Edward Rothstein
Visions of Utopia

Utopias implicitly provide a standard by which we judge our political and social achievements. But what sorts of standards are these? How closely can they be reconciled with what we know of the world? Are they even worthy as models? Consider again the idea of a perfect society, in which material plenty joins with social, harmony. Imagine somehow that nature, in all its unpredictable irrationality, were temporarily willing to cooperate with this fantasy by providing plentiful rainfall and sunshine in their proper times and places. Imagine that the infinite variety of human personality and the arbitrary reach of human desire could somehow be accommodated. Imagine that unhappiness could really be an occasional occurrence, worthy of note because it gives a more potent awareness of happiness. In such a world, where everything else seemed to be going right, we would still have to believe that people really are, as academic critical theory now insists, socially constructed, that everything that we like and believe, every way that we act and think, is shaped by our surroundings and institutions, that there is no aspect of human nature that might serve as an obstacle to an engineered paradise. And even if we were ready to grant such a notion of near-infinite human malleability—something for which there is no credible evidence—we would still run into a contradiction. For surely liberty and freedom would seem to be aspects of life one would not want to do without in any Utopia. Yet also, in any Utopia, there would have to be a very strong central authority. Without such an authority, how could social construction and constructed harmony be guaranteed? The famed maxim of Marx and Engels—'from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs'—is, for example, a noble idea. We contribute what we are able and in return are provided what we reasonably require. But who measures these abilities or decides whether or not they are being suitably used? And who determines needs and how they might vary from time to time and place to place? Only a centralized authority could enforce such an ideal. Under a weak government-or even one only a bit sloppy in its vigilance—the categorization of abilities and needs would come under question. Slight variations would creep in. One citizen might read Utopian fiction and come to believe that there are better ways to organize an ideal society. Another might suddenly develop a strong taste for artichoke hearts and be willing to sacrifice a good deal to eat them out of season. The unpredictable is one of the predictable aspects in human associations. Yet the unpredictable is just what a Utopia is unprepared for—which is one reason why these tightly regulated societies seem plausible only in small communities in social isolation. Almost any Utopia seems to make one very clear demand: obey. Utopians know best. Even the ordinary family would pose a threat to Utopia because it would seem to create loyalties that might supersede those demanded by the state. Private property would have to be eliminated, or there would be lawsuits over its disposition and envy over its possession. The more perfect the Utopia, the more stringent must be the controls. We are left with, yes, Big Brother. And Utopia becomes totalitarianism with a barely human face.

Is this, perhaps, one reason for the distinct uneasiness that sometimes accompanies Utopian writing? A Utopia is like one of those forbidden gardens in fairy tales, hidden from view by briars and ringed with thorns, or surrounded by flames like the sleeping body of Brunnhilde; it often seems that even if one were to gain admittance, there would be a high price to pay. Literary Utopias are also fraught with ambiguity, as if nothing could quite be what it seems. More's Utopia is a resolutely secular society, a peculiar paradise to have been created by a representative of the Church; this and other aspects of the book have led some to suggest that at times More is showing not a Utopia but what a Utopia should not be. Samuel Butler's Erewhon, a satire of Utopian literature, also presents its share of ambiguities; in Erewhon, for example, criminals are considered to be ill and are treated for their illness. What an enlightened idea for the late nineteenth century, one might think, except for the fact that in Butler's Utopia the satire runs deep: Criminals must be treated for illness, but anyone treated for illness must also be imprisoned.

The closer one looks, the more ambiguity there is. Moreover, what is in question is not only Utopia's virtue but also the procedures required to reach it. Utopia stands outside of history. It is the city on the hill, society's dream image. But it can be reached only by breaking the continuity of history. Any attempt to really create a Utopia is necessarily revolutionary. The manners, morals, and convictions of the past have to be cast aside. The realization of a Utopia requires destruction. Like the French Revolution, a passage into Utopia would involve the creation of a new calendar and a new law; like the French Revolution, too, it would require a certain price to be paid in blood.

Let me give an example other than the obvious political ones of the previous century. Utopianism is closely related to the notion of messianism, the idea that there is a figure, a messiah, who will bring about the Utopia. He is the messenger who brings the good news down to earth and then helps put it into effect. He comes from outside history, enters into its midst, and promises redemption. These are borders that are transgressed only with great trauma, which is why so many heralds of messianic days are associated with cataclysm and apocalypse. The end of days is literally the end of time.

One of the most extreme and unusual examples of messianism's cataclysmic consequences came in the seventeenth century. At that time, in the Mediterranean lands and the Middle East, a nondescript, slightly manic, and oddly disturbed man proclaimed himself the Messiah of the Jews. In a magisterial essay, 'Redemption Through Sin,' the historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem recounted how this mentally unbalanced man, Sabbatai Zevi, engaged in rather bizarre acts—marrying a prostitute, mocking sacred texts, even instituting a new blessing, praising 'that which is forbidden.' A devoted Kabbalist of the time became his 'prophet,' interpreting these acts and other violations of Jewish law according to Kabbalistic mythology. According to this messianic theory, Sabbatai Zevi was not perverse or crazy. He was actually seeking sparks of divinity, which were deeply hidden even in what was most forbidden; he had to free those sparks from their polluting 'husks' and restore them to their divine origins. His acts of sin were actually acts of redemption.

Eventually, Scholem pointed out, Sabbateanism became a staggeringly popular movement (Isaac Bashevis Singer imagined some of its consequences in his first novel, Satan in Goray). Carried to its logical conclusion, the idea of descent into the netherworld in order to free divine sparks from polluting husks led to the very sanctification of transgression; it was a declaration of the holiness of sin. Then, just as matters of doctrine seemed settled, the Turkish sultan, nervous about the upheaval among the Jews, called Sabbatai before him and gave him a choice: convert to Islam or be put to death. Sabbatai may have been crazy, but he wasn't that crazy. The conversion took place. It was, Scholem explained, a cataclysm for those who believed. How could such a savior so completely abandon his mission? Yet even that shock did not immediately invalidate the messianic expectations; the conversion too could be interpreted as a 'descent' that would lead to salvation. But eventually, Scholem suggests, there was a widespread crisis that put the entire religious tradition into question, sowing the seeds of the secular Enlightenment.

Sabbatai Zevi, of course, was an extreme case. He didn't just declare the end of earthly and religious law,'he heralded its inversion—deliberate violation. But in descending into transgression, in cultivating sin, he demonstrated a typical consequence of attempts to create Utopias. He dramatized what is involved in every Utopia: The mundane must be overturned, the future paradise will have nothing to do with earthly history or its familiar order. Messianic revolutions-like the French Revolution, which followed Sabbatean patterns—usually institute new calendars, to signify the beginning of a new era, leaving behind the old. Messianism, in its promise to redeem history, ends up violating history. Scholem called messianism a 'theory of catastrophe.' So, it seems, is utopianism, particularly when utopianism is treated as something to be practically worked for and imminently expected. It is astonishing how much violation a Utopian will tolerate and even celebrate.

Lenin in 1917 offers another extreme example: 'Until the 'higher phase' of communism arrives,' he wrote, 'the Socialists demand the strictest control, by society and by the state, of the measure of labor and the measure of consumption; but this control must start with the expropriation of the capitalists, with the establishment of workers' control over the capitalists, and must be carried out, not by a state of bureaucrats, but by a state of armed workers.' In the name of higher hopes, Lenin, prefiguring Stalin, cautions, 'We do not in the least deny the possibility and the inevitability of excesses.' But with the removal of the first cause of oppression—the capitalist system—even such excesses will 'wither away.'

This is catastrophic messianism: Redemption can take place only through a long march through the netherworld of accidental excesses and planned destruction. The Nazis, masters of the underworld, differed only in superstructure. The strategy was the same: In the name of future glory, what will not be permissible? Utopias stand apart from history; their realization demands Sabbateanism.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.