In Search of the Postmodern Utopia: Ben Okri’s In Arcadia

Alistair Graeme Fox


This essay explores how Ben Okri’s most recent novel, In Arcadia(2002), attempts to reconstruct the possibility of utopia in the face of a fragmentation of identity and destruction of determinate certainties affecting contemporary society in the aftermath of postmodernism. By tracing the intertextual relations existing between this work and earlier works in an intellectual/literary tradition that extends from Theocritus and Virgil through Dante, More, Milton, Sannazzaro, Sidney and others, Fox shows how Okri develops the proposition that men and women confronting an ‘empty universe where the mind spins in uncertainty and repressed terror’ can recover sanity through art. Even though, in Okri’s vision, the world may be ‘a labyrinth without an exit’, presided over by Death without any hint of transcendence, men and women, he concludes, can recover paradise through the ‘painting of the mind’ which can creative complete forms that can be fed into ‘spirit’s factory for the production of reality’. This generative activity, which is at the heart of the Arcadian vision, in Okri’s view, has the power to make life a place of ‘secular miracles’, despite the limitations imposed upon it by the realities of finitude and death. The essay concludes by suggesting that Okri’s concept of utopia is very close to Kant’s idea of Aufklärung as expounded by Michel Foucault –– that is, neither a world era, nor an event whose signs are perceived, nor the dawning of an accomplishment, but rather a process of which men and women are at once elements and agents, and which occurs to the extent that they decide to be its voluntary actors. While in some respects Okri’s vision is strikingly similar to certain of its antecedents, it is thus nevertheless distinctively postmodern in the ways in which it is inflected.

Full Text



Adams, T. 2002, 'Grope Springs Eternal, ' The Observer [Online]. Available:, , 796400.00.html [Accessed 29 Oct. 2004].

Bacon, F. 190914 (1526), The New Atlantis. Vol. III, Part 2. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son.

Ball, M. 2002, 'A Review of In Arcadia by Ben Okri, ' The Compulsive Reader [Online]. Available & name=News & file=article & sid=367 & mode=thread & order=0 & thold=0 [Accessed 26 Oct. 2004].

Berman, M. 1983, All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Verso, London.

Brown, H. 2002, Review of In Arcadia, The Independent, cited in 'Ben Okri (1959), ' Books and Writers [Online]. Available: [Accessed 20 Nov. 2003].

Collins, J. 1989, Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Post-Modernism, Routledge, New York and London.

Eagleton, T. 1986, 'Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism, ' in Against the Grain: Essays 1975-1985, Verso, London.

Foucault, M. 1984, 'What is Enlightenment, ' in The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984, ed. P. Rabinow; Vol. 1: Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. P. Rabinow, trans. R. Hurley and others, The New Press, New York.

Hickling, A. 2002, 'Tunnel Vision, ' The Guardian [Online]. Available:, 3858, 4521773-110738, 00.html [Accessed : 20 Nov. 2003.

'In Arcadia by Ben Okri, ' [Online], n.d. Available: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2004].

Hutcheon, L. 1989, The Politics of Postmodernism, Routledge, London.

Jameson, F. 1991, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Verso, London and New York.

Milton, J. 1957 (1667), 'Paradise Lost', in Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. M. Y. Hughes, The Odyssey Press, Indianapolis, New York.

More, T. 1989 (1516), Utopia, eds George M. Logan & Robert M. Adams, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.

Okri, B. 1992, The Famished Road, Anchor, 1993.

Okri, B. 2002, In Arcadia, Phoenix, London.

Palmer, J. 2002, 'Ben Okri: Great Art Tries to Get Us to the Place of True Enchantment", ' The Independent [Online]. Available: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2004]."

Treglown, J. 2002, 'Past Glories Prove Elusive, ' The Spectator [Online]. Available: & dyn=4!xrn_5_0_A92806302?sw_aep=otago [Accessed 26 Oct. 2004].

Sannazzaro, J. 1952 (1504), 'Arcadia', in Opere de Iacopo Sannazzaro, ed. E. Carrara, Turin.

Smith, P. n.d., 'Et in Arcadia Ego' [Online]. Available: [Accessed 7 Nov. 2004].

iek, S. 2001, 'Why Does a Letter Always Arrive at its Destination?', in Enjoy Your Symptom! Routledge, New York and London.