The Trouble with Nowhere

Martin Jay

  • The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy by Russell Jacoby
    Basic Books, 256 pp, £17.95, April 1999, ISBN 0 465 02000 3
  • Utopias: Russian Modernist Texts 1905-40 edited by Catriona Kelly
    Penguin, 378 pp, £9.99, September 1999, ISBN 0 14 118081 1
  • The Faber Book of Utopias edited by John Carey
    Faber, 560 pp, £20.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 571 19785 X
  • The Nazi War on Cancer by Robert Proctor
    Princeton, 390 pp, £18.95, May 1999, ISBN 0 691 00196 0

In 1967, Herbert Marcuse published a little essay entitled ‘The End of Utopia’, which now reads like a document of a long lost civilisation. Arguing against the pejorative use of the word as a synonym for the absurdly unrealisable, he held that ‘there is one valid criterion for possible realisation, namely, when the material and intellectual forces for the transformation are technically at hand although their rational application is prevented by the existing organisation of the forces of production. And in this sense, I believe, we can today actually speak of an end to utopia.’ Combining a faith in technology with the confidence that only the wrong mode of production stands in the way of its fully beneficial application, Marcuse encapsulated the innocent euphoria of the 1960s in one glorious moment of revolutionary intoxication. ‘Precisely because the so-called utopian possibilities are not at all utopian but rather the determinate socio-historical negation of what exists,’ he concluded, ‘a very real and pragmatic opposition is required of us if we are to make ourselves and others conscious of these possibilities and the forces that hinder and deny them.’

A generation later, Russell Jacoby the American cultural critic and one-time Marcusian, borrows – without acknowledgment – Marcuse’s title for his own consideration of the state of utopia. But rather than proclaiming that its end is at hand because its realisation is nigh, he laments the collapse of the utopian impulse itself, the hope that somehow things might one day be radically different. What exists, it seems, doesn’t have a ‘determinate socio-historical negation’, even in the subjective imaginations of those who might once have dreamed of a radically different world. We have all come to embrace the sober-minded, philistine meliorism of a Macaulay, whose famous jibe in his essay on Francis Bacon that ‘an acre in Middlesex is worth a principality in Utopia’ is the credo, in Jacoby’s view, of our cynically apathetic, myopically pragmatic age. Although he readily concedes that he has no blueprint for action himself, he nonetheless endorses Adorno’s often cited exhortation from Minima Moralia to ‘contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption’.

But what precisely do things look like from that elevated point of view? What would a redeemed form of life on this side of the mundane/extramundane divide actually mean? As soon as Jacoby hints at his own version of redemption, the problems begin. For rather than tell us what might be at the end of the rainbow, he spends most of his time in The End of Utopia rehearsing a common-or-garden critique, made more often these days by conservatives than radicals, of multiculturalism as opposed to universalism, of mass culture as opposed to high culture, and of Post-Modernist aestheticism as opposed to a non-ironic concept of truth. The book is also a plea for the lonely intellectual, unswayed by the demands of the academic marketplace, who has been reviled by populists of the left and right, a plea that readers of Jacoby’s other works will find hauntingly familiar. For only such a heroic figure, he suggests, can dare to leave his acre in Middlesex behind and fantasise about a radically different future.

But when Jacoby actually identifies such a hero, whose utopian vision he endorses, the outcome is a bit of a let-down, for he turns out – hang onto your hats – to be Matthew Arnold. ‘The 19th-century critic denounced the culture of his day in the name of something better, a more thoughtful and graceful culture,’ Jacoby approvingly notes. ‘Today most observers and scholars reject this as naive and élitist. In confounding criticism and élitism, they back themselves into a world without exit.’ That exit, he claims, can somehow be found in Arnold’s plan to bring high culture to the masses by democratising educational reform. Arnold, he earnestly informs us, ‘believed that the state should take responsibility for the education of the people and, indeed, for culture in general.’ Although at pains to show that Arnold was an egalitarian with the purest of democratic instincts, Jacoby never wonders about the potentially authoritarian implications of a high culture that ‘must be universal or it is nothing’. Nor does he confront the argument – as old as Marcuse’s 1937 essay on ‘The Affirmative Character of Culture’ and as contemporary as David Lloyd and Paul Thomas’s 1998 Culture and the State – that such a culture, when it is officially sponsored by even the most benevolent and enlightened state, may easily serve to maintain a very non-utopian status quo.

If there is an embarrassing absence of utopian imagination in a book that loudly decries the failure to think boldly about a different future, there is no dearth of attempts to do so in the recent anthologies edited by John Carey and Catriona Kelly. Like all such collections of snippets from a wide variety of sources, they inevitably reflect their editors’ predilections rather than a canonical list of candidates for inclusion. The Kelly anthology, in fact, is more a grab-bag of manifestos, poems, stories, images and critical essays, written during the years of Modernist experimentation immediately before and after the Bolshevik Revolution, than a sampler of explicitly utopian texts. Only the most liberal of interpretations would concede the relevance of many entries under the rubric; indeed, a number are bleakly dystopian while others are merely examples of literary quarrels that have long since been forgotten. Although it will be useful to students of 20th-century Russian literature, Kelly’s Utopias will seem like a case of false advertising to those hoping to find inspiration for the bold thinking whose absence Jacoby laments.

John Carey’s Faber compendium is another matter. Beginning with an Ancient Egyptian poem entitled ‘The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor’ from c.1940 BC, it includes fragments of a hundred utopian fantasies of one sort or another, ending with a 1998 projection of the consequences of genetic engineering by Lee Silver called Remaking Eden. In addition to all of the usual suspects – More, Campanella, Bacon, Rousseau, Mercier, Saint-Simon, Cabet, Owen, Fourier, Morris, Bellamy, Wells, Skinner – and some unexpected alternatives – Dickens (oddly represented by a diatribe against the idea of the Noble Savage), Tennyson, Kipling, Conrad, Lawrence, Yeats – Carey presents a wonderfully rich array of obscure writers from many cultures and different eras, virtually all with vivid imaginations of the best of all possible worlds (or in a few cases, their dystopian opposites).

What they share, he puckishly points out, is the desire ‘to a greater or lesser extent, to eliminate real people’. The means to do so, of course, differ widely, ranging from rule by phrenologists in John Trotter’s Travels in Phrenologasto, published in 1829, to the ingestion of the magic potion Vril – partial namesake of the later real-world drink Bovril – in Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871). Some measures are more draconian than others, including More’s genocidal fantasy of destroying the bellicose Venalians whom he regards as ‘filthy scum’ – Carey tentatively identifies them as the Swiss – that must be wiped off the face of the earth. Some are loonier than others, perhaps the most bizarre being the talking trees in Niels Klim’s Journey to the World Under Ground (1741) by Ludwig Holberg, who punish any talk of theology or metaphysics with banishment or surgical bleeding. Others are more grim than attractive, for example the suppression of sex in favour of virgin births (Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, published in 1915) or the suppression of freedom by behavioural conditioning (B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two, published in 1948). Opposing them are fantasies of absolute abundance and unconstrained desire, most famously realised in the phalansteries that Fourier sought in vain to inspire.

Although it is impossible to discern a single pattern in the riot of utopian imaginings contained in these collections, it is striking to see how many seek perfection through some form of genetic manipulation or public hygiene. The Republic is adamant on the denial of medical treatment to the sickly and intemperate, lest they breed unhealthy babies; Tacitus greatly admired the Germanic tribal ban on intermarriage as a way to prevent contamination. Many utopians have sought redress along similar lines for the flaws of our creaturely existence. H.G. Wells’s Social Darwinist Anticipations of 1901 calls explicitly for the extermination of the ‘unfit’. Even feminist fantasies, such as Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett’s New Amazonia (1889), felt entitled to exclude those who reveal ‘the slightest trace of disease or malformation’.

In view of this background, it comes as less of a shock than it might have been to find a passage from Mein Kampf included in Carey’s anthology and described as ‘the culmination of the great utopian tradition that starts with Plato’. Hitler, after all, would have had no trouble endorsing Wells’s chilling prophecy that

the men of the New Republic will not be squeamish, either, in facing or inflicting death, because they will have a fuller sense of the possibilities of life than we possess. They will have an ideal that will make killing worth the while; like Abraham, they will have the faith to kill, and they will have no superstitions about death.

Although Jacoby dismissively resists the inclusion of Nazism in utopian thought, saying that this would involve ‘stretching utopia till it is meaningless’, there can be no doubt that even if Matthew Arnold would have found it appalling, it deserves a place in the tradition, alongside every other anti-pluralist, anti-relativist, monoculturalist politics of redemption. Plato’s Republic was, after all, the most widely read work on political theory in the Third Reich.

There is, however, one final ironic twist to that conjunction, which is brought out by Robert Proctor’s remarkable study of The Nazi War on Cancer. Proctor, the author of an earlier account of the Nazi racial hygiene crimes, now provides an astonishing – and entirely unapologetic – history of the reverse side of the coin. Without in any way minimising or relativising the evils of medical euthanasia or genocide, Proctor shows that the Nazi obsession with nurturing a ‘healthy’ Aryan people led to serious scientific work in public health that can only be called progressive in its implications. Nazism, he points out, was ‘a vast hygienic experiment designed to bring about an exclusionist sanitary utopia’. Its paranoid, genocidal abjection of the ‘contaminated’ bodies that ‘polluted’ the gene pool was matched by a much more constructive ‘cleansing’ of its own fantasmatic ethnos. It sought, in other words, to exorcise not only metaphorical cancers from the body politic, but the literal ones that actually endangered the health of the German volk.

The result was an energetic, state-directed research initiative to understand the dangers of environmental hazards like asbestos, to reduce alcoholism and to promote healthy nutritional practices. Once health dangers were realised, the regime launched a concerted campaign – couched in the vocabulary of ‘public enlightenment’ that seems so anathema to the romantic myth-making at the heart of the movement – to change bad habits. Above all, it meant a preventive war on tobacco, weaning the German people from an addiction with links to disease that were first established by scientists like Fritz Linint, who flourished during the Nazi era. The vigorous onslaught against smoking that ensued, including banning advertisements and raising cigarette taxes, exploited the curious fact that Hitler, Franco and Mussolini all abstained, while Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin were rarely seen without a cigar, cigarette or pipe between their lips.

Although Proctor is careful to point out the splits and disagreements within the Nazi medical establishment and shows that a thin line separated quackery from serious science, the overwhelming effect of his research is to make us aware that a number of utopian impulses were inextricable from the dystopian ones which are so vivid in our memories. Proctor knows that some will read his argument as evidence that anti-smoking campaigns are somehow inherently Nazi in nature and, in fact, he registers the irony that their effect in postwar Germany was diminished precisely by this linkage. A similar distaste for all things associated with the Nazi regime also slowed down the recognition that there were carcinogens in asbestos dust.

No simple formula can capture the tangled implications of the utopian project. It is no more an innocent exercise in imaginative resistance to the status quo than it is a sure-fire recipe for totalitarian domination. It is tempting to say that utopias beguile us for as long as no attempt is made to realise them, yet the unexpected lesson of Proctor’s book is that some positive effects may follow, even when the real-world experiment has turned deeply sour. In this sense, Jacoby’s jeremiad about the end of utopia, for all its over-simplification of the issues, is not without merit.

On balance, however, a rereading of the complexities of Nazism does not really add weight to Jacoby’s lament. Perhaps the main problem, as Hannah Arendt pointed out long ago in The Human Condition, is that utopianism is grounded in the kind of political thinking that relies on the model of man in the singular as homo faber, who can fabricate his world, rather than men in the plural as political actors who can only contest it from a partial point of view. It is not surprising to find Jacoby bemoaning the current fashion for pluralism as a sign of the degeneration of the utopian imagination:

Pluralism returns as radicalism ebbs. Nor is this wholly objectionable. Not every age spawns bold ideas about society. In its various forms, perhaps pluralism is the best our era has to offer. Yet the retreat is presented as an astounding advance. A familiar if not banal idea, pluralism, is dubbed cutting edge. Painted with ‘culture’ or christened multiculturalism, it becomes a mythology of our time.

From the vantage point of redemption, pluralism does indeed seem like thin gruel, but for those who are happy to see the messiah tarry a little bit longer, it will be a source of some relief. It may be true, as Wilde insisted in ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, that ‘a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.’ But what needs to be remembered is that such a map must include plenty of imperfect ‘somewheres’ – those unredeemed acres in Middlesex that afford a refuge from the ‘nowheres’ whose news is, alas, not always so good.