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The Shape of Utopia

Studies in a Literary Genre


Phillip E. Wegner

Upon its original publication in 1970, Robert C. Elliott’s The Shape of Utopia influenced both some of the major scholars of an emerging utopian and science fiction studies, including Darko Suvin, Louis Marin and Fredric Jameson, and authors of new utopian fiction ranging from Ursula K. Le Guin to Kim Stanley Robinson. The book establishes a deep genetic link between utopia and satire, and offers scintillating readings of classic works by Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Aldous Huxley and others. It charts the rise of an insidious «fear of utopia» that comes to characterize the first half of the twentieth century and investigates some of the aesthetic problems raised by the efforts to portray a utopian society, before concluding with brilliant speculations on the emerging practice of «anti-anti-utopia» – the reinvention of utopia for contemporary times. This Ralahine Classics edition also includes a new introduction by Phillip E. Wegner which situates the book in its context and argues for its continued significance today; a 1971 review of the book by the late author of utopian science fiction, Joanna Russ; and an opening tribute by one of Elliott’s former students, Kim Stanley Robinson.


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CHAPTER 1 Saturnalia, Satire, & Utopia


CHAPTER 1 Saturnalia, Satire, & Utopia Engels once spoke of Charles Fourier, the nineteenth century’s complete utopian, as one of the greatest satirists of all time. The conjunction may seem odd; we normally think of utopia as associated with the ideal, satire with the actual, which (man and his institutions being what they are) usually proves to be the sordid, the foolish, the vicious. In fact, however, the two modes—utopia and satire—are linked in a complex network of genetic, historical, and formal relationships. Some of these I propose to trace. First, a tangle of genetic lines which, in the way of these matters, lead to unexpected places. “All Utopias,” writes Arthur Koestler, “are fed from the sources of mythology; the social engineer’s blueprints are merely revised editions of the ancient text.” Insofar as utopia incorporates man’s longings for the good life, it is part of a complex of ideas that includes the Golden Age, the Earthly Paradise, the Fortunate Isles, the Islands of the Blest, the Happy Otherworld, and so on. The archetypal text, at least for the Western world, is that of Hesiod: In the beginning, the immortals Who have their homes on Olympos created the golden generation of mortal people. These lived in Kronos’ time, when he was the king in heaven. They lived as if they were gods, their hearts free from all sorrow, by themselves, and without hard work or pain; no miserable old age came their way; their hands, their feet, did not alter....

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