- Utopia, Carnival, and Commonwealth in Renaissance England
Reading Christopher Kendrick's intriguing new book is uphill work through thickets of verbosity and deserts of abstraction, but those intrigued by the class [End Page 291] dynamics of Utopia, Carnival, and Tudor social thinking will want to have a go. The theory that sustains the analyses is a Marxism to which readers will respond variously, as they will to the author's jabs at globalization (7), Christianity (13), "Mrs. Thatcher" (14), poststructuralism (19), "Christian critics" (69), and "mainstream Rabelais scholars invested in high learning" (87). His method is to locate the dynamic behind utopianism itself and texts that conceal utopian hopes, idealizations, or buried Carnival, and to distinguish these from a more strictly defined Carnival as imagined — some say fantasized — by Bakhtin. His aim is to detect and define class anxieties or agendas, whatever the authors' conscious intentions or deliberate ambiguities. The focus is on Utopia, nonfiction by Thomas Starkey and Thomas Smith, Rabelais's Abbey of Thélème, plays by Marlowe and Shakespeare, Bacon's New Atlantis, and Tom Nashe's word-stuffed sausage of quasi-utopian quasi-satire, Lenten Stuff. The treatment of so few texts, with just a glance at Cockaigne and some of Utopia's later progeny, allows Kendrick room for intense thought but means he must ignore many texts that might confirm or modify his arguments: that adventure in dystopic carnival reversal, Joseph Hall's Mundus Alter et Idem, William Bullein's popular Dialogue Against the Fever Pestilence (1564) with its description of "Nodnol," and even some French texts related to Rabelais that exploit Cockaigne — such as Les Navigations de Panurge, with its delightful custom of rejuvenating old men in vats of wine.
Class is, for Kendrick, the key, not always persuasively. Can it really have been the "paradigmatically atomized class of small proprietors" for whom "More wrote" (225)? If they had enough Latin, maybe, but More surely aimed higher — at Hampton Court as well as at an international world of humanists and rich merchants. Uneasily aware that "smallholding" covers too much socioeconomic turf, Kendrick refers to the class's "many factions" (122), but he remains hazy on what they were. Similarly, Kendrick says of Thélème — a place that Kendrick reads straight, although Rabelais himself would not be welcome there — that its "courtiers" are "substitutes for peasants," which "makes the Renaissance hungers figure Food and Sex in a sense, thus reintegrating them into the popular body" (89). Kendrick is, of course, right that these texts do not float free of social and economic moorings. But here they too often hover, like Swift's Laputa, ungrounded by particularities. Kendrick can seem indifferent to writers' circumstances. He argues that Carnival helped Rabelais "situate himself in society, to take his bearings on the basis of or from popular symbolic practice" (90). Yet Rabelais had a defined if beleaguered social situation as editor of Galen, medical advisor to Cardinal Jean du Bellay (misidentified in the index as Joachim), and writer who achieved denunciation by both Calvin and the Sorbonne. Marlowe's blasphemy is credited to "some basic class antagonism," which could be true. Was his sexuality also relevant? Did his work as a spy affect his take on power? Even the characters can lose context. Kendrick's Edward II is declassed, rather than deposed and fundamentally murdered. One need not be an "individualist" critic (a bad thing in this book) to regret seeing writers so deracinated.
One effect is an inadvertent grayness. That Nashe's "Yarmouth-as-utopia is [End Page 292] most saliently premised . . . on an early phase of capitalist abstraction" is probably true. As the final word on Nashe's logorrhea it is depressing. The robberies in1 Henry 4 represent "primitive accumulation," so that the play "gestures toward the agenda . . . of a class" not yet "available for secure representation." Could be. But this is also to banish the carnivalesque or panurgic Falstaff before his time. It isn't that Kendrick is wrong, just...