Science Fiction Studies

#27 = Volume 9, Part 2 = July 1982



  • Robert Griffin. Charting More's Utopia (Judith P. Jones. Thomas More)
  • Donald Watson. Boundaries of Genre (Gary Saul Morson. The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer and the Traditions of Literary Utopia)


Robert Griffin

Charting More's Utopia

Judith P. Jones. Thomas More. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. 165p. $9.95.

Thomas More's authorship of the Utopia is the key to the controversy that has accompanied his name over the centuries. Like Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the Utopia appears to have confused or even deceived the simple-minded from the date of its first publication in 1517. Nor have the more sophisticated been entirely at ease with it: Sidney, for example, complained about it, albeit obliquely, in his Defence of Poesy. The centuries have not resolved the question of More's tone, especially the issue of the author's relationship to his persona in the text. Since the late 19th century the focus of primary interest has been More's communism; but the real problem continues to be stylistic, the question of tone.

The book under consideration here has the advantage of being a literary biography, which means that the focus throughout is on More's literary works. Because the nature of literary evidence, especially in the case of acknowledged fictions, precludes allegorization in terms of the author's real life experience, the works are never reduced to mere evidence for the life. We need to know the facts of More's life and times, of course; and we especially need to know as much as possible of the complex personal motives involved in the writing of the Utopia--i.e., More's ambivalence respecting the pressures on him to become part of Henry VIII's administration.

Like Erasmus in The Praise of Folly, which was written in More's house and dedicated to him, More attacks the folly and wickedness of the age and in doing so pursues the Christian humanist's vocation to remake the world--to revive learning, to restore ethics, to rectify the social order, and to reform the Church. But the Utopia is not just a book of social reform and political theory; it is a literary product of Christian humanism as well. And it is in clarifying what this entails that the book under review is particularly helpful. Professor Jones spells out the unique combination of classical and Christian influences that accounts in part for the Utopia's significance as a work of the European literary renaissance.

The most pervasive classical influence in the Utopia is Platonic. The characters evoke the authority of Plato several times; the idea for the Utopia and some of its institutions clearly derive from the Republic; and the details of Utopian life are often related to Plato's Laws and dialogues. But the book is much more than an exercise in Platonism. Stylistically, it demonstrates the skillful use of rhetorical techniques of More's Greek and Roman models, including the Greek Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Cynics. The ironic texture is probably most indebted to More's study of Lucian. A full catalogue of the probable influences would include several Latin philosophers and the Latin historian Tacitus, besides the early Church fathers, especially St Augustine. As dialogue, the Utopia instructs and entertains at such a complex level of ambiguity, satire, and paradox that it is impossible to reduce it to a single level of meaning. There are almost as many "readings" of the book as there are readers of it, arid any attempt to formulate a simple and completely satisfactory interpretation is like trying to stand firm in quicksand. As C.S. Lewis has said, "as long as we take the Utopia for a philosophical treatise it will 'give' wherever we lean our weight."

However interesting More's Utopia may indeed be as a document in the history of ideas, it continues to attract and beguile readers as a fiction, the first of its kind. Oscar Wilde remarks somewhere that "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." Comprehending as it does things not dreamt of in our philosophies, utopian fantasy has the potential to give a local habitation and a name to the life of our desires.

Professor Jones's biography of Thomas More provides an excellent chart for locating the Utopia, not geographically of course, but centrally in More's life and literary production. She rightly sees it, along with the History of Richard III, as More's most significant work.

Donald Watson

Boundaries of Genre

Gary Saul Morson. The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer and the Traditions of Literary Utopia. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1981. xi + 219 p. $25.00.

Professor Morson's title refers to those limits which literary works of generic peculiarity, like Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer, transgress. Such violations of the conventions and expectations of the reader's hermeneutical territories, whether out of ignorance of, indifference to, or rebellion against the traditions of form and style, generate misreadings at the worst but can also seriously question the often sacrosanct bases upon which contemporaneous generic practice implicitly and our contemporary genre theory explicitly operate. In establishing a category, "threshold art," Morson valuably and provocatively raises important problems concerning the relationship of genre criticism, the theory of literary interpretation, intertextuality, and the production of critical readings. The Boundaries of Genre provides moments of exasperation, many of which result from the author's multiplication of terms--the terrorism of language so seemingly epidemic among critics nowadays--but is also suggests possibilities for rethinking the connections of classification and interpretation which students of utopian fiction and SF will find profitable.

Before describing just what these are, a brief account of Dostoevsky's Diary may be necessary, since it has certainly found its way to few bookshelves of the readers of SFS. The Diary of a Writer was begun as a supplementary column to the periodical, The Citizen, which Dostoevsky edited during 1873 and 1874. In 1876 he resumed its publication, now as an independent monthly publication, suspending it again in 1877 to write The Brothers Karamazov. A single issue appeared in 1880, and another in 1881. Dostoevsky announced that it would be again published monthly on a regular basis. His death that year forestalled this plan. In all about 37 issues of the diary were published; in bulk the Diary equals Crime and Punishment plus The Brothers Karamazov (in the standard, Tomasevskij and Xalabaev edition).

The traditional genre that the Diary most resembles is the "feuilleton," a portion of a news periodical devoted to a miscellany of sketches, impressions, cultural criticism, anecdotes, reportage of urban events, fiction, and parody. Dostoevsky included all these elements--some of his best stories appeared in the Diary as well as some of his inchoate sketches for The Brothers; but essentially he used the Diary to establish a personal colloquy with the Russian people about whatever interested him: politics, crime, women, religion, class, European hegemony, Russian messianism, materialism, socialism, Orthodoxy. As Bakhtin says, it forms "an entire encyclopedia of the contemporary life of his time:...full of both open and hidden polemics with the various philosophical, religious, ideological, and scientific schools, tendencies and currents of the time"; and, in Morson's words, it is puzzling in "its thematic and formal heterogeneity" (p. 5). Only part of the Diary has been translated into English (by Boris Brasol, 1949), and its usual function has been to provide support for research into the compositional genetics of Raw Youth and The Brothers. Although it appears to be "an amorphous collection of unrelated pieces," Morson believes that Dostoevsky's correspondence confirms his theory that it was designed to be read "as an integral (if idiosyncratic) literary work" (p. ix).

Morson finds the key to this journalistic miscellany or encyclopedia in Dostoevsky's continuing dramatization of "a dialogue of utopian faith with anti-utopian skepticism" (p. 36). That he locates a thematic rather than a formal focus for interpretation of the Diary leads him to the dubious choices a reader makes in assuming the intertextuality of a work. Works which may be read according to "two mutually exclusive sets of conventions" create the "hermeneutic perplexity that characterizes boundary genres" (pp. 48-49). Genre theory itself will not resolve the perplexity, and the authorial strategy involved may be intentional, as Morson explains in his remarks on the "double encoding" designed to perplex Alyosha in Ivan's narration of his Grand Inquisitor legend. Other, perhaps less intricate, examples of such perplexity are the generic incompatibility of Gogol's grotesque and the deceitful encoding of Tolstoy's retroactively reframing of the text in "Lucerne" or "The Kreutzer Sonata."

The examples which Morson finds recurrent in the strategies of the Diary involve Dostoevsky's reader in "the making of art" and "the experience of reading" (p. 68). Morson's term for this technique of self-reflexivity and self-cancellation is "meta-literature," images or stories about the creative process. Metaliterary devices abound in the Diary: reports of crimes, trials, and the daily horrors of St. Petersburg, unfinished fictions, intentionally rough sketches, interruptions of narration by Dostoevsky's other scoffing voices, the diarist's unsuccessful searches for matter, theme, and story. Such "feuilletonistic" ramblings defamiliarize and decontextualize literature, depriving it of its perfect unity, which assumes the order and relevance of all detail. The reader faces the author's problems, struggles with him for solutions, witnesses his creativity, and shares the power of his structuring imagination. Should such a moment threaten to become "literature," a sudden juxtaposition may undermine completion, maintaining the designed fragment as "metaliterature" through successive acts of intratextual denials of closure. The finished stories of the Diary--"Bobok," "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," "The Peasant Marey"--merely reinforce its metaliterary intentions.

All this makes Dostoevsky's Diary seem less tedious than previous critics had thought, but what does it have to do with genre theory? Morson asserts that the Diary exemplifies "threshold fiction," works which lie on the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction. Utopia combines such a paradox: the good place which is no place, the fiction which is not a fiction, the social fiction which would be social "fact." Clearly many, if not most, literary utopias attempt to blur such distinctions, and the best of them try to involve the reader in the making of their fictions. They insist upon the disingenuous realism of the opening frame, but elude as much as possible the power of the closing frame, "developing a special set of anti-closural devices" (p. 95). Secondly, utopias doubly encode their fictions: as play and game, suspending historical time; and as entrapment of a historical reader, whose aesthetic detachment occurs under determinate social conditions which would restrict or disallow the fiction. Threshold art as a description of utopian strategies seems preferable to seeing them as ways of embedding ideologies or as ways of solving current social problems through fiction.

Building upon this distinction, Morson in his last and longest section takes on another major problem of genre theory: intertextuality. Here he follows Mikhail Bakhtin's definition of parody as the simultaneous "expression of two speakers," the original speaker and a second who evaluates that utterance from a different point of view (p. 108). Morson may, therefore, define anti-utopias as parodies of utopias and meta-utopias as inconclusive dialogues between utopia and anti-utopia. The distinctions here are useful. Anti-utopias belong to an anti-genre and so not only parody the target genre, utopia, attempting to discredit not merely exemplars but the genre as a whole, but also are indebted to the conventions of previous works in the anti-genre: Candide, Notes from the Underground, We, 1984, A Clockwork Orange. However, anti-utopias seldom raise the hermeneutic perplexity of threshold art; we may read Fahrenheit 451 as SF and anti-utopia, for example, or Notes as novel and anti-utopia. Yet because anti-utopia as an anti-genre forces the reader to recontextualize a genre of threshold literature utopia, anti-utopias "characteristically parody--bare the devices of and motives for-- utopian classificatory ambivalence" (p. 135). In short, the best anti-utopias cannot help but become metafictions.

In parody and in anti-utopia the reader hears two voices, but they evoke no hermeneutic perplexity: he knows with which voice he is to agree. Morson asserts that the two voices in meta-utopia are equally unauthoritative. The author has anticipated the reader's choice of one and taken steps to make choice itself a target of parody. The perplexity is intended as part of the work, and the lack of resolution has been built in by doubling and tripling the voices of parody. Self-cancellation! Morson points to Erasmus's Praise of Folly and Notes from the Underground as meta-parodies, and he admires meta-utopia as meta-parody for its "great formal, as well as hermeneutic, complexity" (p. 146). His monograph ends with discussions of Wells's A Modern Utopia, Shakespeare's The Tempest, Herzen's From the Other Shore, More's Utopia, and The Diary as meta-utopias. These readings vary greatly in their value, ranging from three worthless pages on The Tempest to fairly elaborate and useful interpretations of the deliberate framebreaking and tonal incompatibility in Wells's fiction and the paradoxical etiologies of The Diary. None, however, is exactly a "meta-reading," that is, an "accounting for" the variety of interpretations by connecting textual characteristics with the production of "readings" (p. xi, 173). The consideration of the "textology" of More's Utopia only delineates contemporary uncertainty about exactly what constitutes a "text."

Nevertheless, Morson's study will provoke thought. His formalistic approach has not produced definitive categories, but it can reshape the questions we ask. If, as the editors of SFS believe, utopia and SF belong within the same covers, the most valuable concept Morson discusses is that of threshold art, for, like utopian fiction, SF exists at the "boundaries of genres." By putting into question the entire theory of genre, both make their readers evaluate conventional genres as well as re-examine exactly how to "read," that is, the "appropriate procedures for discovering meaning" (p. 49). From this formal perplexity, one may then advance to the true intention many utopian fictions and SF share: to reveal the arbitrary, capricious nature of institutional hierarchies and the equally fanciful metaphorical discourses about the nature of human nature. Is this intention built into the fictive enterprise itself? Do its authors inevitably face the self-destroying incompatibilities of formal play and ideological politics? Is the quest for form and the reformulation of generic traditions the essential means of pursuing the reader's re- education for the future? Are the destabilization of generic classifications and the destabilization of ideological structures parts of the same rhetoric? At the least, Morson helps us to these thresholds of cultural discourse about utopia and SF.

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