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Gazing in Useless Wonder

English Utopian Fictions, 1516–1800


Artur Blaim

Gazing in Useless Wonder focuses on utopias as self-referential texts that literally have to constitute themselves as imaginary or intentional entities before they can work as vehicles for socio-political ideas. Foregrounding the construction of utopian fictions defines both the perspective and the differentiation of the analytically significant elements, so that the traditionally dominant topics such as the nature and origins of the ideologies behind the construction of the ideal model are taken into account only insofar as they contribute to the aesthetic effect of the utopian construct as a whole. The organising principle of the early modern utopia involves two different modes of presentation: the narrative frame and the ekphrastic description of the ideal state, each possessing an aesthetic function realised according to different principles, with the ideal image constructed in accordance with the dominant aesthetic norms of the period pertaining to the visual arts, such as harmony, symmetry, alleged perfection, and timelessness. Despite variations, especially in the thematic-ideological domain, the dominant genre pattern that emerged as a result of the simplification of the complex semantics of Thomas More’s Utopia in the early modern period is taken here as forming a single synchrony in the history of utopian fiction-making.


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Introduction Utopian Poetics and Politics


Defining utopia has been one of the most widely contested issues, even though, or perhaps precisely because, the term itself has entered not only the specialised discourses of literary, cultural, sociological, economic, politi- cal, and religious studies, but has also become a part of colloquial speech in most of the world languages. The common agreement as to the general characteristics of utopia is matched only by the controversy regarding the particulars. The tacitly assumed, or explicitly stated definitions, determine the scope of the existing studies of utopia, ranging from monographs on major utopian texts to general considerations of utopianism and utopia regarded as a universal category of human thought, with by far the great- est number of studies devoted to More’s De optimo reipublicae statu deque noua insula Vtopia.1 Despite the persisting interest in utopian studies that reaches back to the late nineteenth century,2 the early modern utopias, especially those of the Renaissance period, began to receive wider and more focused critical attention only in the last two decades of the twentieth century, resulting in several extensive accounts of utopias and utopianism such as J.C. Davis’s Utopia & the Ideal Society. A Study of English Utopian Writing 1516–1700 (1981), Miriam Eliav-Feldon’s Realistic Utopias. The Ideal Imaginary Societies of the Renaissance, 1516–1630 (1982), Marina Leslie’s Renaissance Utopias and the Problems of History (1998), or Robert Appelbaum’s Literature and Politics in Seventeenth Century England (2002).3 The recently pub- lished anthologies of the early modern utopias edited by Gregory Claeys...

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