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The Anatomy of Utopia
Kàroly Pintèr
McFarland, 232 pages

The Anatomy of Utopia
Kàroly Pintèr
Kàroly Pintèr was born in 1970, he received his MA in English and History from ELTE (Eötvös Loránd University), Budapest, in 1993 and 1995, respectively, and his PhD in English Literature from ELTE in 2005. His doctoral dissertation, entitled The Anatomy of Utopia, focused on two seminal works of the English utopian literary tradition, Thomas More's Utopia and H. G. Wells' A Modern Utopia.

He started teaching at the Institute of English Studies, PPKE (Péter Pázmány Catholic University), in 1995, and became full-time professor in 1998. From the start, he has been responsible for survey courses on British and American history and introductory courses on modern Britain and the USA. He has published introductory textbooks on both Britain and the US, as well as essays on Beckett, Huxley, More, and Wells. His other professional interests include modern English-language SF as well as American studies, especially the Presidential elections, the separation of church and state, and racial, ethnic and religious minorities.

Since 2004, has has been chair of the Educational Committee of the Faculty of Humanities of PPKE, dealing with the academic problems of students.

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A review by Paul Kincaid

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Opinions differ sharply, but I believe we can date the origins of our genre (at least in its modern form) pretty accurately. In May 1515, Thomas More travelled to Bruges on a trade mission and in July took time off to pay a visit to Peter Giles, a fellow humanist, in Antwerp. While still in Bruges he wrote a treatise about an ideal state that would become the second part of Utopia. The response from those fellow humanists who saw the work was so enthusiastic that, upon his return to England later in the year, he wrote the section that has come to be known as the Dialogue of Counsel. The whole thing was published, in Latin, in Louvain, in November or December 1516. Thus was a new word coined, a literary genre created, and innumerable political theories born.

The Dialogue of Counsel, the first part of Utopia, tells how, while visiting Peter Giles in Antwerp, More was introduced to a stranger called Raphael Hythloday (the name means 'dispenser of nonsense'). The dialogue that ensued was considered such cutting satire that this part of Utopia wasn't translated into English until 15 years after More's death. Hythloday reported severe failings in the political systems of Europe (particularly England), then related how he had been one of the 24 men left behind by Amerigo Vespucci on his voyage to the new world. From there, Hythloday travelled widely through various unknown realms until he reached Utopia, a country that had put right all the things that were wrong in Europe.

What we get, particularly in the Dialogue of Counsel, is an incredibly sophisticated piece of writing that is designed to wrong-foot the reader at every turn. We get the participation of real people (More himself and Giles), a specified and actual time (More's visit to Antwerp), and reference to well-known events (Vespucci's reports were widely published and read), all of which are designed to convince the reader that this dialogue actually took place. Against this we get Hythloday's name, the place names he reports in Utopia (which translate as 'phantom city,' 'river without water', etc.), and various subtle suggestions (which would have been much more obvious to 16th century readers) that Hythloday was taking the part of a fool, all of which tell the reader that what is related is not to be trusted. These ambiguities (which extend to the famous pun in the title: Ou-topia or Eu-topia, no-place or good-place) are what make the book so fascinating but so problematic.

Part of the problem with Utopia is that, from at least the time of the British Civil Wars and Commonwealth, utopia has become inextricably linked with political thought. Consequently, most critical studies of utopian writing have concentrated on the political aspects of the work. This is especially true of Marxist critics building on the work of Ernst Bloch (who had no interest in the literary utopia whatever). Bloch's most eminent disciple, at least within the genre, is Darko Suvin, who has insisted that utopian and science fictions are inextricably interlinked. I agree with him on this, even if I disagree on much else.

Kàroly Pintèr, a Hungarian academic and critic, also disagrees with Suvin, though on slightly different grounds from me. He believes that to study utopian literature from a purely political perspective is to miss, obscure or get wrong a great deal of what the books are actually doing. But in rescuing utopia for literary study, he still wants to retain the tools that Suvin so famously brought to bear on the genre, the novum and, particularly, cognitive estrangement. Since I don't happen to believe that either of these point to anything particularly distinctive about utopian and science fictions, I can't see that stripping them of their political overtones actually gains anything. In fact, Pintèr recasts cognitive estrangement as narrative estrangement and gives it a somewhat broader remit, and in so doing simply emphasizes the fact that such estrangement is a characteristic of any work of fiction, not just genre works.

Pintèr is on much firmer ground when he calls on the work of Northrop Frye, and in particular Frye's distinction between the novel and the Menippean Satire. By identifying utopian literature with the satire, Pintèr shows that it operates according to different rules than those we expect of most works of fiction. Though I feel that most interesting works of fiction are the ones that can least easily be categorized like this, this does prove to be a fruitful way of looking at the genre in literary terms.

Looking at More's Utopia from a literary rather than a political perspective, allows a fuller and more productive analysis of its many ambiguities. There is the question of what More believed and what we should believe. After all, if this was indeed a genuine blueprint for a perfect state, why did More himself make no effort to effect any such changes when he was in a position to do so as Lord Chancellor only a few years later? (In his interesting examination of this question, I feel that Pintèr overlooks one simple fact: the year after Utopia was published, Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church at Wittenberg Castle, and the whole game was changed.) We also have to examine whether More, the author, wanted us to put more weight on the arguments he put in the mouth of Hythloday, or the counter-arguments he put in the mouth of More, the character. Again, examining this work from a literary perspective allows Pintèr to make many significant points about the difference between More the author and More the character, between the world of the fiction and the world of reality. Though personally I would also pay some attention to the fact that More's training as a lawyer would have entailed him arguing both for and against the same position as a matter of course, which leads me to wonder whether we should not believe either of the characters.

What happened, of course, was that Utopia went on to enjoy an afterlife that would surely have astounded More. It wasn't long after the original book was published before other utopian works began to appear, often paying explicit tribute to More's invention. The form was quickly seen as an invaluable device for propagandizing for all sorts of pet projects, religious, social, scientific or political. Eventually, as the unknown regions of the map were filled in, the locations for these utopias were translated to other worlds, other times, and merged seamlessly into the nascent form of science fiction. After his exploration of More's book, Pintèr turns his attention to three of these successor texts, A Modern Utopia by H.G. Wells, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke.

The chapter on Wells is, in many ways, the turning point of this book, because the novel in question epitomizes so many of the problems and ambiguities that have become amplified in utopian writing since More's day. Even Wells doesn't quite know how to approach his project, making it, by turns, a utopian novel and a commentary upon the whole concept of utopian novels. It terms of the literary history of utopia this is exciting and important: Wells was, for instance, the first to see that utopia was a process not a destination; however, though Wells would return insistently to the form throughout his long career, A Modern Utopia also effectively killed off the straightforward utopian novel. A political analysis of the book concentrates only on one part of what Wells is doing (the disturbingly authoritarian role of the samurai), Pintèr's analysis concentrates more on the messy novelistic parts of the book, the way in which ordinary human concerns such as the botanist's quest for love intrude into the rather inhuman grand concept. The messiness and ambiguity of this contribute to the failure of the book, but they are also a significant and often overlooked part of what Wells was trying to achieve. We emerge from this chapter convinced that utopia can only ever be ambiguous (which makes one wish that Pintèr had gone on to look at Samuel R. Delany's 'ambiguous heterotopia', Triton, which might then have made an interesting counterpoint to Wells's novel).

If the chapter on Wells is thus the high point of the book, suggesting how valuable this literary approach to utopia is, the final chapter, titled 'After Utopia?', is more disappointing. Lumping together two ways that utopian fiction has developed during the twentieth century, the dystopia as represented by Brave New World and the science fiction as represented by The City and the Stars, we are left with a sense that there isn't much new being said here. Pointing out how little we can rely on what we are told in Brave New World or the elegiac sense of the past that informs Clarke's distant future, is fair enough. And yet the literary approach does not seem to impart as much freshness to our reading of these texts as it did to the More or Wells. So, although it is nice to see Clarke being given the sort of critical attention that rarely comes his way, it has to be said that this book is more interesting and valuable in its earlier chapters.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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