- Text, Image, and the Problem with Perfection in Nineteenth-Century France: Utopia and Its Afterlife by Daniel Sipe
This book investigates the turning point that occurred in the middle of nineteenth-century France when utopia shifted from its literary ambitions to a social-scientific concept aimed at laying the grounds for a better, fairer society. By using passions as the central focus, the author's aim is to circumscribe what he calls the utopian "afterlife" that characterizes fin de siècle France and evolved as dystopia later on in the twentieth century. Indeed, the scope of the book runs through a corpus representing the nineteenth century from Romanticism to fin de siècle literature. The introduction exposes very thoroughly the contextual emergence of utopias in nineteenth-century France and seeks to position them within "an aesthetic of change" (29) from artistic to a more science-focused, rationalized world from which the utopian afterlife grew. Daniel Sipe's notion of the afterlife is theorized within a critical framework as a transitional state, a tension that emerges from critically looking back at the utopian discourse while moving toward a more conflicted, individually centered expression of the self.
The first chapter looks at Chateaubriand's Atala and Hugo's La fonction du poëte as part of the tensions among the function of the artist, his or her position within the utopianism realm, and its role in society. Sipe successfully demonstrates how the passions of the characters undermine Chateaubriand's vision of social harmony and are in fact more of a hindrance. Instead of sublimating utopia as a way to allow the expression of passion, Sipe reveals that, on the contrary, it undermines it. One of the strong parts of the book is the critique of Cabet's Voyage en Icarie, a novel that blurs the lines between literary and social conceptions of utopia. Contrasting the rigorously established system described by Cabet in the novel with Grandville's satirist Un autre monde strongly highlights the futility of the utopian systems and the void they were falling into. Sipe has chosen to focus on C. Baudelaire and G. Courbet [End Page 362] in his third chapter as embodiments of the turning point that characterizes French utopianism after the 1848 Revolution and how their respective work as utopian visionaries switches later on in the century to dystopian currents through sedition and fetishized objects. The final chapter shows how the female automaton in literature exemplifies the move toward a more mechanical, unconscious, and pathological representation of desires and passion and its role within the social conception of interaction. It is a compelling perspective to frame the legacy of the utopian afterlife while at the same time announcing the emergence of dystopia that became prevalent in the twentieth century. Daniel Sipe's book provides an acute and precise analysis of the literary, sociohistorical, and cultural productions of the time, making his work a truly interdisciplinary contribution to the field of utopian studies.