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Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea by Gregory Claeys (review)
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Reviewed by
Gregory Claeys. Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea. London: Thames and Hudson, 2011. 224 pp. Cloth, £24.99, isbn 9780500251744.

Writing the history of anything is a challenge, but endeavoring to write the history of an idea, particularly one as enduring, chimeric, emotive, and misunderstood as “utopia,” is truly a task only to be undertaken by either an intellectual giant or an utter fool. Fortunately for readers, Professor Gregory Claeys, from the University of London, is the former.

This relatively large-format book is richly illustrated and printed on glossy “art” paper, ensuring that the rich colors are not lost. The strikingly beautiful cover includes an evocative painting from an 1850 version of Gulliver’s Travels. The liberal inclusion of bright images, and captioned boxes elaborating on a theme or person, is very user-friendly. This book is a delight to read.

Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea is divided into fourteen chapters, starting with an overview where Claeys states that his “study of utopia focuses on three domains: utopian thought; the narrower genre of utopian literature; and practical attempts to found improved communities” (11). Claeys then offers chapters titled “The Classical Age,” “Christian Archetypes,” and “Extra-European Visions of the Ideal Society” before bringing the reader up to the time of Thomas More in “A Genre Defined.” He asserts, “The most famous Christian utopian was of course Jesus Christ. The possibility of his return has entranced believers throughout the ages, fuelling a variety of forms of millenarian belief, and eventually a post-millennial ideal of secular progress” (29). One could also point out, of course, that many people “following Christ” have created dystopia for those poor natives whose souls they sought to save. The chapter about “extra-European utopias” is a bit light in my opinion and has dubious, unsupported assertions such as “primitive societies have far less need for the concept of utopia because they already possess the prerequisites for an ordered, utopian-style [End Page 150] existence” (45) and “many pre-modern societies already possess substantial utopian elements” (57).

The following chapters are titled “Paradise Found,” “The Age of Defoe and Swift,” “Revolution and Enlightenment,” and “Ideal Cities,” bringing the topic more or less up to the modern era. Claeys handles these reasonably well-known, although not so well-understood, areas with style and insight, making works to which we have all been exposed during our academic careers fresh and engaging. In “Paradise Found” he reminds us, “What was utopian for Europeans was, of course, usually dystopian for the conquered indigenous peoples” (82). He opens “Revolution and Enlightenment” with “Utopia becomes practical when it ceases to dream, to hope and speculate and demands that the world be remade in its own image” (99), and therein lies the cause of so much human misery. For example, “the French Revolution would provide the template for much modern revolutionary utopianism, but it would also come to represent the mutation of utopia into dystopia” (108). While reading this book I was also rereading Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, where the plot is based on how utopian attempts can, within the twinkling of an eye or the recitation of a meaningless mantra, turn into dystopian hells.

Chapter 9, “Utopia as Community: From Shakers to Hippies,” is the chapter toward which I was most looking forward but which, in my opinion, could and should have been longer and deeper. The relationship between utopianism and communalism is very complex, and I wanted to read more of Claeys’s analysis—but that might say more about my own research area than about his writing. Without offering any evidence, he concludes, “Intentional communities are utopian niches in an alien space” (204). While some intentional community participants and scholars might agree, just as many others would reject this unsupported assertion.

Claeys then has chapters titled “The Second Age of Revolution,” “Inventing Progress,” and “The Emergence of Science Fiction” before tackling the problematical issue of dystopia, another area where I wanted the author to write more because I was left unsatisfied. It is, of course, naive to imagine that utopian aims always lead to dystopia—and I wanted more discussion...