Writing about thinking up other worlds by Glen Newey, Terry Eagleton, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Susan Pedersen, David Trotter and Anthony Pagden. 

Life in Thomas More’s Utopia, like many others inspired by it, isn’t much fun. As Ralph Robinson’s English version of 1551 puts it, Utopians enjoy ‘neither wine-taverns, nor ale-houses, nor stews, nor any occasion of vice or wickedness’. Utopia enforces a form of workfare, and generally its inhabitants have little leisure, which they spend on ‘honest and laudable pastimes’. It all sounds rather Calvinistic.

Pretty Much like Ourselves

Terry Eagleton, 4 September 1997

Left-wing utopias which dream of a society beyond privilege are instances of the privileges they disown: as Oscar Wilde knew, there is something offensively idle and frivolous about thinking up other worlds, a pursuit in which anyone can engage as readily as they can boil an egg. But Wilde was also aware that we fleshly creatures stood in need of such images, which is why he offered himself as a person at once intolerably self-indulgent and the harbinger of a future in which nobody else would need to work either.

Vodka + Caesium: Nostalgia for the USSR

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 20 October 2016

Svetlana Alexievich has written that all her books are part of a history of utopia. The utopia here isn’t so much the Soviet project itself – though that’s part of it – but perestroika’s attempt to revive it. Her subjects are Soviet nostalgics whose nostalgia is tempered by the fact that they so badly wanted the really-existing Soviet Union to be different.

Do fight, don’t kill: Wartime Objectors

Susan Pedersen, 20 October 2022

When Leonard Elmhirst and Dorothy Straight bought Dartington Hall and its eight hundred acres in 1925, there were only seventeen people living on the dilapidated Devon estate. Eight years later Dartington had 846 employees, 124 tenants, a progressive school and a host of enterprises producing everything from pottery to plays to poultry. Anna Neima sees this experiment as ‘a small-scale story about very big ideas’ – the main ‘big idea’ being that it is possible to build communitarian ways of working and living which are superior to laissez-faire liberalism, sustaining ‘life in its completeness’.

Stir and Bustle: Corridors

David Trotter, 19 December 2019

The West Wing’s signature idea was the walk-and-talk: an elaborately choreographed tracking shot which follows several characters at a time as they navigate the corridors of the White House while engaged in multiple, overlapping conversations. There’s quite a lot of utopianism in the thought that the government of the most powerful nation on earth might run on articulacy and grace under pressure (George W. Bush entered the White House during the show’s second season).

Social Poetry

Anthony Pagden, 15 October 1987

Ideologies – those ‘obscure metaphysics’, as Napoleon once angrily described them – are perhaps no less difficult to define than utopias. Whereas utopias are offered to us as images for us to emulate so that we might escape the limits of the world where we are, ideologies are built into that world.

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