Goodbye, Utopia

Whatever happened to Utopia? Thomas More’s book was certainly a parody, but few agree on what was being mocked. The Church? If so, which one? Colonialism (or apologies for)? Early communism or the degeneracy of empire? On this poor earth, competition for utopias is priced in blood and cynics pay dearly for their laughter. But in times of crisis—that is, frequently—utopias flood the mind and occasionally, someone’s ideal enters into temporal space. The Taliban and the US armed forces both hunted for utopia, and perhaps they even remember the days when they were searching for it together back in Old Afgantsy. Nostalgia breathes in the past continuous.

The possibility of utopias dazzled Fourier and no matter how much Marx ridiculed the man, he must have felt a nagging suspicion that the grizzled dreamer meant only that no one can live without hope. Hope is a terrible mistress, by turns sentimental and cruel—both the innocent and the corrupt drown in her tears. Charles Fourier hoped that plumbers would one day be the richest of men, that society would be composed of massive hotel-like structures, that everyone would have casual sex and that all work would be “attractive labor” (literally). He also predicted that desalinated seas would become lemonade and that climate change would make the North Pole tropic. Fourier’s revenge is sublime. He has inserted himself into thought and history like a hideous shag carpet. Austere science even proves him out.

Hope stings eternal. The Audacity of Hope is the audacity of bombing a distant wedding while promising justice to the damned back home—those tender mercies of power dressed up as the mysteries of chance. Hope for a cessation of civil hostilities. Hope for another cessation after the return to status quo. Hope that the future dystopia satisfies the will to extinction long enough to make a blasted world romantic again.

The fad for dystopia is the fad for utopia with ruin-porn chic, a midget nihilism which makes bad artists and tech barons giddy with delight. They consider demolition the truest Reality because it will provide them with womb-substitute panic rooms, the spectacle of dead birds, and the thrills of video-game militia. Paradise for this lot is an RPG called Humiliation, Inc. But there were other kinds of utopias not so long ago, and Wakefield Press has resuscitated two of the more interesting cases: Curt Corrinth’s satire of Free Love, Potsdamer Plotz, or the Night’s New Messiah (1919), and Paul Scheerbart’s 1906 Munchausen and Clarissa, which recasts the infamous Prussian faker as a cross between Fourier and Swedenborg.

Corrith’s polemic-satire is basically a long poem, part pornography and part homage to early sex-pol radicals such as Reich, Gross, and Hirschfield. To quote the mad chorus in Marat/Sade, “What’s the point in revolution without general copulation?” The book’s loopy messiah, Hans, is initiated into the pleasures of mass love by a gang of city prostitutes, whom he then leads on to a convulsive revolution in Berlin. Alleys and thoroughfares are taken with orgiastic waves mirroring the human body waves demanded by the Kaiser and Ludendorff a few years before. Food for the gun has become food for love, flesh is torn by fingers rather than by lead, clouds of desire make mustard-gas scree rise from the fleshpots of Weimar. The cops and armies attempt to quell the revolt but themselves succumb; state palaces and bureaucratic depots are turned into brothels while Hans’ priapic legions rapidly advance over the great Victorian hangover, sketched out in Paul Klee’s amusing line-drawings (they are reprinted for this lovely edition). The Angel of History has squashed the squat black eagle and its wings fan the flames of naked utopia: no ideology but an express train to carnal oblivion. Yet utopia is bound by time, as the anarchists remind. What counts is speed and the moment. Get going! Wacht auf, Verdammte dieser Erde…!

Like all good books, it is hard to tell how serious Corrinth is about the whole thing. Like the most amusing of books, it doesn’t hardly matter. As frenzy piles on frenzy, his language atomizes and splits. Utopia takes over and destroys all the old communication processes. It is not that the dull aftermath of a utopia isn’t worth writing, but that the project must remain unfinished if you want to beguile the public as to your intentions. Hans the Savior may even become another moral despot, as his mandatory orgies manufacture liberalized bodies subject to the iron course of metastasized desire. Copulation as banking? Freedom is a compulsion which will again breed private property for the new oligarchs, while all that is left below is harried flesh sold desperately on credit. Despite their claustrophobic severity, the most despotic regimes always loose a simultaneous wave of lust. Their worst appointees revel in the contradiction and resolve it in terrible ecstasies. Living deep in the total violence of a fantastic freedom, people become test subjects for psychological forces. Fourteen years after Corrinth’s verbal assault, the fascists were able to harness this geyser-like oppression. As Wilhelm Reich tried to explain, the swastika is simply a cartoon of people fucking.

Potzdamer Platz is translated by the indefatigable W. C. Bamberger, who effortlessly transfers the whole propulsive vision into sharpened, then shattered, English.

Paul Scheerbart was an architect and dreamer of cities, as well as the author of very singular science fiction. He worked with the famous urban planner Bruno Taut and was a friend of the great anarchist Erich Mühsam; his ideas on glass as a tool for utopian architecture were important to Walter Benjamin and appear The Arcades Project, along with Fourier’s concept of liberated work as play. Wakefield Press is slowly bringing out Scheerbart’s major works into English, the latest being this pedagogic entry in the Baron Munchausen canon. Munchausen and Clarissa is superbly translated by Christina Svendsen, who also translated Scheerbart’s masterpiece, Lesabéndio, back in 2012.

Supreme fantasist Baron Munchausen first appeared in popular culture in Raspe’s 1785 Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, a dithering Walter Mitty aristocrat used for toothy social satire whose tall tales of his own bravery and extraordinary travels—trips to the moon, rides on cannonballs and wrestling bouts with monsters—parody the gravity of the great men of the day (The historical Baron Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen, 1720-1797, seems to have related similar adventures in calm unadorned speech, without the slightest hint of camp or self-consciousness, sending up the credulity and pomposity of his generation and class). Thus, Baron Munchausen is the last Honest Man. Utterly convinced of the reality of his own myths, he is the only man who cannot lie—even to himself. What sorcerer can cast a spell as powerful?

In Scheerbart’s take, the Baron hypnotizes the German ruling class with his tales of his visit to a mad souped-up utopian biennale in Melbourne, Australia. He lovingly describes the city’s total vision of art and society: rooms move rather than elevators; huge observatories project human viewers into the stars; novels tell of the inner lives of molecules; people live in paintings made of three-dimensional light. Australian state management is wholly aesthetic and informs every facet of daily life. Necessity and luxury are identical and are available to all, free of charge. In seven nights, the Baron lectures on the grand successes of this society at the bottom of the world and promises that Germany will use common sense and try to imitate the Melbournians rather than continue in the swamp of a botched European past. Clarissa, the very young and brilliant daughter of the Baron’s old friend and host, levels pertinent questions and inspires the old man to bring the Australian project to Deutschland. Munchausen is over 150 years old, but they get married anyway and the book ends with their happy union and optimism about their new revolutionary task.

It was still the early years of the 20th Century when Scheerbart wrote this novel, perhaps hopeful that new machines may liberate rather than grind down. A version of the original Munchhausen novel was later filmed in Germany by Ufa in 1943, just as the German 6th Army was getting pulverized at Stalingrad. But wasn’t Emil Jannings in Murnau’s 1924 Last Laugh the real final incarnation of the ancient Baron, a feral slum-dwelling fallen star whose last kingdom is his uniform and whose last miracle the descent from the higher floors of a grand hotel to unemployment and silence? The rags of Utopia are stained with bottom dreamers and the dreams of rusting tanks.

Paul Scheerbart died in 1915, living long enough to see his country well into the Great War. Perhaps he glimpsed one of his strangely moving naïve visions passing into creation in his final moments, rather than the earth belching up bones from miles of trench. He had written in more promising times that “the face of the earth would be much altered if brick architecture were ousted everywhere by glass architecture. It would be as if the earth were adorned with sparkling jewels and enamels. Such glory is unimaginable. All over the world it would be as splendid as in the gardens of the Arabian Nights. We should then have a paradise on earth, and no need to watch in longing expectation for the paradise in heaven.”

Utopians are foolish dreamers. Even they do not argue that point. But we can also see—as a ‘realist’ version of these glistening impossible reveries—the far more devastating delusions of men of power and army generals who, in the face of catastrophic losses and their own bitter irrelevance, the psychotic certainty that this can’t be happening in the face of the total destruction of their projects. From this hermetic and wholly self-sustaining sphere, pronouncements of essential victory and the exceptionalism of a nation favored by God dribble out in a stunned and incoherent babble: We constantly make gains. The Surge is working.  I am a soldier and scholar. We won every firefight. Defeat is not an option. But the greatest price is always paid by the expendable. The geniuses will go on, convinced that they can walk through walls, win final victories, and that history will learn to adore them even against its own ineffable will.

There is no time left to laugh at utopia and nothing gained by saying goodbye.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.