Diving into the idea of utopia

A radio conversation about idealism, faith, and the search for a better world

Among the many interviews and conversations I’ve had in recent weeks about Better to Have Gone, one of them has really stayed with me—not necessarily because it was the best, but because of the territory we covered.

Jonathan Bastian is the host of “Life Examined,” an excellent show that airs on KCRW, a NPR affiliate serving the Los Angeles area. His producer contacted my publisher’s publicist, saying that they were doing a series on utopias and would like to feature Better to Have Gone and Auroville. When the appointed hour arrived, we spoke plenty about the book, of course, but what really struck me—and what I liked most—is that we also talked a lot about ideas. One of the challenges with writing narrative non-fiction is that readers and reviewers focus mostly on the story (for perfectly good reasons). But writers are often as attached to the concepts and ideas for which the story is intended as a vehicle.

So I was happy to talk to Bastian about, among other subjects, the notion of utopia and its history; the attractions and perils of idealism; how faith has been responsible for some of the most beautiful art in history but also some of humanity’s most bloody conflicts; and much more. The full conversation is available here. I think of it as a deep-dive into the impulse to make the world a better place—an exploration of how that impulse is noble and sometimes leads to genuine progress, but equally, why it’s often dangerous and results in the very opposite of what it sets out to achieve.

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Some highlights from the talk:

Bastian asked me what, if anything, small intentional communities like Auroville have to teach the broader world. Why should we care about the experiences of these very localized experiments? In answer, I cited one of my favorite quotes about utopian projects, by Ralph Waldo Emerson (I first discovered this quote in a wonderful book on American utopias, Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings). Writing of Brook Farm, a 19th century intentional community in Massachusetts, Emerson described it “a French revolution in small, an Age of Reason in a patty-pan.” His point is that some of the most powerful human motivations and instincts play out in these places. They may be small, but they contain all the grand currents of history; intentional communities are like laboratories for human nature.

Speaking of human nature—this topic came up, too. The question of human nature is one of the most vexing problems confronting any would-be utopia. Broadly, the issue comes down to two inter-related questions. First, is human nature inherently selfish, individualistic, and gene-propagating? How we answer this is often a matter of individual temperament, but it has important implications for whether we think utopia—or even a better world—is actually achievable. And second, is human nature malleable, or pretty much immutable? At the core of virtually every aspiring utopia, as I discuss in the book, is an urge to remake human nature. That’s a problem if human nature is immutable.

In an article I wrote on utopias for The New Yorker a few years ago, I included the following paragraph. (My editor, who was apparently less convinced that there exists such a thing as “human nature” marked up an early draft with a big exclamation point):

Utopians tend to be skeptical when it comes to talk of human nature and, indeed, of humanism in any recognizable form. They contest our assumptions about what’s “natural.” Yet, as the portraits in these books indicate, those dreary assumptions win out every time. Utopias are, in the philosopher Leszek Kołakowski’s phrase, “anti-human.”

Bastian and I also discussed my fascination with communism--history’s grandest utopian project, and maybe the subject of a future Substack--and whether I saw commonalties among different types of utopian projects across time. My answer was that it’s hard to generalize, and that utopias tend to reflect the pre-occupations of their respective eras. Still, there are some recurring themes. These include an urge to rethink the reigning economic order in favor of a more egalitarian dispensation; a frequent aspiration toward the spiritual or at least metaphysical; and an attempt to rethink sexual relations and the traditional family unit. More recent utopias have also been concerned with ecological preservation and restoration, and with the role of technology in our society and economy.

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We talked about a lot more, but these were some of the more interesting aspects of our conversation. Again, you can listen to the whole thing here. I’d also encourage you to listen to the subsequent two episodes of the show, both focused on American utopianism.

That’s it for this round of my Substack experiment. As always, if you enjoyed reading this, please pass it around to friends, relatives, and colleagues. Subscription is free!

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Also, some reading recommendations and other plugs:

If you haven’t already read this terrific article on Afghanistan by my friend Anand Gopal, in the New Yorker, do so now. It’s an amazing, brave piece of reporting and writing, and by far the most nuanced article I’ve read about why the Taliban returned to power so easily.

Also, I’m re-reading Damon Galgut’s brilliant book, The Promise. A family saga that contains the story of a nation (South Africa), it’s received rave reviews (1, 2) and was just short listed for the Booker Prize, Damon’s third time on the short list. Damon is also a friend, and I’ll be in conversation with him as part of the Jaipur Lit Fest’s Boulder, Colorado edition, from October 8-10. Check out this page for exact days and times.

Thanks for reading!