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The Spectre of Utopia

Utopian and Science Fictions at the "Fin de Siècle"


Matthew Beaumont

In the late nineteenth century, a spectre haunted Europe and the United States: the spectre of utopia. This book re-examines the rise of utopian thought at the fin de siècle, situating it in the social and political contradictions of the time and exploring the ways in which it articulated a deepening sense that the capitalist system might not be insuperable after all. The study pays particular attention to Edward Bellamy’s seminal utopian fiction, Looking Backward (1888), embedding it in a number of unfamiliar contexts, and reading its richest passages against the grain, but it also offers detailed discussions of William Morris, H.G. Wells and Oscar Wilde. Both historical and theoretical in its approach, this book constitutes a substantial contribution to our understanding of the utopian imaginary, and an original analysis of the counter-culture in which it thrived at the fin de siècle.


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Chapter 10 Against the Infernal Yawn: The Anamorphic Estrangements of Science Fiction 253


Chapter 10 Against the Infernal Yawn: The Anamorphic Estrangements of Science Fiction Linear Perspective is a machine for annihilating reality, an infernal yawn that swallows everything wherein the vanishing-point functions. Conversely, reverse perspective, like a fountain of reality spurting into the world, serves to generate reality, extract it from non-being and advance it into reality. — Pavel Florensky, ‘Reverse Perspective’ I Perhaps the most famous UFO to appear in the history of European paint- ing is the saucer-shaped object that slices silently across the pictorial space of ‘The Ambassadors’ (1533). Hans Holbein the Younger’s double portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve is a meditation on the intellectual and artistic accomplishments of Europe in an epoch of imperial expansion. The luxuriously robed table that stands at the centre of the composition, framed by the casually posed forms of the French ambassadors themselves, is artfully heaped with exquisite objects pertaining to the disciplines of geometry, astronomy, mathematics and music. The instruments of enlight- enment that are at once understatedly and ostentatiously displayed in this picture – the terrestrial and celestial globes for example – are thus also the instruments of colonial domination. Holbein’s tableau is a complicated, perhaps contradictory celebration of the apparently unassailable cultural authority that these Catholic statesmen embody. It emanates a sense of calm, almost sanctimonious command that discreetly conceals the messier 254 Chapter 10 economic and political premises of this cultural authority, even as it ulti- mately advertises them. Holbein sublimates the ambassadors’ power in the familiar double...

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