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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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Chapter V Dystopia/Negative Worlds: The Paradigm Reversed


Chapter V Dystopian/Negative Worlds: The Paradigm Reversed The construction of the utopian world as a systemic model of an ideal (or the best possible) state implies the existence of its counterpart, its direct opposite without which the ideal qualities of the utopian model could not exist. The distinction between the ideal and the real, usually rendered as the opposition between the utopian land and Europe, not only defines the expressed programmatic function of the utopian state as a normative model, but also turns the image of Europe into an anti-model whose ontological status within the fictional universe is identical to that of the utopian world. The negative formula The negative assessment of Europe inheres in the very act of the con- struction of the utopian model: the latter’s qualities denote the absence of the same features in the narrator’s world. In this way, apart from explicit accounts of the latter, the implied anti-model is constructed by means of “minus-devices.”1 The image of Europe as a negative ref lection of utopia is, as it were, pre-given, regardless of its explicitly stated features, which function only as a way of enhancing the contrast between the two. This can be observed even in “pre-utopian” texts such as The Land of Cockaygne in the extensive use of the negative formula which brings into existence the ideal state as a reversal of the author’s world.2 Gessen goes even further by suggesting that utopias are only “positive rephrasings” of concrete societies that they negate, and...

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