Utopia: The History of an Idea
by Gregory Claeys (Thames & Hudson, £9.99)
Looking at the cover of this brief but well-informed and penetrating history of the utopian ideal, I was engaged by the cover.
This shows the flying city of Laputa from a Victorian edition of Gulliver’s Travels, a book much concerned with ideas of different kinds of polities and human behaviour, good, bad and violent.
The original showed Gulliver looking up almost in bewilderment at a sort of UFO. But here the ideal city is made (perhaps unconsciously) to hover over an Ulster landscape painted by Tomas Roberts, Lough Erne from Knock Ninney, County Fermanagh (1771).
Immediately there sprang to my mind that bravura passage from a speech on the Irish situation made by Churchill (then Secretary for the Colonies) in the House of Commons on February 16, 1922: “The whole map of Europe has been changed… but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.”
As I write, it looks as if some sense has returned to some at least in Fermanagh (naming no names) in the North’s fractured quests for its own various utopias, whether Gaelic-speaking or Union- jack-flying.
But on the whole one might agree with Swift that mankind – represent in the book in the shape of the yeti-like yahoos – while claiming they want happiness do all they can to reject it.
The European Union was a quest for another kind of utopia – of peaceful co-operative contentment. For a while it worked. But then the demon was released by the party that now claims Churchill (albeit he was a Liberal, of a kind, in 1922) is now leading Britain out into a potentially dystopian future: truly mankind cannot bear too much happiness.
Author Gregory Claeys has being studying this theme for many years. The first edition of this book appeared in 2011, but the subject is one on which new things can be said all the time. Certainly his chapters will drive many to think again about many topics.
The idea of utopia has such a deep seated appeal that it has often been utilised to utopian hucksters of all kinds to mislead, defraud and shame people. And yet the need remains. For human beings, it seems, this all too often imperfect life does not fulfil all our yearnings for peace, happiness and contentment. It is a paradox of the human imagination.
Though influenced by ancient Greek ideals the search for utopia has been essentially a Christian endeavour, and is one still followed by small Christian communities who persist in seeking a worthier life than these modern times provides.