Renaissance Utopias and the Problem of History.
In her clever if elusive study of utopian fictions by More, Bacon, and Margaret Cavendish, Marina Leslie says that she will treat early modern utopias not as "self-reflexive retreat [s] from history" or "self-annihilating exposure Es] of it" but as "a critical practice investigating the historical subject in the interrogative mode" (8). (Evidently the anthropomorphizing of texts continues apace: "authors" lie stiffening in the postmodern morgue while texts enjoy some get-up-and-go, even if, on page 1, a utopia is also "enmeshed in a web of historical contingencies to which it cannot but draw attention even as it struggles to escape.") Hoping to focus on the (unspecified) "models for historical transformation engaged and revised" by these utopias, Leslie says she will analyze "the history and politics of reading utopia" and trace "utopia's shifting location in the historical imagination." Too tall an order, probably, for so short a book: the "contingencies" are only minimally sketched in and this "historical imagination" barely traced. Two works missing here would have served her well: Jackson Boswell's 1994 compilation of printed English allusions to More up to 1640 and George Logan's The Meaning of Thomas More's Utopia. Boswell shows how the English read Utopia as everything from program to fantasy; Logan writes tellingly on the irresponsibility of seeing only More's playfulness.
Leslie's first chapter argues that we too often mistake utopia for accurate prophecy or unrealizable dream, not the "allegoresis of history" that it really is (13). The chapters on More's Utopia thus offer "a map of the uneven topography of humanist historicism" (26) and comment on how Utopia relates to "the humanist historical project" (30). This last needs more precise definition, as does "humanist," if only because cultural materialism's despised "other" -- that "liberal humanist," poor naive fellow -- should not be confused with the elusive More, whose own historicism, as witness his Richard III, wavered between cagey irony and tragic skepticism. Noting Renaissance humanists' contradictory desire to locate cultural difference and exemplary models, Leslie scrutinizes Utopian maps and alphabet (a glance at the antipodean maps of Joseph Hall's Mundus alter et Idem would have deepened the historical argument). Some statements, again, are provocative but cryptic: thus a certain woodcut shows how "the gulf bet ween Utopia and Hythlodaeus spans the divide... between Utopia's entry into history and the rhetorical construction of self" (43). But many will relish her observations on the garland from which hangs the 1518 map of Utopia, the shape of Utopian letters, and the complexities of Utopian placenames.
Leslie then turns to The New Atlantis, on which, again, she is most interesting when least vatic (I think I fathom the statement that Bacon's "poesis ... masters rather than shadows its materials, in which the distance between the original and its image is essentially erased, and each counterfeit is new made in its own image" , but I may be kidding myself). She is excellent on the tension in Bacon between veiling and revelation, on his providential history and vision of human empire, and on the relevance of his recent disgrace to New Atlantean politics. True, her belief that Bacon distrusted fantasy needs nuance: he enjoyed Rabelais, after all, and allegorized Greek myths. True also that in a longer book she might ask how Bacon's think-tank suits the early modern passion for and distrust of "projects." And despite her unease with much new historicism, she is probably too hasty in simply adopting Greenblatt's reading of The Faerie Queene's Bower of Bliss and then concluding that Bacon "revises" Spenser ( whose "neoplatonism" she in any case exaggerates). Still, these are pages worth reading.
Refusing to take Blazing World of "Mad Madge" as either "nostalgic" or "progressive," Leslie reads it as Cavendish's way of conceiving an "alternative account of her own times." This is a resonant suggestion, although the account to which World is an alternative is left unclear. Other statements are similarly less than pellucid. We read that the "topos of the female utopia had long been discursively colonized." How old is the topos? When was it colonized? Does it involve utopias by women or about women? Is such a utopia merely a carnival inversion of male rule? If not, then in Cavendish's day it was surely too new to have been long since colonized. Leslie then sets the Blazing World against Shakespeare's "utopian romance," The Tempest, which she says "begins with a foiled rape and a tempest" and to which she gives a confidently postcolonialist reading (alluding, for example, to Miranda's "imperial role"). The book ends with sensible words on Cavendish, canons, and female authorship.
Leslie's study, then, offers much good food for thought, even if Thought may suffer occasional gastric distress during its meal whenever Leslie squeezes large cultural reckonings into little textual rooms and condenses her syntax and argument to the point of obscurity. As a critic she is painfully self-conscious and self-protective: her "critical posture," she says, derives from the "self-critical imperative of all historical and political criticism interested in interrogating its own ideological underpinnings," a recursive "posture" that sounds terribly uncomfortable. (Nor does she ever quite say what the underpinnings of her own criticism reply to her interrogation.) Like many scholars, moreover, Leslie wants a Renaissance agonistes, citing a "historical crisis" and "crisis of representation" (8); "crises of method" (9); a "crisis of historical transformation" (10); a "double crisis for feminist reconstructions of history"(11); a "heuristic crisis"(21, 90); and a "deep spiritual crisis" (29). Maybe. Yet th ere was more than one crisis between Rome's fall and England's rise. If literature is largely tropes, history is largely turns.
Anybody teaching Utopia should consider assigning David Wootton's edition. The thoughtful introduction is informative, although we need even better evidence that Utopid's witty prefatory materials were "disastrous" because they "all treated Utopia as if it were a real place" and hence misled readers. Wootton shows the relevance of Erasmus' essays on friendship, equality, and sharing to the "communism, labor, and egalitarianism" that must have seemed "strange" in More's day. Other aspects of Utopia, he says, seem less than ideal to us. He might stress, in this regard, that More calls Utopia the "best republic," not "ideal," perhaps because to show that the best is not ideal is to comment, somewhat bleakly, on our fallen world.
Like other translators, Wootton misses some chances to capture the ironies that make Utopia so disconcertingly serious and ambiguously playful. At the very end, "Morus" recollects that "in public opinion" the accoutrements of hierarchy are the "ornaments of the commonwealth." By now he should have learned some Utopian skepticism toward "ornaments" and, from his classy humanist friends, some distaste for mere "opinion." Wootton knows this, but he translates "ut publica est opinio" as "generally held," which damages the irony. Similarly, because More had thought to name his island "Nusquam," it matters that he says monsters "nusquam fere non inveneras." Wootton has "you can go almost anywhere and find" monsters. No. In the Latin, you will perhaps not find them nowhere. The figure of litotes, of denying the contrary, is not unpretentious in English, and double negatives like the one I just used are not allowed. Yet nowhere is such wordplay less unwelcome than in translations of Utopia. A smart man like Wootton might have tried even harder. Nevertheless, do add this intelligently produced edition to your collection of imperfect but not unworthy Utopias.
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|Author:||PRESCOTT, ANNE LAKE|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
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