Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Feng Dong reviews Utopias of One

Joshua Kotin, Utopias of One. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2018. 205 pp.

Review by Feng Dong

3 July 2019

When will we be finally cured of the desire for Utopia, an afterimage of biblical Eden, when historical utopias have collapsed one by one, giving way to global capitalism? For radical thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, progress is only an illusion, and human perfectibility, an individual awakening, not an Enlightenment project—Zarathustra was jeered at in the marketplace. In the present time that treats utopianism more as science fiction than as historical necessity, how to talk about utopia without hearing laughter from both the Left and the Right truly tests one’s hermeneutic imagination. Joshua Kotin’s nonnational study, Utopias of One (2018), by implicating Henry David Thoreau, W. E. B. Du Bois, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and J. H. Prynne in their respective world-historicity, addresses our utopian needs for aesthetic, political, and intellectual independence without subjecting those impulses to the (often illusory) struggle for a “better” world or a “new” humanity. Out of certain “frustration with critics who read utopian literature exclusively as an instrument of social critique” (p. 13), Kotin sets to examine the paradoxical act of creating one’s own utopia as a logical response to a failed or failing utopian state. The eight authors Kotin studied in the book, plus Emily Dickinson, who appeared in the Conclusion as sending out invitations for uncertain “utopias of two,” are all engaged, albeit with disparate consequences, in the same impossible and even self-destructive writing projects which are also, as Kotin admits, “always morally ambiguous” (p. 137). 

Take Thoreau’s Walden as the starting point. Kotin’s question in the book is not how Thoreau critiques contemporary American life (for example, fashion, railroad) by problematically exemplifying his own self-reliance but how Thoreau creates a nontransparent “utopia of one” that constantly suppresses and filters external noises. To achieve sovereignty, Thoreau has to reverse the logic of political utopianism: rather than fight for the greater good, we should avoid the lesser evil. Thoreau’s “casual” account of his own act of civil disobedience epitomizes this strategy of playing down the political by highlighting the personal. In Kotin’s words, “Jail is a mere interruption, not an occasion for heroism or reform or didacticism or charisma. Indeed, the book’s [Walden’s] account elides the complex sociality of Thoreau’s arrest and its aftermath” (p. 25). Kotin avidly excavates what Thoreau has intentionally minimized or obscured in order to make Walden his Walden: government, society, family, friends (Ralph Waldo Emerson), interlocutors (Alex Therien, John Field, and William Ellery Channing), women, sex. Despite the fact that Thoreau’s utopia is a terribly purified one that we can neither share nor imitate (though Thoreau has many modern disciples), our hermit did set up a nonparadigmatic paradigm of devising one’s own utopia when political utopia has failed (slavery, imminent Mexican-American war, failure of Fruitlands and Brook Farm, and more). Kotin gives us a utopian Thoreau in a time of dystopia.  

As we read on in Kotin’s book, however, the protagonists get more and more entangled in their specific sociopolitical conditions, and their versions of utopia would become much riskier than Thoreau’s. The cases of Mandelstam and Akhmatova provide an intriguing “Soviet angle” in understanding the paradox of utopia. In the second part of his book, Kotin revisits Mandelstam’s famous “Stalin Epigram” (1933), also known as “The Kremlin Highlander,” that had eventually brought death upon the poet. Kotin does not simply treat the poem as a critique of Stalinism and Soviet utopianism and then claims its “liberal values” (p. 54); rather, the author examines how the martyr-poem in its original has exploited formalism and rhetorical efficacy just “as propaganda” (p. 65). Mandelstam’s determination to invite his own martyrdom, Kotin argues, marks the poem as morally ambiguous. It is purity that stains. Mandelstam’s later “Stalin Ode” (1937), formalism aside, bears the same indeterminacy: we cannot decide whether he is praising or caricaturing Stalin. Hence Mandelstam’s “utopia of one,” conceived as claiming sovereignty through an aesthetic that has replicated the same rhetoric and dichotomy of pure/impure of Soviet utopianism, appears all but precarious. It does not constitute an “outside” but only a crack, a hopeful crack perhaps, inside totality. In the following chapter “Anna Akhmatova’s Complicity,” Kotin further complicates Akhmatova, considered by many as an iconic and saintly figure, in the murky waters of Soviet politics and Cold War ideology. Controversially, Kotin argues that Akhmatova, unlike the Holy Mary of Russian poetry, has to resort to certain “subversion of her own authority” (p. 80) in order to maintain her integrity in the great drama of Soviet utopianism: the transition from Requiem (1935–40) to Poem without a Hero (1940–65) witnesses Akhmatova’s hard struggle to articulate the inhumanity she and many other Russian writers had suffered during the time. The important lesson, of course, is to speak to power “without attempting to seize that power” (p. 86).

The rest of the book is devoted to three Anglo-American poets’ (Stevens, Pound, Prynne) utopian efforts to create a singular value at the expense of any “common interest”: Stevens sacrificed community in his pursuit of meditative experiments to resolve his own metaphysical needs (p. 106); Pound and Prynne asked too much of their readers (like learning Chinese) in their eccentric, if not totally solipsistic, experiments with Chinese ideograms and Oriental poetic practice (pp. 109–29). All the earlier discussions on political and aesthetic autonomy from Thoreau to Stevens dissolve in front of a Chinese poem written from top to bottom by Prynne (p. 110). Published in a pamphlet series by Peter Riley in Cambridge, England, in 1992, Prynne’s “Jie ban mi Shi Hu” (“Together We Seek the Stone Lake”)—done in exquisite brushstrokes and stamped with the author’s magisterial Chinese signature—could well pass for a Tang or Song poem. To understand this extravagancy, Kotin suggests, “we could learn Chinese” (p. 111), but how this Oriental aesthetic dimension opened up by Chinese could form a continuity with Western liberal-communist debate still remains unclear. Prynne’s (and Pound’s) utopian effort, however, as Kotin elaborates in the last chapter, does interrupt the cultural apparatus of utility and motivation by showing English audience what remains perpetually possible outside their writing system, even if one has to confront the result as something monolithic and anachronistic. 

Truly global in perspective and local in detail, and harkening back to Hannah Arendt’s “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship” (1964) and Edward W. Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993), Kotin’s Utopias of One breaks a new path in conceiving a writer’s utopian position as a form of political resistance, although the concrete consequences of this individual choice may vary dramatically. The book has great appeal for readers and researchers of utopian literature, and it could also have far-reaching impact on empire studies; if we take USA and China as two cases of the “unfailing” utopia, this book then urges us to respond to its dubious efficacy in our own ways.