The Week on Radio: Dark visions of Utopia

Robert Hanks
Saturday 22 March 1997 01:02

Considering that it's meant to be an ideal state, Utopia has a terrible image. When you label something or somebody Utopian, you don't usually mean it as a compliment - as a rule, what you're getting at is that it's either hopelessly optimistic or unavoidably authoritarian. So the challenge Michael O'Donnell sets his guests on Utopia and Other Destinations (Radio 4, Saturday), in which they are asked to expound their personal vision of the ideal state, is to find a place that sits somewhere between those two poles - to design a version of Nowhere that might be Somewhere we would want to live.

Whether a Utopia designed by Ian McEwan, this week's guest, could be such a place seems doubtful, and the doubts weren't quelled by his declaration that in this particular brave new world, "I hope to carry on being a novelist, and I'd like people to be as darkly interesting as they are." A brief glance at pretty well any of McEwan's novels will tell you that the sort of society that could provide fuel for his imagination would probably not be a pretty one (do you know what the black dogs in Black Dogs actually get up to?).

As the interview progressed, though, it became clear that McEwan's vision was, even by Utopian standards, a particularly optimistic one; because his ideal world, one where people would have all the conflicts and the suffering they have now, bore a striking resemblance to the one we already inhabit. True, he did suggest some improvements - in his version, people would live in cities surrounded by farmland and wilderness, with no room for suburban sprawl; recorded music would be replaced by live concerts, stuff like that. Like most Utopias, too, it would be physically isolated from the rest of the world (McEwan's laager, so to speak) - though when asked who would be excluded, he didn't have any suggestions: "If you leave anyone out, you never know, you might need them for a book."

So his ideal world was in essence the here and now. This may seem strange, and not merely because it comes from somebody you wouldn't normally mistake for Dr Pangloss. But as McEwan said, "The best Utopias are rooted in the feasible". In the end, Nowhere isn't where we want to go; it makes more sense if our ideal world is Somewhere we might actually get to.

We don't always expect to get there in this life, though. This is one of the differences between Paradise and Utopia. The other important one is that Utopia is somewhere you can take your friends, while getting to Paradise is a matter of individual effort. The comparative selfishness is reflected in the etymology: "paradise" derives from a Persian word meaning an "enclosed garden". The Islamic ideal of the walled garden was explored in the first part of In Paradise (Radio 4, Thursday), in which Noah Richler sets out to test the premise that, in any given culture, visions of paradise and visions of gardens are more or less the same.

This seems an unlikely subject for a four-part series, but the first programme exploited the improbability nicely: in Tehran to see some Persian enclosed gardens, Richler was forced to attend a presidential press conference as the only available BBC man, so he took the opportunity to interrogate President Rafsanjani about his personal vision of Paradise. To be honest, he didn't get much of an answer, but it was worth asking the question. More impressive was the way Richler leapt from the Koranic ideal of Paradise, with its emphasis on running water and the availability of bashful dark- eyed virgins (as chaste, apparently, as the sheltered eggs of ostriches), to some wider conclusions about sexual politics and the importance of irrigation in Iran. All in all, a seductive series. Not Heaven, perhaps, but a big advance on purgatory.

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