November 20, 2016
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for the following book review. This was first published in the HMU fall newsletter.
Alquist, Denise, et al., eds. Imperfect Ideal: Utopian and Dystopian Visions. Chicago: Great Books Foundation, 2015. Print.
In his essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”, Oscar Wilde says, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” The complexities involved in crafting an ideal state are immeasurable. Likewise, printing a book about utopia can be a daunting task. However, The Great Books Foundation (GBF) recently printed a new text attempting just that.
In classic GBF style, the book includes all genres, from poetry to essay, science fiction and political treatises. Imperfect Ideal places texts of different formats creatively. For example, “The Economic Basis of the Withering Away of the State” by Vladimir Lenin falls in between the essay by Oscar Wilde and a selection from the science-fiction novel We by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin.
In addition, the selections in Imperfect Ideal stretch across a long history, beginning with early treatises by authors such as Mencius and Aristotle. There are also more modern-day essays, such as Robert Owen’s “A New View of Society”. Each of these authors approaches the idea of utopia from two standpoints. First, each one speaks with a specific historical reference point and, second, each has a precise form of government that they address. GBF has creatively selected pieces that can be specific to a region and time, yet they also address similar issues found in other times and places. This tactic enriches the dialogue of utopia itself. As Oscar Wilde says, utopia is a dream that exists in every culture, yet there is no singular approach.
The idea of utopia inherently involves human desire, which further complicates the argument. Wandering through the full text demonstrates the fact that man has a few basic requirements and, yet, an infinite possibility of desires. As a sort of answer to the great variety of landscapes encompassed by the idea of utopia, GBF separated Imperfect Ideal into sections. These sections discuss questions such as what is ‘best’, what is missing, and the map of internal, specific human desires. Under each subheading, then, falls three or four texts that really represent the main idea of that section. Each of these selections, however, is also larger than its subheading. The ideas and questions overlap.
One idea that runs throughout these texts is that perfect peace and perfect perfection does not satisfy man. In the science-fiction texts, these elements lead to an unstable, disintegrating world. In the political treatises, these elements are controlled by some force who claims perfection, at the expense of an other. There is an ever-present element of discord that also, ironically, unites man. For example, Dostoyevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is an example of a fight against culturally-accepted barriers and imposed values. At the end, the narrator declares that he will continue to fight and this purpose drives him to live a better life. In some way, the fight is as necessary as the goal.
This text highlights many of the Great Ideas, but one pleasant surprise was the interplay of the idea of One and Many. One person has the power to affect the happiness of the many and vice versa. For example, in “Black Box” by Jennifer Egan, the narrator states, “In the new heroism, the goal is to transcend individual life, with its petty pains and loves, in favor of the dazzling collective.” This idea is also present in Lenin’s essay, and he notes that the state will pass through trouble before arriving at the ideal. However, the reverse is important in Ursula Le Guin’s and George Saunders’ short stories, which focus on the importance of providing a community which allow for individual growth. For this reason, Imperfect Ideal succeeds in raising important questions about an idealized world. Many of these experiments involve some form of enthusiasm, some strife, personal ideals, all of which stem from individual desires.
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