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Rafael Larraneta. Lecciones para la clase de Utopia.

Salamanca: San Esteban, 2000.

WHETHER FICTIONAL OR DISCURSIVE, some utopian writing foregrounds the destination and some the means of getting there. Rafael Larraneta's Lecciones para la clase de Utopia belongs to the latter category. His guiding metaphors are landscapes: hills to be climbed, valleys explored, mists evaporating in the morning sun. Like Ernst Bloch, he cherishes hope, and his book's final phrase is 'La Gran Esperanza.'

Larraneta, Professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, and a noted student and translator of Kierkegaard, does not write here in academic mode. Rather, he presents his ideas as a series of 'lessons' for a 'class' of young people, especially those already engaged in debates about the value of utopian thought and action and at least glancingly familiar with a whole array of activists, theologians, and philosophers. In the spirit of his own utopian thinking (though not, of course, of all utopian thought), he suggests rather than prescribes, shows rather than dictates, hypothesizes rather than insists. He offers not so much a systematic argument, or a carefully-surveyed prospect, or a copious inventory of imperatives, as a series of meditations in the tradition (but not of course the tasking and exhaustive manner) of Saint Ignatius Loyola. The first section, 'Utopias de naturaleza,' concentrates on human, rather than metaphysical qualities which, when decently and lovingly nurtured, affirm the utopian spirit; among his topics are simplicity, friendship, and the ability to be surprised. Section Two, 'Utopias contra lo inhumano,' dwells on utopian responses to such human sufferings and deformations as grief, prostitution (in spirit rather more than in the flesh), pessimism, social oppression, lack of fellow-feeling. The third section, 'Utopias hacia lo divino,' turns to the psychological and spiritual processes of religion, formal and informal, orthodox, heterodox, and non-aligned. Here he treats of grace, transformation, mystical vision, and the possibility of resurrection. The 'Great Hope' of his final words is both secular and sacred.

Although openly Christian, Larraneta argues that he speaks the language of faith not as an exclusionary move but as a consequence of his own formation (10). He is certainly not driven by the spirits of dogmatic insistence and millenarian fervor. On the contrary, he implicitly rejects the idea of a community shaped by doctrinal correctness or the expectation of imminent apocalypse. His vision is not so much of a City of God as of 'una ciudad mas humana' (81): a city that is more human (also more humane) than anywhere we have ever known. While frugal with his historical references, Larraneta writes as if well aware of communities fenced in by dogma, bloody chiliastic movements, and brutal cities of God on Earth, all hideous blemishes on the face of religious good intentions. To use American examples, for every amiable and creative group of Shakers, there is a futile and deluded crowd of Millerites, or a heavily-armed cluster of their doctrinal heirs, the Branch Davidians. Looking more widely, we might offset the Hutterites with the Munster Anabaptists, the Quakers with Canudos or The Lord's Resistance Army. It is no coincidence that Dostoevsky's parable of the Grand Inquisitor is the ancestral text of most dystopian fiction. The histories of religious utopianism, religious authoritarianism, and messianism teem with examples of oppression and inhumanity--what Larraneta calls 'lo inhumano.' Yet, in his second section, he also counsels his 'class' against pessimism, or the habit of taking the worst for the typical, which he associates with both the overvaluing of times gone by traditionalists and the undervaluing of times to come by those whose fatalism leads them to deny human autonomy and capability (81).

Among the other enemies of hope, he sees 'la amargura, el resentimiento y el rencor' (108): bitterness, rancor, and resentment. In Larraneta's denunciation of ressentiment, as in his later encomium of joy (107), the Nietzschean echoes are loud and conscious. He looks for signs of promise wherever he goes, and gladly sees redeeming possibilities in an anti-Christian diatribe. What, he all but asks, is ideological exclusion but yet another form of enslavement?

While Larraneta counsels hope, he also acknowledges discouragement, imperfection, misdirection. Among the authors he most often mentions are Kierkegaard and Unamuno. In the context of utopias, these are unexpected names, but Unamuno's sense of life as tragedy and Kierkegaard's awareness of the gulfs of time and space that separate the human and divine chime with Larraneta's stoical advocacy of hope, patiently maintained in the face of disappointment, deferred but not abandoned. Unamuno's praise of solitary thought as a source of strength and understanding attracts him too. In a section on 'Quietness' ('Quietud'), Larraneta quotes Unamuno's essay on Solitude (Soledad) to argue that in the quietness of voluntary isolation, we learn to know ourselves and know each other (35-6). Earlier, the author cites Unamuno along with Kierkegaard on the need to shape human communities in a spirit of respect for every person's uniqueness. Individuality (but not individualism), inner quietness, solitude: again, these are surprising presences in a discourse on utopias. One might, of course, encounter the latter virtues in a study of monasticism, but Larraneta does not advocate the utopianism of the cloister. In a formulation clearly influenced by Briber, he concludes that 'Ser bueno se traduce por apertura al otro' (101): 'To be good means opening to the other.'

If Larraneta's vision of a route toward utopia is religious, its ecumenical tolerance runs well beyond the bounds of faith. In his community, not so much intentional as adumbrated, the atheist or the pagan may lie down with the Christian, the doctrinaire lion with the perplexed lamb. Thus his work has plenty to offer the skeptic as well as the believer; indeed dogmatic believers must rank among the most resisting of its readers. In little more than a hundred generously-spaced pages, Larraneta ranges widely across utopian terrain, lingering over questions of ethics, spirituality, and psychology. His book retains the sound of a voice speaking, and what he has to say about the utopian impulses and counter-utopian reflexes of the human psyche is particularly resonant. Any class in utopias would be fortunate to have so humane and so open-minded a teacher.

Laurence Davies

Dartmouth College
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Author:Davies, Laurence
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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