From ancient Eden to the hippie era - searching for utopia

New York Public Library launches a new exhibition on the perfect place.

Imagine a country where whole cooked chickens fall from the sky, rivers of ricotta cheese flow freely, and laziness is rewarded. In fact, working will get you arrested. This is the Land of Cockaigne, a fabled place longed for by the overworked, underfed peasants of the Middle Ages. It was their idea of paradise.

Each age has had its visions of an ideal society. Yet not until Sir Thomas More penned "Utopia" in 1516 did that ideal significantly shift to something conceivable in this world. Before that, it had largely been an exclusive place for the exceedingly righteous, the just, or more simply - the dead.

In "Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World," the New York Public Library's new exhibition traces the evolution of this ideal from antiquity to the present day.

The library, in collaboration with the Bibliotheque nationale de France in Paris, where a similar exhibition was shown this summer, has pulled together manuscripts, drawings, maps, posters, and other artifacts to illustrate the gradual development of the utopian ideal.

What at first might seem an esoteric topic turns out to be a fascinating exploration of this deep undercurrent in human thought. And it's surprising how pervasive the search has been, stretching from Plato's "Republic" through the French and American Revolutions, communism, the hippie movement of the 1960s and '70s, to Disney's concept of the "perfect" small town - Celebration, Florida. The list embraces a broad spectrum of ideals and approaches. But it all started with ancient mythologies.

There's never been a shortage of material to inspire those dissatisfied with the here and now. Right up to the 18th century, people speculated about Eden and tried to find it. But the theme that ran through most of these ideals was one of exclusion. Only the righteous gained entry - and the definition of righteousness tended to be narrow.

Over the centuries, the utopian ideal progressed from an other worldly place to somewhere closer to home and more inclusive.

The English humanist Sir Thomas More coined the term "utopia" in 1516 - a pun on the Greek, meaning both "good place" and "no place" - and with his book helped shift this focus of an unattainable ideal place to one constructed by ordinary people. Not just the righteous, just, and blessed got to experience this earthly paradise. Nor was death a passport.

More set his utopia in the Americas, which at that period represented a blank slate for Europeans to project their earthly paradise onto. The darker side, of course, was that the native peoples of those lands had to be eliminated in order for this ideal society to be established.

The exhibition offers an unvarnished view of such stark contradictions and explores the great flow of literature that was unleashed after More's "Utopia."

The French and American Revolutions put some of that utopianism into practice. An unedited copy of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, written in his own hand, is a moving reminder of the tremendous idealism of the American Revolution. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" - what could be more optimistic? But the French Revolution actually had a grander utopian ideal. It started from ground zero with a new calendar (10 days in a week), new weights and measures, and a new grid to divide the country into equal departments. The calendar and measurements fell by the wayside, but a 1789 map of the country shows where idealism and history intersected. A neatly sliced-up France closely resembles the France of today.

Something of that sense of equality and organization can be seen in early maps of Philadelphia in 1683 and Savannah in 1734, showing how Colonialists plunked down a grid on nature to create order.

With the Shakers and Mormons came more experiments with religious communities. The 19th century was a fertile time to explore. Then in 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engel published the "Communist Manifesto," claiming that history is essentially a series of class struggles. This is the precursor to the final part of the exhibition, "Dreams and Nightmares: Utopias and Dystopias in the Twentieth Century."

This section looks with a steady eye at utopian experiments that went horribly wrong. One case displays the Nazi German equivalent of bubble gum cards with pictures of Aryan children and adults. Eugenics offered a nasty new twist on creating the ideal: A society with the perfect race would dominate the world, the argument went.

Soviet propaganda posters from 1918, promising a better life under Communism, sit near photographs of workers in the Gulag (1936), their bleak environment suggesting the reality had a long way to go.

Technology was hailed as the key to the future. A replica of the robot from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" greets you as you enter the room. A copy of Karel Capek's 1923 play in which he coined the word robot, from the Czech robota, reminds visitors that its root meaning is drudgery.

From urban ideals to New York skyscrapers that rise up like a New Jerusalem in Berenice Abbots 1935 photos, the exhibition pulls together an intriguing range of utopian threads running through the 20th century: communes, kibbutzim, civil rights and Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, the Beatles' "Imagine." It's an insightful reminder of an eternal quest.

'Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society' runs until Jan. 27, 2001. For the New York Public Library's Web site exploring 'Metaworlds: Utopian Visions of the Internet and the Metaphysics of Virtual Life' go to www.nypl.org.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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