Utopia and the reality of literary study

Is there anything more tedious than the facile distinction between university study and the “real world”? (The only thing that annoys me more is being called “Miss” by teenage restaurant workers—as if nothing could be more gravely insulting to a woman than to address her in such a way that acknowledges her age.) Tedious and also ubiquitous: the opposition between the liberal arts and the “real world” is quoted unthinkingly in a variety of contexts, by journalists reporting on the state of the humanities, academic administrators enjoining faculty to increase enrollments, and, most distressingly to me, our own students. (If college isn’t “real,” does that mean undergraduates abscond to some imaginary plane of non-existence for the duration of their studies? I mean, certain things about college seem super real to me, not least of which is the loan debt accrued, but also all the things that happen to the body and mind during one’s years as a student.)

As it happens, the humanities are really good at making us aware of our “real,” lived experience; they focus attention on the concepts that structure our daily existence, often by putting pressure on those concepts and then watching what happens under the force of that pressure. For the past few years I’ve been teaching a class at Cornell titled “Utopia: From Thomas More to Science Fiction” that attempts to render uncomfortable the distinction between the real and the not-real. Utopia is the perfect genre for doing this kind of work (and here already utopia interrupts my argument to remind me how ironic any notion of “perfection” is in a discussion of utopia!). The genre was given its name by Thomas More’s The Best State of a Commonwealth (1516), now popularly known as Utopia, the name of the fictional society described within the text (More’s neologism means either “no place” or “not-place”). Though Utopia is conventionally thought of as the story of an island commonwealth that has eliminated private property, this is but one facet of an extremely complicated text. The text of Utopia is perhaps best analogized to a series of Russian dolls: the fictional island is nestled within a series of framing devices that precede the description of Utopia and attest to the truth of the story. These framing devices include a prefatory book that narrates “Thomas More’s” conversation with a Portuguese sailor named Raphael Hythloday, who has purportedly journeyed to the island of Utopia and can thus report back on the structure of its society. Prior even to this book the reader (depending on the edition) will already have encountered a map of the island, a picture of its alphabet, and a series of letters between “Thomas More” and a number of humanist scholars who testify to the truth of the text. This constitutes what scholars often refer to as the “game” of Utopia: it looks the reader straight in the eye and claims over and over again that this outlandishly fictional invention is true.

Despite its outlandishness and pervasive sense of irony (“Hythloday” is Greek for “speaker of nonsense”), there seems little doubt that More’s fiction is deeply tied to the “real world” of the sixteenth century. The conversation narrated in Book I (reportedly composed by More after he had already written the description of Utopia contained in Book II), features a debate about the economic privation and injustice that plague Tudor England, an injustice exemplified by the practice of hanging thieves, a form of punishment that rendered England notorious throughout Europe. But even so, it has proven quite difficult to specify the contours of the relationship between the fictional island and its various frames and the historical “fact” of England’s starved and suffering populace, not to mention Thomas More’s “real” feelings about that suffering. To my mind, this conundrum constitutes one primary import of Utopia. It compels us to ask the following questions: What is the relationship between fiction and the present or “real” world? And between fiction and “truth”? If something is “fictional,” does that mean it isn’t “real”? What do “made-up” stories have to say about the past, present, and future of our own societies? How does fiction change how we inhabit different worlds, such as those we find in books, or at our jobs, or even in the classroom?

My “Utopia” class is about these questions. This means that the class is also about literary study and its purpose. Which means that the class is about itself. And what could be more real than that?


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