Imagining the Future   /   Spring 2008   /    Essays

Utopia on the Map of the World

Krishan Kumar

Whatever form the contemporary utopia may take, it is unlikely to depart radically from the types and forms of previous centuries. All writers of utopias are conscious that they work within a tradition of utopia. There are certain rules of the game, certain themes and devices that are indeed highly flexible but also impose a restraining discipline on the utopian imagination. That restraint is its strength; that is what has made utopia command the attention of a vast and varied readership over the past half a millennium.

When Sir Thomas More, in his book Utopia (1516), named the new literary genre, he was conscious that he was drawing upon an older tradition of both intellectual and popular culture. There were the speculations of the Greeks on the ideal city; there was the Christian idea of the millennium, expressed not just in written Biblical form but in a host of popular movements that drew their inspiration from Biblical prophecy. Going further back to the earliest productions of Western thought, there were accounts of Paradise or the Golden Age, a place and a time when the pain and privations of everyday life did not exist and all lived freely and without care. Drawing on the well- springs of popular culture, there were the variously described “Land of Cockaygne” and Schlaraffenland, places of joyously unrestrained wishes and more or less instant gratification, where—as in some of Brueghel’s paintings—the roofs of houses are made of gingerbread and birds drop delicious morsels of food into the mouths of individuals stretched out luxuriously on the ground.

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