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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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The opposition between aesthetisation and political persuasion, occasion- ally attended by hopes of practical implementation, defined the character of the evolutionary tendencies and minor changes that English utopian fictions had undergone in the early modern period. Having proved relatively impervious to the social and political changes taking place in England in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, the majority of utopias pub- lished in the period under discussion were not directly involved in politi- cal action, although in the times of social and political upheavals utopian discourse was occasionally employed in an attempt to inf luence contem- porary political developments. Neither political stability nor the frustra- tion of utopian hopes implanted themselves in any significant way on the mode of construction of utopian fiction.1 Even such momentous events as the beheading of Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth followed by the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution had a surpris- ingly limited impact on the ways the concurrent and subsequent utopian fictions came to be constructed, even if some utopias made occasional explicit references to regicide or other minor topical allusions. Moreover, despite certain exceptional cases such as Nova Solyma (originally published in Latin), The History of the Sevarambians, The Memoirs of Gaudentio di Lucca, and the somewhat more problematic Peter Wilkins and Crusoe Richard Davis, the characteristic pattern of utopian fiction, as it emerged from a simplified reading of More’s Utopia, remained relatively stable, allow- ing for occasional variations, without, however, any significant departures from the original model....

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