Two Utopias
Wed, 4 Sep 1996 14:57:48 -0400

I just returned from a vacation of several weeks during which I read Paul
Berman's book A Tale of Two Utopias. I logged back on, checking the archives,
and noted that there seems to have been no substantive discussion here yet of
the book. Since the work seems to be this season's most-discussed contribution
to sixties' analysis, I wonder what people here make of it.

I found much to admire in it, starting with the brief introductory chapter which
brought back some of the feelings, emotions and ideas of the era in a very
concrete and compelling way. Additionally, it possessed what I consider to be
an appropriate ambivalence about the plusses and minuses of the period, neither
bashing nor glorifying in blunderbuss fashion. I also felt Berman was
fairminded about how his (or any) attempt at "the whole story" is tempered by
one's own limitiations and biases, both during the period analyzed and in the
current day--a point which has been discussed in this group before.

But these strengths seemed to me (unfortunately and perhaps inevitably) also
weaknesses. I kind of felt, after that wonderful introductory chapter which
invoked pieces of the era so well, that the balance of the pieces never quite
fit together to form a coherent whole. The clearest example of this is in the
final chapter in which Berman compares the opposing and seemingly irreconcilable
gestalts of Fukayama and Glucksmann, concluding that he cannot really judge
which might be more accurate since, after all, he is a critic and not a

I admire his modesty here, and I would guess that Berman's show of restraint is
very much in keeping with one of the lessons some have taken from the sixties:
don't be so quick to agree with totalizing solutions. To paraphrase Will
Rogers, the sixties never met a totalizing idea it didn't like, from politics to
sex to drugs, so perhaps not taking sides on such important questions is the
beginning of wisdom. On the other hand, it feels a little like a cop-out. But
that could just be the disappointed utopian in me speaking, always on the
lookout for the next big answer, yet always suspicious about getting fooled

Jeff Apfel