Elliott, Robert C.: The Shape of Utopia: Studies in a Literary Genre.
The tenth in what is now the fifteen-book Ralahine Utopian Studies series, Robert Elliott's The Shape of Utopia first appeared in 1970 from the University of Chicago Press. Editor Phillip Wegner has assembled Elliott's original preface and seven-chapter text, preceded by Kim Stanley Robinson's tribute to Elliott (his former professor) and Wegner's comprehensive Introduction, and followed by Joanna Russ's less-than-favorable 1971 College English review. The supporting texts are essential to the reading experience because they contextualize a book originally published over forty-five years ago.
Kim Stanley Robinson's one-page "A Tribute to Robert C. Elliott (2012)" recalls his excitement at taking Elliott's seminar on satire, a class that offered "an unusually wide look at literary materials rarely discussed at all in English departments of the time" (xi). In his Introduction, Wegner posits that Elliot's book is still important today because it asserted the viability of utopia at a time when widely read dystopias such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four seemed to have snuffed out the Utopian enterprise and because The Shape of Utopia "influenced in significant ways the seminal works of what at that moment were the emergent fields of Utopian and science fiction studies" (xiii). Subsequent to the publication of Elliott's treatise, scholars such as Darko Suvin, Louis Marin, and Frederic Jameson would theorize utopia with a debt to Elliott, and Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel Delany, and others would transplant utopia into the fertile ground of science fiction.
In his seven chapters, Elliott establishes Utopia's lineage, tracing its evolution through specific works from Thomas More's Utopia to Aldous Huxley's Island. Elliott's central arguments are that utopia evolved from satire, that More merged satire with Utopian vision, and that critiquing societies is easier than depicting perfection. He also examines why, in the twentieth century, the concept of utopia lost favor. Elliott lauds B. F. Skinner and Aldous Huxley for attempting to make a place for utopia--whether as "good place" or "no place"--in the mid-twentieth century. Elliott tells us in his Preface, "I have not tried to conceal my own deep ambivalence about Utopian modes of thought" (xxxi) and his ambivalence is both ethical and critical, as not all Utopian musings are good, and not all utopias are well written. But he writes about them anyway because to think about utopia is to explore human social potential.
The first chapter, "Saturnalia, Satire, & Utopia," details Utopia's origins. Beginning with Hesiod's Works and Days, Elliott presents manifestations of and satires on the Golden Age, the time before humans devolved into us, "the fifth race of man ... the iron age," a degenerate people (6). Later ancient Greek writers found the dream of eternal youth, plenty, and idleness easy to parody in a world devoid of such pleasures. Elliott views the Roman Saturnalia, the holiday presided over by Saturn, god of the Golden Age, as a living enactment of "longing and laughter" (6), a theme Elliott finds continued in various tales of Cockaigne--a utopia that turns up in various times and cultures, from poems in medieval England to "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," an American folksong especially popular in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Though discussing various rituals from around the world that enact Utopian myths-- including the Apo ceremony of the Ashanti people of West Africa--Elliott ultimately sees utopia as a conscious literary creation stemming from More.
Consequently, chapter two, "The Shape of Utopia," treats the interpretive complexities of More's masterpiece. Although More's book follows a simple pattern--that is, a satirical treatment of what is followed by a depiction of what should be--how to read this many-layered progenitor of so many Utopian visions depends first on whether one judges Utopia as a treatise on morality or as a work of satire. For example, Elliott presents the Catholic interpretation, in which More's building of a perfect non-Christian state--one in which euthanasia, divorce, and even female priests are allowable--means that the state is not doctrinally perfect. As Elliott explains, Utopia is at once an entertainment and a thought experiment: More's satirizing of European society and the imaginative antidote he proposes to it do offer reasons for and pathways to reform, but how serious More is about any particular element is qualified by his text's narrative complexities.
Chapters three and four deal respectively with Gulliver's Travels and Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance, the former a Utopian satire, the latter an historical artifact but not a utopia per se. Most instructive about Elliott's reading of Swift is his premise that Brobdingnag represents the state to which humans can aspire--not the society of Houyhnhmns, the race of intelligent horses whose high ethical standards might seem more appropriate for utopia. The Brobdingnagians monitor their political and social practices in order to prevent their deterioration. Conversely, the Houyhnhmns need no government. They are morally superior creatures of a simple Golden Age, an ideal suited to them but not to fallen humans. Rather, theirs is a society we can admire while understanding that it is beyond our capacity to achieve. Meanwhile, Elliott's treatment of The Blithedale Romance, which, he notes, is "not a utopia in any strict sense," is most interesting for what he has to say about Hawthorne, a veteran of Brook Farm, the communal experiment to which Hawthorne could ultimately not commit (51). Blithedale and its real-life Brook Farm counterpart are socialist communities where work is shared and, theoretically, ennobles those who do it. But Hawthorne found hard physical communal labor tedious and, rather than fitting into the (attempted) utopian community, merely observed its workings. Hence, Hawthorne's fiction never fully engages with the substantive concerns one finds in More or Swift. As a witness to one of America's most famous Utopian experiments, Hawthorne might have explored its theoretical basis and constitutional practices; Elliott finds, however, that Hawthorne's adoption of romance as the vehicle for the fictionalization of his Brook Farm experience offers him "at least superficial justification for evading these issues" (62).
Chapter five, "The Fear of Utopia," argues that the paucity of contemporary utopias and the prevalence of dystopias represent disillusionment with the nineteenth-century belief that technological advances were marks of social progress. Elliott suggests, "to have faith in the possibility of utopia, one must believe in progress; but one looks back at our two great wars, our mass bombings, our attempts at genocide ... and it is next to impossible for a rational man to believe in progress" (65). Elliott consequently discusses various twentieth-century anti-utopian works, including Evgeny Zamyatin's prescient We (1920), the first book banned by the new Russian socialist state, concluding that We is the most prominent intertext for both Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Elliot suggests that Orwell's book is the darkest of them all because the goal of the elite is power itself; any benevolent intentions regarding human happiness have vanished.
In Chapter xix, "Aesthetics of Utopia," Elliott contemplates why, as a number of critics agree, so many modern Utopian novels are so poorly executed. Elliott theorizes that this phenomenon can be partially attributed to the nature of the modern novel as well as to the difficulty of coming up with reasonable aesthetic criteria. Where critic Richard Gerber argues that utopias can be judged by how close they come to demonstrating "the kind of imaginative reality available to the realistic novelist" (78), Elliott counters that this criterion can be applied with some success to negative utopias, but that it fails completely where utopias are paradises. Ultimately, Elliott finds seemingly insurmountable obstacles preventing the development of acceptable aesthetic criteria, among which are that utopias by definition feature much explanatory dialogue, that the stereotypical journey to utopia is a necessity, and that without conflict there is no real character development.
Elliott's last chapter, "Anti-Anti-Utopia: Walden Two and Island," explores with optimism two works that he considers "visions of the good place that speak most cogently against despair" (97). B. F. Skinner's Walden Two is a socially conditioned colony where maximum happiness can be achieved by most, and where the majority are happy to forgo any say in how their society is run. The state's leader, Frazier, has dictatorial tendencies, but the conditioning he uses is practical and effective. For Huxley's Island, Elliott contrasts (and appreciates the irony of) Huxley's earlier, darker works Brave New World and Ape and Essence, noting that in Island, towards the end of his life, Huxley creates Pala, a smart and gentle state where Eastern wisdom and Western medicine are brought together in a thought experiment heavy in personality conditioning. Although Pala is eventually invaded, Elliott finds hope in Huxley's ability even to imagine a Utopian society, given his earlier rejection of the concept. In fact, Elliott appears to cherish Island, so it must have pained him to have to write about its egregious aesthetic failings: Huxley simply could not portray happiness without thin prose and seemingly endless monologues. Elliott calls both Walden Two and Island "anti-anti-utopian" since they counter the entirely negative depictions by contemporary writers who could envision only dystopia in fictional ideal societies.
In her College English review, which completes this edition of Elliott's work, author and critic Joanna Russ takes Elliott to task for a number of deficiencies, particularly his omission of science fiction, the genre in which utopia continued to flourish in the twentieth century. Wegner defends Elliott by pointing out that, "even if his reading had extended to contemporary science fiction, for Elliott to have taken it up in any extensive way would have likely resulted in the further marginalization of this book, and even the possibility that it would have never seen the light of day" (xxviii). Readers accustomed to thinking of sf as an important element in literary studies must understand how little the genre mattered in 1970.
Overall, students of Utopian fiction will find this book useful. Certainly the connections Elliott makes with Golden Age texts, including the many versions of Cockaigne, will appeal to those who read literature for its imaginative unrealism. Russ's review, along with the introductory essays, help give The Shape of Utopia a multi-dimensional context that is both personal and historical. Thorough readers may well leave the book feeling as though they have read a seminal work by a man who appears to have been well worth knowing.
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|Author:||Morrissey, Thomas J.|
|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 19, 2019|
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