Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment

March 2015

"An exciting, provocative, truly exuberant work of literary philosophy."

- Maureen McLane, New York University

"Lively, learned, and subtle, Utopia, Limited may well help initiate a resurgence in the teaching and study of Romanticism."

Mark Edmundson, University of Virginia

What is utopia if not a perfect world, impossible to achieve? Anahid Nersessian reveals a basic misunderstanding lurking behind that ideal. In Utopia, Limited she enlists William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and others to redefine utopianism as a positive investment in limitations. Linking the ecological imperative to live within our means to the aesthetic philosophy of the Romantic period, Nersessian’s theory of utopia promises not an unconditionally perfect world but a better world where we get less than we hoped, but more than we had.

For the Romantic writers, the project of utopia and the project of art were identical. Blake believed that without limits, a work of art would be no more than a set of squiggles on a page, or a string of nonsensical letters and sounds. And without boundaries, utopia is merely an extension of the world as we know it, but blighted by a hunger for having it all. Nersessian proposes that we think about utopia as the Romantics thought about aesthetics—as a way to bind and thereby emancipate human political potential within a finite space.

Grounded in an intellectual tradition that begins with Immanuel Kant and includes Theodor Adorno and Northrop Frye, Utopia, Limited lays out a program of “adjustment” that applies the lessons of art to the rigors of life on an imperiled planet. It is a sincere response to environmental devastation, offering us a road map through a restricted future.

Available at Harvard University Press 

More reviews:

This is a book that manages to be moral, informative and entertaining all at once… Against an enduring ideological critique, of which Romanticism has been the particular target, Nersessian’s view of a humane and socially engaged body of literature works as a powerful corrective.

- Uttara Natarajan, Times Higher Education

A remarkable book with few obvious precedents. It renders the service—or perhaps throws down the gauntlet—of prompting, with incisive new theoretical equipment, a reexamination of received ideas about “utopia” and “Romanticism".

- Tristram Wolff, Modern Philology

The book is a defense of restraint of all kinds: poetic form, by which Nersessian means things like rhyme and meter; natural conservation; renunciation; self-discipline. Nersessian argues that, when viewed from a certain angle, Romanticism dramatizes the ‘desirability of constraint.’ Her book powerfully does the same… An impressive and ambitious work.

- Anthony Domestico, Commonweal

Nersessian has a talent for the well-turned phrase, and the legs upon which [her] arguments stand are smoothly elegant and often quite memorably adorned. The book is a joy to read.

- Carmen Faye Mathes, Romantic Circles

A broadly and deeply reasoned argument about the roots of our ideas of utopia and the need for a revision of our expectations, both real and imagined....In the works of William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats and other early nineteenth-century Romantic thinkers and writers [Nersessian] finds the origins of a set of ideas, and an aesthetic theory behind those ideas, that can serve our current moment in important, and not only poetic, ways.

- Ashton Nichols, European Romantic Review

This is perhaps Romanticism’s cutting or bleeding edge.

- Andrew Warren, Studies in Romanticism