plausibility, he allows himself to give up history altogether. He speaks a curse over Adam Smith for "delivering the culture of choice" (endorsing as he does so the Tory party's ignorant misappropriation of that great moralist) and, in a tumult of cliches ("grasping at straws", "throwing crutches aside", "instant gratification", "out of the woodwork"), bundles together in a single malediction the horrors of consumerism while urging upon the human race, no less, and with a slightly glazed sincerity, the necessity of low-order utopianism.

The book needs the steadying touch of Walter Benjamin, who grasped that all societies seek to transcend present wrongs in the social order and its production, and do so by searching "the primal past" for its best aspects. Understandably, Claeys has been swamped by the colossal detail of his topic and cannot, you might say, see the trees for the wood.

Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea

By Gregory Claeys

Thames & Hudson, 224pp, £24.95

ISBN 9780500251744

Published 14 February 2011

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