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Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

This side of paradise

It might seem like we are all living in a dystopian novel. Something written by J.G. Ballard, perhaps. Our ocean is mostly oil, our infrastructure is crumbling, our skies are full of ash, the illiterate woman from Alaska is a trusted public figure… We might as well start reading Cormac McCarthy novels for the survival tips alone.

And yet in the middle of that, J.C. Hallman has written a book about utopia. It’s hard even to type the word at this point without giggling. But there are still utopian thinkers around, as his nonfiction work “In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise” shows. It just happens that in this day and age, some of them are heavily armed.

But Hallman first came on my radar with his book “The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe,” which was filtered through the lens of William James, and William James has always been the ultimate optimist. His optimism was hard won, gained through struggle and suffering, equipped with a very clear vision of reality. So if Hallman, a devoted Jamesian (like myself), says there’s still use to the word “utopia,” then let’s find out what it is. I asked him a few questions over e-mail about his new book.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but cynicism reigns at the moment. There is no god, we are all fucked, things were totally better before agriculture, etc. Please justify your writing a book about utopian thought.

This question almost answers itself, doesn’t it? We live in an era when the suggestion that the world can or should be better than it is needs to be “justified.” I only wish I’d had this concise definition of dystopia available when I was writing the book! It’s true that cynicism reigns, but is that a desirable condition? If not, then how do we affect that? By writing more and more dystopian novels that merely reiterate what your question neatly codifies? Sure, a book proposing that we reconsider the value of utopian thought and literature is itself a utopian endeavor, but the successful utopias I describe — successful in that one can trace a through line from fanciful novels and plans to actual, positive change in the world — prove that the utopian endeavor, whether it’s a book, or a manifesto, or a constitution, is a viable escape route from the labyrinth of cynicism.

Many of these utopias had barriers to getting in, either a voting-in process or a prohibitive cost. What is the role of the gatekeeper in modern utopias? And how did it feel being voted in at one of them?

Striving after a perfect world does not, I think, imply that falling short of perfection is failure. The Declaration of Independence compels us to pursue a “more perfect union,” but the real goal is to be forever in the process of bettering ourselves, our system, our society. But what if the best of all possible worlds cannot achieve full egalitarianism? Or cannot fully eliminate class distinctions? Were that the case, then we would simply want to live in the best possible world, given those restrictions. Some of the utopias I describe do have these kinds of “barriers,” and I think it’s related to the above — the gatekeeper is realism in light of what’s actually, pragmatically possible. We should strive toward egalitarianism, for example, while knowing that we can never fully achieve it in the same way we might strive toward objectivity while knowing that it’s an impossible ideal. Ultimately, I’m making a perfect-enemy-of-the-good argument — but what’s important to remember is that you need the perfect, the impossible goal, to pull you forward.  Hopes may be foiled, but it’s always — always! — hope that generates progress.

I was relieved to be admitted to Twin Oaks, the commune I visited, by vote. And flattered. They are a wonderful group of folks.

This is the second book where you’ve used an older text (James’s “Varieties of Religious Experience and now More’s “Utopia) to filter modern culture. Can you say a little about what it is about this form that made you want to return to it?

I’m drawn to ideas, movements, places that seem absurd at first glance. In the context of a book about utopia, I think these kinds of places confront us with our own Kuhnian tendency to reject anything that doesn’t fit with the paradigm we’re comfortable with (even, incidentally, when we might be politically opposed to that paradigm). So I like to dip back into history and discover the way in which even a very peculiar thing was not only possible, but inevitable. It’s a way, I think, of simply making sense of a world that sometimes seems nonsensical. Interestingly, this tracing back sometimes leads to specific works whose influence has perhaps been undervalued. That was definitely true of “Varieties of Religious Experience,” but is probably even more true of “Utopia.”  I can think of no better way to demonstrate the influence of “Utopia” than to simply note that it’s the only book whose author is known that has its own index entry in the “Chicago Manual of Style.”  Beat that, “Catch-22“!

And were you tempted to stay at Twin Oaks? Because wouldn’t utopian life fall prey to the same problem as most (sincere) utopian fiction, as in, wouldn’t it get a little boring? (And didn’t even James himself warn of such a problem in “What Makes a Life Significant”?)

Yes, James definitely makes that point — particularly about Chautauqua, N.Y., which is often held up as a kind of utopian ideal. (His point, though, is less that it’s boring than that a “perfect” world would lack a kind of “strenuousness” that, at least as a young man, James felt was important.) James actually became more utopian as his life advanced, and eventually waned. In fact, some time after I finished “In Utopia,” I realized that I sort of lifted the basic thesis of the book from “The Moral Equivalent of War,” in which James characterized the then-rampant debate among “warhawks” and “peaceniks” as “but one utopia against another.” Strangely, though, James’s solution was not non-utopianism. Instead, he laid out his vision for his own “utopian hypothesis.”  This suggestion is often held to to be the origin of the Peace Corps (and is actually something James lifted from earlier utopian books).

About Twin Oaks — yes, I was tempted to stay, but I decided not to take the invitation, not because it was boring, but simply because I didn’t feel 100 percent at home there. In a way, I wanted them to be even more radical than they were!

I was expecting more free love sex cults, but the utopian ideas you presented go in some really different directions. How did you decide who to include?

Yes, we tend to think of utopian thought as limited to communes — and communism.  But that’s a misleading tip-of-the-iceberg kind of mistake. Utopia is a description of an idea’s scope; it says nothing at all about its ideological makeup. There are architectural utopias, conservative utopias, city planning utopias, ecological utopias, and so on. I tried to represent as wide a variety as was practicable. The book, as the subtitle suggestions, has six core utopias: Pleistocene Rewilding, a radical idea to reinvigorate bereft ecosystems with introduced species; Twin Oaks, the oldest active commune in the United States; The World, a residential cruise ship for the very wealthy that emphasizes ecological values; the Slow Food movement, which advocates a new global ecological conscience; New Songdo, a master-planned urban space in Korea that plans to be the first fully LEED-certified city, top to bottom; and Front Sight (the book’s only admitted dystopia), the largest civilian combat training facility in the world — they want to build a master-planned community around it just as some communities are built around golf courses.

I like that you wrote in the first person, but it made me wonder how much you personally may have been changed by your contact with these groups. Was their hope catching?

Oh, yes — of course. Interestingly, I had no idea that I was going to be writing about so many older people when I started the book. We tend to associate hope with the young and naive. But the book winds up confounding the old stereotype of older people reverting to a safe conservatism. Instead, I found a number of elderly people who never gave up the fire, the hope — who were still fighting for a better world, one they knew that they would not inhabit themselves. Obviously, there’s a pretty worthwhile lesson to be found there.