The Good Place

Comparative Perspectives on Utopia - Proceedings of Synapsis: European School of Comparative Studies XI

by Florian Mussgnug (Volume editor) Matthew Reza (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection 264 Pages
Series: New Comparative Criticism, Volume 2


Utopian literature provides a compelling vision of epistemological and moral clarity: a dream of harmony and justice. But in an age of surveillance, utopia is also the nightmare of a perfectly controlled, sealed and monitored world that leaves no room for ambivalence or discretion. In The Good Place, leading scholars of comparative literature explore this tension and examine the richness and diversity of utopian writing, from the genre’s earliest manifestations to the present. Utopia is seen as a tenacious force of the human imagination: a desire for renewal that manifests itself in the tension between social reality and the virtual worlds of unlived possibility. Notable for its engagement with a wide range of texts from different periods and national traditions, this book invites the reader to rethink ‘the good place’ from the specific perspective of literary studies and suggests that utopia, in the realm of fiction, is more than just a philosophical abstraction. Mediated by the experience of authors, characters and readers, utopian literature offers a transient but genuine experience of perfection, beyond the horizon of everyday lived experience.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Dedication
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Utopian / World / Literature
  • Part I Utopian Orientations
  • ‘Our Natural Loneliness’: Solitude and Utopia
  • She Exits to Utopia
  • The Bourne Identity: On Utopian Psychopathology
  • Utopia, Village, Nation-State
  • Pastoral, History and Utopia
  • Alternate History: Travels to Elsewhen
  • Nature as Definitive Utopia, or the End of the Subject
  • Part II Utopian Moments
  • Utopia ante litteram
  • The Great Good Place
  • Utopian Collections: Goncourt and Huysmans Against the Grain
  • Struggling Against Utopia: Defoe, Wells, Atwood
  • Vasco Pratolini’s Neighbourhood as Utopia
  • Strategy Games in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake
  • Afterword: Time for Meta-Utopia?
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← viii | ix → Acknowledgements

This book has been inspired by the eleventh annual edition of Synapsis: European School for Comparative Studies, which took place in Siena in September 2010. We are grateful to all contributors, who have responded enthusiastically to our invitation, and to those who have read the individual essays that make up this book. We would like to thank the founders of Synapsis, Roberto Bigazzi, Laura Caretti and Remo Ceserani, and the members of the 2010 executive committee: Silvia Albertazzi, Federico Bertoni, Stefano Bonchi, Simone Brunetti, Michele Campanini, Giovanni de Leva, Orsetta Innocenti, Donata Meneghelli, Simona Micali, Francesca Montanino, Sara Nocciolini and Luca Raimondi. We owe a particular debt of gratitude to the International Network for Comparative Humanities (INCH) and its three co-directors, Laura Caretti, Maria DiBattista and Barry McCrea, for their encouragement and for the financial assistance they have provided.

We are grateful to Hannah Godfrey, our editor at Peter Lang, and to Mette Bundgaard, Alessandra Anzani and Mary Hartley Charlton, who have seen this manuscript through to press. The cover image was very kindly provided by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

This book could not have been written without Simona Corso, who has, as always, been a source of kind and firm support. We are grateful to the colleagues and friends who make every edition of Synapsis an exhilarating cultural and human experience. Within this large and diverse community, Paolo Zanotti will always have a special place. Anybody who had the pleasure of meeting Paolo will remember his courage, kindness and wit. His untimely death in December 2012 has left a gaping hole in many lives. We dedicate this book to his memory, with love and gratitude to those who carry forward his legacy.

Florian Mussgnug and Matthew Reza ← ix | x →


Introduction: Utopian / World / Literature

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.

OSCAR WILDE, The Soul of Man under Socialism1

Utopian literature is an invitation to enter an unfamiliar world, a remote place. Ever since Thomas More conceived of his fictional island, journeys, walls and similar spatial and temporal divides have been a defining feature of the genre.2 The existence of such barriers, as Peter Ruppert remarks, is a sign of ‘utopia’s desire to escape the uncertainties and contingencies of time and history’.3 The utopian text, in other words, imagines a world untouched by the ills of the writer’s own time: a ‘good place’, far away from the squalor of an all-too-imperfect real world, but not so isolated as to be inaccessible. Remoteness and accessibility, in fact, are equally important to what Northrop Frye describes as the genre’s rudimentary plot: ‘in utopian stories, a frequent device is for someone, generally a first-person narrator, to enter the utopia and be shown around it by a sort of Intourist guide’.4 At the ← 1 | 2 → heart of utopian literature, then, lies a fantasy of geographical or temporal distance, but also a fascination with the possibility of encounter. The well-fortified boundaries of utopia are open to the narrator-protagonist, who is invited to witness the marvels of the fictive society. During this moment of contact, above all, the genre reveals its profound and paradoxical ties with the non-utopian world. Utopian literature, according to Darko Suvin’s influential definition, holds up a ‘shocking mirror’ to the author’s society; it employs strategies of ‘cognitive estrangement’ to expose the flaws and contradictions of the real world, and to invite critical analysis.5 For More’s fictional narrator, Raphael Hythloday, Utopia is not a model society but rather a pretext for what George Logan aptly describes as ‘utterly splendid deliberative orations showing the immorality and folly of actual policies of European governments’.6 More generally, as Fredric Jameson points out, utopia’s political response to social reality is always critical and specific.7 Literary utopias are not timeless idylls, but enclaves from the perceived ills of the author’s society. They are not spaces of unrestrained wish fulfilment or ‘blueprints for bourgeois comfort’, but social diagnoses, which draw our attention to particular miseries and injustices, and – by eradicating them in the fictional world – foster political and social critique.8

Utopia’s spatial and temporal configurations have profound repercussions at the level of narrative structure. As the frequent use of the island topos suggests, classical utopian societies are self-contained and static, or at least resistant to uncontrollable and uncontrolled change.9 The paradox of utopian literature, then, can be stated as follows: a genre that originates ← 2 | 3 → from a radical agenda of social reform finds its most characteristic articulation in a manifestly conservative fictional world. In traditional utopian societies, nothing of significance ever happens, or, more precisely, everything significant has already taken place. Progress, political experiment and time itself, in any meaningful sense, are banned from ‘the good place’, which in its fictional realization appears rigid and calculated, not dynamic and open to change. According to Chris Ferns, this emphasis on timelessness, stability and cohesion links the utopian canon to earlier religious articulations of apocalyptic thought: ‘the fact that time, in any meaningful sense has come to a stop often lends to the traditional utopian narrative a millenarian character’.10 Utopia, then, echoes the Bible’s monumental vision of a space beyond history: the Heavenly Jerusalem, which functions, as Steven Goldsmith points out, as ‘the sublime rupture that occurs when time becomes space, when history meets its final antithesis in both a heavenly city and a book’.11 In traditional utopian literature – like in the Church’s official interpretation of Revelation – the shift from a temporal to a spatial order functions as a symbol of enduring social power, a source of authority, which lies beyond history and therefore marks a line beyond which dispute cannot pass.12

But this is only one aspect of utopian literature. Through its complex interplay with the real world, the utopian text also posits a different, more radical idea of political writing. As Ruppert points out, utopian novels do not offer a single, objective picture of the world, but invite us to explore the discrepancies and tensions between two different forms of ← 3 | 4 → social organization: the real world and its imagined counterpart. By juxtaposing diverse social norms, utopia opens our eyes to the fact that every political order is contingent and open to change.

For in exposing existing social forms as arbitrary, utopias have the salutary effect of reminding us that all forms of social organization – including our actual society – are provisional and capable of being changed. […] Utopias, like many modern texts, function to increase our awareness of the historicity of all values and of their human origin.13

At the thematic level, then, traditional utopian writing foregrounds stasis and social homogeneity. But from the reader’s point of view, the manifold fictional worlds of the utopian imagination appear like creative experiments, which reconcile us with the contingency of every social order.

Writing in 1973, the Italian novelist Italo Calvino summarized what he saw as the most widely accepted idea of utopia: an isolated, self-sufficient and static domain, separated from the rest of society, if not in space, then in time and through historic rupture: ‘Utopia feels the need for compactness and permanence in opposing the world it rejects, a world that presents an equally refractory front.’14 There is much in this short reflection, as Calvino notes with considerable prescience, which goes against our current impression of a rapidly changing social world. The utopians’ intimation that an author of fiction must create (or re-create) a static ideal, a concrete alternative to an equally static dominant social order, appears anachronistic. Utopia’s idea of timeless perfection cannot be easily reconciled with a widespread sense of flux, shifting social and geopolitical conditions, a blurred horizon of possibilities. Since the final decades of the twentieth century, globalization, which Anthony Giddens defines as ‘the intensification of worldwide social relations’, has produced a convergence of spatial ← 4 | 5 → and temporal structures, enabled by an exponential growth in air travel and the proliferation of new communication networks.15 At the same time, technological progress, according to a number of thinkers in various disciplines, has triggered an unprecedented sense of urgency and insecurity about the future. Zygmunt Bauman, for example, describes modernity as a ‘history of gathering speed’, and sees the end of the twentieth century, with its shift from kinetic to electronic speed – or, in Bauman’s words, from ‘solid’ to ‘liquid modernity’ – as a key stage in this process of continuous acceleration.16 In literary studies, the advent of globalization has given new impetus to debates about cultural hegemony, the power of Western canons, and the emerging paradigm of world literature.17 Meanwhile, the concerns of environmental critics have found resonance with a growing movement for environmental justice, and are echoed in a more urgent public discourse about the full implications of global warming: a veritable ‘ecocide’ or mass extinction of life on earth.18 What many of these debates have in common, across disciplinary boundaries, is a profound pessimism about the future. Globalization is associated with a lack of alternatives, an irretrievable loss of confidence, and the triumph of corporate, hegemonic sameness.

A sense of hesitancy and uncertainty has characterized the early years of the twenty-first century. As Slavoj Žižek claims with characteristic verve, societies across the globe are rapidly approaching ‘an apocalyptic zero-point’, yet we find it easier to imagine the end of the world than to think of alternatives to the global capitalist system.19 This may be a bit too harsh. ← 5 | 6 → In recent years, discontent with political and social trends has inspired new demands for radically different forms of social organization. With the world economy in crisis, and environmental problems turning our minds towards a bleak future, the need for utopian thinking has re-emerged. As Caitríona Ní Dhúill quips, with admirable concision, ‘reports of the death of utopia’, after the collapse of state communism in Central and Eastern Europe, ‘have been greatly exaggerated’.20 Where intellectuals of previous decades saw utopian politics as hubristic and prone to violence, more recent writers and thinkers have been swift to respond to a changing mood.21 Social theorists, in particular, have been eager to explore new trends and to offer antidotes to today’s paralysing fatalism. Lucy Sargisson’s Fool’s Gold (2012), for instance, marks an ambitious attempt to expose the richness of today’s utopian currents, ranging from religion and politics to literature, and paying attention to green communities and architectural experiments, but also to our fascination with virtual reality.22 Michael Hviid Jacobsen and Keith Tester’s Utopia: Social Theory and the Future (2012) is another timely effort to reclaim utopianism for the present.23 Firmly rooted in the intellectual traditions of sociology, social and political theory and philosophy, this interesting collection of essays presents itself as a forum for utopian thinking, without being tied to any political platform. Utopia, as the editors point out in their introduction, is ‘not a destination, it is an orientation’.24 In other words – and despite what some self-proclaimed utopians might imply – the hopes and dreams, fears and nightmares of the ← 6 | 7 → twenty-first century are unlikely to culminate in a single, definitive solution to all our problems. Rather, we must think of utopia as a tenacious force of the human imagination: a perpetual and ongoing desire for renewal, a journey towards that which is not, and which may never be.

‘Utopia’ is a notoriously contested term, with almost as many definitions as there are utopian writers and thinkers.25 And yet, a broad consensus appears to have emerged in recent debates: the study of utopia is necessarily multidisciplinary and cannot be confined to a single field of intellectual inquiry. As Vita Fortunati points out in her afterword to this volume, a crucial shift has taken place since the second half of the twentieth century. Literary-historical concerns with ‘utopia’ – a term which first emerged in connection with a specific literary genre – have given way to a much broader conception of utopianism, which draws especially from the works of Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Herbert Marcuse and Raymond Williams.26 Utopianism, in this comprehensive sense, is often described as a universal human impulse, which manifests itself wherever there is a productive tension between the real, lived world and the virtual worlds of unlived possibility.27 It can take a multitude of forms, ranging from theoretical and fictional writing to radical politics and, according to Fortunati, the lived experiments of intentional communities. It may even be seen – as Ní Dhúill suggests – as ‘effectively synonymous with any ← 7 | 8 → creative, intellectual or artistic activity that brings forth something that has not previously existed’.28

Where does this leave the scholar of utopian literature? In a context where ‘utopianism is everywhere but not everything is utopian’, fictional utopias may be understood as specific articulations of a more general discourse on social and political reform.29 But this definition does not reflect how literary criticism, as a discipline and as a discursive practice, has been affected by the appearance of a more comprehensive paradigm. Literary historians of utopia, as Wilhelm Vosskamp has shown, have traditionally focused on taxonomic concerns.30 Such an approach, however, appears of limited relevance to a field that has been profoundly transformed by the blurring of boundaries between literary and philosophical writing, and by the emergence of a global cultural matrix. The contributors to this collection, then, are concerned with the specificity of literary utopias, but not with the question of how a text fulfils generic expectations, or whether it measures up to some prior definition of utopia. Instead, we aim to pinpoint and analyse the social and cultural dynamics of utopianism in a variety of novels, chosen from nine different national traditions. Our corpus includes several canonical authors of utopian fiction – from Diodorus of Sicily and Lucian of Samosata, who are evoked by Gioachino Chiarini, to Edward Bellamy and H.G. Wells, whose works and ideas feature prominently in the chapters by Matthew Beaumont, Maria DiBattista and Matthew Reza. It is not our goal, however, to summarize the history and value of utopian literature across the ages, or to present a list of influential texts. Instead, our selection of primary texts is deliberately unconventional, and seeks to contrast the ideological constraints of canon formation. Instead of focusing on lines of historical influence or modes of transmission, we draw the reader’s attention to a range of interconnected problems, recurrent symbols and shared concerns. Our volume, in this regard, aims to be representative ← 8 | 9 → of recent trends in comparative literature, where travelling concepts, flexible methodologies, and transnational and transhistorical processes have been evoked to contextualize the problematic notion of ‘world literature’.31 More importantly, we wish to transmit a sense of open-endedness and intellectual excitement, which we associate with comparative literature, a discipline which Claudio Guillén has aptly characterized as a shared affinity, a desire, a yearning for multiplicity.32

Prominent themes and shared concerns link the different parts of this collection. Approaching ‘the good place’ from the specific perspective of comparative literature, we suggest, first of all, that the enjoyment of utopian literature is not confined to its political message. The utopian novel may also delight us as a work of fiction: we may take pleasure in its inventiveness, its desire to explore imaginary domains, to measure the ‘parallel universe’ within the text.33 Arguably, this fascination with possible worlds is nowhere more evident than in the genre of uchronia or ‘counterfactual history’, which Simona Micali maps and analyses in her chapter (111–130). Yet, the pleasures of exploring what Micali describes as ‘the relationship between the world as it is and as it should be’ (p. 126) are by no means limited to alternate histories. They may also be called upon to explain the enduring success of fantasy and the increasing popularity of transmedial storytelling.34 More generally, it emerges that our fascination with fictional ← 9 | 10 → worlds is as old as literature itself, and hence pre-dates More’s invention of the word ‘utopia’, but not – as Gioachino Chiarini reminds us in his chapter (145–155) – the phenomenon of utopianism. In book five of Diodorus’ Library of History (first century BCE), for instance, we find all the typical characteristics of the utopian travellers’ tale, including a detailed description of exotic fictional worlds, whose rules and rites mirror and parody those of social reality.

But not every utopian narrative brims with fantastical creatures, inventions or imaginary delights. As Gillian Beer remarks in her discussion of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), many works of utopian literature appear all too ‘preoccupied with the drudgery of survival’ (p. 20) and show little interest in the beauty of sunsets and sunrises, or in the abysses of the human soul, which Virginia Woolf sought in vain in the famous mariner’s travelogue.35 The raw, creative energy of classical or early modern travellers’ tales, then, has no obvious equivalent in more recent utopian narratives, which often appear emotionally flat, and marked by a meticulous attention to descriptive detail. Utopian fantasies, as Jameson puts it, are

daydreams, in which whole cities are laid out in the mind, in which constructions are enthusiastically composed and legal systems endlessly drafted and emended, in which the seating arrangements for festivals and banquets are motivated in detail, and even garbage disposal is as attentively organized as administrative hierarchy.36

Several chapters in our volume address this peculiar stylistic feature of utopian narrative. Matthew Beaumont’s inspired reading of Edward Bellamy’s seminal utopian fiction Looking Backward (1888), for instance, evokes the unique characteristics of fugue, a psychological disorder dating from the ← 10 | 11 → late nineteenth century, and proposes, with an illuminating shift of perspective, that Bellamy’s apparently flat and emotionless first-person narrative may be read, against current scholarly consensus, as a post-traumatic testimony, and therefore as an attempt to ‘infuse the utopian form with psychological realism’ (p. 54). Julien Zanetta’s nuanced critique of scholarly commonplace shows how descriptive excess may itself become a source of aesthetic delight. In Edmond de Goncourt’s La Maison d’un artiste (1882) and Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À rebours (1884) carefully chosen allusions to the familiar create a new sense of perspective, which, as Zanetta points out, transcends established habits of aesthetic contemplation and embraces all facets of the imagination, from the ordinary to the infinitesimal.

Utopian literature, as Caitríona Ní Dhúill has suggested, focuses on the collective, rather than on the experience and point of view of individuals.37 What is implied here is a kind of panoptic awareness: a simultaneous and comprehensive vision, which beholds the totality of social norms, as well as their causes and effects. ‘In a context where time and historical causation have lost all meaning’, writes Chris Ferns, ‘the concept of individual character likewise becomes meaningless. Where the birth, life, death of the individual make no difference, individual distinguishing characteristics become insignificant’.38 This aspect of utopian literature, too, may be aptly described as a paradox: the utopian writer aims to capture an experience of social transformation, but produces a miniature, a fictional world clearly limited in space and frozen in time, like an object of contemplation. As Giovanni de Leva illustrates in his reading of the Italian novelist Vasco Pratolini, this peculiar sense of scale can be used very effectively to enhance the utopian text’s political message. In Pratolini’s novels Il quartiere (1944), Le ragazze di San Frediano (1949) and Metello (1955), the two Florentine working-class neighbourhoods of San Frediano and Santa Croce emerge as exemplary communities: utopian ‘model societies’, whose supportive social structures and shared sense of ethics determine and transcend the actions and intentions of individuals.

← 11 | 12 → Other essays in this collection are more critical of the collectivist ideology that has often been associated with utopian fiction. As Matthew Reza illustrates, with reference to Robinson Crusoe, H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), political critique of utopia has largely focused on the value of individual freedom.39 But utopia’s communal imperative does not only restrict the rights of the individual, it also implies the suppression of larger social conflicts. In many canonical works of utopian literature, as Reza shows, the authority of the collective is affirmed and cemented through an ideological ‘grand narrative’, which overpowers and obliterates the concerns of subaltern or uncooperative factions: natives, dehumanized ‘beast people’, female slaves. Similarly – as André Hansen suggests – the idea of an entirely rational order is evoked to defend the interests of a ruling elite. In Hansen’s chapter, Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy (2003–13) figures as a recent, compelling critique of this process, as illustrated by Atwood’s frequent allusions to strategy games and by her bleak, satirical vision of a near-future society divided into ‘word people’ and ‘numbers people’, and segregated into privileged, sterile ‘compounds’ and decaying ‘pleeblands’, drowned in poverty, pollution and violence.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
vision harmony nightmare fiction justice
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 264 pp.

Biographical notes

Florian Mussgnug (Volume editor) Matthew Reza (Volume editor)

Florian Mussgnug is Reader in Italian and Comparative Literature and director of the graduate programme in comparative literature at University College London. Matthew Reza is an Italian language tutor at the University of Oxford and the events coordinator for the research network Italian Studies at Oxford.


Title: The Good Place