‘I think the problem with utopia was that it always posited a destination and always thought or assumed the present to be a transition on the way to that destination.’ Is paradise utopia? Does fighting for justice entail terror? As our faith in progress diminishes, what is the future of art? In this wide-ranging conversation from our archives, originally published in the January & February 2017 issue of ArtReview, Adam Thirlwell talks to Pankaj Mishra about the era of the novel, religious and revolutionary passions, and the problem with universalist visions.
Adam Thirlwell I thought we could start this discussion of utopia with the Enlightenment and the way you’ve been thinking about Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as opposing figures in a major argument. One of the things that interests me is that they’re not only philosophical figures, but they’re also both important in the history of the novel. In fact, Diderot is probably at his most interesting when he’s a novelist – in his novel Jacques le fataliste et son maître . Whereas with Rousseau it’s the opposite: his novels, so popular when they first came out, seem unbearably didactic and flat to me – but his philosophy is much more exciting. So, I wonder if we could begin by talking about where this secular utopian ideal comes from? Why did these Enlightenment figures get so interested in the idea? And why this instability between the novel and philosophy?
Pankaj Mishra The idea of the novel itself is one of describing individual moral adventure, the emancipation of the individual from all constraints – whether of religion, tradition or hierarchy – which in many ways is the utopian project as it was outlined philosophically during the late eighteenth century. And, of course, that took a political form in the French Revolution, and then in various other revolutions throughout the nineteenth century, finally arriving in large parts of Asia and Africa. The idea of putting the past behind you, of starting on a new adventure, thinking of yourself as an individual as opposed to being a member of a collectivity dependent on someone else, deferential to someone else, to some authority or other, is basically an idea that was outlined at the time: a liberation from all norms and boundaries. The novelist, as you point out, was there right at the beginning. But it’s not an accident that Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau were all novelists, and, in fact, that their most successful works were as novelists. They are, in the novels, charting the growth of the emancipation of the individual, and trying to imagine the forms of fulfilment available to this newly emancipated individual.
AT But do you think utopianism is intrinsically part of a revolutionary discourse? And is it always a secular utopia? A lot of your work recently has been on the self-styled Islamic State (IS), after all. What’s the relationship between a religious utopia and a nonreligious one? Is paradise utopia?
PM Well, it was certainly presented as a secular utopia right from the very beginning, because the thing to be liberated from was religion and religious authority: more precisely, the Catholic Church. So it was very much conceived as a secular utopia in which people would employ individual reason to figure out the challenges of life. It wouldn’t be the church telling them what to do, it wouldn’t be the church guarding their consciences or binding them with various prohibitions – and of course, all kinds of inhibitions, too. The idea was to get away from all that and have the power to employ your reason, to create a perfect society. In many ways, you could argue that this idea of utopia carried over religious elements: the idea of creating a perfect society, which so closely mimics the idea of the kingdom of God on Earth. Practically every concept that the Enlightenment thinkers – and, of course, then the French revolutionaries – put forward as part of their package deal for a new society was suffused with religious terminology. In fact, there’s a wonderful quote by Alexis de Tocqueville, in which he talks about that period leading up to the French Revolution. He says that the French Revolution basically announced a new religion, and ‘like Islam, [it] flooded the earth with its soldiers, apostles and martyrs’. So, the greatest secular event of all time, the event that inaugurates the modern world, is fuelled by a kind of religious passion. Religion, contrary to what we think, did not go away; it incarnated itself in various utopian schemes of social engineering. Essentially, remaking man and remaking society.
AT Does this mean that for you the idea of utopia is discredited? As if utopia is always an alibi for reaction? Can you imagine an innocent utopianism now?
PM Probably not. Maybe because we are living through the consequences of innocently conceiving utopia. In the eighteenth century, a network of intellectuals, mostly writers, were thinking up some interesting thoughts about what the next society should be: free of religion, free of monarchs, free of aristocratic and royal authority. Their heads were filled with these – essentially optimistic – notions about what individual human beings could do with reason alone. Of course, the natural sciences were also developing at that time, so there was also this idea that science combined with this individual deployment of reason was going to open up scope for what would be, essentially, a perfect society. They could not anticipate that these very innocent ideas – and all admirable ideas, even to this day – had contradictions built into them, all the way through. Those tensions would never be resolved.
That’s one reason why someone like Rousseau is still worth reading: the issues he dealt with are still alive. To give you just one example, you kill the king – you actually behead him – but the king denoted sovereign power, for centuries and centuries, in practically every society. What do you replace that with? You come up with the idea of the people; the people are going to be sovereign. But the people are many – the people are plural. So you are insisting on unity, indivisibility, and again these are theological ideas, you still have the idea of God working in your head, so you’re still thinking, conceiving of sovereignty as transcendental, as unified, as indivisible. So you say the people are going to be sovereign now. The problem is that the people are diverse, pluralistic by nature, so what do you do? You insist that they’re going to be one. Now, at the very basis of things like the recent burkini debate in France is this obsession that you’re still thinking of the people as one, that they cannot be seen as plural. You’re still thinking of the people as sovereign. These contradictions are still with us.
AT Another way of putting this is that the French Revolution is both the ur-utopian moment, and the ur-terroristic moment. And yet its theorists try to separate the two, and say that the terror was unnecessary, while revolution is still morally pure. You see the same debate again in later theories of Marxist history. But do you think there’s really a way of separating utopia from terror?
PM Not in this model form, probably. Think of someone like Leo Tolstoy who conceives of a different kind of utopia – a small-scale vision of a society of self-sufficient farmers. I don’t think he was thinking that could be generalised across the world. The larger vision of utopia is universalist, and that’s where the problem is: in the notion that everyone can be the same or everyone can be a certain way. That particular obsession you see incarnate all the way through both communism and Nazism. Today, too, new liberal globalisation projects say that everyone has to consume the same things, everyone has to subscribe to a certain way of consuming, or to having a particular kind of economy. That is essentially a utopian vision, and it cannot but be accompanied by violence: violence of a very overt, brutal kind, but also structural violence that we don’t see, except in reports of famines, earthquakes and now, increasingly, the forms of devastation brought by climate change. So, in a way, it’s not surprising that the last 200 years have been some of the most violent in human history, because of these various projects of utopia, which have involved a great deal of social and physical reengineering.
AT Talking of which, an epigraph I considered but abandoned for my first novel, Politics , which was a minifarce of utopian thinking, was something Tom Stoppard has Alexander Herzen say in his trilogy of plays The Coast of Utopia : ‘What is the largest number of individuals who can pull this trick off? I would say it’s smaller than a nation, smaller than the ideal communities of Cabet or Fourier. I would say the larger number is smaller than three. Two is possible, if there is love, but two is not a guarantee.’ The ironic theory is that utopia can, at best, only happen in private. Once you have three people, the smallest society possible, there will be inequality. And of course, what’s jealousy and humiliation on the bedroom scale, becomes what Nietzsche called ressentiment when this utopia goes global. You explore this sense of ressentiment in your new work, and I wondered if you could explain this a little more.
PM I think the notion of the individual set free, without any clear limits – apart from those imposed by the state or rule of law – and free to do in private whatever they wish, is something you see, very early on, in the Marquis de Sade’s experiments with sexual transgression. He’s trying to work out this idea of individual freedom and he ends up with some of the most absurd experiments in exploring the boundaries of sexuality. Ultimately, he begins to identify transgression with freedom. In many ways, what these IS boys – these adolescents who go out there, raping, killing and enslaving young women – are doing is also testing those boundaries. This notion of individual freedom, individual autonomy, which is supposed to be an ultimate good, is an idea that can be taken in very many different directions. This is why I keep insisting on the fact that this was a type of utopian project, one that brought with it all the burdens that individuals, traditionally, had coped with through various institutions: the family, the community, as well as various other intermediate institutions between you and the world at large. So all the feelings of envy, hurt, ressentiment, were diffused and their effects were cushioned.
I’m making a huge jump here, but now people are exposed to these things, exposed to these free-floating emotions, without too many cushions. In fact, there’s so much in the culture that’s actually aggravating those emotions, those ideas, that the idea of individual freedom has come to take a different complexion altogether: it can be achieved. Or, at least, it seems like it can be achieved, in a variety of ways. One of the ways, it turns out, is that somebody tells you on the Internet to go out to Syria and Iraq, and behead people on television or enslave an eleven-year-old girl. That is, in many ways, a consequence of utopian thinking, and I think we made a huge mistake in thinking of this as something originating from some thirteenth-century hadiths and some theology that some obscure guy in Mesopotamia wrote a long time ago. This has to be seen as a modern phenomenon, a modern experimentation.
AT And yet, I still want to recuperate the Enlightenment a little – my beloved eighteenth century! I guess I mean: can you imagine a desire for justice that was not utopian, if that makes any sense? There were obviously ways in which killing the king, or at least dismantling the structures of the ancien régime, were not without moral reason. And there were ways in which the structures you’re talking about, the family or religion, were at that time, as they still can be, forms of imprisonment. Sure, one can condemn someone like Diderot or Voltaire for not understanding the implications of their ideas, but their desire for justice, however socially restricted, their idea that people should not be enslaved, had a noble aspect to it. Do you think that there are ways in which one might fight for a form of justice that don’t entail terror?
PM Yes, absolutely. But I think that justice has to be defined in a particular context. There are forms of justice that have to do with equality, there are forms of justice that have to do with the redressal of historical injuries. So, one cannot generalise and say that justice invariably requires extreme violence of that kind. I think the reason the ideas of the Enlightenment are still with us is because they carry a lot of charge, they carry a lot of potency, and there are some things we have to uphold. But, at the same time, we have to acknowledge the other side of them, and I think this is what we have consistently failed to do, especially during the last 50, 60 years. The idea of justice is a very troubled, very fraught notion: that which is justice for you can be a deep injustice for someone else.
AT I wonder if this is also a problem of maps. There’s a way in which, geopolitically, utopianism will be read as terror: it all depends on your perspective. The same idea in a different place has a completely different valency. The ideals of the French Revolution, when appropriated by José Martí in Latin America, say, don’t create terror. They lead to liberation.
PM It’s summed up in the commonplace saying: my terrorist is your freedom fighter. Again, in the geopolitical context, where there are multiple, multiple contexts, that notion of justice becomes much more complicated. The other thing is that when they were devising these notions during the eighteenth century, people were thinking of a society to replace the one that was passing, the society ruled by kings, a society ruled by popes or their various representatives. And when they were thinking of a new social contract, they didn’t really give much thought as to how that society was going to be regulated. We are still, in many ways, grappling with that particular problem. The notion of justice was very powerful, it was powerful all through the revolution and afterwards. It manifested itself in demands for equality, demands for revolution, demands for a new order, but I think this particular question – how do we regulate ourselves in a given society? – had many answers: you come together, you make the people the sovereign, you create a nation and you’re all citizens of that. Alternatively, there was the idea of the market society, where we’re all self-interested individuals, and somehow our interests will be naturally harmonised.
These particular notions are what we are still dealing with, and we now know that they are actually in deep tension with each other: whether it’s Brexit, or Trump or the idea of creating a society, creating its institutions, this is a never-ending circle. One way to think about this is, essentially, as a problematic. Something with which we have constantly to struggle. There is no destination. I think the problem with utopia was that it always posited a destination and always thought or assumed the present to be a transition on the way to that destination. So many of our assumptions are based on the broad idea that we are in a transition to something else.
AT I remember speaking at a conference at the Stedelijk Museum in 2014 with Francis Fukuyama, and it was fascinating to watch him having to recuperate his mistake, his obsession with the end of history. I realised that the Hegelian dialectic, this vision of some point towards which history is moving, is a very easy game to play – because you can always claim that your prediction was simply premature. I felt then that to believe in some mystical conclusion – whether Marxist or liberal-democratic – was hopelessly naive and parochial, in a way. I mean parochial on a temporal scale – as if human history were being assumed to be much grander than it really is, by these future-oriented thinkers, in a planetary or cosmic perspective.
PM Fukuyama had many critics when he made that prediction, but some of the people who backed him, surprisingly, were from the left. People who were so wedded to this notion of a history that is constantly moving forward like a straight arrow had very little trouble, essentially, with thinking of liberal capitalism as a final destination instead of communism. To give you an example, probably the most prominent and intelligent Marxist thinker in the world today, Perry Anderson, wrote a glowing review of Fukuyama’s book, which just shows you how much these projects that we, quite complacently, categorise as ‘left’ and ‘right’ actually coincide in their vision of time, in the vision of the present as a stage for something bigger, something better. I think it’s very difficult to have or to summon up that kind of faith anymore. The person who was very critical – although he didn’t take on Fukuyama directly – of the notion that the West was now going to see a utopia of liberal capitalism was the Czech writer and politician Václav Havel. He confessed that he was ‘taken aback by the extent to which so many Westerners are addicted to ideology, much more than we who live in a system which is ideological through and through’. It was a failure to recognise, he said, that ‘the era of arrogant, absolutist reason is drawing to a close’. The collapse of communism was one sign of that, and since then we’ve seen many more such signs.
AT I love Havel’s essays. I often wonder if the great moment of European literature in the twentieth century will be seen as that group of writers and philosophers caught in the Soviet imperialist mincer: Havel, but also novelists like Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš, along with Jan Patočka and Leszek Kołakowski. They have their differences, both political and aesthetic, but they’re linked by an absolute pessimism in relation to any theory of utopian history, of individual reason. Kołakowski, after all, was a great historian of Marxist theory who also wrote brilliantly on the necessity of the idea of the devil, of evil. The devil was a more convincing theory of history, to him, than the Hegelian dialectic. Behind this utopian discourse there’s a deeper opposition, perhaps, between optimistic and pessimistic theories of human nature – which very easily slide into theologies. As if you have to decide how far you believe in the idea of a Fall.
PM Well, I suppose that goes to show that we are, essentially, religious beings, however hard we might deny that fact: that fundamentally, the need to believe, the need to make sense of the world through transcendental concepts is never going to be diminished, it’s always going to be with us. I think we fool ourselves thinking that we’ve liberated ourselves from these old superstitions: that we don’t really need any transcendental explanation, that we can rely upon individual reason alone to figure out our past, our present and our future, and our own place in the world. Essentially, all our secular notions are theological concepts in disguise. Kołakowski is a fascinating example, and so is Czesław Miłosz, who was also a proper believing communist but then embraced (although I suppose he never really abandoned it) Catholicism more fervently after his experience with the Polish government. I think his greatest poetry comes out of that particular vision, which also reminds you – although I’m not making a pitch for religion – that so much art has been driven by an essentially or explicitly religious vision. I think that’s one reason why it’s very difficult to imagine vital art in the future: because those energies – that drove the tensions and the contradictions – have faded. Especially with our faith in progress now diminishing, it’s really interesting to imagine what kind of art there will be. There will be mostly entertainment, I suspect, of which you could argue there’s a lot already.
AT I’m not so sure. I mean: what’s the right form of language to discuss this demented world? We’re in the age of journalism: of the report, and the opinion piece. But those forms are inherently monologic. Someone like Diderot fascinates me because he’s able on the one hand to edit the Encyclopaedia – a monument to absolute rationality – but also write a zany, upside-down novel like Jacques le fataliste (indebted to Laurence Sterne’s even more zigzagging novel, Tristram Shandy ), in which the catchphrase of one of the characters is that everything happens because it is ordained on high, while the novel itself relentlessly and comically demonstrates in its incoherent plotting that absolutely nothing is ordained on high, that there is no presiding spirit governing the logic of events. That kind of ironic hectic playfulness makes me wonder if perhaps this is the perfect era for the novel, or a certain kind of novel. The utopian ideal is everywhere – which means dark irony has infinite content to enjoy.
PM I think the scene has shifted from Europe to parts of the world that are now undergoing the kind of tumult that produced the greatest art of the nineteenth century. So it would be interesting to see what comes out of those parts of the world, which are also those in which the majority of the world’s population, today, lives. I think at the same time, one has to remember that even those places have been disenchanted, in the Max Weber sense of the word. The notion that was important to Diderot was that if you have states where the rule of law is very fragile, where religious authority is diminished, then you have spaces that are not clearly bounded. Individuals find themselves in a situation in which there’s nothing to push against; there’s only your will and the temptation to exercise it in some way or other. Either through checking your email or sending out a tweet or, to go to one extreme, to become a troll or an extremist: those kinds of temptations are various and multiplying all the time.
So this notion of art that we’ve all grown up with, that emerges out of a certain friction, emerges out of a certain tension with your condition, with your circumstances, is missing in many places, even in places that are currently experiencing some of the convulsions and trauma of the nineteenth century. I shouldn’t generalise too much because critics are always made to look foolish by new works of art that come out of nowhere and dazzle you, but I think the historical conditions that facilitated so much of modern art have changed to the point where you have to wonder what new set of circumstances will produce the art of the future.
AT What’s also interesting is how a form migrates. Reused on another continent, it might acquire a new and richer meaning. There’s someone like Machado de Assis, this brilliant Brazilian nineteenth-century novelist. For the first half of his career, he wrote three or four very ordinary novels in a conventional realist mode, but then he suddenly switched and wrote The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas  – a novel that borrowed the antic form of Tristram Shandy (I seem obsessed by displaced versions of this novel!), but in that borrowing transformed it. The great Brazilian Marxist critic Roberto Schwarz wrote a book on de Assis, arguing that his genius was to see that the voice of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, this narrator who wilfully toys with the unequal relationship between a narrator and a reader, this monster of caprice, was the perfect expression of a ruthless, rapacious bourgeoisie. It maintains that its power is only whimsy, is only cute – whereas in fact that cuteness is the demonstration of its absolute terror.
PM That’s a very astute point, because you see that in large parts of the world today where artforms that originated in particular circumstances in Europe have travelled. Those artforms emerged out of a certain kind of struggle, whether against religious authority, against the bourgeois in many cases, but in other contexts they are adopted by the bourgeoisie themselves. So they become a kind of plaything in their hands. What we see now is the upper middle classes of many, still very poor countries adopting Western artforms out of a sense of entitlement, wearing them as a badge of fashion.
So, in many cases, that particular transfer hasn’t worked out well. All it has done is introduce artistic fashions and literary fashions into a culture. It’s not particularly creative; it’s mostly sterile, because the conditions are missing. Going back to the previous point, if it is in conditions of actual struggle that you find a voice for yourself, and for likeminded people, and then you incarnate that voice in your work of art, then imitating it from the outside, 10,000 miles away, two centuries later, you’re going to be filling it up with completely incongruous elements. And those works are going to be, in the end, essentially imitative. Occasionally you’ll have a once-in-a-century figure like Gabriel García Márquez who comes in and redefines the model, at least for two or three generations. Or you have the Japanese, who bring to it a very different sensibility altogether, breaking with the nineteenth-century novel in significant ways – I’m thinking of Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanazaki – but those experiments have turned out to be few.
AT Do you think there’s a difference between an artistic form and a political idea? Do you think the one is more portable than the other?
PM Political ideas can be catastrophic when they are imported without paying heavy customs duty. I think of the idea of the nation state, for instance, which has proved to be utterly disastrous for large parts of the Middle East. The idea of the people who are one and indivisible. So much energy, so much investment in ideologies – whether it’s Islamism, or Hindu Nationalism, or indeed Secular Nationalism – has gone into places like India and Pakistan, and into this fantasy of ‘the people’. As it turns out in the end, what this means is that the only way you can define a people is by defining the other who are not the people, who should be ostracised and, in some cases, killed. That’s how you define yourself and your community, so political ideals have actually proved to be calamitous in that sense.
This conversation is an edited version of a discussion between Thirlwell and Mishra that originally took place on 20 September 2016, as part of a series of think tanks onboard Fluxland, a moving sculpture and interactive sound-piece floating on the River Thames, created by artist Cyril de Commarque.