- Perfect Worlds: Utopian Fiction in China and the West by Douwe Fokkema
Douwe Fokkema’s Perfect Worlds begins with four hypotheses about utopian fiction. The first is that moments of crisis, “when dominant ideologies can no longer answer the needs of the day” (16), create favorable cultural conditions for the production and reception of utopian genres; the second, that “we will see an upsurge of utopian narratives among writers who have emancipated themselves from revealed religion” (19); the third, that the closer we are to the realization of “eutopian” principles, “the greater the chance that we will see an increase of dystopian writing that aims to expose the adverse results of any good intention” (21). The final of the four hypotheses, the one that represents the most illuminating and original aspect of this big book, is that “Chinese and European utopian fictions have gone through opposite historical developments” (26). These hypotheses come at the heels of a yet earlier declaration in the book’s preface, namely, that Fokkema intends to limit himself to a discussion of utopia as a fictional and literary genre, and not as a genre of politics (or, one might add, philosophy, sociology, or ecology). A literary scholar’s attention, he explains, falls on narration rather than exposition, with narration having “cognitive and emotive effects … on the reader’s mind [that] differ from those of predominantly rational expositions” (5).
As it turns out, the book is much less thesis-driven than its opening pages suggest. We really only hear of those hypotheses again in the concluding chapter, where their formulation is a bit sheepishly admitted to have been “vague to an extent that almost prevented their refutation” (399). “Refutation” (the term a salute to Karl Popper, whose search for black swans Fokkema in much of his distinguished career tried to apply to literary studies but whom he, in this book, finds wanting for his lack of “affinity with literature” ) [End Page 260] never really seemed in the cards, the hopeful almost notwithstanding. The book is, rather, an extensive survey of utopian themes, concerns, and plots that, in the concluding chapter, is shown to have put flesh on the bones of the hypothetical framework. The emphasis on utopia as a literary genre remains strong throughout the book, to the extent even that Fokkema’s occasional excursions into politics and authors’ biographies, as well as his personal asides, form welcome relief, especially where he deals with the Chinese literary context: Fokkema, after all, was a member of the Netherlands diplomatic mission in China during the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and has kept in touch with Chinese contacts and sources ever since. In the present book (which he was able to finish just before his death in 2011) Fokkema masterly unfolds the literary and nonliterary shapes that the utopian imagination took on in China before, during, and after Mao’s revolution. In its emphasis on utopia as literary fiction, the book is also an elegy for it, even though Fokkema says not to mourn: The republic of letters is shrinking even quicker than the ice caps, and utopian planning and dystopian worries find their outlets more readily in scientific reports, environmental warnings, political initiatives, and nongovernmental action groups now than in belles lettres.
For a genre that can be as relentlessly descriptive as utopia, the cognitive and emotive effects of narration are never going to be paramount in it, as Fokkema points out himself. Thomas More, he writes, “should have added some introspective views or stories of the interaction between various characters, such as Wells, Huxley, Houellebecq, and others have done in modern times” (26). One feels for Thomas More, so blithely updated by his progeny, his Renaissance complexities and ambiguities so cursorily ignored. But strangely and fortunately, Fokkema’s actual praxis in this book has little to do with his methodological throat-clearing: the book, once it gets under way, forgets its intentions...