Tim Keller is right about the biblical account of the human story: it begins in a Garden and ends in a City. The New Jerusalem envisioned in the latter chapters of the Revelation to John comes down from Heaven, like an emanation from the mind of God, made of pure gold and surround by a great twelve-gated wall comprised of jasper and emerald and amethyst and carnelian and all other precious gems. But it has has grown up around that ancient Garden: the Tree of Life stands in the midst of the City, with twelve kinds of fruit; “and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
W. H. Auden believed that we are all, temperamentally, either Arcadians or Utopians. Which means that “Our dream pictures of the Happy Place where suffering and evil are unknown are of two kinds, the Edens and the new Jerusalems. In this scheme, “Eden is a place where its inhabitants may do whatever they like to do; the motto over its gate is, ‘Do what thou wilt is here the Law.’ New Jerusalem is a place where its inhabitants like to do whatever they ought to do, and its motto is, ‘In His will is our peace.’”
Auden confessed that his own personality was intensely Arcadian, but here he gives the Utopians a more orthodox motto: “Do what thou wilt is here the law” derives from the Abbey of Thélème, an idealized and utterly luxurious monastery in Rabelais’s satirical Gargantua and Pantagruel; “In His will is our peace,” by contrast, is uttered by one of the blessed in Dante’s Paradiso. Those who look longingly back towards Eden are fundamentally out of step with the biblical story: the Utopians who look always forward towards a perfected City have, essentially, got it right.
That said, Utopians are more dangerous than Arcadians, because they tend to have difficulty distinguishing between the City that will at the end of history fall from the mind of God and their own political preferences. As Auden writes in a prose-poem describing a “twilight meeting” between an Arcadian and his Utopian “anti-type,”
When he closes his eyes, he arrives, not in New Jerusalem, but on some august day of outrage when hellikins cavort through ruined drawing-rooms and fish-wives intervene in the Chamber or some autumn night of deletions and noyades when the unrepentant thieves (including me) are sequestered and those he hates shall hate themselves instead.
Those who suspect that the most morally earnest Utopian can fall victim to these confusions also suspect endeavors like the Giuliani-led renewal of Times Square. Yes, we prefer safety to crime, and renovated buildings to crumbling ones; but order invariably comes at some cost to human freedom, and the power to bring about such order addicts its user. The Utopians cleaned up Times Square yesterday, and they regulate soda sales today, and who knows what they’ll do tomorrow? No wonder Transmetropolitan and Top Ten appeared just as the clean-up of New York got seriously under way: it was a case of pre-emptive nostalgia. But nostalgia for a given place and time becomes easier when you’re delivered from its pains and dangers.
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