Christopher Kendrick. Utopia, Carnival, and Commonwealth in Renaissance England.
Utopia, Carnival, and Commonwealth in Renaissance England by Christopher Kendrick offers a broadly Marxist analysis of a mix of political and, to a lesser extent, literary texts published between 1516 (Sir Thomas More's Utopia) and 1625 (Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis). All, except for a section of Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, are by English writers.
In his opening statement "that genre is an essential ... category of cultural analysis" (3), Kendrick indicates that the approach of his book will be to examine both the utopian genre in general and More's Utopia in particular as being not just "literary" (as abstract projection or "exclusively signifying practice" ), but a conscious effort to open up a "view of new ... social possibility" (27). Kendrick addresses the long tradition of Marxist skepticism about utopianism and utopian projects--beginning with Marx and Engels themselves--seeking to evaluate utopian writings, not as ironic humanistic exercises or thought experiments but as plausible extrapolations of existing social and political reality during the early modern era in England.
The book's five chapters trace the hundred years of English history that Kendrick sees as setting the stage for the centuries of class conflict that were to follow. Chapter 1, "Utopian Differences," discusses utopian writing in general, and Renaissance and nineteenth-century utopias in particular, as efforts to universalize the interests of an existing class. More's Utopia is, for Kendrick, "a smallholder's paradise" (72). As a committed Marxist, however, his deeper interest is in explaining how utopian writing, first, "raises the question of the place of modes of production in the class struggle"; and, second, addresses the economic problems of the working classes (27). He returns to these issues in each of the texts he discusses.
In Chapter 2, "Carnival and Utopia," Kendrick explores the relationship between More's Utopia and the carnival tradition, a relationship that transcends the opposition between orderly, schematic utopian conceptualization and the "controlled license" of carnival as well as the class distinction between the communitarian culture of populist carnival activities and More's humanist-intellectual tradition. The dialectical logic-that seeming oppositions conceal underlining commonalities--is central to the argument in this chapter and analogous arguments throughout a book the goal of which is to trace the historical development, through class conflict, of increasingly complex technological and economic systems. In this chapter, Kendrick argues that More's Utopia adapts several aspects of carnival: its imposition of collectivism, its implicit message that there would be more than enough for everyone if the ruling classes were abolished, its "book libido" (78) or transformation of material consumption into cultural consumption, and, finally, its irony or skepticism. These carnival elements, according to Kendrick, give Utopia its revolutionary dimension: "Carnival utopia reminds the natural rulers of their own superfluity with respect to the forces of production" (81).
The second part of Chapter 2 shifts argumentative gears somewhat by using the carnival-versus-utopia idea to contrast the Theramene episode of Gargantua and Pantagruel to More's Utopia. Kendrick seems to view the (admittedly muted) earthiness of the Theramene episode as carnavelesque anti-monasticism and anti-utopia, as a sort of satiric expulsion of the ascetic utopian ideal and a celebration of communal materiality. But this chapter's Bakhtinian references, free-floating use of metaphors of ingestion and fertilization, at-times obscure lexicon, and open-ended conclusion that Rabelais "makes the relation [of his work] to carnival a utopian problem" (111) would benefit from some clarification. Lurking in the background of this section is the sense of historical change and class conflict and of Rabelais expressing the rebellion of an earlier communal-agrarian culture and its "displacement and trivialization" by "Church-sanctioned, neo-aristocratic ways" (110).
Chapter 3, "Utopia and the Commonwealth," examines two political treatises, A Dialogue of Pole and Lupsit (1533) by David Starkey and A Discourse of the Commonweal (1549) by Thomas Smith, in order to argue that a shift in ideology occurred between the publication dates of these works, the result of extensive mid-century social and economic turmoil. Pole and Lupsit has a more theologically conservative and traditional organicist concept of social classes; Discourse moves towards a more rational and modern search for the causes of economic problems--most notably the problem of inflation (or what was then called "dearth") that resulted from the monarchy's devaluation of the currency. The defining term of this chapter, "Commonwealth," suggests a historical shift in political thought from outdated organicist metaphors to a commitment to "a reform program as the product of reason working on the information provided it by a society composed of 'occupations'" (172). This chapter also traces the development of what Kendrick identifies as a new mercantilist concept of market forces among the characters in Smith's Dialogue who "depend equally, for the reproduction of the means of their existence, on the buying and selling of commodities" (178). This emerging "commonwealth" theory, for Kendrick, points to the dissolution of "the smallholding class," whose interests are reflected in More's Utopia, and thus a shift in utopian thought.
Chapter 4, "Sprung Desire and Groups in Flux," explores how the drama of Marlowe and Shakespeare "could make the late Elizabethan stage into something like a utopian machine" (199). Kendrick moderates his claim for the utopian impulse in this chapter, arguing that Marlowe disguises his working-class sympathies as fantasies of tyrannical power while Shakespeare ironically distances his utopian ideas through shifting dramatic perspectives. Kendrick's principal concern here is to leave room for readings of Marlowe and Shakespeare as at least partial expressions of carnivalesque desire. Among Shakespeare's critics, he seeks to balance the hierarchical and symbolic readings of traditional critics such as E. M. W. Tillyard and New Historicists such as Stephen Greenblatt with what he calls the theater of travesty--rebellious parody of hierarchical modes in such plays as Henry IV, Twelfth Night, and King Lear. He looks at Marlowe less ambiguously, seeing in what he calls Marlowe's "fabular drama" (224) a symbolic representation of the atomization of feudal ties, the drift toward "total declassment" (224), and the emergence of the absolutist state--all dramatically enacted as "the fantasy of absolute power, of boundless desire" (224).
Chapter 5, "Flights from the Tudor Settlement; or, Carnival and Commonwealth Revised," presents the final application of Kendrick's "Carnival and Utopia" theme, this time to some of the pamphlets of Thomas Nashe and to Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis. He focuses on Nashe's "carnivalesque" style, its collective, picaresque elements, its echoes of "popular rhythms, idioms, and modes of figuration" (240), and Nashe's "popular-festive" attitude towards language (244). His discussion of Nashe's Piers Penniless His Supplication to the Devil is problematic. The miscellaneous style and the dichotomy of the clown-preacher speaker in Nashe's rambling, parodistic satire seem to give it obvious carnivalesque features, but Kendrick instead argues that the (not clearly defined) "independence and objectivity" of Nashe's style is an attempt to keep the commonwealth idea alive," a vague and, in my opinion, unsupported point (247). Nor do I find anything "utopian" about what Kendrick correctly calls "the episodic syntax" of Piers Penniless (247). He is on more solid ground in arguing for both the carnivalesque and the utopian features of Nashe's praise of the Yarmouth fish trade in Nashe's Lenten Strife." The Praise of the Red Herring. Kendrick astutely points out the carnivalesque "collective gaiety" (239) with which Nashe describes the Yarmouth community and "the mercantilist fantasy"(260), or mercantilist utopia, of Nashe's description of the fish trade. In Kendrick's words, "Nashe in Lenten Strife might be seen to be representing the mercantilist town as the material base of a new Carnival-Utopia, a modern rationalized version of Cockayne" (264). Kendrick's discussion of Lenten Strife completes a larger theme of the book about the history of utopia as "the fall of utopia into a place on the map of the nation, the claim made for a definite locale as an effectively utopian place" (287).
Kendrick's concluding discussion of Salomon's House in Bacon's The New Atlantis as "a technological utopia" (330) suitably sums up another central concern of the book, the Marxist theme of social uneven development--the disconnection between technological advancement and class division and oppression. The New Atlantis, for Kendrick, embraces a vision of corporate possessiveness, of an emerging guild of scientist-technologists forming "a new ... self-constituting state-industrial class" (330). This discussion fittingly concludes the discussion of uneven development that runs through the book and the central role that Kendrick gives to class and ideological conflict in social, political, and economic history. Kendrick sees in 'the constitutive uneven development of Tudor and Stuart England ... a systemic tension between (essentially absolutist) state and (capitalist) society" (331). True to his political roots, Kendrick finds even in Bacon's conservative, paternalistic technological utopia an "apocalyptic dimension" that registers "the pressure for intensive social change" (331).
Although obscured by occasional jargonist excesses, especially in its opening chapters, Utopia, Carnival, and Commonwealth presents a cogent and imaginative social reading of Mom's Utopia and the intersection of carnavelesque and utopian ideas and practices with Mores and other Renaissance texts. Those interested in the literary and political history of Renaissance England will appreciate a number of its insights--particularly into less known writers such as Thomas Nashe--and the coherence of its overall argument.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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