Great Good Places of the Mind

John Passmore

  • Utopian Thought in the Western World by Frank Manuel
    Blackwell, 896 pp, £19.50, November 1979, ISBN 0 631 12361 X

For a quarter of a century, Professor and Mrs Manuel have explored the highways and byways of Utopianism. Their task is now completed, their painstaking research encapsulated in a single monumental volume. Nothing less than ‘monumental’ will suffice to describe it: half a million words, at a rough estimate. Tighter editing would have excised an occasional sentence as repetitious or otiose. But that would have had no more substantial effect than a craftsman’s final polishing. The monolith remains, in a sense beyond criticism, simply there, an Ayer’s Rock of scholarship.

Most large books can safely be skipped through or skimmed, by all but the most conscientious reader. In the present case, this is not so. Those whose interest in the Utopians is confined to, let us say, Fourier will no doubt choose to read nothing but the lively account of that unusually engaging fantasist. But to read with care the history as a whole is to read it sentence by sentence. Each sentence is a bead on a string, a separate piece of information, not an exemplification or an illustration of a general thesis, dispensable as such. For no general thesis informs the whole.

‘Our book is constructed,’ so its authors tell us, ‘of seven major constellations and a few minor ones, arranged in chronological order, preceded by two exordia, one methodological and the other mythological, the whole crowned with a prophetical peroration.’

Classical Utopianism is relegated to the mythological exordium. Plato and Plutarch make their appearance, then, in distinctly odd company and not in a manner which makes quite perspicuous the degree to which they set the intellectual pattern of so many subsequent Utopias. ‘The birth of Utopia’ is delayed until the Renaissance and the Reformation; the first major ‘constellation’ contains More, the Italian city designers, and Thomas Müntzer. Strange companion-stars, one might well think, but, for the Manuels, they were all intent on specifying the nature of an ideal Christian society. Even if that be granted – and the dominant ideals of the Renaissance city-planners were surely pagan rather than Christian – the question still remains whether, More apart, they fall into the category of Utopians. Not everyone who sets out to reform society is a Utopian. To that point I shall return.

For the moment let us consider, by way of a further example, the second, ‘pansophist’, constellation, where Bruno, Bacon, Campanella, Andreae and Leibniz are united by taking as their ideal a form of society which will be at once Christian and scientific, containing within its folds every variety of wisdom. We soon notice that in the Manuels’ history Leibniz is widely separated from the other members of his constellation not only by the Civil War Utopians, from Winstanley to Harrington, but by such Sun King Utopians as the Huguenot Vairasse, the Catholic Fénelon – scarcely, any of them, pansophists. No further demonstration is needed that the Manuels’ ‘constellations’, like their heavenly counterparts, vaguely suggest rather than accurately delineate a pattern. Even chronology – as in the backwards transition from More to the designers of cities – is often set rudely aside.

Their preferred form, so the Manuels tell us, is the essay; many segments of their history have previously been published as such. It is designed, one begins to see, as a series of such essays, loosely linked by temporal relationships and still more loosely by a type of concern. Its style accords with this literary preference. Nowhere is it pompous or abstract; there is no hint of the academic dissertation. Every sentence is clear in its meaning, if not always in its intent, its role in the total picture. But the fastidious reader may find the manner somewhat too unbuttoned, the register too colloquial. He could point, in evidence, to such sentences as ‘De Sade invented libertine heroes who used their passionate stick whenever it could be set aflame’ or to the translation of Ernst Bloch which makes him say, in relation to Müntzer’s sermon on Uproar: ‘Right on, I want to be uproarious.’ Such a reader might complain, too, of an excessive uniformity in pace and tone and syntax. There is relatively little direct quotation to break the even flow with an irruption from a more eloquent style. The effect is a monotone, particularly marked in the paraphrasings of the great Utopias which, in the Manuels’ version, scarcely live up to their reputation as movers of men.

The dullness of such paraphrases is not entirely a matter of style. A few exceptions apart, the Manuels are not particularly interested in Utopias as such. Again and again, this or that Utopia is dismissed as ‘boring’, ‘dismal’, ‘arid’. And even those which are not so dismissed may strike the reader as deserving to be. This is puzzling – it is, after all, part of the historian’s task to interest us in his topic more than we expected to be – but seems less so if we recall the preface to Frank Manuel’s earlier work, The Prophets of Paris, a book which has been incorporated, largely unchanged, into the present history and constitutes, in my judgment, its strongest section. ‘The tracing of disembodied moral and philosophical traditions,’ Manuel there writes, ‘is not my method. I still feel the need to introduce the bearer of the idea even when he disturbs the flow of abstractions.’ And he continues: ‘My interest in the manuscripts of the thinkers presented here derives largely from a Romantic view of history-writing. The scribbled brouillons, the casual notes, the personal letters give me a sense of intimacy with these men which their published works somehow withhold.’

Much of the strength of the Manuels’ history derives from their 25 years of manuscript reading; we are reading historians who ‘know their man’. To have nothing to learn from the Manuels is to be learned indeed. At the same time, the concentration on correspondence, jotted notes, has the effect that the great published works of the Utopians sometimes receive less than their proper attention, are paraphrased out of a sense of duty rather than illuminated by a scholar’s love. ‘Utopian Prophets’ – picking up the title of the earlier work – might have been a better title. In the Romantic fashion, the thinker is more interestingly depicted than his thoughts, ‘the Utopian propensity’, to use the Manuels’ own phrase, than the Utopias in which it issues.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in