Blaim, Artur. Gazing in Useless Wonder: English Utopian Fictions, 1516-1800. Oxford / Bern / Berlin / Bruxelles / Frankfurt am Main / New York / Wien: Peter Lang, 2013. ix + 356 pp. ISBN: 978-3034308991. $50.00 paper.
Gazing in Useless Wonder offers a detailed study of narrative utopian fiction in England from the publication of Thomas More’s De optimo reipublicae statu deque noua insula Vtopia in 1516 to the end of the eighteenth century, the moment “when utopias began to function directly as models of intentional communities in different parts of the world, whilst, concurrently, utopian motifs were being incorporated in the by then well-established genre of the novel” (4). Artur Blaim’s book thus entails an argument which both focuses on the problematics of genre and suggests ways in which the province of the utopian came to transcend the formal limits of the narrative utopia. Additionally, as a valuable work of literary history, it provides evidence for the contention that the entire period which it covers “can usefully be analyzed as forming a single more or less stable synchrony in the history of utopian fiction-making, especially as there was no major change in the pattern that defined the poetics of utopian fictions” (4), by carefully mapping the landscape of the genre in terms of its defining textual components.
Over the past quarter century, the field of Utopian Studies has been gradually but steadily emerging as an important point of convergence of a number of disciplines, methodologies and conceptual frameworks. Amidst the wealth of perspectives which constitute the field, and which are evident in publications in English and other languages, as well as in the annual meetings of international academic societies both in Europe and North America, it is possible to distinguish the theoretical or speculative approach (Ernst Bloch, Paul Ricoeur, Ruth Levitas), the political-sociological approach (Vincent Geoghegan, Timothy Miller), the literary approach (Raymond Trousson, J. C. Davis, Vita Fortunati), and eclectic combinations of the above, which in several different ways balance historical and political inquiries with hermeneutic concerns (Lyman Tower Sargent, Gregory Claeys, Fredric Jameson, Tom Moylan). Such perspectives are, of necessity, complementary. No single approach can claim intrinsic superiority as a matter of principle, its relative merits depending on the object under scrutiny and the specific aims and interests of the researcher.
Crucially, such academic developments are in keeping with the diversity of forms and media in and through which the utopian spirit has expressed itself, both critically and creatively, and the diversity is aptly reflected in the “Ralahine Utopian Studies,” a series of which Blaim’s book is Volume 13 and which has harbored monographs and collections of essays bearing titles like The Concept of Utopia (Ruth Levitas), Where Community Happens (Henry Near), and Utopianism and Marxism (Vincent Geoghegan). Set alongside such studies, Blaim’s Gazing in Useless Wonder may be seen to stand at the literary end of the methodological spectrum of Utopian Studies.
Accordingly, the title of the Introduction, “Utopian Poetics and Politics,” is as revealing of what the study is concerned with—the “poetics,” and also the aesthetics, of utopian visions—as of what the study disregards as having merely secondary relevance—the “politics.” This dichotomy of interests proves to be integral to the author’s readings of the corpus, which consistently downplay the ideological entanglements of writers’ propositions on behalf of an appreciation of the compositional complexities of utopian discourse with a strongly—and virtually exclusive—semiotic and narratological bent.
Following the Introduction, Blaim’s study is composed of five chapters, the first of which examines the significance of More’s Utopia by highlighting the process by which a polyphonic work eventually became established as a monophonic text which was liable to be treated as the initiator of a new form of fiction—or, to put it another way, how the attenuation of ambivalences and ambiguities made it possible for Utopia to be taken as an example for later exercises in indoctrination. The argument rests upon an analysis of Utopia which stresses the implications of point of view, irony, framing devices and the presence of (un)reliable narrators. On the whole, the chapter relies heavily on a Bakhtinian framework, employing concepts like carnival, heteroglossia and menippea in order to underline the dialogic character of More’s work.
Chapter II, “The Margins of Utopia,” delves further into the conventions of the genre by focusing on patterns as well as nuances discernible in titles and subtitles, paratexts, the role of narrators and expositors, dialogue and plots. At the core of the chapter is an analysis of “the spectrum of devices aimed at producing the reality effect” (81), or, in other words, of the construction of verisimilitude as a function of the didactic purpose of utopian texts. This and the following sections of the study refer to a wide gamut of examples, from canonical works by Francis Bacon, Joseph Hall, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Robert Paltock, through a significant number of narratives of anonymous or uncertain authorship, to utopias originating in other countries than Britain.
Chapters III and IV, “Utopian Spaces and Places” and “Utopian Institutions, Utopian People,” investigate the main features of narrative utopias, considered no longer from a discursive or compositional angle but rather in terms of their contents. These chapters throw light upon such topoi as the idealized geographies of imaginary travels, the connection between physical boundaries and contrasting worldviews, and the precepts of social and political organization. The latter are shown mostly to exhibit the “qualities of order, regularity, balance, and aptness” (179), evinced in the treatment of patriarchy, religion, education, morality, the laws, and social rituals of several kinds.
By contrast, Chapter V inspects the grimmer, more disturbing side of the tradition. Under the title “Dystopian / Negative Worlds: The Paradigm Reversed,” it explores the interplay between “the utopian state as a normative model” and the image of Europe as “an anti-model whose ontological status within the fictional universe is identical to that of the utopian world” (231). By appraising the depictions of Europe as the negative counterpart of the more beautiful, more advanced, and more accomplished lands, societies and peoples imagined by utopianists, Blaim makes a case for acknowledging that it was “the autonomisation of the negative [that led] to the emergence of the dystopia, a new fictional mode consistently embodying the idea of the worst state” (242). This gives rise to a discussion of critical terms and concepts in which the author submits that “terms like the satirical utopia (dystopia) or anti-utopia should perhaps be seen as functions, or uses of the dystopian (utopian) text, and not as autonomous literary genres” (243). With this suggestion, the emphasis of the study shifts from issues of genre to issues of reception, without, however, relinquishing the objective of identifying the patterns and constituent textual features of the dystopian mode, similarly to the procedures employed in the preceding chapters.
The study is supplemented by an appendix which attempts to further clarify generic conventions by examining the connections between desert island narratives and descriptions of ideal commonwealths. This is among the most densely argued sections of the book, and Blaim is quite severe to some of the critics he engages with. His main contention is that, while there are affinities between utopias and robinsonades, “similarity of particular elements does not correspond to any common function,” because in robinsonades “the critical function is not accompanied by a delineation of a potentially valid model of social organisation” (300, 301). The appendix thus amounts to an additional contribution both to the understanding of the generic boundaries of utopian literature and to the discussion of the critical terms relevant to the field.
While a deeper consideration of the ideological contents and cultural-historical contexts of the works under discussion would be welcome (utopias being, after all, about putting forward ideas and intervening in the life of societies), Blaim’s study is absolutely honest about its aims and assumptions, and the performance is convincing. The scope of the survey is definitely impressive, and its stated purpose is to foreground the most important aspects of textual organization and rhetorical composition which pertain to utopian fictions. By emphasizing “the self-referentiality of utopian fictions” to the point of claiming that “the traditionally dominant topics such as the exact nature and origins of the political principles at the basis of the utopian state […] turn out to be relevant only to the extent that they form an aspect of the overall (aesthetic) construct” (3), the author allows himself perhaps too bold a dismissal, all the more so as it is debatable whether the aesthetic nature of their discourse has been of paramount importance to all utopian writers, and whether most readers have been primarily drawn to utopias by aesthetic pursuits. However, insofar as utopias are texts we certainly cannot do without text-oriented studies. Moreover, if the concerns underlying Gazing in Useless Wonder are less ostensibly interdisciplinary than those of other stances, and if the methodology appears to be on the whole rather conservative, it is only fair that a study should be judged according to its stated ambitions. This is, after all, one of the implications of the complementarity of the approaches outlined above.
Jorge Bastos da Silva
Universidade do Porto