The utopias of escape and the utopias of reconstruction
A study by By Lewis Mumford
To leave the external world the way it is, or to change it? Escape or compensation seeks an immediate release from the difficulties or frustrations. Change attempts to provide a condition for our release in the future.
UTOPIA has long been another name for the unreal and the impossible. We have set utopia over against the world. As a matter of fact, it is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us: the cities and mansions that people dream of are those in which they finally live. The more that men react upon their environment and make it over after a human pattern, the more continuously do they live in utopia; but when there is a breach between the world of affairs and the overworld of utopia, we become conscious of the part that the will-to-utopia has played in our lives, and we see our utopia as a separate reality.
It is the separate reality of utopia that we are going to explore in the course of this book—Utopia as a world by itself, divided into ideal commonwealths, with all its communities clustered into proud cities, aiming bravely at the good life.
This discussion of ideal commonwealths gets its form and its color from the time in which it is written. Plato’s Republic dates from the period of social disintegration which followed the Peloponnesian War; and some of its mordant courage is probably derived from the hopelessness of conditions that came under Plato’s eye. It was in the midst of a similar period of disorder and violence that Sir Thomas More laid the foundations for his imaginary commonwealth: Utopia was the bridge by which he sought to span the gap between the old order of the Middle Age, and the new interests and institutions of the Renaissance.
In presenting this history and criticism of utopias we are perhaps being pulled by the same interests that led Plato and More onwards, for it is only after the storm that we dare to look for the rainbow. Our fall into a chasm of disillusion has stimulated us to discuss in a more thorough way the ultimate goods, the basic aims, the whole conception of the “good life” by which, in modern times, we have been guided. In the midst of the tepid and half-hearted discussions that continue to arise out of prohibition laws and strikes and “peace” conferences let us break in with the injunction to talk about fundamentals—consider Utopia!
Man walks with his feet on the ground and his head in the air; and the history of what has happened on earth—the history of cities and armies and of all the things that have had body and form—is only one-half the Story of Mankind.
In every age, the external scenery in which the human drama has been framed has remained pretty much the same. There have been fluctuations in climate and changes in terrain; and at times a great civilization, like that of the Mayas in Central America, has arisen where now only a thick net of jungle remains; but the hills around Jerusalem are the hills that David saw; and during the historic period the drowning of a city in the Netherlands or the rise of a shifting bank of real estate along the coast of New Jersey is little more than the wearing off of the paint or a crack in the plaster. What we call the material world constantly changes, it goes without saying: mountains are stript of trees and become wastes, deserts are plowed with water and become gardens. The main outlines, however, hold their own remarkably well; and we could have travelled better in Roman days with a modern map than with the best chart Ptolemy could have offered us.
If the world in which men live were the world as it is known to the physical geographer, we should have a pretty simple time of it. We might follow Whitman’s advice, and live as the animals, and stop whining for all time about our sins and imperfections.
What makes human history such an uncertain and fascinating story is that man lived in two worlds—the world within and the world without—and the world within men’s heads has undergone transformations which have disintegrated material things with the power and rapidity of radium. I shall take the liberty of calling this inner world our idolum (ido´-lum) or world of ideas. The word “ideas” is not used here precisely in the ordinary sense. I use it rather to stand for what the philosophers would call the subjective world, what the theologians would perhaps call the spiritual world; and I mean to include in it all the philosophies, fantasies, rationalizations, projections, images, and opinions in terms of which people pattern their behavior. This world of ideas, in the case of scientific truths, for example, sometimes has a rough correspondence with what people call the world; but it is important to note that it has contours of its own which are quite independent of the material environment.
Now the physical world is a definite, inescapable thing. Its limits are narrow and obvious. On occasion, if your impulse is sufficiently strong, you can leave the land for the sea, or go from a warm climate into a cool one; but you cannot cut yourself off from the physical environment without terminating your life. For good or ill, you must breathe air, eat food, drink water; and the penalties for refusing to meet these conditions are inexorable. Only a lunatic would refuse to recognize this physical environment; it is the substratum of our daily lives.
But if the physical environment is the earth, the world of ideas corresponds to the heavens. We sleep under the light of stars that have long since ceased to exist, and we pattern our behavior by ideas which have no reality as soon as we cease to credit them. Whilst it holds together this world of ideas—this idolum—is almost as sound, almost as real, almost as inescapable as the bricks of our houses or the asphalt beneath our feet. The “belief” that the world was fiat was once upon a time more important than the “fact” that it was round; and that belief kept the sailors of the medieval world from wandering out of sight of land as effectively as would a string of gunboats or floating mines. An idea is a solid fact, a theory is a solid fact, a superstition is a solid fact as long as people continue to regulate their actions in terms of the idea, theory, or superstition; and it is none the less solid because it is conveyed as an image or a breath of sound.
This world of ideas serves many purposes. Two of them bear heavily upon our investigation of utopia. On one hand the pseudo-environment or idolum is a substitute for the external world; it is a sort of house of refuge to which we flee when our contacts with “hard facts” become too complicated to carry through or too rough to face. On the other hand, it is by means of the idolum that the facts of the everyday world are brought together and assorted and sifted, and a new sort of reality is projected back again upon the external world. One of these functions is escape or compensation; it seeks an immediate release from the difficulties or frustrations of our lot. The other attempts to provide a condition for our release in the future. The utopias that correspond to these two functions I shall call the utopias of escape and the utopias of reconsnd an architect and a mason and proceed to build a house which meets our essential needs; as well as houses made of stone and mortar are capable of meeting them.
Why, however, should we find it necessary to talk about utopia and the world of ideas at all? Why should we not rest secure in the bosom of the material environment, without flying off into a region apparently beyond space and time? Well, the alternative before us is not whether we shall live in the real world or dream away our time in utopia; for men are so constituted that only by a deliberate discipline—such as that followed by a Hindu ascetic or an American business man—can one or the other world be abolished from consciousness. The genuine alternative for most of us is that between an aimless utopia of escape and a purposive utopia of reconstruction. One way or the other, it seems, in a world so full of frustrations as the “real” one, we must spend a good part of our mental lives in utopia.
Nevertheless this needs a qualification. It is plain that certain types of people have no need for private utopias and that certain communities seem to be without them. The savages of the Marquesas whom Hermann Melville described seem to have had such a jolly and complete adjustment to their environment that, except for the raids of hostile tribes—and this turned out to be chiefly sport which only whetted their appetites for the feast that followed—everything needed for a good life at the South Sea level could be obtained by direct attack. The Marquesans had no need to dream of a happier existence; they had only to grab it.
At times, during childhood perhaps, life has the same sort of completeness; and without doubt there are many mature people who have manufactured out of their limitations a pretty adequate response to a narrow environment; and have let it go at that. Such people feel no need for utopia. As long as they can keep their contacts restricted, only a deliberate raid from the outside world would create such a need. They are like the sick man in the parable of the Persian poet, whose only desire was that he might desire something; and there is no particular reason to envy them. People who will not venture out into the open sea pay the penalty of never having looked into the bright eyes of danger; and at best they know but half of life. What such folk might call the good life is simply not good enough. We cannot be satisfied with a segment of existence, no matter how safely we may be adjusted to it, when with a little effort we can trace the complete circle.
But there have been few regions, few social orders, and few people in which the adjustment has not been incomplete. In the face of perpetual difficulties and obstructions—the wind and the weather and the impulses of other men and customs that have long outlived their use—there are three ways, roughly, in which a man may react. He may run away. He may try to hold his own. He may attack. Looking around at our contemporaries who have survived the war, it is fairly evident that most of them are in the first stage of panic and despair. In an interesting article on The Dénouement of Nihilism, Mr. Edward Townsend Booth characterized the generation born in the late eighties as suffering a complete paralysis of will, or else, “if any initiative remains to them, they emigrate to Europe or the South Sea Islands, or crawl off into some quiet corner of the United States—but most of them continue where they were stricken in a state of living death.” (The Freeman.)
Speaking more generally, running away does not always mean a physical escape, nor does an “attack” necessarily mean doing something practical “on the spot.” Let us use Dr. John Dewey’s illustration and suppose that a man is denied intercourse with his friends at a distance. One kind of reaction is for him to “imagine” meeting his friends, and going through, in fantasy, a whole ritual of meeting, repartee, and discussion. The other kind of reaction, as Dr. Dewey says, is to see what conditions must be met in order to cement distant friends, and then invent the telephone. The so-called extrovert, the type of man who has no need for utopias, will satisfy his desire by talking to the nearest human being. (“He may try to hold his own.”) But it is fairly plain that the extrovert, from the very weakness and inconstancy of his aims, is incapable of contributing anything but “good nature” to the good life of the community; and in his hands both art and invention would probably come to an end.
Now putting aside the extrovert, we find that the two remaining types of reaction have expressed themselves in all the historic utopias. It is perhaps well that we should see them first in their normal, everyday setting, before we set out to explore the ideal commonwealths of the past.
More or less, we have all had glimpses of the utopia of escape: it is raised and it collapses and it is built up again almost daily. In the midst of the clanking machinery of a paper factory I have come across a moving picture actress’s portrait, stuck upon an inoperative part of the machine; and it was not hard to reconstruct the private utopia of the man who minded the levers, or to picture the world into which he had fled from the roar and throb and muck of the machinery about him. Who has not had that utopia from the dawn of adolescence onwards—the desire to possess and be possessed by a beautiful woman?
Perhaps for the great majority of men and women that small, private Utopia is the only one for which they feel a perpetual, warm interest; and ultimately every other utopia must be translatable to them in some such intimate terms. Their conduct would tell us as much if their words did not confess it. They leave their bleak office buildings and their grimy factories, and night after night they pour into the cinema theater in order that they may live for a while in a land populated by beautiful, flirtatious women and tender, lusty men. Small wonder that the great and powerful religion founded by Mahomet puts that utopia in the very foreground of the hereafter! In a sense, this is the most elementary of utopias; for, on the interpretation of the analytical psychologist, it carries with, it the deep longing to return to and remain at rest in the mother’s womb—the one perfect environment which all the machinery and legislation of an eager world has never been able to reproduce.
In its most elemental state, this utopia of escape calls for a complete breach with the butcher, the baker, the grocer, and the real, limited, imperfect people that flutter around us. In order to make it more perfect, we eliminate the butcher and baker and transport ourselves to a self-sufficient island in the South Seas. For the most part, of course, this is an idle dream, and if we do not grow out of it, we must at any rate thrust other conditions into it; but for a good many of us, idleness without a dream is the only alternative. Out of such fantasies of bliss and perfection, which do not endure in real life even when they occasionally bloom into existence, our art and literature have very largely grown. It is hard to conceive of a social order so complete and satisfactory that it would rob us of the necessity of having recourse, from time to time, to an imaginary world in which our sufferings could be purged or our delights heightened. Even in the great idyll painted by William Morris, women are fickle and lovers are disappointed; and when the “real” world becomes a little too hard and too sullen to face, we must take refuge, if we are to recover our balance, into another world which responds more perfectly to our deeper interests and desires—the world of literature.
Once we have weathered the storm, it is dangerous to remain in the utopia of escape; for it is an enchanted island, and to remain there is to lose one’s capacity for dealing with things as they are. The girl who has felt Prince Charming’s caresses too long will be repulsed by the clumsy embraces of the young man. who takes her to the theater and wonders how the deuce he is going to pay the rent if they spend more than a week on their honeymoon. Moreover, life is too easy in the utopia of escape, and too blankly perfect—there is nothing to sharpen your teeth upon. It is not for this that men have gone into the jungle to hunt beasts and have cajoled the grasses and roots to be prolific, and have defied, in little open boats, the terror of the wind and sea. Our daily diet must have more roughage in it than these daydreams will give us if we are not to become debilitated.
In the course of our journey into utopia we shall remain a little while in these utopias of escape; but we shall not bide there long. There are plenty of them, and they dot the waters of our imaginary world as the islands that Ulysses visited dotted the Ægean Sea. These utopias however belong to the department of pure literature, and in that department they occupy but a minor place. We could dispense with the whole lot of them, hag and baggage, in exchange for another Anna Karenin or The Brothers Karamazov.
The second kind of utopia which we shall encounter is the utopia of reconstruction.
The first species represents, the analytical psychologist would tell us, a very primitive kind of thinking, in which we follow the direction of our desires without taking into account any of the limiting conditions which we should have to confront if we came back to earth and tried to realize our wishes in practical affairs. It is a vague and messy and logically inconsequent series of images which color up and fade, which excite us and leave us cold, and which—for the sake of the respect our neighbors have for our ability to add a ledger or plane a piece of wood—we had better confine to the strange box of records we call our brain.
The second type of utopia may likewise be colored by primitive desires and wishes; but these desires and wishes have come to reckon with the world in which they seek realization. The utopia of reconstruction is what its name implies: a vision of a reconstituted environment which is better adapted to the nature and aims of the human beings who dwell within it than the actual one; and not merely better adapted to their actual nature, but better fitted to their possible developments. If the first utopia leads backward into the utopian’s ego, the second leads outward—outward into the world.
By a reconstructed environment I do not mean merely a physical thing. I mean, in addition, a new set of habits, a fresh scale of values, a different net of relationships and institutions, and possibly—for almost all utopias emphasize the factor of breeding—an alteration of the physical and mental characteristics of the people chosen, through education, biological selection, and so forth. The reconstructed environment which all the genuine utopians seek to contrive is a reconstruction of both the physical world and the idolum. It is in this that the utopian distinguishes himself from the practical inventor and the industrialist. Every attempt that has been made to domesticate animals, cultivate plants, dredge rivers, dig ditches, and in modern times, apply the energy of the sun to mechanical instruments, has been an effort to reconstruct the environment; and in many cases the human advantage has been plain. It is not for the utopian to despise Prometheus who brought the fire or Franklin who captured the lightning. As Anatole France says: “Without the Utopians of other times, men would still live in caves, miserable and naked. It was Utopians who traced the lines of the first city. . . . Out of generous dreams come beneficial realities. Utopia is the principle of all progress, and the essay into a better future.”
Our physical reconstructions however have been limited; they have touched chiefly the surfaces of things. The result is that people live in a modern physical environment and carry in their minds an odd assortment of spiritual relics from almost every other age, from that of the primitive, taboo-ridden savage, to the energetic Victorian disciples of Gradgrind and Bounderby. As Mr. Hendrik van Loon pithily says: “A human being with the mind of a sixteenth century tradesman driving a 1921 Rolls-Royce is still a human being with the mind of a sixteenth century tradesman.” The problem is fundamentally a human problem. The more completely man is in control of physical nature, the more urgently we must ask ourselves what under the heavens is to move and guide and keep in hand the controller. This problem of an ideal, a goal, an end—even if the aim persist in shifting as much as the magnetic north pole—is a fundamental one to the utopian.
Except in the writings of the utopians, and this is an important point to notice in our travels through utopia, the reconstruction of the material environment and the reconstitution of the mental framework of the creatures who inhabit it, have been kept in two different compartments. One compartment is supposed to belong to the practical man; the other to the idealist. The first was something whose aims could be realized in the Here and Now; the other was postponed very largely to the sweet by-and-bye. Neither the practical man nor the idealist has been willing to admit that he has been dealing with a single problem; that each has been treating the faces of a single thing as if they were separate.
Here is where the utopia of reconstruction wins hands down. It not merely pictures a whole world, but it faces every part of it at the same time. We shall not examine the classic utopias without becoming conscious of their weaknesses, their sometimes disturbing idiosyncrasies. It is important at present that we should realize their virtues; and should start on our journey without the feeling of disparagement which the word utopian usually calls up in minds that have been seduced by Macaulay’s sneer that he would rather have an acre in Middlesex than a principality in utopia.
Finally, be convinced about the reality of utopia. All that has happened in what we call human history—unless it has left a building or a book or some other record of itself—is just as remote and in a sense just as mythical as the mysterious island which Raphael Hythloday, scholar and sailor, described to Sir Thomas More. A good part of human history is even more insubstantial: the Icarians who lived only in the mind of Étienne Cabet, or the Freelanders who dwelt within the imagination of a dry little Austrian economist, have had more influence upon the lives of our contemporaries than the Etruscan people who once dwelt in Italy, although the Etruscans belong to what we call the real world, and the Freelanders and Icarians inhabited—Nowhere.
Nowhere may be an imaginary country, but News from Nowhere is real news. The world of ideas, beliefs, fantasies, projections, is (I must emphasize again) just as real whilst it is acted upon as the post which Dr. Johnson kicked in order to demonstrate that it was solid. The man who wholly respects the rights of property is kept out of his neighbor’s field perhaps even more effectively than the man who is merely forbidden entrance by a no-trespass sign. In sum, we cannot ignore our utopias. They exist in the same way that north and south exist; if we are not familiar with their classical statements we at least know them as they spring to life each day in our own minds. We can never reach the points of the compass; and so no doubt we shall never live in utopia; but without the magnetic needle we should not be able to travel intelligently at all. It is absurd to dispose of utopia by saying that it exists only on paper. The answer to this is: precisely the same thing may be said of the architect’s plans for a house, and houses are none the worse for it.
We must lose our sense of remoteness and severity in setting out on this exploration of ideal commonwealths, as some of the fine minds of the past have pictured them. Our ideals are not something that we can set apart from the main facts of our existence, as our grandmothers sometimes set the cold, bleak, and usually moldy parlor apart from the living rooms of the house: on the contrary, the things we dream of tend consciously or unconsciously to work themselves out in the pattern of our daily lives. Our utopias are just as human and warm and jolly as the world out of which they are born. Looking out from the top of a high tenement, over the housetops of Manhattan, I can see a pale tower with its golden pinnacle gleaming through the soft morning haze; and for a moment all the harsh and ugly lines in the landscape have disappeared. So in looking at our utopias. We need not abandon the real world in order to enter these realizable worlds; for it is out of the first that the second are always coming.
Finally, an anticipation and a warning. In our journey through the utopias of the past we shall not rest content when we have traversed the whole territory between Plato and the latest modern writer. If the story of utopia throws any light upon the story of mankind it is this: our utopias have been pitifully weak and inadequate; and if they have not exercised enough practical influence upon the course of affairs, it is because, as Viola Paget says in Gospels of Anarchy, they were simply not good enough. We travel through utopia only in order to get beyond utopia: if we leave the domains of history when we enter the gates of Plato’s Republic, we do so in order to re-enter more effectively the dusty midday traffic of the contemporary world. So our study of the classic utopias will be followed by an examination of certain social myths and partial utopias that have played an important part in the affairs of the Western World during the last few centuries. In the end, I promise, I shall make no attempt to present another utopia; it will be enough to survey the foundations upon which others may build.
In the meanwhile, our ship is about to set sail; and we shall not heave anchor again until we reach the coasts of Utopia.
Sources: From “The Story of Utopias” by Lewis Mumford,1922
This is a survey of the development of the concept of Utopia, by one of the foremost urban planning theorists of the 20th century.
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