- Utopia in the City
“Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World.” Special Exhibition at the New York Public Library. October 2000-January 2001. Exhibition website: <http://www.nypl.org/utopia>.
A few years ago, I told an English professor (who regularly teaches Thomas More’s Utopia in his Renaissance literature courses) that I was preparing to give a paper at a conference of the Society for Utopian Studies. He asked me where the meeting was scheduled to take place. I answered, “Montreal.” We discussed other matters for a while and then, just as I was about to leave his office, the professor said to me: “You realize you gave the wrong answer to my question.” “What question?” “About that Utopian Society’s meeting. The right answer should have been nowhere.” He smiled. “The utopians meet nowhere, eh?”
Between October 2000 and January 2001, utopia was on view in New York—in a special exhibition at the New York Public Library entitled “Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World.” Jointly organized by the library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the exhibition featured more than 550 objects, including books, manuscripts, drawings, prints, maps, photographs, films, and assorted ephemera. One part of the exhibition represented manifestations of utopian thought and sentiment from antiquity through the end of the nineteenth century. Another represented the twentieth century and now continues in the virtual space of the library’s website (<http://www.nypl.org/utopia>), where it examines the internet as the next “New World” of the apparently imperishable utopian impulse.
This is a large exhibition that requires several hours of concentrated study, since every item on display is worth one’s time. The show encompasses only the tradition of Western thought within which utopia acquired its own history of evolution, its own great narrative, so to speak. Assembling an exhibition like this is in itself an attempt to create a logic of continuity of utopian ideology and praxis that begins with the biblical Garden of Eden and ends with the metaworlds of cyberspace. What comes in between is various, fascinating, and often unexpected; it includes gulags and concentration camps, as well as the hippie communes of the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), the book that gave the genre its name, one finds, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s original version of the Declaration of Independence; Voltaire’s manuscript of Candide opened to the El Dorado chapter; and nineteenth-century cartoons ridiculing Cabet, Proudhon, and other social visionaries. Overall, the exhibition presents a quirky history of utopian imagination dominated by the human desire to improve everyday reality and create a better place on earth.
The New York Public Library exhibition included two transparent plexiglass reading chambers, in which one could peacefully reflect on a number of utopian texts, such as paperback editions of Paine’s Common Sense, Butler’s Erewhon, and Huxley’s Brave New World. The chambers were intended to allow one to appreciate the role of the utopian impulse in Western history and imagination, but they actually turned out to be a strangely disconcerting experience—indicative perhaps of the astonishing ubiquity of the genre, if one thinks of utopia as a genre. After several hours spent in the mixed company of Francis Bacon, Karl Marx, and H. G. Wells, one realizes that utopia affects all levels of human experience and is present in nearly every form of artistic, political, and religious expression.
This might be, in fact, the fundamental premise of the utopian narrative: utopia is the essential, unfulfilled dream of humanity that continues to affect us, but at the same time remains very difficult to pin down. The most important distinction one could draw between the exhibition’s numerous manifestations of the utopian tendency is between utopias imagined and utopias attempted. Utopia has always been a matter of both theory and practice. The etymological root of the word leaves it up to us to decide whether utopia is supposed to be a place that is good (eu topos) or a place that does not exist (ou topos). From the logical standpoint, the two possibilities...