Just My Imagination | The Nation


Just My Imagination

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

We need, then, to steer a path between the blueprinters, who like to think that they have the future in their pockets, and the kind of visionaries for whom nothing definite can be said of an emancipated society (not even, presumably, that it would be pleasant, unoppressive, void of patriarchs and the like). We must strike a balance between saying too much and saying too little, between the future as a mere projection of the present and as a cryptic silence. If there is simply an abyss between the present and the future, then we cannot logically speak of how the future takes shape in the present. Jacoby is right to insist that utopia is by no means incompatible with practical reform, and he ends by stressing the need to link present and future. But his book is by and large an eloquent plea for "poetic" as opposed to blueprinting utopianism; and as such it is, ironically, a touch too definite and unequivocal in its options, too impatient with ambiguity and contradiction. We need to dream, yet risk being distracted and intoxicated by our own fantasies. This is not a contradiction we can easily annul.

About the Author

Terry Eagleton
Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory at the University of Manchester, Britain. His forthcoming book, The...

Also by the Author

Dancing in the Streets is a history of outbreaks of collective joy from Dionysus to the Grateful Dead.

In Arthur & George, Julian Barnes mixes fact and fiction,
linking Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a wrongfully convicted Victorian

Nor is the opposition between the blueprinters and the visionaries as absolute as Jacoby imagines. Like most of us, he is attracted by the kind of utopian thought that sees the future in terms of sensuous luxury rather than Spartan virtue; but he does not see that sensuous fulfillment can be planned for by, say, shortening the working day or other highly practical measures. We must indeed beware of arid blueprints; but the truth is that conservatives dislike utopia because they find the whole idea of social engineering distasteful, in contrast to spontaneous social growth; and leftists need to insist that social engineering can undoubtedly be progressive. Blueprints are not always symptoms of a primly hygienic rationalism. Charles Dickens poked fun at the utilitarian social engineering of his own day, but it did a great deal more for the Victorian poor than his own Romantic spontaneity.

Jacoby, like almost everyone else on the planet, assumes that the imagination is an entirely positive power, rather than something that can cut both ways. The planning of genocide, for example, involves a fair degree of imagination. He is also rather too inflexible about the distinction between utopia and dystopia (or utopia gone bad). He argues cogently against the prejudice that all "total" or ambitious social change leads directly to totalitarianism and mass murder. On the contrary, as he points out, most of the great dystopian literary works of the modern age are by no means anti-utopian. Orwell's 1984 is not in the least an antisocialist text, as its author was at pains to point out. It is true that some utopian authors were rather less than utopian in their actual lives: Thomas More, who invented the word "utopia," was, we are reminded, a zealous burner of heretics. In general, however, the idea that utopian thought is inevitably totalitarian is a myth.

An emancipated society, Adorno observed, "would by no means be a totality." If Benjamin and Adorno were champions of the fragmentary and unfinished, it was partly because totality in their brand of Judaic thought is reserved for God, who alone has the power to restore a shattered history to wholeness. The grotesque violence of the twentieth century, as Jacoby points out, has ethnic, national, religious and imperialist roots, not utopian ones. Even so, he draws the line between good and bad utopianism a little too stringently. Utopia may not inevitably lead to dystopia, but what else was Stalinism? It is precisely the fact that Stalinism is utopia gone sour that distinguishes it from fascism, whatever those who airily lump the two together as "totalitarian" might suppose.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size