Not another day in paradise?

No one wants to live in the sort of perfect world that has gold chamber-pots but no pubs.

John Carey invites readers of his anthology of utopianism to start by "jotting down their personal utopia". Reviewers who take up the invitation will surely expel anthologists from their dream-worlds. Anthologies are hatefully hard to review. Predictable quibbles about what should have been included or omitted tend to take over. Sterile anxieties about matters of definition or consistency displace criticism. Because the anthologist's selection is always different from the reviewer's, the piece ends up carping or ungracious. A good anthology defies summary because it encompasses vast diversity.

John Carey invites readers of his anthology of utopianism to start by "jotting down their personal utopia". Reviewers who take up the invitation will surely expel anthologists from their dream-worlds. Anthologies are hatefully hard to review. Predictable quibbles about what should have been included or omitted tend to take over. Sterile anxieties about matters of definition or consistency displace criticism. Because the anthologist's selection is always different from the reviewer's, the piece ends up carping or ungracious. A good anthology defies summary because it encompasses vast diversity.

Carey, however, is an anthologist with a difference. A stroke of editorial genius makes The Faber Book of Utopias special. The editor puts dystopias in the same volume along with supposedly ideal worlds of the imagination. The effect is startling. You see utopias, conventionally understood, for what they really are: dystopias in disguise. All the scenarios in Carey's selection are deeply repellent, even those advocated by their inventors with every appearance of sincerity. No person of critical intelligence or decent sensibility could bear to live in them.

In Plato's Republic, arts are outlawed and infants exposed. In More's Utopia, they have gold chamber-pots and no pubs. In Campanella's City of the Sun, sexual couplings have to be licensed by astrologers. Milton's Paradise would bore any lively denizen to death.

Bougainville thought he had found a sexual garden of delights in Tahiti and discovered on departure that his men were riddled with VD. In Fourier's Harmony, orgies are organised with a degree of bureaucratic particularity that seems certain to kill passion. In America, as John Adolphus Etzler proposed to remodel it in 1833, mountains are flattened and forests "ground to dust" to make cement. In Cabet's Icaria, clothes have to be made of elastic to make the principle of equality "suit people of different sizes". In Elizabeth Corbett's feminist utopia, the empowered women degenerate into self-caricatures and get terribly pleased with cures for wrinkles.

Almost all utopianists are sex- obsessed and demand from the irprospective citizens levels of prurience or lust which would weary a normal libido. They all evince misplaced faith in the power of society to improve citizens. They all want us to defer to fantasy father-figures who would surely make life wretched: guardians, proletarian dictators, intrusive computers, know-all theocrats or paternalistic sages who think for you, over-regulate your life and crush or stretch you into comfortless uniformity. Every utopia is an empire of Procrustes.

The utopian project only becomes interesting when it is satirical. A genuinely ideal world, conceived a priori, is of no interest to anyone except the author, because it embodies only private fantasies. Carey represents this genre with "the first English utopia by a female writer": Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World of 1666, where the authoress is universally loved but there is nothing to attract anyone else.

Nor do utopias enliven desire when constructed by sociologists on scientific principles. Carey recommends the approach of a professor in Hawaii who makes political science students design "the best possible society you can imagine" with a rational blueprint in mind - starting with "goals" and proceeding through "alternate [sic] institutions" to corrective mechanisms which check unwelcome change. The assignments, if completed, would surely make boring reading.

The best Utopians follow no such guidelines because they are not interested in devising societies which work - only in lampooning the expectations of political engineers or lambasting the shortcomings of their societies. Utopias are worth reading only if they are literature, not mere sociology or self-indulgence.

That is the source of an anthologist's difficulty. In literature, utopias are ubiquitous because everywhere is nowhere and every place is invented, whether the writer plucks it from his imagination or purports to reconstruct it from history. For real coherence, a selection of utopian writings should stick to the genre strictly defined. Utopias are satire - worlds imagined not for their own merits but for what they tell you about real worlds.

Carey, however, is a maverick you cannot corral - a splendidly indisciplined anthologist, likely to include something because it is good rather than relevant. Dickens on noble savages is amusing but misplaced. So is Hopkins on a nunnery, and de Sade on the subjection of women to sexual serfdom. Silly snippets from feminists' questionnaires on "What Women Want" beat anything in the loony nonsense columns of Private Eye but are not utopian in any sense. E L Doctorow on Disneyland-as-dystopia is chillingly brilliant but unfair: the Disney people aren't claiming Disneyland as utopian; they're just rationally exploiting their customers' stupidity.

Tertullian is included because he is misunderstood - the fate of the ironist even in the hands of clever readers. Carey thinks he was recommending heaven on the grounds of the good view it gave sadists of the tortures of hell. Really, however, Tertullian wanted the damned to be spared by being shocked into faith. Disappointingly, all Carey's Elysiums are west of Suez, except for one poorly chosen Chinese example. A better choice would have been Zhao Cangyuan's late 13th-century tale of travellers returning, satiated from paradise, to find the real world desolate and empty. In choosing foreign writings, Carey has generally been drawn only to works influential in English tradition. He is, for some tastes, a rather interventionist editor, who tends to substitute his own paraphrases for writers' work. Still, he is a deft and witty summariser and almost every page is lively and instructive.

The belief that utopia can be wrought on earth is a tragic form of literary hubris - a trap for the excessively clever. Periods of revolutionary fervour, which entice unwary intellectuals into utopianism, leave weary old men disillusioned on the beach. This makes Catriona Kelly's new anthology of Russian modernist writings Utopias (Penguin, £9.99, 416pp) a deeply sad book. The period she covers embraces the radical expectations of 1905 and the bitter revelations of pre-war Stalinism. Hers is an inspired selection: an stimulating introduction for beginners and a rewarding retrospect for experts. There is not a line of fat in the book and pithy essays successfully sum up vast themes.

In a bleak and bloody sense, it was a utopian era, when artists and thinkers were writing and burning manifestoes and expediting or enduring crudely, cruelly re-carved societies. The best response was by Chekhov, who died on the threshold of the era, or Vladimir Mayakovsky or Daniil Kharms, who lived through some of the worst of it. They saw that reality is irredeemable and the best way to escape is to see its funny side - or die young.

The search for an ideal society - these collections seem to say - is like the pursuit of happiness. It is better to travel hopefully because arrival brings disillusionment. "Happiness," said Dr Johnson (whom John Carey recommends for unexcelled wisdom) "is never to be found, and each believes it possessed by others, to keep alive the hope of obtaining it for himself." Happiness is only ever a goal worth striving for; if we attained it, it would be instantly turned into bovine contentment. We should soon get bored with it and clamour to escape back into the thrill of an unsatisfied chase.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's most recent book is 'Truth: a history and a guide for the perplexed'

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