Ruyer and the Possible: Translation of Chapter 1 of Utopia and Utopias

The following is a translation of Raymond Ruyer, L’Utopie et les utopies, Paris: P.U.F., 1950. p. 3-8.

Chapter One: The Utopian Genre

The word utopia comes from Thomas More who wrote Utopia in 1518. His Utopia is an imaginary island whose government has been founded by the Utopian king. U-topie signifies “no place,” and this title has been recreated several times: in the Nouvelles de Nulle part by Morris, in Erewhon (Nowhere) by Samuel Butler. One is tempted to conclude that the utopist does not claim to make us believe in what he recounts. In fact, if the utopist does not seek the same momentary and aesthetic genre of credibility as the novelist, he seeks nevertheless. He expects of his reader that they seriously and durably believe in the “possible” that he describes, even if the geographical framework is not convincing.

A utopia is the description of an imaginary world outside of our space or our time, or in any case, outside historical and geographical space and time. It is the description of a world constituted on principles different than those at work in the real world.

The novelist places imaginary personages and adventures in our world. Even if he believes in the fantastical or the magical, he respects the frameworks of the ordinary world.

The scientific novel, sometimes very difficult to distinguish from the utopia, only plays upon a well defined technical possible whose effects, however, remain within the frameworks of the ordinary world. From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne is akin to this type. When these effects perturb the general equilibrium of everyday life, the scientific novel becomes indiscernible from the utopia. The Mort du fer by S.S. Held straddles the frontiers of these two genres.

More easily distinguishable from the novel is the fantastical or supernatural tale where it is a question less of another world than another nature. The fantastical tale sometimes makes revenants intervene from the “other world,” but the “other world” is not another world. The fantastical tale or the supernatural tale instead changes the level of the spirit by rediscovering another vision of nature, archaic and pre-logical. It is a dream; it makes no appeal to action. It gives satisfaction to specific and collective, but not social, “complexes.” It has no speculative value, no social pretension, even if it wishes to morally or religiously “edify.” The invention of utopia is positive and even positivist, it is scientific and technical. Utopia is a game, but a serious game. The utopist senses other possibilities of nature, but he does not differ from the notion of nature. He changes the world, which is quite different. The utopia has neither the childish character of fairy tales nor the morbid character of the fantastical tale which, without changing the world, plays with the transgression of the supernatural in the natural.

Rightly understood, the limits are sometimes very imprecise. Thus, Mary Johnston’s Sweet Rocket is equally distant from utopia and the supernatural tale: the happy valley she describes has a magical “aura,” and it is the framework of a utopian community. Several novels by Arthur Machen combine a theme of utopia (for example, the animals’ revolt in The Terror) with a supernatural atmosphere. Religious utopias are also intermediary. And we can recognize that several utopias have a religious essence. Already, the Fortunate islands of the Ancients are simultaneously supernatural and utopian. But the majority of utopias are very rationalist, sometimes aggressively so. This is man playing at being God, and not man dreaming of a divine world.

Utopia and myth.— Myth is subjective; it is the projection of human complexes onto the world, whereas we see that utopia has a theoretical essence and is objective. Myth describes eternal man, or the eternal world, or the eternal relations of man and world. It extracts constant elements, whereas utopia pitilessly emphasizes the variable and arbitrary elements.

Utopia is a play on the object; it studies objective possibles. It is only dream and projection of complexes indirectly. One easily understands the narrow bond between utopia properly speaking and the dream utopia, much closer to myth, above all when it is colored by religious nuances like the utopias of the Golden Age: “Things could be otherwise,” here is the exact point where the bifurcation splits between utopia, a theoretical exercise, and the dream utopia. For the phrase has two meanings in current language: it seems to coldly state a fact, but one also hears a sigh. The sigh, the aspiration, the dream are nevertheless all secondary. A multitude of utopias are pure plays upon possibles, without any nostalgia toward the world that they fabricate. Even the utopias of the Golden Age at base also and primarily play upon lateral possibles. The image of eternally young men, being able to appear and be displaced at will—the Greek gods are hardly anything else—supposes a utopian play slightly mixed with the natural religion of Indo-Europeans. In the Fortunate islands, heroes and privileged men reunite with the gods, which proves well both the utopian and religious character of the paradises of this genre. Men rejoin the company of the gods, because the gods themselves were already men simply endowed with new properties.

There is a theoretical element both in the myth and the utopia. Above all in the “etiological” myth that claims to explain the origin of a phenomenon or the origin of all things. But the utopia is “theoretical” in another sense: it does not explain, it invents; it is simultaneously speculative and practical. Mythologies have prepared the first metaphysics. Like Schelling says, the myth is a philosopheme. It answers a metaphysical and religious curiosity. Because one dreams in the etiological myth of Creation, Evil, suffering, painful childbirth, shame, etc. Myth is interested in the origin of techniques and arts, and not, like utopia, in the possibilities of arts and techniques. A myth resumes an eternal human given via the historical form of a recital. It is the dramatization of an “aporia.” In this sense, it is the opposite of utopia, which comes to the eternal through history.

Nevertheless, utopia can unite with myth. The most recent utopias (Renan, Shaw, Stapledon) are curiously concurrent with ancient myths, from which they recover, on the plane of the scientific imagination, content and aspirations: immortality, omnipotence, creation of living beings, divinization of humanity. It is often noted that science, in the more or less utopian state, realizes the old dreams of mythologies. Aviation has given men wings better than those of Icarus. The conquest of atomic energy is more valuable than the conquest of fire by Prometheus. The ring of Gyges is rediscovered in The Invisible Man by Wells. Chemistry gives us Soma and water from the Fountain of Youth. The birth of Homonculus in Faust simultaneously resembles a myth and a utopia. Voyages through the stars, or even time—one of the themes of utopias in the 20th century—makes humans similar to the gods. When utopia, due to volume, becomes eschatological, it takes on an increasingly religious coloration.

Utopia is very different from “myth” in the sense that Georges Sorel gives the term. The Sorelian myth is a projection of desire, a subjective image accompanying action. Its difference from utopia goes to the point of a sort of incompatibility. Where an almighty social myth reigns, there is hardly any place for utopian fabrications, which are always more individual. In contrast, the blossoming of utopias manifests a sort of social uncertainty, a wavering of social instinct, a lack of polarization through myth. The Sorelian myth is related to ideology rather than utopia.

The intentions of utopia.— The intentions of utopia are multiple and varied.

  1. As Pierre Paraf says, there are utopias which are mainly “Cities of happiness.” These are the countries-that-the-heart-desires. The utopian world is much closer to perfection than ours. In describing it, utopia has above all desired to repose in an oasis of order and peace. These are the utopias that L. Mumford (in chapter 1 of Story of Utopias) calls “utopias of escape,” which he opposes to utopias of “reconstruction.” But, in almost every utopia, there is a certain part of the dream and a component that could be termed psychoanalytic. Certain utopias (not the most interesting) are pure dreams, realizations of infantile desires. This is the case of the Arcades, and somewhat like the Nouvelles de Nulle part by Morris.
  2. There are mainly critical utopias. The utopist is irritated by the nonsense of the real world, by the arbitrariness of reality. He accuses men, who have sensed better possibles, for our comportment. This intention is at least as important as the other. Plato criticizes the Athenians; Morus criticizes the English of the 16th century; Fenelon criticizes Louis XIV; Morris criticizes the ugliness of the 19th century, and Wells criticizes the disorder of the 20th century. The critical intention can even be in an almost pure state, like in the works of Swift, Butler, and Aldous Huxley. Instead of being exercised directly, utopia exercises this critique in an indirect, more expressive and effective way by presenting an anti-world, a parallel or deformed world.
  3. Many utopias are neutral between dream and critique. They simply explore possibles in a somewhat rigorous, somewhat fantastical way.
  4. The most interesting utopias have a clearly constructive intention. There are countless “legislation Projects” and “Projects of constitution” of this type. But the constructive intention is never completely absent, no matter which type of utopia considered. It can never be so, for utopia loses its nature of mental experience without it.
  5. A small number of utopias have simply been written for their ingenious moral. This is perhaps the case with Atlantis, described by Plato in the Critias. Most often, the moral of the utopian world matters very little, and it would be superficial to classify utopias according to the mode of the moral. The latter depends upon the Zeitgeist of the age in which the utopist writes, and upon the possibles it unlocks. The Ancients project utopia into the past, into the Golden Age, or into geographically distant places. After the discovery of America in the 15th century, one instead has recourse to an unknown island, discovered by the rivals of Christopher Columbus (cf. Bacon’s Atlantis, More’s Utopia). In the 18th and 19th centuries, fantasy voyages and anticipations dominate the literature. Contemporaries employ new scientific possibilities, such as the fourth dimension or the astronautic.

M. Le Senne (Traité de morale générale, p. 707-708, P.U.F.) has composed a short analysis of the intentions of utopia. He considers utopia as a sort of decline of morals, as an aspiration towards the Good, but without courage. The Good then becomes a bad dream. He perceives three principal intentions of utopia:

  1. A cathartic intention: one rids reality of what it allows to be unpleasant. Utopia, like so many philosophical systems, aims to give a satisfying representation of reality.
  2. A subjective intention: the utopist, like the novelist, satisfies his singular “self.” He lacks the moral humility that submits him to a recognized reality as a law.
  3. An ultra-worldly intention: utopia is an escape from the human world.

Finally, following M. Le Senne, utopia appears more aesthetic than moral; it is the ideal, separated from its relation with reality. Reality is still there, in the author’s thought, since utopia is determined against reality. But this negation is not so much reformative critique but radical critique. The utopia not presenting itself as a program for possible, immediate, or different realizations would not present itself as utopia. (And, in fact, many utopists insist upon their slim hopes of realization: “I desire more than I can hope,” the last words of Thomas More, while the title itself of utopia is negative: “No place.”) Utopia thus manifests an infringement of art upon morality. If morality takes possession of it to turn it into a plan of reform, utopia loses its proper charm which comes from its detachment with regard to the well-known and the everyday.

But it seems unfair to us to judge utopia relatively to morality in this way. Flight through the tangent of the dream faced with the severity of duty does not normally translate itself through the fabrication of a utopia. It is not correct that utopia is nothing but a sort of psychoanalytic realization of desires. The Nouvelles de Nulle part is exceptional, and M. Le Senne seems to have attached an exaggerated importance to Morris. The modern utopist does not so much escape in the dream than in “another possible,” which he constructs with a certain rigor.

In addition, utopia is no longer essentially political or social, for the social or political utopia is only a variety, no doubt an important one, of the utopian genre. One can quite easily conceive, and they actually exist, non-political utopias, on the basis of biology or psychology, or even the geometrical or mechanical structure of things.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s