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.

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