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Perfect Worlds: Utopian Fiction in China and the West by Douwe Fokkema (review)

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 319-321 | 10.1353/com.2013.0029

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Douwe Fokkema's book, Perfect Worlds: Utopian Fiction in China and the West, comes well recommended by such eminent scholars of Comparative Literature and Chinese studies as Zhang Longxi and Michel Hockx. Indeed, its 17 chapters and more than 400 pages deliver a kind of work whose scope and erudition—reminiscent of such early authorities of the field as Erich Auerbach or Robert Curtius—have become the exception rather than the rule for the field.

Fokkema weaves a rich tapestry of utopian fiction as his text moves with facility and elegance from More to Houllebecq, from Plato to Confucius, from Zamyatin to Mao Zedong. Throughout, the book packages its arguments by providing thorough information about each work, its author, and its historical, political, and intellectual context. Because of its diachronic coverage, its intercultural range, its accessible prose, and its exhaustive discussion of some of the most important works and trends in the genre of utopian fiction, Perfect Worlds doubles as a handbook of the genre and a critical study of utopian writing.

With few exceptions, work in Comparative Literature in Europe and the U.S. seems to move away from the format and scope of Perfect Worlds, for conceptual, as well as pragmatic reasons. How often do we come across a work so ambitious that it tackles a whole genre not only across the centuries, but also across the cultures of Europe, the U.S., Russia, and China? How often does a scholar dare to take up the challenge to extend Comparative Literature to a truly intercultural scale, and thus to propose arguments about the state of literature and the world in general?

Fokkema's choice of the genre of utopia with its hybrid character of fabulation and social dream constitutes a political as well as literary gesture: it aims to reflect on the interaction between politics and literature, ethics and fiction, the world and the text. Implicitly, it thus reasserts the right for literature and literary studies to speak in important ways to contemporary problems, rather than just being regarded as a pastime or an abstraction spun by specialists in their ivory towers. Utopian fiction, the literary attempt to craft perfect visions of social organization (eutopia) or worst-case scenarios of human interaction (dystopia), marks one of the privileged sites at which literature and reality interact in suggestive as well as profoundly problematic and complex ways.

Throughout, Fokkema takes stock of the hybrid status of literary utopias. Not by chance are the key characteristics of the genre he discusses closely linked to the socio-political contexts of their emergence: utopias thrive there where secular worldviews return the human gaze from the world beyond to improvements of the here and now, especially whenever a society faces a profound crisis. However, Fokkema does not only situate each utopia within its historical moment and intellectual context, but espouses a doubly diachronic perspective. On the one hand, so Fokkema explains, the reception of a specific utopian fiction differs widely, not only across time, but also for individual readers: one's eutopia is another's dystopia, especially since one of the genre's main conceptual problems lies in the uneasy combination of control and individual free will. On the other hand, argues Fokkema, as a genre, utopian fiction emerges as and through intertextuality. Most utopian fictions contain strong intertextual references, both of positive emulation and negative rebuttal and rewriting—a sign of a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit acknowledgment of belonging to a specific literary and generic tradition.

The fact that such intertextual links rarely existed between the "West" and China, especially not before the nineteenth century, constitutes a conceptual crux for Perfect Worlds and, to a certain extent, for all comparative projects that eschew conventionally safe patterns of direct contact and literary influence. It forces the author to work with different strategies for comparison, as the texts under scrutiny are held together by different means. While relations of intertextuality link most of the European, U.S., and Russian examples, and some cases of utopian fiction constitute examples of Orientalism and Occidentalism, of positive and negative dreams of the other between China and the West, some texts simply stand together in Fokkema's book as...

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