The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986
On Fourier, III: Envoi: A Utopia of Fine Dust
Almanacco Bompiani 1974 (Milan), December 1973. The almanac, which was devoted to the subject “Utopia Revisited,” began with this essay, then entitled “Which Utopia?”
When an attempt to put into practice some idea of society less monstrous than others is crushed by the military in some country or other, we always read the phrase “the end of a utopia.” But, on the contrary, this characteristic of risk, of taking a bet, of hanging by a thread, of finding oneself daily confronted by an unexpected problem—in fact, everything that makes for the pathos of real revolutions lived day by day—is quite foreign to utopias (the written ones, that is). They come to us as mechanisms that function perfectly in every cogwheel, self-sufficient, self-regulating, and self-reproducing, innocent of any teething troubles at the start and of an end that is always possible.
Utopia defies time by setting itself up in a no-place, rejecting relationships with the “other” world, which is of necessity hostile. I admit that Fourier, for example, established a gradual process, an evolution within Harmony itself, and at first allowed for relations with “civilized” philistine neighbors, on, one might say, the level of cultural exchanges or informative tourism. But later he recommended isolation, and he, too, planned his “iron curtains.” Utopia feels the need for compactness and permanence in opposing the world it rejects, a world that presents an equally refractory front.
This is already enough to qualify utopias as a product favored by periods in which practical action is the loser. It is no coincidence that there were two great ages for utopias: the time when there was a decline in hopes for a true rebirth of the Reformation (even though Thomas More’s book came out a year before Luther nailed up his Theses), and the later time when the full flood of the French Revolution was subsiding.
We have to ask ourselves at once if the same thing holds good for our own time, with all the setbacks it has faced. The present interest in utopias would seem to confirm the parallel, but this is still a reflected interest, in critical and historical terms, and it remains to be seen what the creative equivalent of utopia is in our age. Rather than utopia in the classic sense, structured as a type of literature, we find utopian fields of energy spread here and there, above all by literature and art, and even in their most inflexible suggestions quite ready to be absorbed by habit—just think of what the most intransigent Surrealism aimed to do. We can follow a direct or an indirect offshoot of this among those of our youth, who are inspired by an artistic or playful vision of liberation, or at any rate one that is nonmoralistic.
But as a literary form utopia survives only as an antiutopia (Huxley, Orwell), as the vision of a hellish future where the best that can be seen is a condemnation.
On the other hand, we cannot fail to take account of the opposite, utopian-technological temptation, which tends ever more toward all-embracing models, even if the futurologist who aspires to being scientific has to confine himself to general tendencies and partial views.
However this may be, no one any longer thinks of describing a perfect city, or the hour-by-hour daily lives of its inhabitants. The massive weight and complexity of the world have hardened around us, and they leave no loopholes. The political imagination always needs an elsewhere, but a geographically determinate one. If there is to be imagination (however little it may still possess the “power” that was attributed to it by the generous slogans of May ’68), then it must have the benefit of areas in flux, open to interpretations that leave some margin for the creativity of the interpreter, like the China of the years of the Cultural Revolution. But even there (and I am speaking of the China of statements made by Western left-wingers, not of the China that is in China and follows another logic, or a hundred different logical rules which we do not know) we are dealing not with utopia but with a utopian charge of energy that has constantly to accommodate new data that come in, and to digest information that is sometimes unwelcome.
The vision of a universal future has been diverted from political thought, and confined to a minor kind of literature, science fiction, though here, too, it is a negative utopia that dominates, a journey into the infernal regions of the future. Thus this way of writing, which aimed to extend its arrangement of signs even to the arrangement of things, has been taken prisoner by another literary strategy, which is more immediately effective emotionally: a story of distant wanderings and adventure that is capable of giving us rapid glimpses of tomorrow but has no power to change our way of living here in this world.
Did utopia ever have this power? Certainly for Campanella it did, and maybe also for the outlandish Saint-Simonists of Enfantin. Actually to see a possible different world that is already made and in operation is to be filled with indignation against a world that is unjust and to reject the idea that it is the only possible one.
During the course of the centuries, criticism of the present moment has in the literary topos more often expressed itself in terms of the return of the golden age, of the mythical past (or at the very least in terms of Arcadia), and then of the Noble Savage, and, more sporadically, of the approved and symmetrical myth of the city of the future, where justice and happiness reign according to reason. This goes to show that in the face of what is unacceptable in the present, the tendency to regress is more common than the aspiration toward an eschaton that always demands a higher ideological investment and comes up against strong resistance (and I speak only of internal resistance). But one has to say that in any return to the golden age there is also a utopian element, just as in the utopias there is no lack of suggestions of a return to the past.
Is this escapism? I have always had reservations about the negative meaning that the word “escapism” has in the language of historical and literary criticism. For a prisoner, to escape has always been a good thing, and an individual escape can be a first necessary step toward a collective escape. This must also be true on the level of the words and images of fantasy. To escape from the prison of representations of the world that remind you of our slavery with every phrase they contain means to suggest another code, another syntax, another vocabulary, by means of which to give shape to the world of your desires. Certainly anyone who thinks that by doing this he has found freedom, and who is content with it, is the victim of a cruel misunderstanding, but no more than someone who is satisfied with a verbal and symbolic freedom, even if the language he uses exposes its flank less to the accusation of “escapism.” In short, if no one can with credibility cast doubts on the superiority of “scientific” political thought over “utopian” thought, there still comes a moment when we have to ask ourselves whether that step ahead toward the scientific method has not had its losses as well—which is to say, whether along with all the paper scenarios for utopia we have not lost something invaluable. Utopia conceived of its aim, a regenerated world—and, indeed, saw it—in terms of its outward results: a city, a way of living together, a whole body of ways of behaving; whereas the scientific theory was to be conceived—and, indeed, stated—in terms of philosophical discourse, abstract and a lot harder to verify. The materialism of the visionaries has far more body to it than that of the philosophers.
For years I felt it was a serious lacuna that Marx refused to predict what socialist society would be like; it took me a long time to understand that this was a principle inherent in his method. One does not hand out recipes for the cooking of the future. A recipe always presupposes future kitchens; otherwise one does not write recipes, one just proceeds with cooking and that’s that. When Marx was writing, and for some time afterward, the “Do Not Enter” sign on the road to utopian projects meant one should concentrate all one’s thought and practice on criticizing, and formulating a strategy of attack against, the only society actually in existence, and this implied an austere and demanding discipline. But as soon as an alternative society came into being, and the experimental fluidity and effervescence of its beginnings (which could indeed be called utopian) was followed by official apologetics for the present as if the present were the most desirable of all futures, then a veto took effect—explicitly or implicitly—on efforts to imagine any model but the existing one.
In the last fifteen years or so there have been countless models claiming to represent the realization of a new society, and the phases within each model set themselves up as models themselves; this at least ensures us a varied sample of defects and errors to be avoided, and enjoins para-utopian activities to construct models with already tested pieces, collages made with fragments of models that are already historic. I am saying this not to reiterate an old complaint, but in order to trace the roots of a lust for prefiguration that we have been carrying with us for ages, and which was also stimulated by the fact that during the same years the urge to project human happiness, both in general and in particular, took control of capitalism (or at least paid visits out of office hours).
In our yesterday of the postwar years, the premises for revisiting utopia rose from the same grounds on which city planning was setting itself up as a pilot discipline that would give technical, aesthetic, and social form to the theatre of our lives. After all the setbacks that faith in rational projection and prediction has suffered since then, after so many good intentions have been blunted against the wall of the inertia of vested interests and conditioned behavior, after the networks of so many urban projects have seen their mesh torn asunder by fish that were just too big for them, and now that the outlook for capitalist culture revolves around an image of catastrophe, concentrating all its fantasies on it (the foreseeing, preventing, or administering of catastrophe), this is when we choose to revisit utopia. But why? And in what frame of mind?
Not, certainly, as with Leonardo’s drawings, which head the family tree of all inventible or constructible machines, but, on the contrary, with autonomous logico-fantastic machines, and on account of their very inflexibility toward compromise with today or with the probable tomorrow. Is this one of the many escapes into the future, which knows it is that and nothing more? Or worse, an intellectual alibi, a refuge for beautiful spirits? There is no lack of diagnosticians of bad conscience among us, and they will not hesitate to give us their answer. All I am trying to do here is reconstruct a diary of my own relations with utopia, most of which are private, and to register both the high points and the low. The autonomous logico-fantastic machine is something I like insofar as (and if) it serves some real need: the need to enlarge the sphere of what we can imagine, and to introduce into our limited range of choices “absolute rejection” by means of a world thought out in all its details according to other values and other relationships. In a word, utopia not as a city that can be founded by us but that can found itself in us, build itself brick by brick in our ability to imagine it, to think it out to the ultimate degree; a city that claims to inhabit us, not to be inhabited, thus making us possible inhabitants of a third city, different from utopia and different from all the habitable or uninhabitable cities of today; a city born of the mutual impact of new conditionings, both inner and outer.
The side of utopia that has most to say to us is therefore the one that turns its back on any attempt to put it into practice. This holds good also for those nineteenth-century reformers who considered themselves not utopians, but inventors of projects that could be put into effect at once, such as Owen and Cabet, who set up new communities and took the risk, and met with inevitable failure.
It is always the place that gives utopia such trouble. Where should one put it? On the borders of an existing society, in order to convert that society by example? In that case it is only a step from the radicalism of reform to the compromise of reformism. In a new world, in virgin territories, on a desert island? (Let us not forget that utopianism was born after the voyage of Columbus.) But we know that a true no-man’s-land does not exist: exporting a civilization is called “colonialism,” even if we are convinced that we are founding something brand-new, and vigorous, and different from the culture of the metropolis. As for Fourier—who declared that he was waiting only for a patron to give a start to Harmony—when his followers tried to put his societal model into practice, he hastened to disassociate himself. He knew, or at least foresaw, that if his system departed from the written page, from the argument he preached, it would lose its force as absolute opposition to all that had ever been said and done.
Among Fourier’s modern readers some have wondered whether his dream has not partly come true today in our “leisure” society, perhaps in institutions such as the Club Méditerranée, where free time is meticulously programmed. This suspicion should be enough to demolish his entire edifice, but it seems to me that he rides the blow. The comparison with today reveals the extent to which Fourier’s idea of a radical organization of happiness is incompatible with the niggardly prospects of commercialized happiness.
Different, in my belief, is the argument to be made about the other monumental early-nineteenth-century prediction, that of Saint-Simon. The model of “industrial society,” of technocratic power, put forward by Saint-Simon could be said to have won, and now guides top-level choices, whether American or Soviet (even though he did want to do away with the military, and in this respect the reality is lagging far behind the prophecy). The narrowing of the distance from reality is the trial by fire for a utopia: either it is left in ashes, like that of Saint-Simon, or it rises from them, like the phoenix.
Far better are the more visionary utopias of a Cyrano or a Restif de La Bretonne. Therefore, in the years around ’68, I took it into my head to read Fourier, and to read him as one reads a poet, a novelist, or a moralist—that is, to lay one’s hands on a system of moral fantasy. And what interested me was the almost unique case of an antirepressive morality based on exactitude, methodical rigor, and classification.
If I mention this experience of mine here it is because nothing much came of it, and I don’t know if others have had the same reaction as I did to reading Fourier—that is, dissatisfaction. Something in my approach was not quite right. Poets or novelists or moralists (I speak of the real ones), once they have become yours, tend to stay with you; the utopian doesn’t. Utopia has no consistency. You may participate in the spirit of it, and believe in it, but other than on the page it does not come with you into the world, and you yourself do not manage to follow it up. Once I have shut the book, Fourier does not follow me, and I have to go back and browse to find him there, to admire him in all his clarity and obstinacy. But I have realized that the moment I have paid him this debt of admiration, every step I take is a step away.
Certainly, in recent times, my need to come up with some tangible representation of future society has declined. This is not because of some vitalistic assertion of the unforeseeable, or because I am resigned to the worst, or because I have realized that philosophical abstraction is a better indication of what may be hoped for, but maybe simply because the best that I can still look for is something else, which must be sought in the folds, in the shadowy places, in the countless involuntary effects that the most calculated system creates without being aware that perhaps its truth lies right there. The utopia I am looking for today is less solid than gaseous: it is a utopia of fine dust, corpuscular, and in suspension.