Redeeming Utopia: a Meditation On An Essay by Ursula LeGuin

“If the word utopia is to be redeemed, it will have to be by someone who has followed utopia into the abyss which yawns behind the Grand Inquisitor’s Vision, and who then has clambered out on the other side.”

– Robert C. Elliott, The Shape of Utopia, quoted in Ursula LeGuin’s A Non-Euclidean View of California As A Cold Place

“The societies which have best protected their distinctive character appear to be those concerned above all with persevering in their existence.”

– Claude Levi-Strauss, quoted in LeGuin’s essay

‘Communitas (i.e., the spirit of community) breaks in through the interstices of structure, in liminality; at the edges of structure, in marginality; and from beneath structure, in inferiority.  It is almost everywhere held to be sacred or “holy,” possibly because it transgresses or dissolves the norms that govern structured or institutionalized relationships….  (LeGuin asks): ”What kind of utopia can come out of these margins, negations, and obscurities? … It won’t look the way it ought to.”’

– Victor Turner, quoted in LeGuin’s essay.

“Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?”

– John Keats, Letters

“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

For those of us quixotish types still passionately interested in utopia, and in what we might consider as utopian ideals, such as abolishing the prison system,  renouncing the gospel of Progress, or restoring our cities to being places rather than corporate chainstore strip mall nightmares, the 1982 essay I came across recently by Ursula LeGuin is very worth pondering. In it, she critiques the utopian ideas that have heretofore led western civilization  onward and upward:“To reconstruct the world, to rebuild or rationalize it, is to run the risk of destroying what in fact is.”  After all, the civilization of progress and betterment did not set out purposely to destroy other cultures, commit genocide, exploit the masses for the profit of the few, plunder and pillage around the globe; these were unintended consequences.  Its ideal fell short imaginatively; it was not ideal when considered from the perspective of the interrelated whole (i.e., of “the others.”) She writes, “the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism, industrialism and the human population in a one-way future consisting only of growth.”

I am writing this essay in a moment when the story of John Chau has been featured in the news, he being perhaps the embodiment of the disembodied utopian idealist,  killed by the savages he had hoped to Christianize. The story also has brought to our awareness these North Sentinel Islanders, remnants of the Stone Age, fiercely defending their way of life with bow and arrow. (Can we help but wonder how differently history would have gone had the Indians of the New World behaved thus “savagely,” instead of hospitably to the white invaders!)  Chau’s mission, in a bizarrely vestigial way, was stubbornly attached to the old orientalist, white supremacist model in a time when so many people are convinced that we now must turn back, against the gospel of Progress, to learn what such tribal societies that lived in balance with nature can teach us. As LeGuin realized, the flaw in utopian thinking is its lack of the corrective or balancing “worldview” embodied in cultures like the one on Sentinel Island.  In such cultures, committed to persevering in their existence, the members undergo change in themselves in relation to the natural environment they exist within, rather than making Nature serve their egoic urge for supremacy and triumph over insecurity.

To clarify the distinction she makes between utopian paradigms,  LeGuin uses ideas prevalent after the 1960’s that are feminist, multiculturalist, and New Age (Eastern and native American) spiritual.  These very ideas were the ones that inspired me (and my husband) to, at mid-life (in 2002) launch our coffeeshop business in Utica. In contrast to aims of “reconstructing, rebuilding or rationalizing” the world, our very unpastoral dream was to locate our business in an existing old storefront structure in our rustbelt city in redneck Upstate New York, and establish it on the existing marketplace terms as a business competing with other businesses, no special favors asked. (In fact, we were denied the “favor” of an SBA loan –  the loan officer admitting it was the best application she’d ever seen – due to Orin’s 1967 prison conviction record; we scrounged our initial capital by maxing out credit cards).  In this way,  our utopian vision was begun without utopian illusions.  Fully aware of  the depressing reality under late stage capitalism, we were, in our way, declaring “Utopia is here.” Inspired by communitas, we aimed to build a business and a place that felt to us comfortable, inspirational (high on the south wall sits our MLK banner proclaiming “Now…I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”) and, to our eyes, ears and noses,  beautiful.  We modestly hoped it would afford us a living.  We built it and they came.

However, like previous utopia-followers, we did not/could not foretell the unintended consequences of our castle-in-the-air gaining its foundation.  LeGuin herself could not do more than suggest what it would be like to follow through the “Utopia-is-here” paradigm  in the midst of the insane neoliberal context still devoted to “Growth” and all the other illusions supporting the profit-making of the few at the expense of the many.  But here’s the “saving grace:” Unlike old-paradigm utopians intending to reconstruct the world, our Utica experiment embodies the social healing potential in “Utopia is here;” it reverses those unintended consequences so they no longer fall upon others, but upon ourselves; we are not oblivious to the struggles of others for their humanity, but we’re in that  struggle too.   This means, in our attempt here as voluntary, so-so artists,  to build in space and time the alternative world, each participanttakes back the suffering that rightly is hers/his. This compassion-favoring arrangement is a consequence of our having been influenced by the marvelous New Age mythos that emerged in and after the 1960’s which made it possible for contemporary utopians to allowothers their freedom and their otherness,and – most wondrously –  to attain their own!

Were it not for the metaphysical vacuum underlying the dispirited post-modern context in which we have our Cafe, all the challenging aspects of maintaining a small family business in the capitalist-dreamed world of bigger and “corporate,” would simply come under the heading of “ hard work.” For most people who go into business, the payoff for all that exertion and stress is profits, to attain which they are willing to follow a business model designed to increase profits at the expense of paying fair wages  or charging fair prices or making excellent products or honoring the relationship to customers, etc., their values and loyalties prioritized according to the needs of the company.  For Orin and I, who are anarchists not capitalists, “the work”  includes the surplus work of maintaining the imaginary reality that supports us through “thick” times and “thin.” Though not opposed to making money (!), we take it as a given that  maintaining our precious supply of energy depends, non-negotiably, on spirit.   So that the dream does not fall into the abyss, its meaning reduced to thankless drudgery and toil, we are forced, in the manner of the proverbial atheist in the foxhole, to keep ourselves tuned in to the original vision that enticed us into entrepreneurship.

The capitalist entrepreneur, who draws his energy from his financial success, does not have to, in addition to his business, keep a  metaphysical reality alive   For us this work (which does notinclude praying for the success of our enterprise, as if it could be of personal interest to God!) has meant a few things. I have written about these practices, especially our creative writing, in other places.  Here I underscore the part of suffering that probably few people associate with “the better world,” but which is key to redeeming utopia. (Keep in mind the Latin root sufferre, meaning to undergo, to bear, to endure.) In giving attention to our own inner processes –  the “soul processes,” – that were launched initially through psychotherapy, enlarged and vitalized by our readings in poetry, literature, mythology and archetypal psychology, etc., and by authorizing our own pursuit of our writing, Orin and I carry on an initiation process usually privatized and sold through professional therapy and religious clergy.  Independently, we continue the practice of keeping contact with our own soul’s narrative as it “clambers out of the abyss.”  We keep ourselves in that narrative, in which our work – the Cafe,  our writing – can be seen as part of a unified meaning,  rather than the neoliberal narrative, in which we are just Wrong, Stupid and “Luddish.” The rewards of such voluntary suffering, in terms of personal satisfaction, are real but never once-for-all; the reward of following the “Utopia is here” paradigm, in that we are not destroying “what in fact is,” means the suffering is not meaningless.

All of this is a way of talking about a kind of visionary, anarchist work in our time.  Our experience in taking on such a project is expressed aptly in the quotation LeGuin takes from Robert Elliott.  That is, once one abandons the “euclidean” mind (or the rationalist, monotheocratic, white supremacist “power trip”) one encounters, not paradise in any form we might picture it, but the abyss, ie., the unknown with its terrors, trials, and tests to be suffered.

The utopian quest for the better world has now to be understood in the “grown-up” way of those “primitive” cultures, dismissible to bourgeois liberals with unshakable faith in the superior attainments of science-based progress and the quest to control nature, but necessary if one is/we are to redeem the Utopian quest.  The ancients must now be our wise elders.  Their way, based in a metaphysical or myth-based reality, understood there must be initiation in order to transform society in accordance with Nature, rather than that Nature should serve human infantile egoist purposes, and illegitimate authority.  We in post-modern reality are so far from those archaic understandings – though the archetypes that informed the elders then, exist in the deeper layers of our own imaginative souls today – that to attempt living according to them is to call for qualities of character that are by now atrophied practically beyond recovery.  It is to find oneself on a voyage (though that may be too romantic a word, even for me, a convinced  Blakean, Coleridgean, Thoreauian Romantic) into an unknown as bewildering as the frontiers and wildernesses that confronted the more adventuresome of our ancestors, in service neither to God, King or Gold, but only to one’s free imagination and one’s indefatigable longings.

Recently, a remarkable white woman from Syracuse, who, with her black husband (currently serving a 20-year prison sentence for manslaughter) co-leads an organization called Unchained, gave a talk on the abolition of prisons at our nonprofit center in Utica.  At one point she asked the audience, “Where do you feel most safe?”  She was, it turned out, getting us to see that in nobody’s imagination did the police, nor the U.S. military, figure even remotely in their feeling of safety.   People said various things.  My answer, kept to myself, was, “In our Cafe.”  The little urban Cafe in the midst of a crumbling city teaches this: safety is not about feeling safe from robbers and madmen with guns, nor from a progressively degraded and dehumanizing society, nor from the ravages of climate change and the threat of nuclear annihilation, but about knowing you are safe in your soul, which is to say, safe.  This is what “Utopia is here” means, and which, if I am permitted to be so bold as to state what collectively is “our” business, it is our business, now, individually and collectively, to be about creating.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: