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The Good Place

Comparative Perspectives on Utopia - Proceedings of Synapsis: European School of Comparative Studies XI


Florian Mussgnug and Matthew Reza

Utopian literature provides a compelling vision of epistemological and moral clarity: a dream of harmony and justice. But in an age of surveillance, utopia is also the nightmare of a perfectly controlled, sealed and monitored world that leaves no room for ambivalence or discretion. In The Good Place, leading scholars of comparative literature explore this tension and examine the richness and diversity of utopian writing, from the genre’s earliest manifestations to the present. Utopia is seen as a tenacious force of the human imagination: a desire for renewal that manifests itself in the tension between social reality and the virtual worlds of unlived possibility. Notable for its engagement with a wide range of texts from different periods and national traditions, this book invites the reader to rethink ‘the good place’ from the specific perspective of literary studies and suggests that utopia, in the realm of fiction, is more than just a philosophical abstraction. Mediated by the experience of authors, characters and readers, utopian literature offers a transient but genuine experience of perfection, beyond the horizon of everyday lived experience.
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Introduction: Utopian / World / Literature



A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.

—OSCAR WILDE, The Soul of Man under Socialism1

Utopian literature is an invitation to enter an unfamiliar world, a remote place. Ever since Thomas More conceived of his fictional island, journeys, walls and similar spatial and temporal divides have been a defining feature of the genre.2 The existence of such barriers, as Peter Ruppert remarks, is a sign of ‘utopia’s desire to escape the uncertainties and contingencies of time and history’.3 The utopian text, in other words, imagines a world untouched by the ills of the writer’s own time: a ‘good place’, far away from the squalor of an all-too-imperfect real world, but not so isolated as to be inaccessible. Remoteness and accessibility, in fact, are equally important to what Northrop Frye describes as the genre’s rudimentary plot: ‘in utopian stories, a frequent device is for someone, generally a first-person narrator, to enter the utopia and be shown around it by a sort of Intourist guide’.4 At the ← 1 | 2 → heart of utopian literature, then, lies a fantasy of geographical or temporal distance, but also a fascination with the possibility of encounter. The well-fortified boundaries of utopia are open to the narrator-protagonist, who is invited to witness the marvels of the fictive society. During this moment of contact, above all, the...

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