Defining the Literary Genre of Utopia: Some Historical Semantics, Some Genology, a Proposal, and a Plea (1973) (9300 words)

For if the matter be attentively considered, a sound argument may be drawn from Poesy, to show that there is agreeable to the spirit of man a more ample greatness, a more perfect order, and a more beautiful variety than it can anywhere (since the Fall) find in nature. […] it [Poesy] raises the mind and carries it aloft, accommodating the shows of things to be desires of the mind, not (like reason and history) buckling and bowing down the mind to the nature of things.

Francis Bacon

“Utopia,” the neologism of Thomas More’s, has had a singularly rich semantic career in our time. Having at its root the simultaneous indication of a space and a state (itself ambiguously hovering between, for example, French état and condition)that are nonexisting (ou)as well as good (eu),it has become a territory athwart the roads of all travelers pursuing the implications of the question formulated by Plato as “What is the best form of organization for a community and how can a person best arrange his life?”1 And have not the urgencies of the situation in which the human community finds itself made of us all such travelers? Utopia operates by example and demonstration, deictically. At the basis of all utopian debates, in its open or hidden dialogues, is a gesture of pointing, a wide-eyed glance from here to there, a “traveling shot” moving from the author’s everyday lookout to the wondrous panorama of a far-off land:

But you should have been with me in Utopia and personally seen their manner and customs as I did… [More, Utopia,book 1]

1 Laws 3, 702b. See Plato, The Laws,trans, with introduction by A. E. Taylor (London, 1960), p. 85.

… it was winter when I went to bed last night, and now, by witness of the river-side trees, it was summer, a beautiful bright morning seemingly of early June. [Morris, News from Nowhere,chapter 2]

We should both discover that the little towns below had changed – but how, we should not have marked them well enough to know. It would be indefinable, a change in the quality of their grouping, a change in the quality of their remote, small shapes. […] a mighty difference had come to the world of men. [Wells, A Modern Utopia,chapter 1]

Morris’s abruptly beautiful trees can be taken (as they were meant to be) for an emblem of this space and state: utopia is a vivid witness to desperately needed alternative possibilities of “the world of men,” of human life. No wonder the debate has waxed hot whether any particular alternative is viable and whether it has already been found, especially in the various socialist attempts at a radically different social system. In the heat of the debate, detractors of this particular set of alternative conclusions – often shell-shocked refugees from it – have tried to deny the possibility and/or humanity of the utopian concept as such. Other imprudent apologists – often intellectuals with a solid position within the defended system – have taken the symmetrically inverse but equally counterutopian tack of proclaiming that Civitas Dei has already been realized on Earth by their particular sect or nation, in “God’s own country” of North America or the laicized Marxist (or pseudo-Marxist) experiments from Lenin to Castro and Mao. Historians have transferred these debates into the past: were Periclean Athens, Aqbar’s India, Emperor Friedrich’s Sicily, Münzer’s Muhlhausen, the Inca state, or Jeffersonian U.S.A. utopian?

Such fascinating and tempting questions cannot fail to influence us in an underground fashion – defining our semantics –in any approach to a definition of utopia. But I propose to confine myself here to a consideration of utopia as a literary genre. No doubt this is not the first point about utopias – that would pertain to collective psychology: why and how do they arise? – nor is it the last one – that would pertain to the politics of the human species and perhaps even to its cosmology: how is Homo sapiens to survive and humanize its segment of the universe?

Such a politico-eschatological question has understandably arisen out of twentieth-century heretic reinterpretations of the two most systematic bodies of thought about man in our civilization: the Judaeo-Christian one (in spite of its usual pat transfers of the answer into the blue yonder of otherworldly post-mortems) and the Marxist one (in spite of Marx’s and Engels’s scorn of subjective theorizing about ideal futures in their predecessors, the “utopian socialists”). Ernst Bloch’s monumental philosophical opus, culminating in Hope the Principle,has reinterpreted utopia (as have some theologians such as Martin Buber and Paul Tillich) as being any overstepping of the boundaries given to man, hence a quality inherent in all creative thought and action. In a narrower and more academic version, a similar reinterpretation of “utopia” as any orientation that transcends reality and breaks the bounds of existing order, as opposed to “ideology,” which expresses the existing order, was introduced by Karl Mannheim.2 But all these horizons, interesting and even inspiring as they are, are beyond my scope here. I propose that an acknowledgment that utopias are verbal artifacts before they are anything else, and that the source of this concept is a literary genre and its parameters, might be, if not the first and the last, nonetheless a central point in today’s debate on utopias. If this is so, one cannot properly explore the signification of utopia by considering its body (texts) simply as a transparency transmitting a Platonic idea: the signifiant must be understood as well as the signifié. Thus, especially at this time of failing eschatologies, it might even be in the interests of utopia (however widely redefined) if we acted as physiologists asking about a species’ functions and structure before we went on to behave as moralists prescribing codes of existence to it: perhaps such codes ought to take into account the makeup of the organism? And since discussions of utopias are an excellent demonstration of the saying that people who do not master history are condemned to relive it, the physiological stance will have to be combined with an anamnesic one, recalling the historical semantics (in sections 1 and 2) of utopia while trying to tease out its elements (in section 3) and genological context (in sections 4 and 5).

2 See Tillich (a representative essay from which is reprinted in Manuel, ed.), Buber, Bloch, and Mannheim – all in Bibliography II; also the rich anthology on the concept of utopia: Neusüss, ed. (Bibliography II).

1.   Historical Semantics: Antediluvian

The first point and fundamental element of a literary definition of utopia is that any utopia is a verbal construction. This might seem self-evident, but it is in fact just beginning to be more widely recognized in the vanguard of “utopology.” The Oxford English Dictionary,for example, defines utopia in the following ways:

1. An imaginary island, depicted by Sir Thomas More as enjoying a perfect social,  legal and political system.

……………… .

         b. transf. Any imaginary, indefinitely remote region, country, or locality.

……………… .

2.  A place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions.

……………… .

         b. An impossibly ideal scheme, esp. for social improvement.

Obviously, the OED – whose latest examples come in this case from the turn of the century – has not yet caught up to the necessity and practice of defining utopia as a literary genre.3 If we nonetheless look for clues in the above four definitions, we shall see that the first one pertains to More’s “depiction” of a locus which is, for the OED,defined by two aspects: (1) “imaginary” removal from the author’s (and presumably the reader’s) empirical environment; (2) sociopolitical perfection. The first aspect is then isolated in the semantic practice leading to definition 1b, and the second in the practice leading to 2, which is further treated derisively by hardheaded pragmatists or ideologists of the status quo in 2b. From all this a definition of utopia as a literary form should retain the crucial element of an alternative location radically different in respect of sociopolitical conditions

3 See the stimulating discussion, with more lexicographic material, in Herbrüggen (Bibliography II); also further French, German, and Spanish material in Rita Falke, “Utopie – logische Konstruktion und chimère,” in Villgradter and Krey, eds. (Bibliography II).

from the author’s historical environment. However, this element must be valorized in the context of a literary-theoretical approach.

Only in OED 1 is there even a discreet mumble about the utopia being an artistic artifact, hidden in the ambiguous “depicted” (about which more later). All the other definitions refer to its qualities of perfection, remoteness, or impossibility. This ontological equating of utopia to England, Germany, or any other empirical country was an accepted nineteenth- and early twentieth-century way of defining it. I shall adduce only a few definitions from some better-known and more helpful works pertaining to such a way of thinking, which might well-regardless of their actual year – be called antediluvian:

  • Utopias […] are ideal pictures of other worlds, the existence or possibility of which cannot be scientifically demonstrated, and in which we only believe. [Voigt, 1906]
  • More depicted a perfect, and perhaps unrealizable, society, located in some nowhere, purged of the shortcomings, the wastes, and the confusion of our own time and living in perfect adjustment, full of happiness and contentment. [Hertzler, 1923]
  • an ideal commonwealth whose inhabitants exist under perfect conditions. [Encyclopedia Britannica,accepted by Berneri, 1950]4

All of the above definitions or delimitations consider utopia simply as a Platonic idea and proceed to examine its believability and readability. Hertzler (2) is the most effusive and prolix among them: the definition of utopias in general on which her whole book is predicated, is effected by a definition of More’s work prefaced with the statement that this definition isolates the distinctive characteristic applicable to all “imaginary ideal

  • These definitions can be found in the following books (whenever in my quotes the subject and predicate are missing, “utopia is” is implied): Voigt, p. 1; Hertzler, pp. 1–2; Berneri, p. 320 (all in Bibliography II). A number of very useful approaches to utopia are not referred to here, as they were not found cognate to a primarily literary-theoretical viewing; a still greater number were found of little use except for a history of “utopologic thought.”

societies.” The vagueness (“perhaps,” “some nowhere”) and non-sequiturs (More depicted a society purged of “the confusion of our own time”) make Hertzler a very good example – though greater offenders could be found in the antediluvian age – of the uselessness to our endeavors of most surveys of “utopian Thought” as being idealistic and ideological. All the above definitions, moreover, do not (except by vague suggestions inherent in “commonwealth” or “society”) distinguish between various religious “ideal pictures of other worlds” and utopias. This echoes the (once?) widely-held unexamined premise that utopias are really lay variants of paradise. Now if this is true, it is so only in the sense which would make a counterproject out of a variant. Whereas it remains very important to pursue the historical underground continuation of absolutistic religious and mythological structures (especially those drawn from the Islands of the Blessed and Terrestrial Paradises) in Plato, More, or a number of other utopian writers, it should seem clear that there is little point in discussing utopias as a separate entity, if their basic humanistic, this-worldly, historically alternative aspect is not stressed and adopted as one of their differentiae genericae. “A wishful construct has been explicated, a rational one, that does not possess chiliastic certainties of hope any more, but postulates the possibility of being constructed by its own forces, without transcendental support or intervention,” observes Bloch even about More’s Utopia.5 What is literally even more important, such a construct is located in this world. Utopia is an Other World immanent in the world of human endeavor, dominion, and hypothetic possibility – and not transcendental in a religious sense. It is a nonexistent country on the map of this globe, a “this-worldly other world.” No doubt, there is the pragmatic, Macaulayan sense of utopia being anything intangible and impossibly far-off, as opposed to immovable property in one’s own property-owning environment (“An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia”)6; this sense would also englobe all Heavenly and Earthly Paradises. But from any point of view except that of a

  • Bloch, p. 607.
  • Quoted in the OED; see Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Lord Bacon,” in his Critical, Historical and Miscellaneous Essays and Poems (Albany, 1887), 2:229.

property-owner and pragmatist, religion is, as Ruyer notes, counterutopian. It is directed either towards Heaven (transcendence) or towards Middlesex (bounded empirical environment): in either case it is incompatible with a non-transcendental overstepping of empirical boundaries.7 The telos of religion is, finally, eternity or timelessness, not history. On the contrary, just as the satire is an impossible possible – what is empirically possible is felt as axiologically impossible; it should not be possible – utopia is a possible impossible. Subversion and rhetoric embrace in a paradoxical sociopolitical revaluation of the Petrarchan “icy fire” impossibilia – a “positive adynaton” in Barthes’s term.8

Thus, chemin faisant,we have found that the (still not too precise) element of historical alternative enters any definition which would leave utopia intact as a literary genre and object of exploration. We have still to pursue the metaphors adopted as a first try at untying the embarrassing knot of utopia’s being a concept and belief and yet, at the same time, obviously a (literary) artifact – a “picture” (2 and 4) or a “description” (4 and 5):

(4) A. Nom donné par Thomas Morus au pays imaginaire qu’il décrit dans son ouvrage: De Optimo reipublicae statu, deque nova insula Utopia (1516), et dans lequel il place un people parfaitement sage, puissant et heureux, grâce aux institutions idéales dont il jouit.

B. Se dit par extension de tous les tableaux représentant, sous la forme d’une description concrète et détaillée (et sou-vent même comme un roman), l’organisation idéale d’une sociéte humaine. [Lalande, ed. of 1968, but text goes back at least to 1928]

  • Name given by Thomas More to the imaginary country which he describes in his work De Optimo reipublicae statu, deque nova insula Utopia (1516), and into which he collocates a people that is perfectly wise, powerful, and happy, thanks to the ideal institutions with which it is provided.
    • Said by extension of all pictures representing, by means of a detailed and concrete description (often even as a novel), the ideal organization of a human society.]
  • Ruyer (Bibliography II), p. 31; see also Schwonke (Bibliography II), pp. 1–3, in whose book this is a basic theme, and Gerber (Bibliography I), pp. 6–7.
  • Barthes (Bibliography II), p. 122.

(5) la description d’un monde imaginaire, en dehors […] de l’espace et du temps historiques et géographiques. C’est la description d’un monde constitué sur des principes differents de ceux qui sont à l’oeuvre dans le monde réel.9 [Ruyer, 1950] [the description of an imaginary world, outside […] of historical and geographic space and time. This is a description of a world based on principles that differ from those underlying the real world.]

“Description” is derived etymologically from “writing,” but in an archaic and ambiguous sense which, as it were, echoes the derivation of writing from drawing. Above it is clearly employed within the semantics pertaining to painting: “il décrit […] il place” (in 4a. placing pertains to the way a landscape painter would arrange his figures); and “tableaux représentant, sous la forme d’une description” is a classic witness for my thesis (4b.). Even (5), which is more abstract than the previous definitions, continues its discussion in the immediately following line by contrasting such descriptions to those of a nonutopian novelist, who “lui, place des personnages et des aventures imaginaires dans notre monde.”10 Utopia, as well as “our world,” is a scene for dramatis personae and actions; the metaphor of author as puppeteer (stage manager), never far beneath the metaphor of author as painter (scenographer), has here come nearer to the surface.

Such a dramatic metaphor, linked as it is to the “all the world’s a stage” topos, is potentially much more fruitful – since drama fuses painting and literature, temporal and spatial arts – and very appropriate for this dialogic form. Unfortunately, it has not, to my knowledge, been taken seriously in defining utopias. Thus such attempts at acknowledging the artificial character of utopia have remained half-hearted. They have failed because they did not acknowledge that it is a literary artifact. This is crucial because the problems of “depicting” a radically different (5) because perfect (4) imaginary world are in a literary artifact quite distinct from the problems

  • These definitions can be found in Lalande (Bibliography II), p. 1179 – and see the whole discussion on pp. 1178–81 – and Ruyer, p. 3. See also the definition of Dupont (Bibliography III C), p. 14, which is transitional between the first group of definitions and this one. All the translations in this book, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.
  • Ruyer, p. 3; italics added.

of a “tableau,” which exists in an arrested moment of time and in a synoptic space. A picture may perhaps approximate the status of a mirror of external reality (though even the mirror reverses). In literature, a concrete and detailed “description” or, better, verbal construction is not, in any precise sense, a “re-presentation” of a preexisting idea which would be the content of that representation or description (where would such an idea preexist? with the Zeitgeist?).Literary texts cannot be divided into body and soul, only into interlocking levels of a multifunctional body, which is a human construct out of verbal denotations and connotations. Only within such a context can the definition of its thematic field – practically identical from (2) to (5) – become a valid part of a literary definition. The imaginary community (the term seems preferable to the ambiguous “world”) in which human relations are organized more perfectly than in the author’s community can be accepted as a first approximation to identifying the thematic nucleus of the utopian genre.

One further point should account for my substitution of “more perfectly” in place of the “perfect” in (2) to (4). Though historically most of the older utopias tried to imagine a certain perfection, after Bacon’s New Atlantis and Fénelon’s Télémaque (not to forget Plato’s Laws)a suspicion ought to have arisen that this is not inherent in the genre. That suspicion should have grown into a certainty after Saint-Simon and Morris. By the time Wells wrote his celebrated first page of A Modern Utopia distinguishing between static and kinetic utopias, the laggard academic and literary critics of the genre found their work done for them. Since then we have had no further excuse for insisting on absolute perfection, but only on a state radically better or based on a more perfect principle than that prevailing in the author’s community, as a hallmark of the utopian genre.11 As for

  1. See the analogous argument in Walsh (for the titles in this note see Bibliography II), p. 25. The position of utopia midway between the corruptible world of class history and ideal perfection is quite analogous – as will be discussed in section 4 of this chapter – to the position of Earthly Paradise in religious thought; see for example the definition of Athanasius of Alexandria:

  The Terrestrial Paradise we expound as not subject to corruption in the way in which our plants and our fruits get corrupted by putrefaction and worms. Nor is

the “author’s community,” this phrase can be left conveniently plastic to embrace whatever the author and his ideal readers would have felt to be their community – from city to nation to planet.

2.     Historical Semantics: Postdiluvian

In the last twenty years, at least in literary criticism and theory, the premise has become acceptable that utopia is first of all a literary genre or fiction. The Cold War “end of ideology” climate might have contributed to this (it can be felt, for example, in the disclaimers in the Negley-Patrick book discussed below), but more importantly, it has been part of a deeper epistemological shift in literary scholarship – a belated recognition that, as Frye wrote, the literary critic “should be able to construct and dwell in a conceptual universe of his own.”12 I shall again adduce only a few definitions as characteristic examples for works of this period, after the deluge of two world wars and two cycles of worldwide revolutions:

(6)  There are three characteristics which distinguish the utopia from other forms of literature or speculation:

  1. It is fictional.
  2. It describes a particular state or community.
  3. Its theme is the political structure of that fictional state or community….

it, on the other hand, wholly incorruptible, so that it-would not in future centuries decay by growing old. But if it is compared with our fruits and our gardens, it is superior to all corruption; while if it is compared to the glory of the coming Good, which eye hath not seen nor ear heard nor the heart of man comprehended, it is and is reputed to be vastly inferior.

 Athanasii archiep. Alexandrini, Opera omnia quae extant… (Paris, 1698) 2:279, quoted in Coli, p. 39. The insistence on utopia as wholly “ideal” can still be found in Herbrüggen – see note 13.

  1. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism,p. 12.

Utopias are expressions of political philosophy and theory, to be sure, but they are descriptions of fictional states in which the philosophy and theory are already implemented in the institutions and procedures of the social structure. [Negley and Patrick, 1952]

  • … the literary ideal image of an imaginary social system (Staatsordnung).

[Herbrüggen, 1960]

  • the utopian novel is the literary manifestation of a playful synopsis of man, society, and history in a variable, image-like (bildhaft) thought model possessing spatio-temporal autonomy, which model permits the exploration of possibilities detached from social reality yet relating to it. [Krysmanski, 1963]
    • la description littéraire individualisée d’une société imaginaire, organisée sur des bases qui impliquent une critique sous-jacente de la société réelle.13 [Cioranescu, 1972] [the individualized literary description of an imaginary society, organized on bases which imply an underlying critique of the real society.]

Negley and Patrick (6) seem to have been the first expressly to enunciate a differentiation between the utopia of political scientists and Geisteswissenschaftler (“expressions of political philosophy and theory”) and that of the literary critics and theorists (“fictional states,” theme and ideas “implemented”). Their pioneering status is evident in certain uneasy compromise with the older conception which they are abandoning.14 But as well as their use of the by-now dead metaphor of describing (which in a proper context it would perhaps be pedantic to fault), their failure to elaborate what exactly fictional implementation entails and their de facto concentration in the book on sociopolitical ideas and structure unrelated to the literary structure leave their definition somewhat isolated and without consequences. But their useful and influential book at least indicated the horizons of studying what they called in their preface, in a mixture of conceptual styles, both “utopian thought in Western civilization” (old style) and also, somewhat shamefacedly, “the literary genre of the utopists” (new style).

  1. These definitions can be found in the books by Negley and Patrick, pp. 3–4; Herbrüggen, p. 7; Krysmanski, p. 19; and Cioranescu, p. 22 – all in Bibliography II.
  2. No doubt, there were earlier implicit or incidental suggestions that fictional utopia was primarily a literary genre, e.g. in Dupont – in spite of his definition and title – and in Frye, Anatomy. But the voices of these, and possibly of other, precursors fell on deaf ears.

On the other hand, Herbrüggen (7) starts boldly and happily by identifying utopia as literary, but then leaves it dangling in intense vagueness by calling it not only “imaginary” but also the “ideal image.” Later in this work, he has many just and stimulating things to say about its delimitation from other genres. In particular, he has been a pioneer in drawing some structural consequences from defining utopia as possessing a literary mode of existence. However, a number of his parameters, including his definition, seem to fit More (his particular paradigm), or indeed a utopian program, better than they would an ideal-typical utopia.

Krysmanski’s (8) sociological exploration of German “utopian novels” of the twentieth century (which ought rather to be called science fiction, as I shall argue in section 5) set itself the laudable aim of discovering and fully defining “the specific nature of the utopian novel”: his definition is the conclusion of a chapter with that title. Unfortunately, for an analysis of a “literary manifestation” (Erscheinungsform)it is far too little conversant with fundaments of literary theory and criticism. One’s sympathy and tolerance lie with his Aristotelian basic approach, striving for a definition which must be precise and comprehensive, in which case technical jargon is almost impossible to avoid. Nonetheless, it is not only the Teutonic and Mannheimian “sociology of knowledge” nature of the jargon which makes one pause, it is primarily the arbitrariness and vagueness of the elements of the definition, which seem to prove that modern definitions can be every bit as prolix-cum-insufficient as the antediluvian ones. It may be useful to draw our attention to the elements of playfulness, of simultaneous viewing or synopsis (Zusammenschau)of man, society, and history, or of an exploration of possibilities. But why “manifestation of a synopsis” (the German is still worse: “Erscheinungsform der […] Zusammenschau”)? Why “variable,” “image-like,” and “spatio-temporal autonomy” – is not every Denkmodell such? And the final clause evidently pertains to science fiction in general, being too wide for utopia, which is bound up with the (here missing) “more perfect community” concept.

As for Cioranescu’s book devoted to “utopia and literature,” a work full of stimulating and provocative statements, I shall return to later. At this point, it might suffice to point out with relief how neat and with unease how overgeneralized his definition is (9). Are not Paradise, an Island of the Blessed, or satirical SF covered by it as well? And, not to boggle at minor maters, just what is “the real society”?

3.    A Proposed Definition: Utopia as Verbal Construction

The historico-semantical discussion of the preceding two sections has come up with the following elements for defining utopia: a radically different and historically alternative sociopolitical condition; an alternative locus; an imaginary community in which relations are organized more perfectly than in the author’s community; the fictional or, more clearly, “verbal construction” character of any such condition, location, or community; the particular or individualized character of any such construct as opposed to general and abstract utopian projects and programs. I shall now commit the utopian imprudence of proposing after the above critique a construct or definition of my own:

Utopia is the verbal construction of a particular quasi-human community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle than in the author’s community, this construction being based on estrangement arising out of an alternative historical hypothesis.

I have indicated earlier in general outline the importance to be allotted to the element of verbal construction. This can be fully demonstrated only in particular analyses of utopian works. But its relevance can be seen even in a general answer to the question: what type of verbal construction? As Frye has pointed out, utopia belongs to a narrative form and tradition which he calls anatomy (or Menippean satire) rather than to the novel. The anatomy deals less with illusionistic “people as such than with mental attitudes” and at its most concentrated “presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern.”15 Our critical judgments should take this into

  1. Frye, pp. 309 and 310.

account; in particular, there is no point in expecting from a characterization and plotting which are more allegorical than naturalistic the qualities and criteria induced from the psychological novel, from Prévost to Proust or Richardson to Henry James.16 To take one example, the conclusions of Gerber’s interesting book on twentieth-century utopias (or rather SF) are vitiated by his assumption and definition of utopia as a novel.17 To take another, Elliott has aptly complained about one of the dominant interpretations of More’s Utopia:

We are given no sense […] that these questions exist, not as abstract political, religious, or philosophical propositions, but as constitutive elements in a work of art. What is wanted instead of the Catholic interpretation of communism is an interpretation of Utopia that will show us how the question of communism is incorporated into the total structure of the work.18

Further, some basic structural characteristics of utopia seem to flow logically from its status as a discourse about a particular, historically alternative, and better community. Since such a discourse will necessarily present an opposition which is a formal analogy to the author’s delimited environment and its way of life, any utopia must be (1) a rounded, isolated locus (valley, island, planet – later, temporal epoch). Since it has to show more perfectly organized relationships, the categories under which the author and his age subsume these relationships (government, economics, religion, warfare, etc.) must be in some way or other (2) articulated in a panoramic sweep whose sum is the inner organization of the isolated locus; as Barthes remarks about Fourier (and some other writers), the syntax or composition

  1. The famous quarrel between James and Wells – available in Leon Edel and Gordon N. Ray, eds., Henry James and H.G. Wells (Urbana, IL, 1958) – which resulted in a draw rather than in the vindication of the psychological novel the Jamesians saw in it, is a clear example of the collision between the “anatomic” or allegorical and the “novelistic” or individualistic orientations.
  2. Gerber, final two chapters, and in particular pp. 121–22. See the critique by Elliott

(Bibliography II), p. 104 and the whole chapter “Aesthetics of Utopia.” 18            Elliott, pp. 28–29.

of elements is identified with creation in such works.19 Since not only the elements but also their articulation and coordination have to be based on more perfect principles than the categorization in the author’s civilization (for example, the federalist pyramid from bottom up of More’s Utopia as opposed to the centralist pyramid from top down of More’s England and Europe), (3) a formal hierarchic system becomes the supreme order and thus the supreme value in utopia: there are authoritarian and libertarian, class and classless utopias, but no unorganized ones. (Morris’s reticence about organization and hierarchy in News from Nowhere places that work halfway between utopia and Earthly Paradise; see chapter 8). Usually the installation of the new order must be explained – a contract theory, as Frye observes, is implied in each utopia (King Utopus, the socialist revolution, gas from a comet, etc., being the arbiters or contract-makers). The utopian contract is necessarily opposed to the dominant contract-myth in the author’s society as the more reverent “contract behind the contract,”20 a human potential which existing society has alienated and failed to realize. Lastly, utopia is bound to have (4) an implicit or explicit dramatic strategy in its panoramic review conflicting with the “normal” expectations of the reader. Though formally closed, significant utopia is thematically open: its pointings reflect back upon the reader’s “topia.” I have already hinted at that in section 1, and one critic has even conveniently found a threeact dramatic structure in More’s Utopia.21Whether this is exact or not, there is no doubt that an analysis of ideational protagonists and settings in Burkean “dramatistic” terms is here appropriate.22 For example, utopia is invariably a frame-within-a-frame, because it is a specific wondrous stage, set within the world stage; techniques of analyzing the play-within-theplay could be profitably employed when dealing with it. The varieties of

  1. Barthes, p. 9; this whole discussion is indebted to Barthes’s book, though I do not wholly share his horizons.
  2. Northrop Frye, “Varieties of Literary Utopias,” in Manuel, ed., p. 38.
  3. Edward Surtz, S.J., “Utopia as a Work of Literary Art,” in Edward Surtz, S.J., and J.H. Hexter, eds., The Complete Works of St. Thomas More (New Haven, 1965), 4: cxxvcliii, especially in the chapter “Dramatic Technique, Characterization, and Setting.” 22 E.g. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (New York, 1957).

the outer frame – usually some variant of the imaginary voyage23 – have been readily noticeable and as such the object of critical attention; less so their correlation of say, the humanistic symposium of More or the socialist dream-which-might-be-a-vision of Morris with the experience in the inner frame. Even on the stylistic and not only compositional level, such a strategy should be fruitful: “l’écriture,” remarks Barthes of Fourier, “doit mobiliser en même temps une image et son contraire [the writing must mobilize at the same time an image and its opposite].”24 Finally, “verbal construction” as a definitional element bypasses, I hope, the old theologizing quarrel whether a utopia can be realized, whether in fact (according to one school) only that which is realizable or on the contrary (according to another but equally dogmatic school) only that which is unrealizable can be called utopia. Neither prophecy nor escapism, utopia is, as many critics have remarked, an “as if,”25 an imaginative experiment or “a methodical organ for the New.”26 Literary utopia – and every description of utopia is literary – is a heuristic device for perfectibility, an epistemological and not an ontological entity. “L’utopie est un jeu, mais un jeu sérieux. L’utopiste a le sens des possibilités autres de la nature, mais il ne s’éloigne pas de la notion de la nature [Utopia is a game, but a serious game. The utopian author envisages the other possibilities of nature, but he does not let go of

  • Historically this is especially significant in antiquity and Renaissance, when most utopias and imaginary voyages were combined, but it does not have to persist as an explicit combination. See the excellent survey of Gove (Bibliography III A), much in need of newer follow-ups.
  • Barthes, p. 115.
  • See Hans Vaihinger, Die Philosophie des Als Ob (Leipzig, 1920) or The Philosophy of As If  ”,trans. C. K. Ogden (New York, 1924). The verbal mode appropriate to this is the subjunctive: see Elliott, p. 115; Samuel R. Delany, “About Five Thousand One Hundred and Seventy Five Words,” in Clareson, ed., SF (Bibliography I); Michael Holquist, “How to Play Utopia,” in Jacques Ehrmann, ed., Game, Play, Literature (Boston, 1971), particularly illuminating in his discussion of utopias as a literature of the subjunctive in “hypothetical or heuristic time,” p. 112; and Claude-Gilbert

Dubois, “Une architecture fixionelle,” Revue des sciences humaines 39, No. 155 (1974): 449–71.

  • Bloch, p. 180.

the notion of nature]” argued Ruyer in two chapters which remain among the best written on the “utopian mode.”27 He referred to utopian subject matter as “les possibles latéraux [the lateral possibilities]” and compared the utopian approach or view to the hypothetico-deductive method in experimental sciences and mathematics (for example, non-Euclidean geometries). If utopia is, then, philosophically, a method rather than a state, it cannot be realized or not realized – it can only be applied. That application is, however, as important as it has been claimed that the realization of utopia is: without it man is truly alienated or one-dimensional. But to apply a literary text means first of all (wherever it may later lead) to read as a dramatic dialogue with the reader.28 Besides requiring the willingness of the reader to enter into dialogue, the application of utopia depends on the closeness and precision of his reading.

4.      Comment: Utopia as Historical Estrangement

I have thus far worked upon certain premises, among them that scholarly inquiry is possible only when oriented towards, and by, an at least approximately delimited and defined field and that valid definitions in literary studies – as in anything – are historical and not transcendental, or “contextualist” and not “essentialist.” Proceeding further, it is necessary to add that the basic diachronic way to define the context of a work of art

  • Ruyer, chapters 1 and 2; the first quotation is from p. 4 and the later one p. 9; Ruyer acknowledges the stimulus of an observation by Lalande, p. 1180. Unfortunately, the analysis of actual utopian characteristics and works in the rest of Ruyer’s book is much less felicitous.
  • Some of my conclusions are very similar to those of Harry Berger, Jr., in his more synoptic, seminal introductory discussion of the “other world” in “The Renaissance World: Second World and Green World,” The Centennial Review 9 (1965): 36–78. Regret fully I must add that I believe his particular argument about Utopia – that More differs radically from Hythloday – to be wholly unconvincing.

is to insert it into the tradition and system of its genre (meaning by that a socioaesthetic entity with a specific inner life, yet in a constant osmosis with other literary genres, science, philosophy, everyday socioeconomic life, and so on). Understanding particular utopias really presupposes a definition and delimitation of their literary genre (or, as we shall see, subgenre), its inner processes, logic, and telos. What is, then, the distinctive set of traits of the literary genre “utopia,” its differentia generica?

I have argued in my first two chapters for a division of prose literature into naturalistic and estranged genres. The literary mainstream of the individualistic age endeavors faithfully to reproduce empirical textures, surfaces, and relationships vouched for by human senses and common sense. Utopia, on the contrary, endeavors to illuminate men’s relationships to other men and to their surroundings by the basic device of a radically different location for the postulated novel human relations of its fable; and I have proposed to call literary genres which have such a different formal framework “estranged.” One should insist on the crucial concept of a radically different location, of an alternative formal framework functioning by explicit or implicit reference to the author’s empirical environment. Without this reference, nonutopian readers, having no yardstick for comparison, could not understand the alternative novelty. Conversely, without such a return and feedback into the reader’s normality there would be no function for utopias or other estranged genres: “the real function of estrangement is – and must be – the provision of a shocking and distancing mirror above the all too familiar reality.”29 No-place is defined by both not being and yet being like Place, by being the opposite and more perfect version of Place. It is a “positive negation,” a “merveilleux reel,”30 the standing on its head of

  • Ernst Bloch, “Entfremdung, Verfremdung,” Verfremdungen,1 (Frankfurt a. M., 1963), English as “Entfremdung, Verfremdung: Alienation, Estrangement,” trans. Anne Halley and Darko Suvin, in Erika Munk, ed., Brecht (New York, 1972), p. 10. For “estrangement,” see the discussion and references in my first chapter (Shklovsky and Brecht), as well as Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung.
  • “Positive negation” is the term used in Mikhail Bakhtin’s fundamental Tvorchestvo

Fransua Rable… (Moscow, 1965), English as Rabelais and His World (Bibliography

II), p. 403; but see also this whole book for a rich and persuasive account of folk

an already topsy-turvy or alienated world, which thus becomes dealienated or truly normal when measured not by ephemeral historical norms of a particular civilization but by “species-specific” human norms. Utopia is thus always predicated on a certain theory of human nature. It takes up and refunctions the ancient topos of mundus inversus: utopia is a formal inversion of significant and salient aspects of the author’s world which has as its purpose or telos the recognition that the author (and reader) truly live in an axiologically inverted world. It follows, as has been increasingly recognized in modern investigations (and as has been mentioned in passing in section 1), that the explicit utopian construction is the logical obverse of any satire.31 Utopia explicates what satire implicates, and vice versa. Furthermore, there are strong indications that the two are in fact phylogenetically connected in the folk-inversions and “saturas” of the Saturnalias, whose theme was sexual, political, and ideological reversal, in fact total existential “reversal of values, of social roles, of social norms.”32 The best argument in favor of that can be found in the ontogenesis of individual works, in – to stick to utopias and cognate estranged genres – the most prominent titles of the tradition which runs from Lucian’s True Histories and More’s Utopia through Fourier, Bellamy, Morris, Wells, and Zamyatin to modern SF. A guess could even be hazarded that the significance and scope of writings in this tradition can be gauged by the degree of integration between its constructive-utopian and satiric aspects: the deadly earnest blueprint and the totally closed horizons of “new maps of hell” both lack aesthetic wisdom.

However, besides satire (which can be, like utopia, both a mode and a genre) the estranged literary genres comprise several which are differentiated from utopia by not situating what Aristophanes calls their topos apragmon in the field of an alternative historical hypothesis. The most relevant ones are, in ascending order, myth, fantasy, folktale, Cockayne, and Terrestrial Paradise.

humor as the source for inverting and negating a dominant, upper-class feeling of reality. “Merveilleux réel” is an expression of Barthes’s, p. 101.

31 See Frye, Anatomy,pp. 309–12; Lalande, p. 1180; Negley and Patrick, pp. 5–6; and especially Elliott, chapter 1, “Saturnalia, Satire, and Utopia.” 32 Elliott, p. 11.

I have tried to deal with myth in my earlier chapters, and I can only repeat that, although it is also shaped as a specific form of estrangement, myth is diametrically opposed to a historical approach.33 Conceiving human relationships to be fixed and supernaturally determined, myth claims to explain phenomena by identifying their eternal essence; conceiving human relationships to be changeable and maternally determined, history attempts to explain phenomena by identifying their problematic context. From a historical point of view, myth itself is a historical phenomenon and problem, an illusion when not a fraud. Literature is, in fact, never truly a myth (though mythological tales are literature) but only, in certain cases, formally analogous to mythical structure or mythomorphic. Thus, for example, the myth of the Golden Age can have many formal analogies and elements in common with utopia, but utopia is its opposite:

… man’s effort to work out imaginatively what happens – or what might happen – when the primal longings embodied in the myth confront the principle of reality. In this effort man no longer merely dreams of a divine state in some remote time; he assumes the role of creator himself.

A characteristic of the Golden Age […] is that it exists outside history, usually before history beings: in illo tempore.34

Folktale and fantasy,being morphological and ideological descendants of fragmented mythology (in the case of fantasy privatized to boot), can be regarded in a similar way. Neither of them pretends to be historically oriented or in historical time. Both take place in a context of supernatural laws oriented towards the protagonist, whereas for humanistic historiosophy – including utopia – nature is neutral and man’s destiny is man.

Somewhat closer to utopia is Cockayne (Cuccagna, Schlaraffenland), a widespread folk legend of a land of peace, plenty, and repose, probably

  • See also Ruyer, pp. 4–6. For all my admiration of Professor Frye’s insights, here I obviously disagree with the horizon and main terminology of his work – and in particular with his classifying Dante’s Paradise and Purgatorio as utopian, in Manuel, ed., p. 34.
  • Elliott, pp. 8–9.

refurbished by the student-poets of goliardic and “prandial” libertinism.35 This legend is interesting here because the land where roasted fowls fly into your mouth, rivers flow with cream or wine, and sausages with a fork stuck into them run around crying “eat me, eat me!” is obviously an inverted image of the hunger, toil, and violence in the authors’ everyday lives. Cockayne is already an inverted parallel world that relates, if not yet to a historical hypothetical possibility organized into institutions, then at least to everyday human needs and not to transcendental doctrines:

La fiction paralléle, la préoccupation pour le destin de l’homme et la solution strictement matérialiste sont les trois traits fondamentaux qu’ont en commun l’utopie et la pays de Cocagne….

Le matérialisme ainsi entendu ignore les restrictions mentales et transcende la matière pour la transformer en divinité tutelaire et en providence.36

[The parallel fiction, the preoccupation with human destiny and the strictly materialist solution are the three fundamental traits which utopia and Cockayne have in common….

Taken thus, materialism ignores mental restrictions and transcends matter in order to transform it into patron deity and providence.]

Clearly, as Cioranescu notes, this does not jibe with the fundamental utopian context of a neutral nature: but utopia wishes to achieve by cognitive means and in a context of hypothetically inflected history what the legend of Cockayne achieved in a pure wishdream outside the terrible field of history. While still a folktale, Cockayne can be readily transferred to the vicinity of utopia by allying its dream to a cognitive context, as in Rabelais.

The Earthly Paradise may be even nearer to utopia. Outside official Christianity, it is as a rule not transhistoric, but can be reached by an

  • See Bakhtin’s chapter “Banquet Imagery,” especially pp. 296–98, and Morton (Bibliography II), pp. 15–27. For some further references to Cockayne see Ackermann, Bonner (both in Bibliography III B), Boas, pp. 167–68, Patch, pp. 51 and 170–71 (both in Bibliography II), Gatz, pp. 116–21, Grauss, Manuel and Manuel (all in Bibliography III B), and note 36.
  • Cioranescu, pp. 57 and 59, but see his whole passage on pp. 55–62, which presents the best analysis of Cockayne I know of. For connections with satire see also Elliott, pp. 16–17.

ordinary voyage. It is divided from other lands by a barrier, which makes it usually an island in the sea – an Island of the Blessed, as the Greek tradition from time immemorial has it and as many other writings, anonymous or famous, also know it, to wit, the Celtic blessed island or Dante’s Paradiso Terrestre in the western sea.37 Often, especially in versions unaffected by religious rewriting, the inhabitants are not disembodied, but are simply more perfect people. The implied critique of the author’s environment is explicated in a whole group of “other world” tales.38 The magical or folktale element is clearly present in the perfect climate, the freedom from cares and strife, and often in the arrested time on such blessed islands (so that a return from them entails instant aging or turning to dust). And yet, the proximity of utopia of Terrestrial Paradise in its unbowdlerized versions is impressively indicated by a tale such as that of the Guarani Land-Without-

Evil. That land, also called the House of Our Ancestress,

is difficult to reach, but it is located in this world. Although […] it entails paradisiacal dimensions (for instance, immortality) – the Land-Without-Evil does not belong to the Beyond. […] One arrives there […] [not only] in soul or spirit, but in flesh and bones. […] [It] is thus a world at once real and transfigured, where life continues according to the same familiar model, but […] without misery or sickness, without sins or injustice, and without age.39

  • A general survey on ideas about the Golden Age, Eden, and Paradise is to be found in Manuel and Manuel, who, however, fail to make the crucial distinction between heavenly and earthly paradise. On Greek tales see Bonner, Lovejoy and Boas, the comment in Bloch, chap. 36 (all in Bibliography II), and a number of works from Bibliography III B, especially Gatz, Finley, Pöhlmann, Rohde, and Winston. For medieval tales and beliefs about localized “other worlds” see Boas, Coli, Graf, “II Mito del Paradiso Terrestre,” Patch (all in Bibliography II), and a number of works from Bibliography III B, especially Curtius, Graus, Kampers, Peters, and Westropp; Coli, p. 130, and Patch, p. 135, comment on the accessibility and material reality of Eden for medieval minds. See also Giamatti (Bibliography II) for Renaissance echoes.
  • See Patch, p. 128, and Coli, p. 130.
  • Mircea Eliade, “Paradise and Utopia,” in Manuel, ed., pp. 273–75. For paradises located on Earth see also Boas, pp. 154–74, Graf, pp. 15 and 24, and Coli, p. 91; and for the arrival in flesh at Earthly Paradise the Hellenic testimonies in Lovejoy and Boas, pp. 25–30 and 290–303, where further bibliography can also be found.

Is such a country outside history, as Eliade thinks? It is certainly outside empirical or known history, but it is at the same time an alternative, hypothetically possible, and supremely desirable history on Earth. All the above qualifications could be applied to utopia, not only in my proposed definition but according to most of the quoted definitions too. It lacks only More’s great discovery of focusing on sociopolitical institutions and norms as a key to eliminating misery, sickness, and injustice. The usual utopian answer, communal ownership, is here preserved (the Guaranis did not need to attain it) by means of what Bloch calls a “medical utopia” (search for immortality, eternal health, and youth). If not utopia, this is a fraternal genre: an early and primitive branch of SF.

5.    Comment: Utopia as a More Perfect  Organized Community

Finally, the relationships of utopia to other genres of what I have in the earlier chapters called “cognitive estrangement” – SF, pastoral, and nonfictional works – should also be discussed.

This will account for the necessity of all my definitional elements between “verbal construction” and the final clause. Just like Cockayne, the pastoral is akin at least to libertarian utopia in its rejection of money economy, cleavage between town and country, and state apparatus. But just like Cockayne, it is primarily a unomia,a land without formalized institutions, without organized superstructures of community life.40 If Cockayne is the land for sensualists, Earthly Paradise for heroes, and pastoral for swains (shepherds as philosophers, poets, and lovers), utopia is the land for naturalistic human figures just slightly larger (more virtuous) than everyday nature.

  • Cioranescu, pp. 60–61.

The definitional element of a particular community is necessary, as observed in section 3, in order to differentiate utopia from general beliefs, programs, and unlocalized projects. However, as soon as the blueprints and beliefs become localized and approach a narrative (as in much of the writing of utopian socialists), there is little delimitation provided by any definition of utopia I can think of. The usual escape clause is that utopia is belles lettres or fiction, while Saint-Simon or Fourier are lettres or nonfiction. But that distinction, though sufficiently normative in the eighteenth-century to allow Swift to base the formal framework of Gulliver’s Travels on playing with it, is historically a fugitive one. What was the Guarani legend of Land-Without-Evil or Columbus’s letter on finding the Terrestrial Paradise beyond the Orinoco for the authors, fiction or nonfiction? And for us? What is, for that matter, the Bible – theology or “literature” in the sense of fiction? The term “literature” has always wavered between a populist or sociological inclusive extreme (everything published in printed form) and an elitist or aesthetical exclusive extreme (only those “belles” works worthy of entering into a normative history of “literature”). In brief, the eighteenth-nineteenth century escape clause does not seem to me to work any longer, since it deals in subjective values and intangible intentions. Suppose it were found that the Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage had been written by Bougainville instead of Diderot – would it cease to be utopian? And if Fourier had published his vision of anti-lions and a sea of lemonade with Jules Verne’s editor, would it thereby become SF? We are beginning to move in the Borgesian world, where the same text has opposite meanings according to the intention of the author. This is good satiric fun, but any literary theory which can be built upon such premises would have to reject most that we now dignify with such a name. The same dilemma applies to ethnological reports: if literature is not defined by being right or wrong but by illuminating human relationships in certain ways and by certain means, I see no way of delimiting Lévi-Strauss’s sequence on myths from fictional literature or belles lettres. Reports on the perfect Inca empire, it has been argued, had inspired More. This is probably inexact, but such a report, especially if related at second hand, would have been generically indistinguishable from the Utopia (although, among other things, surely less witty). If I have argued all along in this chapter for utopia as literature, it is precisely because of such a breakdown in the philosophy of literature. The resulting inchoate mass should at least be judged by taking into account the whole text and not arbitrary essences abstracted from it: as imaginative, though not imaginary.41

The definitional element of quasi-human refers to such communities as those of Swift’s Houyhnhnms, Stapledon’s Eighteenth Men (Homo sapiens being the First Men), or the numerous aliens and cybernetic intelligences of modern SF.42 It connotes that utopias are in a strange and not yet clarified way an allegorical genre akin to the parable and analogy. In the parable or analogy, the premises do not have to be realistic as long as the upshot is clear. Thus, utopia is always aimed at human relations, but its characters do not have to be human or even outwardly anthropomorphic. Their relationships and communities, though, will make sense only insofar as they can be judged as similar or dissimilar to human ones.

The element of community differentiates utopias on the one hand from “robinsonades,” stories of castaways outside of an alternate community.43 On the other hand, this terminology tries to steer a middle course in the debate which seems to have raged in Mitteleuropa between State worshippers and Kantian or anarchist individualists among critics, an echo of which is heard in Krysmanski’s Solomonic solution of a “synopsis” of man, society, and history. The “anarchists” (for example, Berneri) stressed the moral behavior of individuals, the “archists” the normative power of institutions. Too narrow an interest in governmental apparatus leads to the deadly boredom of eighteenth-century Staatsromane in the narrow sense – say, certain works extolling constitutional monarchies in the South Seas. Too wide a sense of utopia, which with Bloch would embrace medical, biological, technological, erotic, and even philosophical wish-dreams, leads to incorporating Don Juan and Faust, the Theses on Feuerbach and

  • Frye, “Varieties of Literary Utopias,” p. 32.
  • See e.g. Robert Boguslaw’s discussion of men as “operating units” in The New Utopians (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1965), passim, which effects a witty juxtaposition of Utopias and “system design.”
  • See Brüggemann (Bibliography II), especially pp. 187–89.

The Magic Flute,into utopia: a somewhat overweening imperalism. The middle course suggested in what is, I hope, my prudent use of “community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle” (see section 3), focuses on the sociopolitical concern with justice and happiness, on the “radical eudemonism” of utopia’s “detailed, serious discussion of political and sociological matters.”44 And if utopia is not a myth valid for all eternity but a historical genre, the acknowledgement of its context in the adjunct “than in the author’s community” seems mandatory – most utopias would not be such for most of us today without that adjunct, since one man’s perfection is another man’s (or class’s) terror.

Yet, finally, it cannot be denied that sociopolitical perfection, though I believe it historically crucial in our epoch, is logically only a part of Bloch’s spectrum, which extends from alchemy through immortality to omniscience and the Supreme Good. All cognition can become the subject matter of an estranged verbal construction dealing with a particular quasi-human community treated as an alternative history. This “cognitive estrangement” is the basis of the literary genre of SF. Strictly and precisely speaking, utopia is not a genre but the sociopolitical subgenre of science fiction. Paradoxically, it can be seen as such only now that SF has expanded into its modern phase, “looking backward” from its englobing of utopia. Further, that expansion was in some not always direct ways a continuation of classical and nineteenth-century utopian literature. Thus, conversely, SF is at the same time wider than and at least collaterally descended from utopia; it is, if not a daughter, yet a niece of utopia – a niece usually ashamed of the family inheritance but unable to escape her genetic destiny. For all its adventure, romance, popularization, and wondrousness, SF can finally be written only between the utopian and the anti-utopian horizons. All imaginable intelligent life, including ours, can be organized only more or less perfectly. In that sense, utopia (and anti-utopia) is first of all a literary genre; but finally, as Bloch notes, it is a horizon within which humanity is

  • First quotation from Barthes, p. 86, second from Elliott, p. 110.

irrevocably collocated. My main point is that without a full, that is, literal and literary, analysis we are bound to oversimplify and misconstrue those horizons. For any sane understanding of utopia, the simple basic fact to start from remains that it is not hypostasis of the Holy Ghost, the Zeitgeist,or whatnot, but a literary genre induced from a set of man-made books within a man-made history.

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SF and the Genological Jungle (1973) (7700 words)

Thanks to the Greeks, we can distinguish tragedy from comedy in drama. […] When we come to deal with such forms as the masque, opera, movie, ballet, puppet-play, mystery-play, morality, corn-media dell’arte, and Zauberspiel, we find ourselves in the position of Renaissance doctors who refused to treat syphilis because Galen said nothing about it.

Northrop Frye

1. A View from the Mountain: Taxonomy and a System

1.0. As Northrop Frye has rightly remarked, “just as there is nothing which the philosopher cannot consider philosophically, and nothing which the historian cannot consider historically, so the critic should be able to construct and dwell in a conceptual universe of his own.”1 For the purposes of constructing the universe of this discussion, I take it (1) that no field of studies and rational inquiry can be investigated unless and until it is at least roughly delimited; (2) that there exist literary genres, as socioaesthetic and not metaphysical entities; (3) that these entities have an inner life and logic of their own, which do not exclude but on the contrary presuppose a dialectical permeability to themes, attitudes, and paradigms from other literary genres, science, philosophy, and everyday socioeconomic life; (4) that the genres pertinent to this discussion are naturalistic fiction, fantasy, myth, folk tale, pastoral, and science fiction. I am assuming that these four axioms will be justified by their cognitive yield, by the light that they might throw upon the field of inquiry. Should this assumption prove justified, it would go a long way

  1. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (New York, 1966), p. 12.

toward indicating that the basic and possibly central task of SF theory and criticism at this historical moment is the construction of a heuristic model or models for “Science Fiction” – which is also the hypothesis of this chapter.

A heuristic model is a theoretical structure based on analogy, which does not claim to be transcendentally or illusionistically “real” in the sense of mystically representing a palpable material entity, but whose use is scientifically and scholarly permissible, desirable, and necessary because of its practical results. An example might be the construct according to which the molecules of a gas behave like minuscule elastic billiard balls in random motion. Though very little may be known or indeed knowable about what gas molecules are “really” like, both at the time this construct was promulgated and now it was certain beyond reasonable doubt that they were not elastic billiard balls of a microscopic size. Yet this heuristic model was among the decisive factors in the development of the whole discipline of thermodynamics. It had immense theoretical and practical consequences, among others a giant step forward in human understanding of natural and perhaps even social processes. It seems therefore unnecessary to reopen the debates of the medieval nominalists and realists about the “real” existence of entities such as SF or any other genre; such debates hinge on a pseudoquestion. An acceptable heuristic model or set of models for a literary genre is as necessary for its understanding, for the setting up of standards pertaining to it, as the theory of ideal gases was for its time and discipline. In other words, however fragmented, laborious, or foolhardy this particular endeavor of mine might be, the critical community concerned with SF will have to evolve a theory of the genre which can serve as a framework for its history and criticism. Anyway, poets – including the poets among SF writers – have often reminded us that what the positivistic or philistine mentality considers foolhardy is, in Gorky’s words, “the wisdom of life.”

1.1 Conscious of the monsters and incubi lurking just beyond my path, and averting piously my eyes from the bleached bones of the pioneers fallen by its side, I proceed to recall my starting point, the identifications which I worked out for the aforementioned genres in the preceding chapter. I brought forward some arguments for their delimitation, which I shall here supply with further argumentation and subsume under the following taxonomic system:

Fiction is differentiated from other verbal structures by the presence of a fable, plot,or narrative,through which the writer endeavors to illuminate human relations to other people and the universe. (At this point the normal poetological distinctions of epic, dramatic, and lyric fiction could ensue, based on the different stresses in the relationship of the narrator and the characters or world of the fable, but such distinguishing does not fall within my scope in this book. I will assume it – as well as certain other distinctions, such as that between verse and prose – as given or at least as for practical purposes discernible in literary theory from Aristotle to Brecht, Frye, and Barthes, and in the literary practice which preceded the setting up of theories. My presentation has in mind at the moment epic prose – novels and stories – only, though for all I know the resulting heuristic model or models might have a wider scope.) Fiction, then, can be divided according to the manner in which men’s relationships to other men and their surroundings are illuminated. If this is accomplished by endeavoring faithfully to reproduce empirical textures and surfaces vouched for by human senses and common sense, I propose to call it naturalistic fiction. If, on the contrary, an endeavor is made to illuminate such relations by creating a radically or significantly different formal framework – a different space/time location or central figures for the fable, unverifiable by common sense – I propose to call it estranged fiction. The normative trend of fiction after Boccaccio and Shakespeare has been naturalistic in the above sense, though this does not at all hold true for earlier stages of literature in our civilization nor in other civilizations.

The world of naturalistic fiction has thus a straightforward relationship to the “zero world” of empirically verifiable properties around the author. The ideal of Tom Jones, The Red and the Black, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, The Idiot, Huckleberry Finn,or Intruder in the Dust is to create a significant statement about the human condition by holding a mirror to nature. In naturalistic fiction, as in the zero world, physics stands in no significant relation to ethics. It is the activity of the protagonists, interacting with other equally unprivileged figures, that determines the course of narration and outcome of fable. In naturalistic fiction, the basic rule is that man’s destiny is other humans and man-made institutions. In such a model, relating ethics to physics (Hollywoodian happy-end, say) signifies a descent into sentimentalism, into what is properly called sub-literature.

However, estranged fiction can quite legitimately postulate that circumstances around the hero – according to the basic “literary contract” making up a particular estranged genre – either are or are not passive and neutral. One, larger group of estranged literary genres, which embraces various kinds of myths and their later descendants – fantasy and folktale – is indeed defined by a contract inverse to that of naturalistic fiction: their world is actively oriented toward the hero. The folktale (Märchen,later fairy tale) world is oriented positively toward its protagonist; a folktale is defined by the hero’s triumph: magic weapons and helpers are, with the necessary narrative retardations, at his beck and call. Inversely, the fantasy world is oriented negatively toward its protagonist; a fantasy is defined by the hero’s horrible helplessness. Both fantasy and folktale derive from mythology: the folktale from the victorious-hero myth and the fantasy from the tragic myth. Thus, in the folktale and the fantasy, ethics coincides with physics – positive (hero-furthering) in the first case, and (hero-denying) in the second. In the tragic myth ethics compensates the physics; Oedipus, Osiris or Christ have to fail because of the empirical world they live in, but the failure is then ethically exalted and put to religious use, usually by postulating a metaphysical world beyond the empirical one in which the narrative finds its true, compensatory ending. Parallel to that, in the “optimistic” myth of Perseus, Saint George and other light-bearing heroes, ethics not only coincides with hero-furthering physics but also supplies a systematic cosmosociological framework to normalize the coincidence.

The literary genres in which physics is in some magical or religious way determined by ethics, instead of being neutral toward the hero or the total human population of the presented world, deny the autonomy of physics and can properly be called metaphysical. But not all estranged genres enter into such a contract with their reader. Notably, the pastoral and SF worlds offer no assurances as to the outcome of their protagonists’ endeavors. (Phenomena such as the sentimentalized Baroque pastoral or the “new maps of hell” of American SF represent particular, limited historical and ideological uses which do not necessarily flow out of the basic contract of the genre but are superadded to it.) Together with some prefigurations in the pastoral, SF is thus a metaempirical and non-naturalistic, that is, an estranged, literary genre which is not at the same time metaphysical. On the contrary, SF shares with naturalistic literature, naturalistic science, and naturalistic or materialist philosophy a common sophisticated, dialectical, and cognitive epistemé.

The genological system discussed above can be presented schematically by using the two parameters or binary oppositions of naturalistic/ estranged, and cognitive/noncognitive:

                                                NATURALISTIC                      ESTRANGED

“realistic” literatureSF (& pastoral)
sub-literature of “realism”metaphysical: myth, folktale, fantasy



1.2. In order to test the above taxonomy, let us introduce a new basic parameter of time and see whether the system can make sense of it. Naturalistic literature ranges through all empirical times. Though concentrating on the present, it has, parallel with the rise of historical sciences and dialectical philosophy, evolved the historical novel and drama, and it can even to some degree (admittedly not to the same degree as non-naturalistic literature) deal with the future in the form of hopes, fears, premonitions, and dreams, as in the psychological novel beginning with, say, Stendhal and Dostoevsky. Carelessness about precise time location or restriction to a one-dimensional point-consciousness in the present – both of which do not critically question prevailing anthropological modes of behavior – is the mark of the subliterature of mainstream “realism,” from Renaissance street-ballads to contemporary kitsch. The metaphysical genres shun historical time: myth is located above time, folktale in a conventional grammatical past which is really outside time, and fantasy in the hero’s abnormally disturbed, historiosophically dislocated present into which irrupts a “black” timelessness or another extrahistorical time. Inversely, SF shares the omnitemporal horizons of naturalistic literature, ranging through all possible times. Though concentrating on the cognitively plausible futures and their spatial equivalents, it can deal with the present and the past as special cases of a possible historical sequence seen from an estranged point of view – since any empirical historical point or flow can be thought of as one realization among practically innumerable possibilities. The scheme from 1.1. sub specie temporis would thus look like this:

                                                        HISTORICAL                       ESTRANGED

“realistic” literatureSF
sub-literature of “realism”myth, folktale, fantasy



It is not surprising to anybody who has read Marx, Hegel, or Augustine of Hippo that naturalistic in the temporal sphere means historical. It is more interesting to note that temporal cognition is allied to a free movement back and forth in time. Myth in its timeless suffering or bliss, folktale in its world apart allied to the empirical world by a grammatical past, and fantasy as the present lifted out of time into black transcendency – all share the impossibility of such a humanizing movement. Out of their several shortcomings they have, as is known, made tremendous virtues; yet the limitations remain.

2.    An Ecological Jungle Trip: Symbiosis, Parasitism, Mimicry, and Sundry

2.0. So far my analysis has been conducted on a level which, no doubt, was abstracted from actual historical literary genres but one which endeavored to treat them as ideal types or pure heuristic models. In actuality, a particular work, literary opus, trend, or school is almost never entirely pure. Literary genres exist in historically precise and curious ecological units, interacting and intermixing, imitating and cannibalizing each other. To understand what one really has in mind when talking about SF, it is necessary to continue the analysis on the level of actual happenings in the noncanonic literature or paraliterature of this century. Only such a path, descending from the clear mountain sights and its wide horizons into the luxuriant and steamy jungle of literary genres, and supplementing an aerial survey with actual botanizing in the field, has a chance of leading to useful results.

2.1. The relationship of SF to naturalistic literature, usually to the species of adventure-journey,is by now relatively clear and can be dealt with briefly. It is a relationship of filiation, best evidenced in the work of Jules Verne: SF has historically had one of its roots in the compost heap of such juvenile or popular subliterature, and in order to develop properly it has had to subsume and outgrow it – the quicker the better for its generic affirmation. It found congenial or congeneric elements in the cognitive and marvelous bias of the voyage extraordinaire and its catalogues of wonders seen along Ulysses’ or Captain Nemo’s way. The sea haunts this filiation, the island story is its microparadigm or root situation, and locomotion the connecting thread of its narration. All the marvelous interstellar SF voyages and quests in Heinlein, Blish, Van Vogt, and a thousand others, the Nietzschean, Columbian, or Sindbadian poetry of navigation – navigare necesse, vivere non necesse – belong here. Such voyaging is an honorable, though in retrospect one can scarcely fail to note that it is an initial (and for the reader initiatory), function of SF. It acts much in the way that a true long voyage does in the zero world, dialytically – estranging the reader from familiar and usually contemptible shores, dissolving his umbilical connections with old and firm earth (or Earth), preparing him to accept the marvelous beyond seven seas or galaxies. When unduly prolonged, this adolescence of SF means arrested development. It should be kept in its proper humbly useful place in the ontogenetic development of the reader as well as in the phylogenetic development of the genre.

In close proximity to the didactic aspect of the journey is the popular science compost heap which can be found next to the adventure-journey heap in the early phylogenetic stages of SF from technologically developed countries. Verne used both, adding a dash of puzzle in the manner of Poe and a barrelful of Saint-Simonian romanticism. Unalloyed, or alloyed with the baser metal of subliterary conflict and sentiment, this leads no further than to a primitive technological or at best technocratic extrapolation, as evidenced in Bacon’s New Atlantis,then in Gernsback and the “SF reservation” between the two world wars. A hybrid results that is neither good fiction nor interesting science; it is dislodged the first time the shapers of public and publishing opinion happen to read Wells – or, indeed, a good straightforward essay of scientific popularization, which has from the time of Friedrich Engels and Thomas Huxley been immeasurably more exciting and less reactionary than Ralph 124C 41+. Of course, it usually takes those shapers a generation or two to acquire the necessary taste in reading. In the meantime, the Gernsbacks keep SF alive at the cost of starving, stunting, and deforming it; comparing The Iron Heel with the output in the United States between the World Wars, one strongly suspects the cost is too high.

2.2. In 2.1. it was discussed how older paradigms of marvelous voyage, popular science essay, and individualist subliterature (the Western and the sentimental story) interfere with the formation of an autonomous SF paradigm or model if their grip is not loosened quickly. Unfortunately, a majority of what is published as SF is still in that prenatal or, better, regression-to-womb stage: it is simply the Western or some kindred sub-literary species masquerading its structures – generally for venal and ideological reasons – under the externals of SF: rockets, ray-guns, monsters, or in the last dozen years their slightly more sophisticated equivalents. Usually the symbiosis of popular science and juvenile adventure finds it impossible to mimic SF without regressing into their homologue of the fairy tale,with its victorious hero, foiled villain, damsel in distress, and quaint helpers or marvelous helping objects. Such sub-Vernean or Gernsbackian SF does not change the fairy tale structure but only the motivation of its devices: it pretends to explain away the supernatural by reassigning it to natural science and noble scientists (who are energetic and sentimental if young and in love with, absent-minded if old and fathers of, the eternal feminine). However, the science is treated as a metaphysical and not physical, supernatural and not natural activity, as gobbledygook instead of rational procedure. From Ralph, Buck Rogers, and the post-Stapledonian supermen to Asimov’s psychohistory (which has at least the advantage of identifying the proper field of modern destiny, social relations), such metaphysical gobbledygook vitiates some of the best-known SF works. Neither cognitive nor magical but shamefacedly passing off a juvenile idea of magic for cognition, equating the photon rocket with the flying carpet and global social destinies with the victory of the third son, such a mimicry is like the newly fashionable pop wines: a hyping-up of the old grape juice into the new wine. In the perfectly just world of taste and poetic creativity, this procedure reaps the reward of hypocrisy: fairy tale readers rightly prefer the classics, sophisticated SF readers disbelieve the fairy tale. Inversely, in the very imperfectly retributive world of social taste and commercial SF, such a procedure breeds generations of readers with juvenile taste, unable to develop the standards by which to judge SF (not to mention empirical human relations).

2.3. The more ambitious reader and writer cannot for long be satisfied with such pap. Yet trying to find a fresh tack in the cruel world of instant obsolescence, SF often veers from Scylla to Charybdis. A further step down into pseudo-sophistication – correlative, no doubt, to a marked decadence of cultural taste in bourgeois society and its literary markets – is the parasitism of Gothic, horror, and weird fantasy upon SF. Such fantasy is characterized, as I have said, by the irruption of an anti-cognitive world into the world of empirical cognition. One can understand some readers’ panic flight from a science which produces nuclear bombs, napalm, and nerve gases, from a reason which justifies class societies in mutual balances of terror, condemning two-thirds of the world to hunger and disease, and the remaining third – “hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère” – to the boredom of a nine-to-five drudgery relieved by flashes of TV commercials. Maybe such readers ought to have an escapist enclave of swordand-sorcery or Cthulhu cosmologies – I cannot say. But surely SF, built upon the premise that nature is neither a childishly wicked stepmother (“As flies to wanton boys are we to gods / They kill us for their sport”) nor inscrutably alien to man – surely SF cannot allow its contract with the reader to be contaminated by the Great Pumpkin antics of fantasy. Even more perniciously than is the case with the bland fairy tale structure, the black ectoplasms of fantasy stifle SF completely. Its time shrinks to the point-consciousness of horror, gloom, and doom, its daydreams turn into an inchoate nightmare, and under the guise of cognition the ancient obscurantist enemy infiltrates its citadel. Fossilized fragments of reasoning are used to inculcate irrationality, and the social energy of readers is expended on Witches’ Sabbaths instead of focusing it on the causes for our alienating, murderous, and stultifying existences: the power structures holding back the hominization of the sapiens, the true demonology of war and market breeding pride and prejudice. At its best, in Swift and Cyrano, in Jack London and the dystopian “new maps of hell,” in Lucian and Wells, in the great utopians and Zamyatin, SF has with different degrees of precision, but with unerring precision of orientation, focused on these power structures, on such demonology. It is at its worst, at its most alienated and alienating, when it honors the parasitism and vampirism of fantasy.

2.4. There has also been a great deal of talk about affinities between SF and the mythological tale. Though also a story about supernatural events involving superhuman figures, as different from other metaphysical fiction (folktale and fantasy), the events and figures of this genre form a systematic whole, a mythological edifice of tales whose norms are supposed to have supertemporally (timelessly or continuously) determined man’s basic relations to man and nature. Obviously, all religious systems are in this sense mythological. On the contrary, plays and stories are neither myth nor ritual but fictional literature, although myths and rituals may underlie their forms, plots, and sometimes their characters. For example, Murray has convincingly shown that the forms of Attic tragedy derive from Dionysian sacrificial rituals, and Cornford has done an analogous job for Attic comedy.2 The Hellenic tragic characters derive primarily from Homer, but through

  • Gilbert Murray, “Hamlet and Orestes,” in his The Classical Tradition of Poetry (New York, 1968), and “Excursus on the Ritual Forms preserved in Greek Tragedy,” in Jane Ellen Harrison, Epilegomena to the Study of Greek ReligionThemis (New York, 1966); F. M. Cornford, The Origin of Attic Comedy (Gloucester, MA, 1966). See also other anthropological works by the Cambridge School that, as far as literary studies are concerned, culminate in George Thomson’s elegant Aeschylus and Athens (New York, 1968).

him from other sacrificial rituals, which is why Homerian themes fitted so well into the mythic pattern of tragedy. Thus, fiction can be formally or morphologically analogous to myth, but it is not itself myth. It uses mythical morphemes for nonmythic and – except in folktale, fantasy, and subliterature – for anti-mythic ends. “Myth and literature are separate and autonomous entities, though any specific myth text can and should be considered as folk-literature.”3 However – and this is in itself highly important and largely justifies the attention that modern scholars have devoted to myth – bearing in mind the caveats and distinctions discussed earlier, it should be acknowledged that important aspects of literature (primarily, many basic and possibly most significant plots) are mythomorphic. What a writer like Faulkner or Kafka creates is not a myth but a personal fictional statement formally analogous to myth in a radically different and indeed incompatible cosmological or ideological context. In other words, a realistic parable such as The Bear or an SF parable such as The Metamorphosis,although it uses a mythological bestiary as well as the mythological pattern of trial and death with or without resurrection, is in its message and final impact very different from, often diametrically opposed to the religious myth expressing a collective static vision. Kafka and Faulkner are – they cannot but be – historical writers.

Obviously, SF will be as mythomorphic in some basic patterns as other fictional genres are. Beyond that, SF shares with myth the fictional estrangement, the “outer limits of desire” as Professor Frye aptly formulated it,4 and its formal closeness to myth will extend beyond plots to many characters and situations. But all attempts to transplant the metaphysical orientation of mythology and religion into SF, in a crudely overt way as in C.S. Lewis, Van Vogt, or Zelazny, or in more covert ways in very many others, will result only in private pseudomyths, in fragmentary fantasies or fairy tales.5 As I mentioned in my first chapter, myth absolutizes and even

  • Stanley Edgar Hyman, “The Ritual View of Myth and the Mythic,” in Thomas A. Sebeok, ed., Myth (Bloomington, 1970), p. 151.
  • Frye, p. 136.
  • See Harry Levin, “Some Meanings of Myth,” in Henry A. Murray, ed., Myth and Mythmaking (Boston, 1969), pp. 111–12.

personifies apparently constant motifs from periods with sluggish social dynamics, and claims to explain the eternal essence of phenomena. On the contrary, SF claims to organize variable spatiotemporal, biological, social, and other characteristics and constellations into specific fictional worlds and figures. Mathematically speaking, myth is oriented toward constants and SF toward variables.

On a different level of fictional structuring, however, is the treatment of religious beliefs or mythic situations as historical material. When such mythic elements are – by transposition, as it were, into the demystifying key of SF – extracted from a mythological paradigm and fitted into an SF one, what results is perfectly legitimate, often first-class SF. As always, the critic will in any particular instance have to rely on his literary tact and sense of measure to pierce this intricate double mimicry and parasitism, to decide with which type of interaction between SF and myth he is faced. To mention only two favorites of mine, Stapledon and Walter Miller, Jr., I believe that at a certain point (say in The Flames) Stapledon crosses the divide into pseudomyth, that is, into fantasy, and that Miller does the same at the resolution of A Canticle for Leibowitz with the character of Mrs. Grales. At such points the ideological attraction to myth as world view and not as formal pattern got the best of the SF writer.

3.    To Greener Fields and Pastures New: The Extrapolative and the Analogical Models of SF

3.0. I would like now to try emerging from the jungle into the cultivated territory of selected SF, and analyze what look to be its two main species or models, the extrapolative and the analogical one.

3.1. SF written from, say, the period of the French Revolution on (though not necessarily in preceding epochs) has come to be considered as starting from certain cognitive hypotheses and ideas incarnated in the fictional framework and nucleus of the tale. This extrapolative model – of Mercier’s L’An 2440,London’s Iron Heel,Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes and Men Like Gods,Zamyatin’s We,Stapledon’s Last and First Men,Yefremov’s Andromeda,Pohl and Kornbluth’s Space Merchants,or Brunner’s The Jagged Orbit – seems based on direct, temporal extrapolation andcentered on sociological (that is, utopian and anti-utopian) modeling. This is where the great majority of the “new maps of hell” is taken to belong for which postwar SF is justly famous, in all its manifold combinations of sociotechnological scientific cognition and social oppression (global catastrophes, cybernetics, dictatorships).

Yet already in Wells’s Time Machine and in Stapledon, this extrapolating transcended the sociological spectrum (from everyday practice through economics to erotics) and spilled into “billion-year” biology and cosmology. The ensuing radical estrangements can, no doubt, be anticipated in a chronological future, but they cannot, scientifically speaking, be extrapolated. By this token, futuristic anticipation reveals that extrapolating is a fictional device and ideological horizon rather than the basis for a cognitive model. It is thus dubious – as will be discussed further in chapter 4 – that significant SF could be simply extrapolation. Nonetheless, whatever its ostensible location (future, “fourth dimension,” other planets, alternate universes), the self-understanding of much SF – as shown in the historical section of this book – was uneasily futurological. Being written in a historical epoch dominated by anticipatory expectations, this SF demanded to be judged by the “scientific” import of the tale’s premises and the consistency with which such premises (usually one or very few in number) were narratively developed to their logical end, to a “scientifically valid” conclusion.

SF could thus be used as a handmaiden of futurological foresight in technology, ecology, sociology, and so on. Whereas this may at times have been a legitimate secondary function the genre could be made to bear, any forgetfulness of its strict secondariness leads to confusion and indeed danger. Ontologically, art is not pragmatic truth nor is fiction fact. To expect from SF more than a stimulus for independent thinking, more than a system of stylized narrative devices understandable only in their mutual relationships within a fictional whole and not as isolated realities, leads insensibly to the demand for scientific accuracy in the extrapolated realia. Editors and publishers of such “hard” persuasion, from U.S. pulp magazines to the Soviet Agitprop, have been inclined to depress the handmaiden of SF into the slavey of the reigning theology of the day (technocratic, psionic, utopian, catastrophic, or whatever). Yet this fundamentally subversive genre languishes in straitjackets more quickly than most others, responding with atrophy, escapism, or both. Laying no claim to prophecies except for its statistically probable share, SF should not be treated as a prophet: it should neither be enthroned when apparently successful nor beheaded when apparently unsuccessful. As Plato found out in the court of Dionysius and Hythloday at Cardinal Morton’s, SF figures better devote themselves to their own literary republics, which, to be sure, lead back – but in their own way – to the Republic of Man. SF is finally concerned with the tensions between Civitas Dei and Civitas Terrena,and it cannot be uncritically committed to any momentary city.

3.2. The analogic model of SF is based on analogy rather than extrapolation. Its figures may but do not have to be anthropomorphic or its localities geomorphic. The objects, figures, and up to a point the relationships from which this indirectly modeled world starts can be quite fantastic (in the sense of empirically unverifiable) as long as they are logically, philosophically, and mutually consistent. The analytic model can thus comprehend the extrapolative one, but it is not bound to the extrapolative horizon.

The lowest form of analogic modeling is that in which an extrapolation backwards is in fact a crude analogy to the past of the Earth, from geological through biological to ethnological and historical. The worlds more or less openly modeled on the Carboniferous Age, on tribal prehistory, on barbaric and feudal empires – in fact modeled on handbooks of geology and anthropology, on Spengler’s Decline of the West and Dumas père’s Three Musketeers – are unfortunately abundant in the foothills of SF. Some of this may be useful adolescent leisure reading, which one should not begrudge; however, the uneasy coexistence of such worlds with a superscience, which is supposed to provide an SF alibi, largely or wholly destroys the story’s cognitive credibility. The E.R. Burroughs-to-Asimov space opera, cropping up in almost all U.S. writers right down to Samuel Delany, belongs to the uneasy territory between inferior SF and non-SF – to forms that, as I argued earlier, mimic SF scenery but are modeled on the structures of the Western and other avatars of fairy tale and fantasy.

The purest form of analogic modeling would be the analogy to a mathematical model, such as the fairly primary one explicated in Abbott’s Flatland,as well as the ontological analogies found in a compressed overview form in some stories by Borges and Lem. A somewhat more humane narration with a suffering protagonist is to be found in, say, Čapek’s Krakatit or Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness,and even more clearly in Kafka’s Metamorphosis or In the Penal Colony and Lem’s Solaris. Such highly sophisticated philosophico-anthropological analogies are today perhaps the most significant region of SF, indistinguishable in quality from other superior contemporary writing. Situated between Borges and the upper reaches into which shade the best utopias, anti-utopias, and satires, this semantic field is a modern variant of the “conte philosophique” of the eighteenth century. Similar to Swift, Voltaire, or Diderot, these modern parables fuse new visions of the world with an applicability – usually satirical and grotesque – to the shortcomings of our workaday world. Departing from the older rationalism, a modern parable must be open-ended by analogy to modern cosmology, epistemology, and philosophy of science.6

The analogic model of SF falls, however, clearly within cognitive horizons insofar as its conclusions or import is concerned. The cognition gained may not be immediately applicable, it may be simply the enabling of the mind to receive new wavelengths, but it eventually contributes to the understanding of the most mundane matters. This is testified by the works of Kafka and Twain, Rosny and Anatole France, as well as of the best of Wells and the “SF reservation” writers.

6 I have attempted to analyze some representative examples of such modern SF parables in chapters 10 and 12 of this book, à propos of Wells’s Time Machine and Čapek’s War With the Newts,in my afterword to Stanisław Lem, Solaris (New York, 1971 and 1976), enlarged into a parallel to US and Russian examples in “Stanisław Lem und das mitteleuropäische soziale Bewußtsein der Science-fiction,” in Werner Berthel, ed., Stanisław Lem – Der dialektische Weise aus Kraków (Insel Almanach auf das Jahr 1976) (Frankfurt a. M., 1976); and in essays on Philip K. Dick and Ursula K.

Le Guin, reprinted in Mullen and Suvin, eds. (see Bibliography I).

4.      The Jungle Explorer: Medicine Man or Darwinist

4.0. Thus far I have not explicitly referred to the theory and practice of SF criticism, since it is impossible to discuss an intellectual activity before its field has been determined. The field of SF criticism is SF, and this truism becomes significant when we pause to consider how little agreement there is about the basic parameters of SF. Having discussed them, in the remainder of this chapter I would like to essay some remarks on SF criticism. They will have to be as disjointed, tentative, and unsystematic as that criticism, since the basic lesson one can draw from the history of literary criticism is that it is difficult for criticism to be more significant than the works it criticizes.

4.1. Beyond the necessary but subsidiary critical activity of reviewing and chronicling, it seems that the most fashionable critical approach to SF is that of mythical analysis. In order to comment upon it, I shall have to try to disentangle the main meanings of this protean and tantalizing term.

Few writers considering myth in the last third of a century have failed to lament the divergent and indeed incompatible meanings given to this term in different professional and ideological fields of discourse. Though everyone – including myself – has to try to group these meanings for purposes of an overview, it is sometimes difficult to escape the conclusion of a philologist that there are as many interpretations of myth as there are critics. In ethnology “myth” is indistinguishable from “legend” or “folklore.” Cultural historians “employ ‘myth’ with the quite separate meaning of a popularly accepted cluster of images.”7 The term can also be loosely used to mean “tale, fantasy, mass delusion, popular belief and illusion, and plain lie”; an essay as early as 1947 reduced this confusion of tongues to the absurd by adopting the title of “The Modern Myth of the Modern Myth.”8

But, cutting a long story short, it seems to me that the literary theoretician

  • Richard M. Dorson, “Theories of Myth and the Folklorist,” in Murray, ed., p. 84.
  • First quotation from Hyman, in Sebeok, ed., p. 153; see also, for a psychologist’s attack on loose definitions of myth, Henry A. Murray, “The Possible Nature of a

has presently to deal with three principal views of the field: that of Cassirer and his followers, that of literary scholars who consider all literature to be some kind of myth – a view most ably and influentially formulated by Northrop Frye – and that of a third group which would insist, as I argued earlier (see note 2), that literary artifacts are not myths and yet that many of them are significantly marked by genetic and morphological connections with myths.

4.1.1. Cassirer treats myth as a kind of symbolic vision correlative to the mythopoeic mode of consciousness, “mythopoeia” meaning the world view and forms of expression characteristic of a hypothetical early stage of culture “when language is still largely ritualistic and prelogical in character.” In this view, myth “is simply a basic way of envisaging experience and carries no necessary connotation of storytelling.”9 Rather, all creative, poetic, metaphoric thinking is “mythical.” To this it must be briefly objected that metaphor is feasible only when some cognitively defined terms with fixed meanings are available as points of comparison, and that as far as literature is concerned poetic metaphor and language begin exactly where mythology ends. In the best mythical fashion, if poetry springs from the mother-soil of mythology, it does so only by spurning or destroying its parent. Finally, if everything (including science, philosophy, the arts, and all other aspects and motives of social practice) is myth or mythopoeia, if in myth, as Cassirer says, “everything may be turned into everything,”10 then this term loses all usefulness for distinguishing literature from anything else, let alone for any distinctions within literature itself. Historically hypothetical, philosophically idealistic, and aesthetically useless, Cassirer’s hypothesis for all its influences in the American cultural climate after World War II (for example, Susanne Langer) cannot contribute to our present needs.

‘Mythology’ to Come,” in Murray, ed., p. 303. The second quotation is the title of Donald A. Stauffer’s essay in English Institute Essays 1947 (New York, 1948).

  • P [hilip] W [heelwright], “Myth,” in Alex Preminger, ed., Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton, 1965), pp. 538–39; see Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man (New Haven, 1962) and The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms,vol. 2 (New Haven, 1955).
  • Cassirer, Essay,p. 81.

4.1.2. At the opposite extreme – but les extrèmes se rejoignent – is the position which preserves the autonomy of literary studies but affirms that myth is story and any story is myth. It possesses a heroic paradigm in Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. Though mentioning the secondary sense of myth as “untruth,”11 and of “myth in the narrower and more technical sense” as stories about “divine or quasi-divine beings and powers,”12 and then discussing a mythical phase or context of literary art which is primarily concerned with “poetry as the focus of a community,”13 Frye concentrates on a Cassirerian “mythical view of literature” which leads “to the conception of an order of nature as a whole being imitated by a corresponding order of words.”14 This is based on his belief, explicated in the section subtitled “Theory of Myths,” that “in myth we see the structural principles of literature isolated.”15 If structural principles are to mean isolatable formal narrative patterns, this is acceptable as a basis of discussion subject to historical verification. However, if they are also meant to subsume the motivation of a literary work, what the Theory of Literature calls “the inner structure of psychological, social, or philosophical theory of why men behave as they do – some theory of causation, ultimately,”16 then I do not see how myth can contain the structural principles of all literature or be the “total creative act” which could account for all basic components of the final impact or message of all literary modes and genres.

In other words, among many brilliant insights in Anatomy of Criticism there is one about mythical patterns not only being formally analogous to basic patterns in other literary modes – which one would a priori expect in the imaginative products of the same human species – but also being more clearly identifiable in supernatural stories “at the limits of desire”17 than

  1. Frye, p. 75.
  2. Frye, p. 116; see also, on “the mythical or theogonic mode,” pp. 120, 33–36, et passim. 13 Frye, p. 99; see the whole section, pp. 95–99.
  3. Frye, p. 118.
  4. Frye, p. 136.
  5. René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (Harmondsworth, 1973), p. 207 et passim.
  6. Frye, p. 134.

in stories cluttered with surface naturalism. However, there is an essential difference between this and treating the fourfold seasonal mythos of Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter as the basic organization of all literature and indeed all verbal structures imaginable, including science and history.18 Here the formal similarity has been left behind, and literature has (by way of a semantically redefined mythos) been identified to myth tout court,since its original meaning of superhuman story has not been abandoned.19 Unfortunately, this is the most easily vulgarized and therefore possibly the best-known part of Frye’s book. Logically, literature and verbal structures in general are finally reduced to a central unifying myth, adumbrated in Milton and Dante but fully manifest in the Bible, which is a “definitive” myth.20 All writing, one might therefore expect, has in the past aspired to and will in the future be confined to variations on smaller or larger bits of the Christian myth of salvation. Obviously such a conclusion will finally be shared only by those who acknowledge the hegemony of a cyclical theory of history and a closed cosmology – that is, by anti-utopians. Therefore, this brilliant work can persuade us that much literature is morphologically informed by patterns which we might perhaps call mythical. However, “mythical” then proves to be simply shorthand for “basic narrative patterns which are seen at their clearest in some myths.”

4.1.3. For, when we have rendered unto myth what is of the myth, we must recognize that finally, for a cognitive pursuit such as literary theory and criticism, myth as an instrument is fairly limited. Philosophically, myth is an evasion of precise distinctions and of full intellectual commitment: a myth is not true or false but believable or unbelievable, vital or dead. On its own grounds it is irrefutable, for as soon as it is queried as to its truth it is not treated as myth but as historical cognition or formal hypothesis. In other words, it seems to me that Frye has rendered a signal service to poetics by his formal hypothesis, but I find myself unpersuaded by his

  1. Frye, p. 341 et passim.
  2. Frye: redefining mythos,pp. 134–40 and 158 ff.; retaining the meaning of superhuman tale, e.g., p. 317.
  3. Frye, pp. 120–21; also p. 315, 325 et passim.

historical premises and his semantical gliding between myth as a historical genre, mythos as a formal paradigm, and both of them as a “structural principle or attitude.”21 I am unable to accept the conclusion that “in literary criticism, myth ultimately means mythos,a structural organizing principle of literary form,”22 which does not differentiate between the formal and structural functions of myth.

As distinct from Cassirer and the Cassirerian aspect of Frye, it seems to me that myth cannot constitute a useful theory of history in general, and artistic or literary history in particular. Myth is parascientific and sometimes prescientific in its interpretations of nature and society. Although some among its numerous configurations are statistically bound to become precursors of scientific ones, it is essentially an insufficiently critical human experience which, for all its ideological and artistic uses, cannot be dignified as anything more than a first significant step on the human way to a cognition of reality. Speaking of the myth’s “unity of feeling,” Cassirer rightly concludes that its pragmatic function is to promote social solidarity through feelings of cosmic sympathy at the time of social crisis.23 Myth embodies and sanctions authoritarian social norms and the basic institutions which determine the life of each member of a certain collective authority-structure. It is intrinsically – whatever its surface innovations in this age where every new car fashion is “revolutionary” – a conservative force, a guarantee of the status quo (say of the mass existence of private cars). In the forceful words of David Bidney:

To my mind, contemporary philosophers and theologians, as well as students of literature in general, who speak of the indispensable myth in the name of philosophy and religion, and anthropologists and sociologists who cynically approve of myth because of its pragmatic social function, are undermining faith in their own disciplines and are contributing unwittingly to the very degradation of man and his culture which they otherwise seriously deplore. Myth must be taken seriously as a cultural force but it must be taken seriously precisely in order that it may be gradually superseded in the interests of the advancement of truth and the

  • Frye, p. 310.
  • Frye, p. 341.
  • Cassirer, Essay,pp. 79–84.

growth of human intelligence. Normative, critical, and scientific thought provides the only self-correcting means of combating the diffusion of myth, but it may do so only on condition that we retain a firm and uncompromising faith in the integrity of reason and in the transcultural validity of the scientific enterprise.24

Thus, the literary scholar and critic, building his autonomous and yet rational conceptual world, must honor myth, in the Frygian “narrow sense” of stories about superhuman beings, as both occasionally fetching folk poetry and a reservoir of literary forms. At the same time, the critic – and in particular the critic of SF – must, I believe, abandon the belief that he has done much more than his formal homework when he has identified Yefremov’s Andromeda as containing the myth of Perseus or Delany’s Einstein Intersection and Verne’s Chateau des Carpates as containing the myth of Orpheus. He is still left face to face with the basic questions of his trade, namely, is the myth or mytheme transmuted (1) into valid fiction; (2) into valid science fiction? “Mythical analysis” as a self-sufficient critical method collapses at this point; as an ideology it remains a contributing factor to the Babylonian confusion of tongues, a particularly lethal quicksand region on the path to SF.

4.2. Finally, it might be possible to sketch the basic premises of a significant criticism, history, and theory of this literary genre. From Edgar Allan Poe to Damon Knight and Stanisław Lem, including some notable work on the other subgenres from the utopias to Wells and some general approaches to literature by people awake to methodological interest, much spadework has been done. If one may speculate on some fundamental features or indeed axioms of such criticism, the first might be that the genre has to be and can be evaluated proceeding from its heights down, applying the standards gained by the analysis of its masterpieces. We find in SF, as we do in most other genres of fiction, that 80 to 90 per cent of the works in it are sheer confectionery. However, contrary to subliterature, the criteria for the insufficiency of most SF are to be found in the genre itself. This makes SF in principle, if not yet in practice, equivalent to any other “major” literary genre. The second axiom of SF criticism might be to demand of SF a level

  • David Bidney, “Myth, Symbolism, and Truth,” in Sebeok, ed., p. 23.

of cognition higher than that of its average reader: the strange novelty is its raison d’être. As a minimum, we must demand from SF that it be wiser than the world it speaks to.

In other words, this is an educational literature, hopefully less deadening than most compulsory education in our split national and class societies, but irreversibly shaped by the pathos of preaching the good word of human curiosity, fear, and hope. Significant SF denies thus the “two-cultures gap” more efficiently than any other literary genre I know of. Even more importantly, it demands from the author and reader, teacher and critic, not merely specialized, quantified positivistic knowledge (scientia) but a social imagination whose quality of wisdom (sapientia) testifies to the maturity of his critical and creative thought. It demands – to conclude the botanical marvelous voyage of this chapter – that the critic be a Darwinist and not a medicine-man.

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Estrangement and Cognition (1972) (4850 words)

1. Science Fiction as Fiction (Estrangement)

1.1. The importance of science fiction (SF) in our time is on the increase. First, there are strong indications that its popularity in the leading industrial nations (United States, USSR, United Kingdom, Japan) has risen sharply over the last 100 years, despite all the local and short-range fluctuations. SF has particularly affected such key strata or groups of modern society as college graduates, young writers, and the avant-garde of general readers appreciative of new sets of values. This is a significant cultural effect which goes beyond any merely quantitative census. Second, if one takes the minimal generic difference of SF the presence of a narrative novum (the dramatis personae and/or their context) significantly different from what is the norm in “naturalistic” or empiricist fiction, it will be found that SF has an interesting and close kinship with other literary subgenres that flourished at different times and places of literary history: the classical and medieval “fortunate island” story, the “fabulous voyage” story from antiquity on, the Renaissance and Baroque “utopia” and “planetary novel,” the Enlightenment “state [political] novel,” the modern “anticipation” and “anti-utopia.” Moreover, although SF shares with myth, fantasy, fairy tale, and pastoral an opposition to naturalistic or empiricist literary genres, it differs very significantly in approach and social function from such adjoining non-naturalistic or metaempirical genres. Both these complementary aspects, the sociological and the methodological, are being vigorously debated by writers and critics in several countries, evidence of lively interest in a genre that should undergo scholarly discussion too.

In this chapter, I will argue for an understanding of SF as the literature of cognitive estrangement. This definition seems to possess the unique advantage of rendering justice to a literary tradition which is coherent through the ages and within itself, yet distinct from nonfictional utopianism, from naturalistic literature, and from other non-naturalistic fiction. It thus makes it possible to lay the basis for a coherent poetics of SF.

1.2. I want to begin by postulating a spectrum or spread of literary subject matter which extends from the ideal extreme of exact recreation of the author’s empirical environment1 to exclusive interest in a strange newness,

 The first version of this essay emerged from a lecture given in Spring 1968 in J. M. Holquist’s seminar on fantastic literature in the Yale University Slavic Languages and Literatures Department. I have derived much profit from discussions with him, with the late Jacques Ehrmann, my UMass colleague David Porter, and my McGill colleagues Irwin and Myrna Gopnik, over and above a number of persons mentioned in my general acknowledgements. The final version owes much to Stanisław Lem’s Fantastyka i futurologia (see Bibliography I), which considerably emboldened me in further pursuits within this protean field, even where I differed from some of Lem’s emphases and conclusions. Notes to all chapters are supplemented by the bibliographic sections to be found at the end of the book.

1 A benefit of discussing the seemingly peripheral subject of “science fiction” is that one has to go back to first principles, one cannot really assume them as given. One must ask, for example, what is literature? Usually, when discussing literature one determines what it says (its subject matter) and how it says what it says (the approach to its themes). If we are talking about literature in the sense of significant works possessing certain minimal aesthetic qualities rather than in the sociological sense of everything that gets published at a certain time or in the ideological sense of all the writings on certain themes, this principle can more precisely be formulated as a double question. First, epistemologically, what possibility for aesthetic qualities is offered by different thematic fields (“subjects”)? The answer given by the aesthetics prevalent at the moment is: an absolutely equal possibility. With this answer the question is booted out of the field of aesthetics and into the lap of ideologists, who pick it up by our default and proceed to bungle it. Second, historically, how has such a possibility in fact been used? Once one begins with such considerations, one comes quickly up against the rather unclear concept of realism (not the prose literary movement in the nineteenth century but a metahistorical stylistic principle), since this genre is often pigeonholed as nonrealistic. I would not object but would heartily welcome such labels if one had first persuasively defined what is “real” and what is “reality.” True, this genre raises basic philosophical issues, but it is perhaps not necessary to face them in an initial approach. Therefore I shall here substitute for “reality” (whose existence independent of any observer or group of observers I

a novum. From the 18th to the 20th centuries, the literary mainstream of our civilization has been nearer to the first of these two extremes. However, at the beginnings of a literature, the concern with a domestication of the amazing is very strong. Early tale-tellers relate amazing voyages into the next valley, where they found dog-headed people, also good rock salt which could be stolen or at the worst bartered for. Their stories are a syncretic travelogue and voyage imaginaire,daydream and intelligence report. This implies a curiosity about the unknown beyond the next mountain range (sea, ocean, solar system), where the thrill of knowledge joined the thrill of adventure.

From Iambulus and Euhemerus through the classical utopia to Verne’s island of Captain Nemo and Wells’s island of Dr. Moreau, an island in the far-off ocean is the paradigm of the aesthetically most satisfying goal of the SF voyage. This is particularly true if we subsume under this the planetary island in the aether ocean – usually the Moon – which we encounter from Lucian through Cyrano to Swift’s mini-Moon of Laputa, and on into the nineteenth century. Yet the parallel paradigm of the valley, “over the range” (the subtitle of Butler’s SF novel Erewhon) which shuts it in as a wall, is perhaps as revealing. It recurs almost as frequently, from the earliest folktales about the sparkling valley of Terrestrial Paradise and the dark valley of the Dead, both already in Gilgamesh. Eden is the mythological localization of utopian longing, just as Wells’s valley in “The Country of the Blind” is still within the liberating tradition which contends that the world is not necessarily the way our present empirical valley happens to be, and that whoever thinks his valley is the world is blind. Whether island or valley, whether in space or (from the industrial and bourgeois revolutions on) in time, the new framework is correlative to the new inhabitants. The aliens – utopians, monsters, or simply differing strangers – are a mirror to man just as the differing country is a mirror for his world. But the mirror is not only a reflecting one, it is also a transforming one, virgin womb and alchemical dynamo: the mirror is a crucible.

do not at all doubt, in fact) the concept of “the author’s empirical environment,” which seems as immediately clear as any.

Thus it is not only the basic human and humanizing curiosity that gives birth to SF. Beyond an undirected inquisitiveness, which makes for a semantic game without clear referent, this genre has always been wedded to a hope of finding in the unknown the ideal environment, tribe, state, intelligence, or other aspect of the Supreme Good (or to a fear of and revulsion from its contrary). At all events, the possibility of other strange, co-variant coordinate systems and semantic fields is assumed.

1.3. The approach to the imaginary locality, or localized daydream, practiced by the genre of SF is a supposedly factual one. Columbus’s (technically or genologically nonfictional) letter on the Eden he glimpsed beyond the Orinoco mouth, and Swift’s (technically nonfactual) voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubbdrib, Luggnagg, “and Japan” represent two extremes in the constant intermingling of imaginary and empirical possibilities. Thus SF takes off from a fictional (“literary”) hypothesis and develops it with totalizing (“scientific”) rigor – the specific difference between Columbus and Swift is smaller than their generic proximity. The effect of such factual reporting of fictions is one of confronting a set normative system – a Ptolemaic-type closed world picture – with a point of view or look implying a new set of norms; in literary theory this is known as the attitude of estrangement. This concept was first developed on non-naturalistic texts by the Russian Formalists (“ostranenie,” Viktor Shklovsky) and most successfully underpinned by an anthropological and historical approach in the work of Bertolt Brecht, who wanted to write “plays for a scientific age.” While working on a play about the prototypical scientist, Galileo, he defined this attitude (“Verfremdungseffekt”) in his Short Organon for the Theatre: “A representation which estranges is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.” And further: for somebody to see all normal happenings in a dubious light, “he would need to develop that detached eye with which the great Galileo observed a swinging chandelier. He was amazed by that pendulum motion as if he had not expected it and could not understand its occurring, and this enabled him to come at the rules by which it was governed.” Thus, the look of estrangement is both cognitive and creative; and as Brecht goes on to say, “one cannot simply exclaim that such an attitude pertains to science, but not to art. Why should not art, in its own way, try to serve the great social task of mastering Life?”2 (Later, Brecht would note that it might be time to stop speaking in terms of masters and servants altogether.)

In SF the attitude of estrangement – used by Brecht in a different way, within a still predominantly “realistic” context – has grown into the formal framework of the genre.

2. Science Fiction as Cognition (Critique and Science)

2.1. The use of estrangement both as underlying attitude and dominant formal device is found also in the myth,a “timeless” and religious approach looking in its own way beneath (or above) the empiric surface. However, SF sees the norms of any age, including emphatically its own, as unique, changeable, and therefore subject to a cognitive view. The myth is diametrically opposed to the cognitive approach since it conceives human relations as fixed and supernaturally determined, emphatically denying Montaigne’s “la constance même n’est qu’un branle plus languissant.” The myth absolutizes and even personifies apparently constant motifs from sluggish societies. Conversely, SF, which focuses on the variable

  • Viktor Shklovsky, “Iskusstvo kak priem,” in Sborniki po teorii poèticheskogo iazyka,2 (Petrograd, 1917). In the translation “Art as Technique,” in Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, eds., Russian Formalist Criticism (Lincoln, NE, 1965), ostranenie is rendered somewhat clumsily as “defamiliarization.” See also Victor Erlich’s classical survey, Russian Formalism (The Hague, 1955).

 Bertolt Brecht, “Kleines Organon für das Theater,” in his Gesammelte Werke,16 (Frankfurt a. M., 1973), translated in John Willett, ed., Brecht On Theatre (New York, 1964). My quotations are from pp. 192 and 196 of this translation, but I have changed Mr. Willett’s translation of Verfremdung as “alienation” into my “estrangement,” since “alienation” evokes incorrect, indeed opposite, connotations: estrangement was for Brecht an approach militating directly against social and cognitive alienation. See Ernst Bloch, “Entfremdung, Verfremdung: Alienation, Estrangement,” in Erika Munk, ed., Brecht (New York, 1972).

and future-bearing elements from the empirical environment, is found predominantly in the great whirlpool periods of history, such as the sixteenth-seventeenth and nineteenth-twentieth centuries. Where the myth claims to explain once and for all the essence of phenomena, SF first posits them as problems and then explores where they lead; it sees the mythical static identity as an illusion, usually as fraud, at best only as a temporary realization of potentially limitless contingencies. It does not ask about The Man or The World, but which man?: in which kind of world?: and why such a man in such a kind of world? As a literary genre, SF is fully as opposed to supernatural or metaphysical estrangement as it is to naturalism or empiricism.

  • SF is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.

Estrangement differentiates SF from the “realistic” literary mainstream extending from the eighteenth century into the twentieth. Cognition differentiates it not only from myth, but also from the folk (fairy) tale and the fantasy. The folktale also doubts the laws of the author’s empirical world, but it escapes out of its horizons and into a closed collateral world indifferent to cognitive possibilities. It does not use imagination as a means of understanding the tendencies latent in reality, but as an end sufficient unto itself and cut off from the real contingencies. The stock folktale accessory, such as the flying carpet, evades the empirical law of physical gravity – as the hero evades social gravity – by imagining its opposite. This wish-fulfilling element is its strength and its weakness, for it never pretends that a carpet could be expected to fly – that a humble third son could be expected to become king – while there is gravity. It simply posits another world beside yours where some carpets do, magically, fly, and some paupers do, magically, become princes, and into which you cross purely by an act of faith and fancy. Anything is possible in a folktale, because a folktale is manifestly impossible. Furthermore, the lower-class genre of folktale was from the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries on transformed into the more compensatory, and often simplistic, individualist fairy tale. Therefore, SF retrogressing into fairy tale (for example, “space opera” with a hero-princess-monster triangle in astronautic costume) is committing creative suicide.

Even less congenial to SF is the fantasy (ghost, horror, Gothic, weird) tale, a genre committed to the interposition of anti-cognitive laws into the empirical environment. Where the folktale is indifferent, the fantasy is inimical to the empirical world and its laws. The thesis could be defended that the fantasy is significant insofar as it is impure and fails to establish a superordinated maleficent world of its own, causing a grotesque tension between arbitrary supernatural phenomena and the empirical norms they infiltrate. Gogol’s Nose is significant because it is walking down the Nevski Prospect, with a certain rank in the civil service, and so on; if the Nose were in a completely fantastic world – say H. P. Lovecraft’s – it would be just another ghoulish thrill. When fantasy does not make for such a tension between the supernatural and the author’s empirical environment, its monotonous reduction of all possible horizons to Death makes of it just a subliterature of mystification. Commercial lumping of it into the same category as SF is thus a grave disservice and rampantly socio-pathological phenomenon.

  • The pastoral,on the other hand, is essentially closer to SF. Its imaginary framework of a world without money-economy, state apparatus, and depersonalizing urbanization allows it to isolate, as in a laboratory, two human motivations: erotics and power-hunger. This approach relates to SF as alchemy does to chemistry and nuclear physics: an early try in the right direction with insufficient foundations. SF has much to learn from the pastoral tradition, primarily from its directly sensual relationships which do not manifest class alienation. This lesson has in fact often been absorbed, whenever SF has sounded the theme of the triumph of the humble (Restif, Morris, and others, up to Simak, Christopher, Yefremov, etc.). Unfortunately, the baroque pastoral abandoned this theme and jelled into a conventional sentimentality, discrediting the genre; but when pastoral escapes preciosity, its hope can fertilize the SF field as an antidote to pragmatism, commercialism, other-directedness, and technocracy.
    • Claiming a Galilean estrangement for SF does not at all mean committing it to scientific vulgarization or even technological prognostication, which it was engaged in at various times (Verne, the United States in the 1920s and 30s, USSR under Stalinism). The needful and meritorious task of popularization can be a useful element of SF works at a juvenile level. But even the roman scientifique,such as Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon – or the surface level of Wells’s Invisible Man – though a legitimate SF form, is a lower stage in its development. It is very popular with audiences just approaching SF, such as the juvenile, because it introduces into the old empirical context only one easily digestible new technological variable (Moon missile, or rays which lower the refractive index of organic matter).3 The euphoria provoked by this approach is real but limited, better suited to the short story and a new audience. It evaporates much quicker as positivistic natural science loses prestige in the humanistic sphere after the world wars (compare Nemo’s Nautilus as against the United States Navy’s atomic submarine of the same name), and surges back with prestigious peacetime applications in new methodologies (astronautics, cybernetics). As I will argue in chapter 7, even in Verne the “science novel” has a structure of transient estrangement, which is specific to murder mysteries, not to a mature SF.
    • After such delimitations, it is perhaps possible at least to indicate some differentiations within the concept of “cognitiveness” or “cognition.” As used here, this term implies not only a reflecting of but also on reality. It implies a creative approach tending toward a dynamic transformation rather than toward a static mirroring of the author’s environment. Such typical SF methodology – from Lucian, More, Rabelais, Cyrano, and Swift to Wells, London, Zamyatin, and writers of the last decades – is a critical one, often satirical, combining a belief in the potentialities of reason with methodical doubt in the most significant cases. The kinship of this cognitive critique with the philosophical fundaments of modern science is evident.
  • Note the functional difference from the anti-gravity metal in Wells’s First Men in the Moon,which is an introductory or “plausibility-validating” device and not the be-all of a much richer novel. Devices of plausibility are further discussed in chapter 4.

3.  The World of the Science Fiction Genre 

(Concept and Some Functions)

3.0. As a full-fledged literary genre, SF has its own repertory of functions, conventions, and devices. Many of them are highly interesting and might prove very revealing for literary history and theory in general. I shall discuss some of these – such as the historically crucial shift of the locus of estrangement from space to time – in the chapters that follow. I shall not, however, attempt a systematic survey of such functions and devices, which would properly be the subject of another book, one that encompassed modern SF as well. I should only like to mention that all the estranging devices in SF are related to the cognition espoused, and that, together with the historical venerability of the genre’s tradition, this seems to me a second, methodological reason for according SF much more importance than is usual in academe. However, it might here be possible to sketch some determining parameters of the genre.

3.1. In a typology of literary genres for our cognitive age, one basic parameter would take into account the relationship of the world(s) each genre presents and the “zero world” of empirically verifiable properties around the author (this being “zero” in the sense of a central reference point in a coordinate system, or of the control group in an experiment). Let us call this empirical world naturalistic. In it, and in the corresponding “naturalistic” or “realistic” literature, ethics is in no significant relation to physics. Modern mainstream fiction is forbidden the pathetic fallacy of earthquakes announcing the assassination of rulers or drizzles accompanying the sadness of the heroine. It is the activity of the protagonists, interacting with other, physically equally unprivileged figures, that determines the outcome. However superior technologically or sociologically one side in the conflict may be, any predetermination as to its outcome is felt as an ideological imposition and genological impurity: the basic rule of naturalistic literature is that man’s destiny is man.4 On the contrary, in the non-naturalistic, metaphysical literary genres

4 In such cases as certain novels by Hardy and plays by Ibsen, or some of the more doctrinaire works of the historical school of Naturalism, where determinism strongly

discussed in 2.1. and 2.2., circumstances around the hero are neither passive nor neutral. In the folktale and the fantasy, ethics coincides with (positive or negative) physics, in the tragic myth it compensates the physics, in the “optimistic” myth it supplies the coincidence with a systematic framework.

The world of a work of SF is not a priori intentionally oriented toward its protagonists, either positively or negatively; the protagonists may succeed or fail in their objectives, but nothing in the basic contract with the reader, in the physical laws of their worlds, guarantees either. SF thus shares with the dominant literature of our civilization a mature approach analogous to that of modern science and philosophy, as well as the omnitemporal horizons of such an approach – aspects which will be discussed in the following chapters.

3.2. As a matter of historical record, SF has started from a prescientific or protoscientific approach of debunking satire and naive social critique and moved closer to the increasingly sophisticated natural and human sciences. The natural sciences caught up and surpassed the literary imagination in the nineteenth century; the sciences dealing with human relationships might be argued to have caught up with it in their highest theoretical achievements but have certainly not done so in their alienated social practice. In the twentieth century SF has moved into the sphere of anthropological and cosmological thought, becoming a diagnosis, a warning, a call to understanding and action, and – most important – a mapping of possible alternatives. This historical movement of SF can be envisaged as an enrichment of and shift from a basic direct model to an indirect model (both to be analyzed at greater length in chapter 2). What matters here is that the concept of a science fiction tradition or genre is a logical corollary of the recognition of SF as the literature of cognitive estrangement. It can be gleaned from my approach and examples that I think the literary genre which I am trying to define embraces the subgenres mentioned in 1.1, from Greek and earlier times

stresses circumstance at the expense of the main figures’ activity, we have, underneath a surface appearance of “naturalism,” an approach to tragic myth using a shamefaced validation for an unbelieving age. As contrary to Shakespeare or the Romantics, in this case ethics follows physics in a supposedly causal chain (most often through biology). An analogous approach to fairy tale is to be found in, say, the mimicry of “naturalism” in which Hollywood happy-end movies engage.

until today (the Islands of the Blessed, utopias, fabulous voyages, planetary novels, Staatsromane,anticipations, and dystopias – as well as the Vernetype romans scientifiques,the Wellsian scientific romance variant, and the twentieth-century magazine- and anthology-based SF sensu stricto). If the argument of this chapter holds, the inner kinship of these subgenres is stronger than their obvious autonomous, differentiating features. Some historical discussion of these kinships and differences will be attempted later on in this book; here I want only to observe that the significant writers in this line were quite aware of their coherent tradition and explicitly testified to it (the axis Lucian-More-Rabelais-Cyrano-Swift-M. Shelley-Verne-Wells is a main example). Also, certain among the most perspicacious surveyors of aspects of the field, like Ernst Bloch, Lewis Mumford, or Northrop Frye, can be construed as assuming this unity.

3.3. The novelty of such a concept shows most distinctly when one attempts to find a name for the genre as it is here conceived. Ideally this name should clearly set it apart from (1) nonliterature, (2) the empiricist literary mainstream, and (3) non-cognitive estrangings such as fantasy; furthermore (4) it should try to add as little as possible to the already prevailing confusion of tongues in this region. The academically most acceptable designation has been that of a literature of utopian thought. The concept is no doubt partly relevant, but fails to meet the first criterion above; logically, such an approach was usually taught and considered within the scope of either the history of ideas or political and sociological theory. Although I would agree that literature (and especially this genre) is most intimately involved with life – indeed, that the destiny of humanity is its telos – I think one should quickly add that literature is also more than an ideational or sociological document. Since this is the rationale for any systematic literary study and scholarship, I may not need to labor the point.

The only proper way of searching for a solution seems to require starting from the qualities defining the genre, since this would take care of the criteria 1 to 3 at least. Taking the kindred thesaurus concepts of science for cognition, and fiction for estrangement, I believe there is a sound reason for calling this whole new genre Science Fiction (sensu lato).

There are two main objections to such a solution. First, cognition is wider than science; I argued as much myself in 2.5. It is much less weighty, however, if one takes “science” in a sense closer to the German Wissenschaft,French science,or Russian nauka,which include not only natural but also all the cultural or historical sciences and even scholarship (cf. Literaturwissenschaft, sciences humaines). As a matter of fact, that is what science has been taken to stand for in the practice of SF: not only More or Zamyatin, but the writings of Americans such as Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, Dick, etc. would be completely impossible without sociological, psychological, historical, anthropological, and other parallels. Further, an element of convention enters into all names (compare “comparative literature”), but it has proved harmless as long as the name is handy, approximate enough, and above all applied to a clearly defined body of works. The second objection is that the use of “science fiction” confuses the whole genre with the twentieth-century SF from which the name was taken. Given the advantages of the only term at hand fulfilling the above criteria, I would argue that this is at worst a minor drawback: nobody has serious trouble in distinguishing between More’s book, the country described in it, and the subgenre of “utopia.” The trouble begins with the variety of unrelated interdisciplinary and ideological interpretations foisted upon such a term; “science fiction” might perhaps escape the interdisciplinary part of that obstacle race. Furthermore, there are always advantages to acknowledging clearly one’s methodological premises. As both Lukács and Eliot would agree, any tradition is modified and reestablished by a sufficiently significant new development, from whose vantage point it can be reinterpreted. This is, I would maintain, the case with the mentioned ci-devant traditions, for example, of “utopian literature,” in the age of science fiction. If that is accepted, the new name is no drawback at all, but simply an onomastic consummation.

4. For a Poetics of Science Fiction (Anticipation)

4.1. The above sketch should, no doubt, be supplemented by a sociological analysis of the “inner environment” of SF, exiled since the beginning of the twentieth century into a reservation or ghetto which was protective and is now constrictive, cutting off new developments from healthy competition and the highest critical standards. Such a sociological discussion would enable us to point out the important differences between the highest reaches of the genre, glanced at here in order to define functions and standards of SF, and its debilitating average.5

4.2. If the whole above argumentation is found acceptable, it will be possible to supplement it also by a survey of forms and subgenres. Along with some which recur in an updated form – such as the utopia and fabulous voyage – the anticipation, the superman story, the artificial intelligence story (robots, androids, and so on), time-travel, catastrophe, the meeting with aliens, and others, would have to be analyzed. The various forms and subgenres of SF could then be checked for their relationships to other literary genres, to each other, and to various sciences. For example, the utopias are – whatever else they may be – clearly sociological fictions or social-science-fiction, whereas modern SF is analogous to modern polycentric cosmology, uniting time and space in Einsteinian worlds with different but covariant dimensions and time scales. Significant modern SF, with deeper and more lasting sources of enjoyment, also presupposes more complex and wider cognitions: it discusses primarily the political, psychological, and anthropological use and effect of knowledge, of philosophy of science,and the becoming of failure of new realities as a result of it. The consistency of extrapolation, precision of analogy, and width of reference in such a cognitive discussion turn into aesthetic factors. (That is why the “scientific novel” discussed in 2.3. is not deemed completely satisfactory – it is aesthetically poor because it is scientifically meager.) Once the elastic criteria of literary structuring have been met, a cognitive – in most cases strictly scientific – element becomes a measure of aesthetic quality, of the specific pleasure to be sought in SF. In other words, the cognitive nucleus of the plot codetermines the fictional estrangement itself.

5       A first approach to the sociology of SF may be found in the special issue of ScienceFiction Studies,November 1977, edited and with an introduction by me.

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FORMS OPEN TO LIFE (2013) (8,640 words)

Darko Suvin, interviewed by Federico Pianzola

FORMS OPEN TO LIFE (2013)                              (8,640 words)

[FP] In this conversation I would like to move from the general to the particular and although I am aware that you have implicitly or explicitly dealt with these topics over the years, I would like to raise these questions anew, asking them with regard to the present time and looking to the future.

In your career you have contributed to discussions in many fields of human knowledge, proposing interpretations and models in performance and literary studies, political theory, social theory, linguistics, and cognitive studies. I think your transdisciplinary work is thought-provoking and really valuable in each of the fields you entered but, following your example of constant awareness and critical attitude, I would like to ask you: on what ground and on the strength of what knowledge can humanists intervene in social and political issues? I am alluding to your claim: «No valid epistemology (perceiving, understanding, culture) without politics – and viceversa» (“Utopianism from Orientation to Agency” 260).


[DS] Well, we are living, in my opinion, in apocalyptic times: you see fascism rising in the whole Europe and beyond, you see a savage kind of capitalism making for exasperated conditions everywhere, especially among the intellectuals. So I am not sure I see a special role for humanists here, except if it were to bring to bear their specialist knowledge, insofar as they have it, on the huge problems happening already and growing at the speed of computer communication every day. As different from the 1930s or 40s there are no countervailing forces on the horizon that I can see at any rate, so we have to get enthusiastic about Bolivia or Venezuela because there is nothing to get enthusiastic about nearer to us… maybe about Iceland that voted for control of banks? What I am saying as gently as I can is that the background of your question is somewhat naïve: what can humanists do? Be antifascist, I guess.

That said, as a humanist I still believe we have some potential contribution to make, which is basically what Marx did and which I call «demystification», or «demythologisation», if you wish. If a myth is in force, once you examine it in terms of historical semantics, semiotics, narratology and all the other tools we have acquired in the last three hundred years, it is possible to see not only where it comes from, but who is using it, for what purposes, and to what profit. In that sense, if we ever find a movement that is willing to listen to us, we could do something, or if we could contribute to found such a movement – I mean a political oppositional movement. Otherwise, for example, Derrida in his book on Marx (Specters) – which I think is in some ways very important, not least for him, it is a change for the better in Derrida – talks about a «New International», and so far as I can understand the New International is Derrida and his disciples around the world holding lectures. Obviously this will not change too much, it will make for interesting readings for some hundreds of us…

What I am trying to say is that where I come from and with the experiences that I have had, having seen fascism at first hand, the real one, I now see that we have again fascism, a somewhat less open but not too much less, not in Hungary and in Ukraine, and certainly not in Croatia where war criminals are blessed by bishops, and so on. We have fascism, and in fact clerico-fascism, a syntagm people once thought was a product of propaganda but now you see they are holding up the world. Therefore, my answer would be: we can act as humanists only if we can contribute with our specialist knowledge to some kind of anti-capitalist movement, which will have to be also an antifascist movement, otherwise it is nothing.


[FP] You are thinking more about a militant attitude of humanists but I was also thinking about the role that humanist knowledge can have in debates in different fields. How can humanists have something to say, for instance, about the policies of scientific research, about bioethics? How can they intervene in debates about human rights?


[DS] To talk about human rights or bioethics when a sixth or more of the world population is starving is just hypocrisy. I do not want to participate in such dialogues. First you have to say: let’s nationalise the banks and feed the people! Only then we can have real debates. I do not see the point of all these intra-humanist dialogues, which possibly help our careers but otherwise help nobody.


[FP] So humanities are something like a closed system, in your opinion?


[DS] By definition every discipline is up to a point a closed system, and I have spent my all life talking against closed systems, first of all in politics, which I saw at first hand, and in teaching or research disciplines. This is why I went to Comparative Literature, because it is so ill-defined that it is practically an open system: you can do whatever you want, if you can get away with it. I am not thinking about what is called «letteratura comparata» in Italy, which is a purely bureaucratic dodge, I mean the ‘real’ comparative literature like it is done in France, the USA and a little bit in central Europe or Latin America. It was a way to talk about stuff which was not canonical, that is to say literature of other continents, plebeian literary forms like science fiction, movies – which are not literature at all but another sign system. And it was also very easy to have a cross dialogue with theory, which began in linguistics and then burgeoned into whatever we have seen in the last 60, 70 years, beginning with structuralism and semiotics and so on. In that sense, if there were a use for such knowledge then there would be a possibility to gain knowledge through professional interests and achievements of the so called ‘human sciences’.


[FP] You mentioned your defence of open systems, with respect to this I would like to refer to your work “On the Horizons and Epistemology of Science”, where you claim that ‘good science’ must be based on holistic understanding. I think this is precisely what you are pursuing in your work…


[DS] Well, «holistic» is a kind of stenography and abbreviation. It means going beyond what is considered canonical in your own discipline, looking for inspiration and knowledge at the meeting points of disciplines. I still believe Marxian thinking can and must be an open system. I have just written a book about the ex-, in a way ‘socialist’, Yugoslavia which I think is at the meeting point of politics and epistemology. In that sense you can use the tools of political science, the tables of statistics, the identification of social classes, debates about political parties, and so on. And you can say: has this anything to do with the alienation of people, with the dispossession of people? And how do people justify such a system: Yugoslav rulers, the so-called Communist Party or League? You can have an immanent critique of their discourse, which can use historical semantics à la Raymond Williams, or semiotics  somewhat less formal than Umberto Eco, and everything that we have learned in these last years. The talk about «socialist capital», for example, should have alerted somebody of some contradictions, which are possibly fertile and can be defended, but then you have to defend them, you cannot just presuppose them because you are in power, saying that if you dispose of the capital, then it is ipso facto socialist capital. This is an old Stalin trick. So, I do not say I am in favour of knowledge, I am in favour of using knowledge, I am in favour of people having and teaching knowledge. But I do think that we should very soon find our horizons closing down, first economically and then politically. Finally, if you wish in a police way, where what you want to say is called «terrorism» and then you get into jail. Therefore, if you want to go on talking as a humanist then you better find some allies, who will try to get you out of jail, or to get you published.

You might think I am exaggerating about jail, this happens only in poor countries – we shall see that in the near future, but certainly I am not exaggerating about getting published and distributed: who can get new stuff distributed today above three hundred copies? Yes, you can do an examination of Leopardi or Shelley and you can have that published, or you can publish your own book on demand (I have done it and sold thirty copies): but anything that would be usable for mass understanding and leading to action is strictly controlled. Furthermore, in our de-schooled world, the rulers have understood what, for example, Stalin never understood: that written words per se (without, say, images) are not so important. Stalin had the tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, where the written word was important, but if you have the television, and the videos and the movies, then you can say whatever you want by means of written word, you will be read by three hundred people, and who cares? I am much more attuned today to the whole process of communication – which is: who says what, to whom, why, and for what effect – not simply to the central link in the chain, which is «what is being said». Because what is being said cannot be understood to any degree of precision without knowing who says it, in what situation and for what reason. This is very clear when you talk about a novel: it is always told by somebody. If Uriah Heep in Dickens (David Copperfield) tells you something, you know you should not believe that. But it is not always clear outside literary fiction. For instance, in the movies it gets to be much less clear, and in everyday discourse it gets to be even less clear. I am not sure we have enough tools for that, because the tools would have to be largely bastardised with politico-epistemological tools. And then of course you would be accused of doing politics and not humanistic work, of being ‘unprofessional’ – a very convenient bourgeois shibboleth.


[FP] This brings me to ask you about your epistemological approach: I think you have been coherent throughout your career, since the ’60s you adopted a constructivist approach, considering the context and the whole process of communication in understanding plays, novels, short stories, but also other communicative and social phenomena that you studied. You also argued for the necessity of abandoning the idea of an «All-Encompassing Truth», of «Monoaletheia» (“On the Horizons and Epistemology of Science”). Your models and theories, as well as your interpretations, reflect this urge. Drawing from one of your models (“On Cognitive Emotions and Topological Imagination”): it seems to me that your activity of rational conceptualisation is done in close connection with the conscious use of topological and analogical thinking.


[DS] I have always been fascinated by the concept of «model». For example, a «type» in literature is a model, a very particular kind of model (“Levels of Narrative Agents”). In some way all our theorisation proposes models, whether it knows it or not, which are abstract figures that can explain a lot of concrete things. They are not simply abstractions, as Platonic ideas, they retain some features of the particular that they propose to explain, they set up relationships and so on. A «type» should not have more than three or four traits. You retain the traits that you can see in everyday life: for example, Pantalone is a type from the «Commedia dell’arte», which is nice because it is so clear cut. He has three or four traits: he is «avaricious», he is «old» and he is «amorous». This leads one, more or less clearly, to epistemology, in the broader sense of a theory of cognition, not only as a theory of science. I have done nothing nearly as systematic as, for example, Meir Sternberg did (“Telling in time (II)”).1/ Einstein said that all his life he thought about two things: a man running on a train in the direction opposite to where the train was going, and a man falling in an elevator and trying to go up. If you think about it, they are one and the same thing, not two – they differ in presence or absence of gravity.

A fragment from the old poet Archilochus runs: «The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing». I have always liked more the fox. In a way I have always admired, for example, Roland Barthes, who started out as a “depth reader” in his wonderful Michelet and advanced from there to his perhaps most important work, Mythologies, and then became a structuralist, then became a semiotician, then improvised as a nipponologist, and in the end became something for which there is no name, I mean his work on photography with the topology of the punctum (Camera Lucida). Not that I would dare compare myself, in terms of importance, breadth or understanding, to Barthes, but I always admired him because you can see how he was forced by the political situation in France – the ideological situation between Gaullism and a very stupid form of Marxism – to invent for himself various ways to understand things. You could not believe the orthodox bourgeois stuff, which was the Gaullists, you could not believe the stupid Stalin stuff, which was the Communist Party, so what would you do? Well, you are on your own. Possibly with a very important background of predecessors.

My background is Marx and some people in that tradition – Brecht, Bloch, Benjamin and on – usually the kind of heretics considered at the margin of that tradition, but not really there. Well, I think Benjamin was really on the margin, but Brecht and Bloch to me are orthodox marxists, they are what I would like to see Marxism be. In that time there was a very important tradition that various of us had, and we also had a very favourable climate, that of the «Welfare State» – roughly from 1945 to 1973 – which was a direct consequence of the October Revolution. The terrible fright the Western capitalists took led them to say: let us introduce some panem et circenses. Before the masses turn to communism, the real one, let us give them a watered down kind of social stability, good salaries and the possibility of talking, as long as we have the army and television, and we will outmanoeuvre them. This has worked very well: until the capitalist rulers decided they were safe because the Soviet Union was failing, and so they did not need it anymore.

But in that period – in 1945 I was fifteen years old and beginning to think – everything was open, everything was questionable. The horizons were open. Fascism had been defeated. All of us tried to understand things in a context which was economically favourable, even in poor Yugoslavia – you did not have to pay to go to university, you received some financial help, it was not difficult to get published – in fact in socialism you got paid for it, because when you write you are working and so you got paid. On the other hand, we had the experience of two world wars. That is to say, you must think holistically to understand. Even the US Republican Party understood it: a famous book when I was young was One World by the Republican Party’s candidate Willkie, who ran against Roosevelt in 1944. That is: there is one world… and we have to dominate it. Everybody understood that we are in a holistic system, which became photographable when the first picture from the Moon was taken. This little blue planet in an infinity of darkness, blackness… this is holistic! Of course, it depends on what you mean by «holistic»: if it is just a mishmash of everything it does not mean anything. I take it to mean: relating it to other matters of importance to human destiny – what the Greeks called ananke, the fate. Which today is roughly the stock market or the killing drones.

What I am trying to explain is the context in which I was working: an extremely favourable context as opposed to the context beginning in the ’80s which became very unfavourable, both materially and morally. Whereas the one from, say, 1940s to mid -’70s was favourable both materially and morally. The rest is a matter of happy instances and personal preferences: I was always fascinated by theatre, also by movies but it seemed to me that the skeleton of what happens in movies could be found in dramaturgy, which is the way of writing drama and could be applicable to all performance genres. I wanted to make a theory of performance genres but I never managed to do it. I was fascinated by drama in theatre because there was potentially an intrinsically utopian element in theatre, where communication – I do not like the word «communication» but still – interaction, feedback happens between two groups of people. Those giving the message and those receiving or refusing the message and sending it back, subliminally but quite clearly for anybody who knows anything of theatre. For example, when an audience starts coughing too much, your message is not coming across. There is this direct face-to-face relationship, which has something utopian to my mind, in the positive sense.

My major conclusion from the history of my childhood is that we live between the horizons of utopia and dystopia, the ‘very good place’ and the ‘very bad place’. These are horizons which will never be achieved, and you should not pretend ever that you live in utopia, nor do we live today in a total dystopia, there are always possibilities and openings (this is called dialectics»). I was always very interested in this business of «utopia» and «horizon» and in what you could relate it to, where you could find it. For example, you could find it in theatre. I was a participant in the student theatre movement in Zagreb and Yugoslavia, and Europe, from the early 1950s to 1964. It was a very important movement, whose guiding stars were people like Brecht, Mayakovsky and Hikmet, and I have been trying for years to get people to write about it. It fed directly into the 60s’ youth revolt. It was important in France, in Germany – East and West – in Italy… It was done and written by young people, with little money, expressing themselves. With a lot of chaotic nonsense mixed in between, of course, because you were at the borders of possibility, you did not know, you were advancing into no man’s land. That is why I went into theatre.

I also began to be interested in theorizing this: first of all, what is drama? I participated for a long time in European student theatre, I became a theatre critic. Later I was hired by universities – first in Zagreb, then in the USA and then at McGill, where I stayed for a third of a century – but it was a little bit difficult to talk about theatre institutionally, except if you were in the theatre academy, but then you had to talk about how to help the actors – who were the students of the theatre academy – and I was not prepared to do that. I was thinking about what Aristotle writes in the Poetics, where there is not a single word about the actors. So I had to decide: do I want to be primarily a theoretician or a theatre critic? Moreover, the situation in North America was not really favourable to theatre criticism, as different from Europe. There were two or three theatre critics who dominated everything, in The New York Times and two or three other newspapers, and later on TV. There I started to write about drama and at some point, when I thought I had said some things historically about drama, I began writing about ‘topological’ matters, say, the interaction between theatre and audience, and how could this be explained by some depth psychological theories on aphasia and similar. Because theatre lives in a very strange situation: it is a kind of pharmakon, as Derrida would say (“Plato’s Pharmacy”), it is a poison. The audience is prevented from acting and this is poisonous, the normal impulse is to move. If you see the famous Lumière Brothers’ movie of the locomotive coming towards you, you want to get up. You are trained not to get up because this is a movie, but the first audiences did not know it and they screeched and fled – at least, we are told so, se non è vero è ben trovato. So, it is extremely unhealthy and poisonous to be shown the killing of Hamlet or the humiliation of Shylock and not to intervene. There are many anecdotes about Jews in the audience getting up and screeching: «anti-Semite!» to Shylock’s tormentors – the happenings were unbearable for them. But this is a breach of the basic contract the audience has with the theatre: we are not going to intervene on the stage. This poison can be turned, as a pharmakon, into a very valuable type of cognition, which is «we are showing you a story you would not have so clearly understood without us». For example, in King Lear the ruler is stupid, as usual, but he is more sinned against than sinful, as people around him are even worse. And at the end the ruler understands how he went wrong, and we do too (the same trick as in Brecht’s Galileo): of not believing in the Christian communism of love by his good third daughter. This would not be without interest today! This is based on fairy tales: the three daughters, and the two brothers in the Manichaean dialectics, and so on. It is a very potent brew and you would not have got it in any other way except by means of dramaturgy. I am very sorry that the many things I did have not allowed me to write a theory of theatre, or a full theory of narrative agents, except for a few sketches (“Levels of Narrative Agents”; “On Fiction as Anthropology”).

I did write a theory of science fiction because people wanted it. Yale University Press jumped at my book proposal: how do you refuse that? People had written about science fiction before me but no one had ever written a book at a big university press; I may also have had the first graduate course about science fiction or I may not, I do not remember. Science fiction was directly about other possible worlds – which is a kind of definition of «utopia», and which is why I tried to argue that science fiction has intrinsically something to do about being or not being a utopia. When I wrote this it was thought of as total nonsense. Utopia is something ideological in the 16th-17th century and science fiction something literary that begins with Jules Verne, as we all know. So, how do you relate this two? I have always thought – and that was a thing I learned from Braudel (“Histoire et sciences sociales: La longue durée”) – that «long duration» is a historical relationship, just as «short duration» is. Why? Braudel does not say why but I have got a hypothesis: because it is all happening in class society. This is the famous question by Marx: how can the sun of Homer shine on us? Why does Greek tragedy still talk to us? He has some fancy answers, which I do not share – because it was the youth of humanity and so on (Marx started as a bad romantic poet) – but the question is a very interesting one: how come we can read Homer? After all, the Homeric Greeks were one step up from savage warring tribes, much before modern civilization, if you take history seriously. If you say there is a ‘human nature’ which is the same in all the ages, and Caesar is the same as Eisenhower except that the dress codes were different, then there is no problem. But this is liberal nonsense, to say that people have a fixed stamp, which is basically a theological idea: where would this fixed stamp come from? If it came from nature then it is dynamic, because it came – as Darwin told us – from primates, and if it has changed from the Australopithecus to man then it can change again. And it changes in little increments, not all at once, so it can change all the time. Unless you share the liberal idea, this watered down version of monotheistic theology, then your only answer is that there are long duration class constants, such as «war». How do you understand Troy? That is no problem: they have had a war. Of course you must understand the differences too: the type of armament is different, and the emotions going with it are different too, but there is a value – as I say in my schematic system (“Levels of Narrative Agents”) – about which the protagonist and the antagonist fight. And that is a long duration system.


[FP] What I find very interesting is that in every discourse that you make, in every model that you sketch, I see that the focus is on processes and relations, and not on objects or fixed categories…


[DS] Well, I have been like this for a long time. Let me just give you the political situation. I was born in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which was a dictatorship of one nation and class over the others. I then lived under the fascist Ustaše Croatian government for a few months, who wanted to kill me and did not manage. I then lived under the occupation of the Italian army, who were much nicer because except for the fascist camicie nere (black shirts) they did not go around killing people, unless they were in a battle. I then lived in Bari from ’43 to ’45 under the Anglo-American occupation of the supposedly ‘democratised’ South Italy. I then came back to Democratic Federative Yugoslavia, which was a kind of proto-socialist State and became proclaimed as Socialist Republic led by the Communist Party, with various contradictions inside the State, which I call «the plebeian search from below and the rule from above». I studied in the West: in Yugoslavia but also in Paris, in England and at Yale. I saw that at first hand. Then I had a fight in Yugoslavia and had to leave, first to the USA and then to Canada, which is a much more peaceful place. Well, how many systems are those? Seven, eight? Is it a constant? This is all in process! Some of them coexisted, some of them followed each other… so how do you believe in ‘fixity’? Only if you are very nostalgic or mentally retarded.

I am not even so sure that I like this dynamics so much. Dynamics has historically been introduced by the bourgeoisie – capitalism – and one great socialist, William Morris, wrote a book, News from Nowhere, whose subtitle is An Epoch of Rest. Let us have a little rest from all this progress and dynamics! «Rest» on a ‘high’ level, when nobody is hungry, nobody kills nobody, etc. So, philosophically speaking I am not sure I believe dynamics are the only model and the end of our modelling, however we do live in such an epoch and this has to be explained. Obviously not everything is like that: dynamics can only exist if certain things remain static, and other things change. Germany rules Europe, there is a war, then America and Soviet Union rule Europe. You have «ruling», you have «Europe»: these things remain. In other words, as theatre theory would say, the roles remain, the actors change. How do you explain these changes? Why was dialectics first invented in the Ionian cities when democratic tyrants fought the aristocracy? And why was it then reinvented by Hegel at the time of the French revolution? Because you have to explain contradictions. They cannot be explained by theology. Monotheistic theology has God and the Devil: that is fixity. Some other theologies are better in this regard, the Buddhist theology is better. That was another great lesson that I think my generation learned: something like dialectics (Hegel or Marx, or the new versions, whatever) has to be used in order to understand how the core of the Communist Party became a capitalist oligarchy in one month, as it happened in all Eastern Europe. This is a quality change, accruing from small quantities, but it was totally possible. Officially there are fixed categories – Communism, Capitalism – however there are contradictions. Contradictions are always two things which have a relationship, and the pulls of the relationship can shift. It is a kind of seesaw, as Brecht once said (Saint Joan of the Slaughterhouses): some are up because some are down.

Basically I tried to put into some forms the relationships which were assailing me, and my whole generation – as pertaining to literature and theatre and some questions of modelling in culture. Probably each generation in history could be explained that way. As Althusser says, you are «interpellated» by certain things (“Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”) – I am not a great fan of Althusser but two or three things are quite nice. The idea of «interpellation» is one of the few fertile theological ideas – Althusser came to Communism from Christian youth and he has this background. There is a lot of stuff in Medieval philosophy which is collectivist and is quite usable today, I think. So you are interpellated, and my definition of the «intellectual» is: somebody who answers, who is answerable to some things, to some groups maybe but certainly to some matters. Some groups insofar as they are bearers of some things: ideals, values, whatever.


[FP] I am not surprised that you correlate this way of thinking, of creating models and explanations, to your historical background but I am very positively struck by the fact that your theories of utopia and science fiction became so popular. I dare say that nowadays in science fiction studies your model is the main stream.


[DS] Yes. It is also shot at, but at least it is there to be shot at. Yes, I have not seen anybody who went beyond that. One or two people thought they could fix it by little changes, but I doubt this. You either take it or you leave it. However, I think it is increasingly unpopular insofar as science fiction studies per se are increasingly downgraded in favour of Fantasy. And the Fantasy people dislike my theory, as well they should. Some of them are on the Left, to my surprise! There is a famous English ex-Trotskyist who is one of the best Fantasy writers I know of: China Miéville. We are in a new game. I still have some basic doubts about the potential of Fantasy. Let me put it this way: if you have two thermometers, the one of Fantasy going to 40 degrees and the one of science fiction going to 100 degrees, this does not mean that there cannot be bad science fiction, which is at 30, and good Fantasy which is at 35. Do you see what I mean? But I think the potential to go over 40 is not there.


[FP] Does it mean that you do not see a horizon of utopia in Fantasy?


[DS] It is a very watered down wishy-washy utopia, usually a cynical dystopia. Of course the horizon of utopia always exists, just as the horizon of dystopia always exists.

So the challenge to my theory does not come from theory, it comes from practice, which is that people read more Fantasy today. Television is full of Game of Thrones stuff – which is very well done. I look at it with some interest as long as I can stand it, which is about one or two hours (it is basically about sex and killing in a barbaric ruling class). The practice has moved on because the social bearer of science fiction, the readership, is no longer there or is there in a smaller, relict way. It was the young people of the middle class – students, high school kids and continuing when they grow up – who believed the system of the Welfare State could be changed for the better, onwards and upwards. Like in Star Trek. Well, the present generation of precariato [precariousness] does not believe it any more, quite rightly. Why should they? So what do they believe in? Vampires, lycanthropes… stuff which is obviously impossible, because their own life is impossible. So why should they believe in the possible? But then they are in a dead end (literally, with zombies).


[FP] And these are all ‘monsters’…


[DS] That is a nice part that I like. How do you dialecticise a monster? I have never understood this. Of course there can be a lycanthrope in love with you, so when he turns into a wolf he will have a tough time not trying to eat you up. There is a certain amount of sympathy there: can he contain himself and think of himself as a young man who loves this girl, or as a wolf who wants some fresh meat? It would be very interesting for me to see, for example, how the young man remembers that he is a wolf and sees the girl as fresh meat, that is, roughly as a slaveholder. But then you have to understand the economics and the politics of slaveholding, and you are in science fiction, you are not in Fantasy any more. Otherwise it is worth nothing, it is psychological driblets: he is sorry but he has to do it anyway because it is his instinct and so on. This is also a de-schooled generation: what the ’68 has wanted has come back to haunt us. They know nothing about science, they know nothing about history, they know only the momentary impact on you now. It is now. That is a very unhealthy psychological frame. Of course, we live now, but now comes from then and goes there. And it is of great help to the rulers, because if you live in now you cannot imagine anything else, except a monstrous form of now. You can tell me that Marx wrote a lot about vampires – for him capitalists suck the blood of workers, I wrote about this (“Transubstantiation of Production and Creation”) – there is a whole strand of Gothic imagery in Marx. However, I think Fantasy is a good servant but a very bad master, and it has now become the master. So I have strong doubts.

Can there be very good Fantasy? If so, how? I would love to write a big essay on Kafka, which is the most superior form of Fantasy that I can imagine. What are Kafka’s writings as a genre? It is not realistic, it is not science fiction… it is a kind of philosophical Fantasy. In the same room or topos with Borges and a number of Latin American and other people. Very idiosyncratic in his own way because he is a great writer, he is the Dostoevsky of Fantasy, so to speak. I deeply love much Kafka. Perhaps I do not like the most famous story, the Metamorphosis, I think it is secondary. The central image and predicament of the bug is very vivid, it could be filmed, but the relationship with the family, which is the raison d’être of the story, is not clear. However, I would really like to write about some other things in Kafka, including his novels but even better his short stories. Yet now I have just finished the book on Yugoslavia (Samo jednom se ljubi) and I have to finish my memoirs.

In sum, on my theory of science fiction: yes, you are right, there is no better theory on the horizon, though, on the other hand, science fiction is declining beyond the horizon, so to speak. It is very ambiguous.


[FP] With my question I also meant that it was surprising for me that a theory focusing on dynamics and processes was so widely accepted and used in a whole field of study. I mean, a constructivist epistemology is not easier to accept and deploy in scientific inquiry than «‘Objectivism’, for which reason means the analysis of a permanently delimited object within a single neutral – value-free and simultaneously eternally valuable – framework for inquiry» (“On Cognitive Emotions” 171).


[DS] First of all there was no establishment in science fiction studies before my generation. We created it, people like Bruce Franklin and me, and ten others, usually in the journal Science-Fiction Studies which I co-edited. So there was nobody to stop you. On the other hand, there was an interested and intelligent readership. Of course, they were intelligent young Americans mostly. Young Americans are spottily educated, they have always been, though in the ’50s much better than today. In the 19th century and up to the 1930s you had to have German to have a university degree in the USA, because science was in German. Well, that went by the boards when science started developing in the USA: what do we need that for? «History is bunk», as Henry Ford said, what do I need German or history, or whatever, for if I have mass production? And Ford was the prophet of the age.

Still, it was a favourable conjunction. There was a large amount of people ready to buy books of science fiction. Certainly half a million, possibly one million or more. In fact, Yale University Press sold almost three thousand copies of my book (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction). There were debates, conferences, symposia, and even prizes. And the English departments thought: maybe we should recognise this. I was hired at McGill for two reasons: because they needed someone in drama, and because the students were demonstrating – that was in ’67-’68 – and they also wanted science fiction, among other things. So at McGill they said: this guy can teach drama and he can also teach science fiction. We do not give power to students but we can give them science fiction. And the students were extremely disappointed when I came the first day in a suit and tie. I came from pre-1968 Europe where a university lecturer comes in a suit and tie. Then we got to be friends but they told me they thought: what kind of a marxist is that in a suit and tie? I was a kind of Berlinguerian marxist – there is this movie about Berlinguer now in Italy (Quando c’era Berlinguer) – even though I was a little in advance of Berlinguer: I would not have gone in for the compromesso storico [historical compromise]. Let us renew this approach that we have! Which is historical, materialistic and dialectical. It is the only approach that we have. Maybe someone will invent something better than Marxism but it has not been done in two hundred years, so let us use it while it lasts.

There was no establishment in science fiction to overthrow, there was tabula rasa. There were some fans and writers – like James Blish, Damon Knight… and I read them all – who were writing about science fiction, most of it valuable stuff. But there was no systematic, it was a kind of positivistic approach, which is ok because you have to begin with the positivistic «this is here and that is there» and then you can go on and do relationships. We were on virgin land, a kind of crew of Columbus. You think it is China but it is not China, it is something else but at least you have discovered something. Later people found out what I think it really is, which will turn out to be false in a hundred years again, and so on.


[FP] With respect to these comments about your epistemological approach, I would like to ask you about your work on narrative. Reading your articles and books I have found two different definitions of «narrative»: on the one hand, you conceive narrative as «a finite and coherent sequence of actions, located in the space-time of a possible world and proceeding from an initial to a final state of affairs. Its minimal requirements would be an agent, an initial state changing to a commensurate final state, and a series of changes consubstantial to varying chronotopes» (“On Metaphoricity and Narrativity in Fiction” 63). On the other hand, you interestingly claim that «in its long history, the sjuzhet has at different times managed to do without many elements or aspects: overt action, individuality of narrative agents, linear causality, etc. Yet I cannot imagine any narrative – epic or dramatic, to use familiar terms – that would not have some form of chronotope» (64). Moreover, in the later “On Cognitive Emotions and Topological Imagination” you slightly modify the first definition adding a coda: «unified by a plot with metaphoric tenor» (190).


[DS] Well, the first one is a formalist definition of narrative. As I said, I do think that we have to start with formalism, there is no other way to start. What would you like to start with? Simple ideology? Content? Re-telling? If you want to talk valuably about art, fiction, etc. you have to start with forms. In the book Victorian Science Fiction in the UK I tried to apply the method of my great friend Raymond Williams, who was in favour of a social theory of literature. A social theory of literature means: who talks to whom and why? And how, of course. If the how is not interesting we would not talk about this matter at all. All the artists have told us that why and how are two sides of the same hand. This is my most advanced approach to literature, in my opinion: a non-formalist approach. This was possible because the Victorians were extremely self-conscious. In England you find tons of handbooks with data, biographies of all the writers, where they studied, their families, where they came from… the data are there. And I found out that out of two or three hundred writers, three or four were from working class or artisan families; a few dozens were from upper class, but the rest was middle class. I do not believe in automatic determination from your class to the type of thing that you write, nonetheless obviously there is a relationship. I tried to apply the Williamsian theory to a corpus of 450 books I pieced together in the basement of the British Museum library. It took me eighteen months of my life to write that book: to find the corpus, to read it all, to write about it. Eleven months of a sabbatical year, plus three summers of two-plus months: it is too expensive. And it was supposed to be just the introduction to a survey of 20th-Century science fiction from Wells on, which I then never did. To do the same with two or three thousand books you would need an academy of science, a group of well-financed people, roughly of the same ideological horizon – the one we are talking about here: things happening in processes, etc. – but we do not have this. We do not have a well-funded, independent, progressive, cognitive organisation. We have a lot of totally non-independent and reactionary cognitive organisations, they are called «think tanks». Very few of them are anti-capitalist. It is one of the reasons for which the great experiment of the October revolution – including its consequences (Yugoslavia, China, etc.) – has failed. Because they did not have think tanks. They did not give the intellectuals independence and they did not give them a cognitive orientation.

I admire – by contraries – people like Meir Sternberg, Thomas Pavel or Lubomir Doležel, who dedicate their whole life to one thing, narrative theory, doing it well, and in the best cases, such that of Sternberg, they insist that it is relational. Although in order to make his point he may downplay the formalism a little too much, for my taste, but of course every pioneer has to make his point, he cannot be just. My relational horizon is not the same as Sternberg’s. When I wrote about science fiction theory, about ten years ago, I supplemented my old definition of utopia – «The semiotic construction of a particular community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, & relationships between people are organised according to a more perfect principle than in the author’s community; this construction being based on estrangement arising out of an alternative historical hypothesis» – with a codicil: «the ‘perfection’ is judged from the point of view or within the value-system of a discontented social class or congeries of classes, of people who suffer of the existing system and think how to change it» (“Theses on Dystopia 2001” 188). Sternberg speaks with great effect and to great results about a kind of general reader, like in the case of unreliable narration conceived as an effect on the reader (“Reconceptualizing Narratology” 47). But where do the different readers that will believe or not the narrator come from? Have their response anything to do with social class, profession, age, gender? This is a too abstract model for my taste. I would like to see this correlated to actual readers. How do you read Dostoevsky today, is the Russian people really the incarnation of Christ? In the 17th century, how would monarchists and republican have read Andrew Marvell’s great ode on the beheading of king Charles (Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland)? Obviously very differently. Marvell was a Puritan fellow-traveller speaking about his enemy as magnanimously as Aeschylus spoke about the Persians (The Persians). This is the humanizing trait of poetry. Most probably Marvell as a Machiavellian politician would have voted for the beheading of the king, but he could also appreciate his chivalrous qualities. What I am saying is that, if I would have time to write a theory of literature, I would focus on the forms issuing from stances of such and such groups – which do not have to be full-grown social classes. This was pioneered by two people I would claim as my teachers, Lucien Goldmann and Raymond Williams, and I tried to write in this vein when I wrote about «types» (“Levels of Narrative Agents”; “On Fiction as Anthropology”). In that sense I would totally agree with a relational, as against a static, formalist approach. Relations cannot exist unless you have a form that relates to something. If you have chaos, inconsistency, relations occur only in unaccountable ways. Chaos relates in chaotic ways. It is one of my great regrets that I have not managed to do a theory of theatre, or a theory of narrative agents. We are all traversed by history, and shaped by it, and there is a price to pay for everything you do. The price is your time, the supreme price. The human body pays in its energy, its possibilities in time.

I guess I also had a very bad trait in terms of power: I do not like being a boss, even in the research field. As a Brecht poem has it, I did not like to command or being commanded, my communism is semi-anarchist. I have had relatively few PhD students, because usually your PhDs are in your research team. I did this once in my lifetime, I started a huge project but I immediately repented: too much paperwork. I want to sit down and think, and teach and talk. I do not want to organise things and fill forms, which were bad even then and today are horrible, I gather. I resigned from Science-Fiction Studies after seven years because I was tired, it was an awful lot of work, page-long airmail letters to contributors with comments and so on. Sternberg knows it very well but he remained stuck to Poetics Today much longer, he said 40% of his life was devoted to it (“Reconceptualizing Narratology” 44). 40% of my life between 1973 and 1981 was devoted to Science Fiction Studies, so when does one write? Never mind what some laughingly called «private life». If you look at my biography, I have been vice-president of fifteen things, I have never been the president of one of them. Perhaps it is not a good trait, it is anti-collectivistic, but when you start writing and thinking you realise that ars longa vita brevis: «The life so short, the craft so long to learn» (Chaucer).





1/ Mr Pianzola, an Italian young scholar, had before this just done an interview with my old acquaintance Meir Sternberg, editor of the important periodical of narrative theory Poetics Today in Israel, hence these references. The interview took place in Berlin, Summer 2013 (I think)



Works Cited


Aeschylus. The Persians.  Transl. J. Lembke and C. J. Herington. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays.  Transl. B. Brewster. New York– London: Monthly R P, 1971, 127–86.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill & Wang, 1981.

—. Michelet.  Transl. R. Howard. New York: Hill & Wang, 1987.

—. Mythologies.  Transl. A. Lavers. London: Vintage, 2009.

Braudel, Fernand. “Histoire et sciences sociales: La longue durée.” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 13.4 (1958): 725–53.

Brecht, Bertolt. Saint Joan of the Stockyards [Slaughterhouses]. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1969.

Chaucer,. Geoffrey. “The Parliament of Fowles.” Wikisource 22 Apr. 2011. Web access 14 July 2014.

Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in his Dissemination. Transl. B. Johnson. London: Athlone, 1981, 61–172.

—. Specters of Marx, the State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International.  Transl. P. Kamuf. London: Routledge, 1994.

Marvell, Andrew. “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” in The Poems of Andrew Marvell. Ed. N. Smith. Edinburgh: Pearson, 2003, 267–79.   

Quando c’era Berlinguer. Dir. Walter Veltroni. BIM, 2014. Film.

Sternberg, Meir. “Telling in Time (II): Chronology, Teleology, Narrativity.” Poetics Today 13.3 (1992): 463–541.

—. “Reconceptualizing Narratology. Arguments for a Functionalist and Constructivist Approach to Narrative.” Enthymema 4 (2011): 35–50. Web access 14 July 2014.

Suvin, Darko. “On Cognitive Emotions and Topological Imagination.” Versus 68-69 (1994): 165– 201.

—. “On Fiction as Anthropology: Agential Analysis, Types, and the Classical Chinese Novel,” in J. Hall and A. Abbas eds., Literature and Anthropology. Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 1986, 116–46.

—. “On the Horizons of Epistemology and Science.” Critical Quarterly 52.1 (2010): 68– 101.

—. “Levels of Narrative Agents.” Theory of Poetic Form: Proceedings of the X Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association. Ed. C. Guillén. New York: Garland, 1985, 227–32.

—. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven & London: Yale UP, 1979.

—. “On Metaphoricity and Narrativity in Fiction.” SubStance 48 (1986): 51–67.

—. Samo jednom se ljubi: radiografija SFR Jugoslavije. Belgrade: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 2014.

—. “Theses on Dystopia 2001,” in R. Baccolini and T. Moylan eds., Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. New York & London: Routledge, 2003, 187–201.

—. “Transubstantiation of Production and Creation: Metaphoric Imagery in the Grundrisse.” Minnesota Review 18 (1982): 102–15.

—. Victorian Science Fiction in the U. K.: The Discourses of Knowledge and of Power. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1983.


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The Guardian, 20 November 2014 22.00 GMT


Ursula K Le Guin’s speech at National Book Awards: ‘Books aren’t just commodities’


To the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks, from the heart. My family, my agents, my editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as my own, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for 50 years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience,[1] and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.

[1] Hannah Ellis-Petersen: Amazon and publisher Hachette end dispute over online book sales, The Guardian, 13. 11. 2014.


Darko Suvin


Ursula K[roeber] Le Guin, born October 21, 1929, is a US author of poetry, essays, and prose fiction. mainly in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and children’s or “young adult” literature. She has also written remarkable essays and ten collections of her sensitive verse — that have to my mind not received sufficient attention, and which I must slight here in order to speak mainly about what I can do in brief, her work in science fiction and Fantasy.

Le Guin’s work has been strongly interested in alternative worlds with different politics, natural environment, gender, religion, sexuality, and/or ethnography. In SF and Fantasy she belongs to the “warm current,” based on anthropological sciences and estranging ruling certainties. One of her critics has characterised it well as “identifying the present dominant socio-political American system as problematic and destructive to the health and life of the natural world, humanity, and their interrelations” (E. McDowell). The best known of her numerous SF works are the novels The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which I’m proud to say I spotted in a review as the best SF text of that remarkable peak year, and The Dispossessed (1974), which is to my mind – as I argued in a lengthy essay – the culmination and in a way end of the SF Golden Age 1960-74. Her most complex, and I think her own preferred novel is Always Coming Home (1985). She also wrote a number of brilliant short stories, my favourite being “The New Atlantis”: I have written about it as a coded parable of our times, and it is the highest praise I can imagine to say that this applies to all her works, no doubt in different ways and to a different degree. Her numerous forays into Fantasy fiction culminate in the Earthsea series, six novels that to my mind fall into two “trilogies,” one published 1968-72 and the other 1991-2001, of which the second uses a womanist point of view to largely take back the earlier one. Characteristically, when asked for her opinion on the Harry Potter novels, she said that she found the first Harry Potter book to be a “lively kid’s fantasy crossed with a ‘school novel'” but also found it “stylistically ordinary, imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited”; a commentator said that “Rowling can type, but Le Guin can write.” See for more bibliographical info
Her youth was spent in Berkeley. Her father, Alfred L. Kroeber, a famous anthropologist and theoretician of culture of German descent, was professor of anthropology at the University of California, and her mother, Theodora born Cracaw, was a remarkable writer best known for her books The Inland Whale, a retelling of California Indian legends, and Ishi in Two Worlds, a biography of the last member of a California Indian tribe. Ursula Kroeber got a B.A. at Radcliffe College (the female wing of Harvard University) in 1951, and M.A. from Columbia University in 1952, in French and Italian literature. On ship in 1953 to study for a Ph.D. in Paris on a Renaissance writer, she met Charles Le Guin, a historian, whom she married. They settled in Portland Oregon in 1958 and have lived there since (three children).

For her 80th birthday a book of homage to her, which include some poems and stories was edited by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin, with 40 contributors, most of them women authors in or around SF. All those of reading age when The Left Hand of Darkness was published adduce it as their eye-opener, but there are comments on a number of later novels too. The critical highlight for me was Eleanor Arnason’s piece, “7 Ways of Looking at Ursula K. Le Guin,” that asks in which areas would SF be diminished without UKLG. Her persuasive answer is: in feminist SF, in anthropological SF, in anarchism or systematic self-realization including Taoism, in realism, in description of aging, in style, and “in my own writing.” This encompasses a lot of terrain and it could be further developed, but I would certainly apply it to myself. (For an example, I learned from her splendid The Word for World Is Forest how gods – or if you wish divine heroes to be venerated by later generations — are made and usable in human history.)


Le Guin has won many significant literary awards. The speech which follows was pronounced in 2014, when she was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It was preceded, significantly, by her resignation from the Authors Guild in 2009, protest its endorsement of Google’s book digitization project: “You decided to deal with the devil”, she wrote in her resignation letter. “There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.”
I shall try to analyse from my vantage point, no doubt coarsening and making blunter, her brief but rich and lightning speech at being awarded this prestigious prize, before a full house of writers, editors, and other people dealing with literature. It begins by breaking a lance for her comrades in the genres she is best known for, Fantasy and SF, the “imaginative writers.” The reason for this is, first, that we are witnessing the coming about of most difficult times, which means a serious peril for the freedoms not only of imagination but also action and I would say even survival of millions of people, including prominently the best minds of our generation. Such “visionaries, realists of a greater reality” are desperately needed to counteract a most dangerous society, generating a rising tide of blind panic amid quite destructive technological possibilities: to my mind, a nuclear war (we cannot know how limited or unlimited) is today quite conceivable, while the destruction of planetary ecology proceeds apace by a blind and frenzied capitalism. A second reason that imagination is the beginning of all wisdom is the endangering and erasing even of the memory of freedom, the damnatio memoriae of all the most rich and multifarious achievement of the age of Lenin and the Keynesian Welfare State, from bread and butter for almost everybody (in some privileged Northern parts of the world at least) to magnificent achievements of arts and science enlightening billions of people. In a way, thus, Le Guin’s speech is a call to revive truly liberating liberalism, that of J.S. Mill and Garibaldi for example, as against the fake “neo-liberalism” of today, that brings freedom only to profiteers at a huge cost in misery of billions. It is clear that we have to ”see through our present society” – that is, see what could be different from and what is hidden by it. (Let me add that all readers of Le Guin know that her cosmic vistas transcend present-day politics: they are shaped by an update of Daoism, and scathing about organised religion.)

Since she is speaking at and about a book award, Ursula Le Guin focuses then on “the difference between commodities for the market and [true, DS] literary activity,” or creativity. I shall not comment each sagacious part of her indictment: let me only say that I read this speech as a radical indictment of capitalism from the privileged option for the arts. If I should be accused of oversimplifying, I shall take leave to ask you what is the central feature, lever, and movens of capitalism? Obviously it is profit. And, Le Guin tells us: “often, profit is in conflict with the ultimate ends of art”! Gently, clearly, but inexorably, the finger has been pointed. Furthermore, capitalism is expressly named as a tyrannical force analogous to the divine rights of kings against which the 1776 revolution of Washington, Paine, and Jefferson was fought. At the end of her life, at the age of 85, a prominent intellectual writes as it were her ideological testament. What does she end it with? With the final recompense work can have, beyond (but of course including) nourishing the worker: which is Freedom. As the French revolutionaries said in the Marseillaise: Liberté, liberté chérie. This revolutionary liberalism shakes hands across centuries with socialism and anarcho-communism (as you can read at length in Le Guin’s masterpiece of The Dispossessed).

This, dear Reader, is a concise but precise Declaration of Independence of the Arts from Capitalism.

Lucca, September 2015



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THE USE OF LUCIO MAGRI (2014) (3290 words)

Magri, Lucio. The Tailor of Ulm: Communism in the Twentieth Century, translated by Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 2011).

Magri, born 1932, was a leading member of the Manifesto group which was kicked out of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1970 and, together with Rossana Rossanda, its most prominent theoretician; he rejoined the PCI with the small Left PdUP party in 1984 and fought against its harakiri in 1989. He was then a deputy in Parliament of the small Rifondazione Comunista party, and retired in 2004 to write this final book. Among his copious journalistic and analytical works, this is, as it were, his political testament. He committed assisted suicide in Switzerland in 2011. Il Manifesto still exists as the only general daily in Italy that can be read without revulsion.

In the Introduction plus 21 chapters Magri weaves together three strands: a chronological history of “some decisive events” in and around the PCI from 1944 to its suicide, the world political and economic context, and theoretical analyses or at least doubts and questions, which culminate in the final impressive Appendix of 45 pages, written in 1987 as the position paper of the Left at the final PCI congress. I must be brief about the well-known international context of the Cold War, USSR degeneration, and the constant US pressures which were especially virulent in Italy, ruled de facto by three forces: the Catholic Church, inner political forces, and the US ambassador who set the limits of what could be done (prominently: not to let the too strong and dangerous communists into the government after 1948). No doubt, Magri has interesting views about the world context: he pins the blame for the Cold War squarely on the USA and stresses the real danger of nuclear holocaust say up to 1961; he singles out the major rigidities and stupidities first of the 3rd International, including Lenin’s attacking focus on the “centrist” Kautsky and Austromarxism, predicated on a non-existent revolutionary imminence in Europe, and then the much heavier ones of Stalin’s forced collectivisation, 1930s’ terror waves, and the permanent cultural deformation into apathetic masses and cynical bureaucracy; but he gives short shrift to the thesis that fascisms in general were simply caused by bolshevism – certainly the Italian one was not. However, like the whole PCI, Magri overestimates the positive role of the USSR as “the ‘driving force’ of world history” at least in the late 1950s, since its usefulness was by then confined to being a power alternative to the USA for countries such as Egypt and Cuba, with many serious mistakes right up to the entry into Afghanistan. He rightly approves of Khrushchev’s “peaceful coexistence” thesis, but the critique of his “destalinisation” is brief and tepid in view of what I would call a class revocation of the CPSU alliance with the Russian plebeian masses. Finally, Magri has much sympathy for Mao’s slogan “to rebel is justified” but concludes that Deng’s line, while meeting great pragmatic success, was a Thermidor or counter-revolution. This strand is only touched upon as background, and the only factual mistakes I found in the book belong to it.

Magri rejects the two dominant readings of PCI history: that it was from 1945 on “a social-democratic party without saying or perhaps even knowing it”; or that it was, despite its role in the resistance and in laying the fundaments for democratising Italy, “a prolonged hand of USSR policy and intimately tied to its model.” Neither of them can explain the most relevant facts of this history; both obliterate what was unique and interesting in it. Rather, the PCI tried seriously, though imperfectly and fitfully, to tread a “third road” toward socialism: a fusion of reforms within a parliamentary democracy with bitter class struggles from below and an explicit critique of capitalism.

The historical overview begins with Togliatti’s 1944 return to Italy from Moscow and his appeal for a wide antifascist coalition and resistance. The PCI’s strong role in these and its subsequent correct (if not quite clarified) slogan of a new – that is, non-insurrectional – way to socialism resulted in a mass party of two levels, held together by a strong common belief: a backbone of professional cadres, at first coming mostly from partisans, schooled in Stalin’s Short History of the Soviet CP(b), much Engels, some Lenin and Marx, and much Togliatti; and the other members, of whom a good many were activists, comprising leading intellectuals and defectors from the high and middle bourgeoisie as well as many workers from industry and agriculture. These proletarians were at the beginning “often without full elementary schooling…, who learned writing in the Party sections, read a first book, got an idea of national history, and fascinated by a new passion filled the city squares each evening in spontaneous discussion groups to get a sense of things.” It was confronted with formidable and unslackening pressures from enemy bosses: a “largely incompetent and parasitic bourgeoisie,” the Vatican and its capillary organisations from each village to universities, the US as world military and economic power, and their unanimous apparati of mass persuasion in a pitiless Cold War. The PCI as an original “people’s party” was quite different from the Leninist vanguard idea. At its height it comprised 2.5 million people including half a million youngsters, most of whom took their bicycle or scooter to the Party session, to read the daily Unità, attract new members, eat perhaps chitterlings or play boccia (bowls) in the trade union hall, a part of that “counter-society.” In 1956, after Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” Togliatti defined the Party strategy somewhat further as “structural reforms” won by struggle from below and enshrined in the legal system empowered by a progressive Constitution.

Magri argues that the death of this vital 1960s’ PCI as a coherent organisation was avoidable. That decade was still open. He divides it into 1960-65 and “the long 1968” lasting nine years. In both cases, amid a short-range crisis, “the PCI could or would not take a leading or directly encouraging role,” but it was clearly in some ways involved, influenced by and influencing them, and had to bear their breakdowns. The first half of the ‘60s saw the “economic miracle,” based on a mixed economy of independent State corporations and private ones, a technological leap forward into Fordism in some industries such as steel and petrochemicals, and extra-profit from relatively low wages (in 1969 only 6% higher than in 1938 while productivity had risen over 50%), allowing for competitive exports. The workers and peasants paid the bill for it and profited least, responding with a wave of new struggles from below through the very independent Left CGIL trade union strengthened by full employment, and as a rule bypassing political parties. Nonetheless the new prosperity, however relative and one-sided, gave rise to consumerism, with mass acquisitions of small FIAT cars, home appliances, and TV sets transmitting a strictly censored RAI monopoly.

Magri gives a stimulating sketch of this Italian neo-capitalism and its fusion of modernisation and backwardness, as well as of the bitter and uncoordinated protests of 1968-74 – first by workers, accompanied by white-collar employees and technicians, and then by students and a new, strongly leftist young generation smarting especially from the semi-feudal inefficiency of universities – that wanted to bring about a new social order from below. He concludes that the PCI missed the opportunity to understand the synergy of innovations from above and from below in new needs and life-styles, and to insist on a political restructuring based on flexible planning and tax policies, strategic public investments, and workers’ participation in decisions. However, its understanding depended on really listening to the protests from below by reforming the party’s decision-making process. This seems to me the key to answering the central question: “how was it possible that a force that came to ripeness in the 60s and that followed an autonomous and ambitious project… began to decay and finally dissolved itself?”

I shall slight the well-known developments of the Berlinguer era, faced with the post-1973 crisis which destroyed the last hindrances to full capitalist restructuring, and made even “keynesianism in one country” impossible, as discovered early on by Mitterrand. Magri rightly condemns Berlinguer’s early “historic compromise” thesis as a mistake but finds his last years very promising and unfortunately cut short. Not until the PCI dissolved itself in 1989, under the nondescript Occhetto, did its ill-prepared left wing at last dissent, much too late. As a result, by the end of the 1980s around 800,000 former members despaired of politics (my estimate would be closer to 2 million, or four fifths of PCI at its height). As to those remaining in politics, to the above question one could then add a corollary: How come that the middle cadre (e.g. the 1990s PD leaders coming from the Communist Youth, such as the ineffable D’Alema and Veltroni) were not even socialist, never mind communist, but turned into full-blown Atlantists and neo-liberals?

Here we enter into Magri’s theoretical strand, to my mind the most interesting one. There was a history of PCI before his, and several volumes have been published just after this 2009 book of his. Not slighting the pioneering historical insights from his privileged oscillation between a marginal insider and a marginal outsider, the lessons for our present and future are to be found in these reflections. Except for the final Appendix, to which I will return, this strand is not formulated as a coherent longer argument but as comments on concrete historical dilemmas, which has its advantages and limits. But its core seems to me the discussion of the two “genomes” or determining inheritances of the PCI, the Gramsci and the Stalin genome.

“Gramsci(anism) as genome” is his influence through writings – and through a few top leaders who were his collaborators – on “the gradual shaping of the identity and strategy of Italian communism,” rendered possible by a conscious and risky operation of salvage and publication of his prison writings masterminded by Togliatti, who is here defended from accusations of having bent that publication to tactics of the moment, though he naturally had his own slant on them, did not emphasize their divergence from Stalinism, and confessed late on that Gramsci had been reduced to the PCI needs while he “thought much further.” But the founding of an independent and very competent Gramsci Institute eventually rectified that bending, and without Togliatti we would have had no Gramsci as a worldwide cultural authority. His genome in the PCI consists for Magri of two main chromosomes or foci: on the 19th-Century Risorgimento as “an unfinished revolution” without agrarian reform and mass participation but with a compromise between the bourgeoisie and parasitic rent-gatherers; and on the polemic against vulgar Marxism which meant “a relative autonomy and weight of the ‘superstructure’, thus major attention to the role of intellectuals, political parties, and State apparatus.” However, his Americanism and Fordism and his passion for the Turin consigli was in the decisive decades backgrounded, which led to a refusal to face the huge modernising changes in neo-capitalism as well as to a party far from the “collective intellectual” Gramsci found necessary as a partner for movements from below.

Stalinism as genome is my own diagnosis of the directly contrary strand in the PCI, transmitted to it by the founding leaders returned in 1944 from Moscow and the whole experience of the Third International in the preceding two decades. Its fulcrum lay in Togliatti’s contradiction between a flexible strategy in Italian power struggles and a “bolshevik” discipline from above on the party cadre, though without Stalin’s paranoia and terror. Indoctrination in Manicheanism was of course largely due to Cold War pressures but became a forma mentis in the ruling majority, blocking definition and development of the “third way.” The ideological rigidity of the leadership persisted through the Khrushchev years, stymieing understanding of developments in the USSR and its bloc and privileging compromises with bourgeois parties in Italy over dialogue with workers and students. This included a strong defence of the USSR, stressing its undoubtedly real achievements in industrialisation, culture, and international relations (as in Togliatti’s interview after 1956), but excluding the at least as important black zones.

The unhappiness in PCI cadres, including a majority of the Central Committee, became clear from 1961 on, yet it was never allowed to grow into an open debate, remaining encoded in articles and speeches opaque to the party as a whole. The Manifesto group was first marginalised and then excluded for the sin of publicly debating what everybody at the top knew was at least a problem. A stronger participatory democracy might have led to an openness like that of the Bolshevik party between 1917 and 1921, with real currents, competing programs, and democracy from below (as Magri puts it: “for a responsible pluralism and not rigid fractions”). But most important, without it the PCI had no ear for similar deep yearnings in the youth and the workers: only some intellectuals grew interested in Yugoslav self-management, or in Mao’s initial impulse in the Cultural Revolution, or in the Polish debates about planning. The self-censorship of the non-Stalinist Left at the PCI top, often identified with Ingrao, amounted to sterility, for it never held even informal internal discussions but left the “Amendola” bureaucratic Right as victors by default. On the international scene, this also meant that the PCI had little to say about the Sino-Soviet conflict except to try and minimise it. And inside Italy, at a time of huge social clashes in the mid-60s, the number of worker and young members in the Party fell drastically. The openness of many party intellectuals to “Western” Marxism, from Marcuse and Sweezy through the UK New Left to Mallet and Gorz, remained without political consequence, while obversely the badly digested models of Che or Mao led some exasperated young people into counterproductive armed groupuscules.

What was the alternative, say of an updated Gramscianism for the 1980s-90s? An articulate statement of it is to be found in the 1987 Appendix, “A New Communist Identity.” It asks “what remains from the strong identity of Marxism and the Left in general” at a time when industrialism loses ground to services and non-material goods, when productivity depends ever more on organisation and consumption rather than on general labour or capital, and when this system is exported worldwide from metropolitan countries as an international division of labour corroding the poorer countries? The working population is being fragmented into different categories, and a huge cultural offensive has persuaded the political Left, as well as the peace, ecology, and women’s movements, that capitalism is no longer the problem but a necessary horizon. On the other hand, today’s technologies and access to information make possible both reduction of work and decentralisation of power – that is, “today the idea of communism in its original and richer meaning of emancipation is for the first time historically mature,” without the fixation on economistic progress and on the State as the only alternative to a dominant market. It is what Brecht in the 1950s called the possible habitability of our planet.

Magri then discusses ecology (”Development and Nature”) and “Superfluity and Poverty, Needs and Consumption” in two overviews that could still today provide a useful basis for updating. In the first section he stresses that capitalism cannot deal with the environment, since that needs long-term planning and a distance from the profit motive. In the second one, he argues that qualitative instead of quantitative production is within reach but foreclosed in favour of a “production of illusions and of the ephemeral” that denies the needs of health, education, or space planning. He then focuses on work, whose subsumption under and metamorphosis into capital is the determining Novum or novelty of the epoch, and the mobilisation of whose energies has led to the successes of the 20th century as in Japan (and some sectors of Italy). The redistribution of labour is to him the central social theme, and he concludes that even in a post-industrial future the class conflict between labour and capital will persist, if in new ways, having to do with the quality and quantity of employment and with the possible prospect of liberation both of and from work. Pragmatically, the destiny of workers will depend less on trade unions and more on political projects and instruments involving the State and the strategies of technological development and of education. “Is this [aspect] of a radical but up to now barely sketched Marxist critique of capitalism – the liberation of human labour from its commodity character – not a sufficiently solid basis for a new communist identity?”

“The Helplessness of the Sovereign” is rightly the longest Appendix section. The sovereign is of course Rousseau’s “people,” and its historical avatars in all movements from below within capitalism, culminating in revolutions from the French to the Chinese. So this is a reconsideration of democracy as real political freedom, “which is impossible as long as all citizens do not have a minimal education, income, and security.” The workers’ movement has since Marx traditionally fought both for liberal constitutional freedoms and for more radical and deeper forms of democracy. However, the social-democratic parties totally forgot about those deeper forms, while “really existing socialism” with its Party/States, total centralisation, and identification of dissent with class enemy led to a grave defeat, proving that “the full development of political democracy is not less but more important for socialism than it was for capitalism.” And today’s capitalism has for its structural precondition the irrelevance of politics, used as a hollow ritual for decisions reached by the new rulers, a small economic and technocratic oligarchy in the international economic and political centres, bereft of any democratic influence. This is a new world of direct global power by financial capital and multinational corporations, which would logically need an international opponent, “a collective political subject able to implement a long-range overall project… [with] a new political sovereign.” And that opponent would need a Gramscian party (or group of parties) as “stimulus and synthesis of a complex system of autonomous and permanent political movements.” This does not mean denying Lenin’s and Togliatti’s call for liaison between democracy and socialism. To the contrary, these two elements represent a necessary feedback: “Is this not a strong basis to re-establish a communist identity also for… institutions and politics?” The section ends, however, on a realistic note that the sociopolitical forces needed for this project are in a deep identity crisis, whose overcoming will require years or decades of rethinking.

Since the paper was written to counteract Occhetto’s defeatism, it ends with a discussion of “The Party Form.” In brief, Magri concludes that what is needed for real societal reforms is “an autonomous organised subject” able to change while acting, so that the Gramscian theme “of a mass party that is also a fighting party, a collective intellectual, cannot be laid ad acta.”

My overall judgment on this Appendix is that a new communist manifesto (to my mind much needed) could do worse than to incorporate it in an updated version. And the book as a whole is necessary reading for those who want to think about anticapitalist refounding (whether similar or different). We cannot, as the readers of Brecht’s early would-be flyer from Ulm, wait for several centuries. However, for an overall judgment on Magri it will be necessary to take into account also his articles and speeches, of which several volumes have recently been published. Probably Perry Anderson’s necrological conclusion (in New Left R. no. 72 of 2011) is right: that Magri was the most prominent revolutionary intellectual in Europe able to think in harmony with the mass movements that came about during his lifetime.

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— To the memory of Franco Fortini, a great poet and critic of my times

and for my landsmann Sezgin Boynik, who revived my interest in the Formalists

[…] doubt wisely; in strange way

To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

To sleep, or run wrong, is….

John Donne

We have to live now amidst and with crass defeat, in a kalpa when dominant meanings of socialism and communism have suffered an epochal, though not necessarily irreversible, death: it follows, to upgrade Dostoevsky, that if God and Communism are dead, everything is permitted. It is therefore high time to consider more fully the complex and sensitive matter of how life can (and necessarily must) live in feedback with death. I shall start my consideration with the use in Jewish and Christian traditions of the term and image of a stumbling stone or rock, continue with matters of estrangement, and finish in Death vs. Eros.

  1. The Monotheistic Denunciation of Disbelief: Stumbling into a Trap
  2. Thiswordly Salvation through Estranged Perception

2.1. Values and Religiosity

2.2. Shklovsky‘s Stumbling to Refocus, or Poetry Is What Makes the Stone Stony

  1. Brecht: The Estrangement Effect Is Most Intimately Political (Critical or Mythical)

3.0. Context

3.1. Textual Syntax and Reference

3.2. The Potent (and Bipolar) Estrangement

  1. Brecht and the Stone – Stumbling or Other
  2. A Parthian Shot: On Death and Creative Eros

Alas, death has been a blind spot in canonic Marxism.

Marvell, To My Coy Mistress




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O great academics! Still, let’s search more diligently and not despair.

          Augustine of Hippo

The highest thing would be to understand that all phenomena are already theory.


Brecht can be supremely useful to us–people engaged in thinking through and doing something about the present catastrophic state of the world; and what is useful is his method. This is Fredric Jameson’s thesis in his to my mind path-breaking book. It is, I think, the most lasting contribution to come out of the hullabaloo that was the 1998 Brecht centennial.  But what does he mean by method?1/

               One of Jameson’s formulations may provide a first springboard: “there existed a Brechtian ‘stance’ [Haltung] which was not only doctrine, narrative, or style, but all three simultaneously; and ought better to be called, with all due precautions, ‘method'” (132). This builds on but considerably expands Lukács’s famous assertion in History and Class Consciousness that “orthodox Marxism… refers exclusively to method”–precisely because it adds the crucial factors  of stance (involving the whole body) and narrative (involving a more than exclusively conceptual articulation of a possible world). But then I would like to ask why is it necessary to stress this is not simply doctrine. Clearly, doctrine as a set of tightly– as it were “horizontally”–linked political-cum-philosophical concepts, not falsifiable by strategically placed “vertical” references to embodied situations from which they once sprang and to which they should in any Brechtian (and Jamesonian) “meshing thinking” (eingreifendes denken) be applied, has failed us in this century. We are now yoked to the victorious doctrine of “free trade”, but this is both a lie in its premises and a horror in its results. The opposing doctrine of Leninism was probably in some important aspects flawed when extrapolated west of Russia and after 1900-1921, it was certainly misused within Russia itself, and it is at any rate inadequate to the physical and mental technologies of Post-Fordism. What, then, is to be inherited, what is transmissible from the socialist past, which includes many glories, and even whose bad errors carry indispensable lessons for the future? What may be “a place-keeper” for what Jameson in a somewhat different context calls the metaphysics, but we may call the doctrines, “that have become impossible” (12)?

Jameson’s answer in Brecht’s case–yet Brecht is taken by him as exemplary for the whole inheritance–is: method. But as usual for him, it is arrived at through a rich (and richly persuasive) intricacy that requires the discussion of at least a few of the key foci “to be read into, or read out of” a complex argument (as Brecht said about Coriolanus and Shakespeare in general). What I take to be its key links have to do with what Brecht may mean or convey to us and with why this is significant beyond literary or theatre philology. These two facets to my mind come together in: what was and is the social and indeed class locus from which and to which Brecht speaks? In whose name or names, and then to whom, could he–or did he–speak? After considering a few such foci (other important ones, for example Brecht and Subject, Brecht and modernism, sympathy vs empathy and other emotions, Brecht’s and Jameson’s “representability of capitalism”, must be slighted), I would return to see  what illumination we may derive from Brecht’s and Jameson’s “method.”

Poetry, Narrative, Embodying, Allegory

It is clear enough that not only is Brecht a poet, but that had Brecht not been a (major!) poet or wordsmith, he would not have been anything else of significance. Jameson distances himself from “Western critics from Adorno on” who have insinuated Brecht was “(just) a poet” (6), but his brief is not to go into detailed appreciations of any single work, genre or mode. His approach is perhaps what Benjamin would have called a commentary (that starts from the prejudgment that the commented text is a classical one): a close reading indeed but one that shifts from the closed single “work” of I.A. Richards and Company to the details characterizing a whole opus, when and where the poem–or prose, or play–passage speaks to Jameson’s purpose. A network of references athwart the hidden monadic theological assumptions of “organic” literary scholarship and based on the contradictory unity of Brecht’s stance is thus put in place. We still get splendid analyses by the way; for verse, perhaps the best example is Jameson’s pithy comment on “The Cranes” (142-3), the classical poem in two voices fitted into Mahagonny, whose bittersweet lyricism is by itself enough to dispel the cliché–anyway repudiated by the mature poet–that Brecht is emotionless. Equally revealing are throwaway asides, like “the two fundamental Brechtian works Saint Joan and the Three-penny Novel” (151), at which my response is “right on!” Jameson’s stream of associations proceeds through concepts, but their kinetoscopic lope becomes strangely similar to a Joycean poetic narrative.  Pages 81-85, for example, proceed from Opposition through Contradiction to the V-Effekt, move from Brecht through Hegel, Marx, Post-Modernism, Barthes, ethnomethodology, Sartre, Judith Butler (the weakest link), and Gramsci back to the “Street Scene”,  to end  Part 1 of the book with a culminating bang: “[all this] is the proof that reality is theoretical, but also that Brecht’s theory… is what is ‘really’ or ‘in reality’ Brechtian in Brecht”!

Yet as earlier critics have indicated, poetry supplied a further crucial form for Brecht’s stance, the ballad: as in his admired “Sir Patrick Spens” and, no doubt, as in the great German heritage both of the Romantics’ Kunstballade and of the penny-dreadful Moritats sung by itinerant balladeers which one finds imitated in “Mack the Knife” and so many other “songs” in the plays.2/ The ballad develops through episodes, it has an inbuilt plebeian estrangement technique easily switching from impersonation to third-person narration and generalizing comment, it is both lyrical and epical: one could do worse than choose it as another major template for Brecht’s literary stance. It goes alongside the parable, the casus–roughly, Jolles’s elementary verbal form where a judgment of conduct also questions the norm–and the proverb, on which Jameson focuses with much illumination (99-105, 118-22, 131-40).

Brecht’s poems tell stories as often as draw up catalogs or survey inner and outer landscapes: from the great Hauspostille (Devotions for the Home) ones–“Marie Farrar”, “Evelyn Roe”, “Ballad of the Pirates”, “Remembering Marie A.”–to such final poems in the Buckow Elegies as “The Solution”, “When in my White Room at the Charité.” Especially after his emigration, the most effective poems combine these approaches with historicizing and making memorable (in all the senses) exemplary personal moments, say his “priapic” or sex poems, such as the extraordinary sonnets he exchanged with Grete Steffin. Very many are verse narratives either of a “case” or of a major historical complex, as the much undervalued verse updating of The Communist Manifesto for an age of World Wars. And “epic theatre” (a term repudiated by Brecht) mainly meant that a play should, in its dramaturgic skeleton as well as in performance, tell a clear and rich story, specifying complex circumstances and their effect on human flesh and behaviour as clearly as, if more sparingly than, a realistic French novel might: in which sense Jameson’s parallel with Balzac (13, 154-55) is well taken. Brecht infuriated his “Socialist Realist” critics by disregarding Marx’s future-oriented dialectics where poverty is not only poverty but also revolt, for in his commitment to observation, Brecht could not–as a sincere realist,  yet whose “realism is achieved by means of Cubism” (46)–find a believable referent for successful revolt  west of Moscow.

The crux is here whether “storytelling–or, better still, embodied storytelling, the acting out–thereby becomes the realm of some deeper truth…” (27); whether Brechtian (and indeed any) storytelling is potentially a privileged method, “rigorously non-formalistic, and thereby evad[ing] the philosophical objections to sheer method…” (28). In the example of historicizing, say, is “retelling individual events as though they were historical ones… a new mode of self-knowledge?” (57) By the end of the book, this overriding question, in the early pages carefully hedged in by interrogatives, is to my mind triumphantly answered: yes, storytelling is what I would call a cognitive method–which no doubt means that our usual philosophical and scientistic prejudices about what may be cognition and method will require a thorough refurbishing. Centrally, as Jameson hints when discussing narratology, there is an “ultimate irreducibility of narrative as such”: in both narrative and its analysis, “it is impossible to complete the act of abstraction”, to reduce understanding to “pure” conceptuality (101). Figuration, topology, shapes must intertwine with the no doubt indispensable conceptual categories for real cognition of today’s complex human situations.

But how is this general narrative “method” to be reconciled with the political interests of Brecht’s class and generation? Jameson makes a convincing case that a privileged way to do so, and in fact employed by Brecht, is allegory. One should be careful to point out that this is a new type of “open” allegory. Indeed, it is paradoxical to talk of allegory in an age skeptical of if not flatly inimical to doctrines, since allegory has traditionally been a way of squaring fiction with, and often subordinating it to, a doctrine or mythical orthodoxy. This can be seen in Aristophanes, in Buddhism, and in medieval Christianity–which was in Germany never cleanly broken by an “anti-Gothic” Renaissance as in Italy, France or England, but rather transmogrified into that Catholic, Protestant as well as folk Baroque which is at the root of Brecht’s cultural tradition. Theoretically speaking, there can be no significant classical (doctrinal)  allegory in our age. But practice is slyer than theory, and an allegory despairing because of the absence of the proper, supremely significant Law (Kafka) or–theatrically speaking–a Mystery-play set in a Limbo that knows no Heavens (Beckett) is a most significant part of avant-garde horizons in our century. Brecht had considerable esteem for both Kafka and Beckett, but he wanted to offer more hopeful counter-projects to them. Faced with the realist (including “Socialist Realist”) thesis which short-circuited the tension between phenomena and doctrine, and the antithesis which allowed doctrine only as a kind of “negative way” revealing hell by its absence (the theoreticians of these two enemy brothers being Lukács and Adorno), Brecht chose a paradoxical third way for his balladic parables: to show doctrine–or, significantly, some experimentally verifiable elements thereof–as sensually present in the everyday actions of those committed to its horizon of liberation, rather than as a Platonic essence beckoning from the classless future. Brecht saw hell on earth just as clearly as those who despaired (it was for him encapsulated in Breughel’s vision of Mad Meg), but identified it, as of Mahagonny, with the “snare city” of consumer capitalism and war of all against all, out of which those who watch Mother Courage or Shen Te should find a way: Jameson calls it Brecht’s Tao, and it is also meth’hodos, pursuing the Way out of exploitation and war.

               Such allegorizing shuttles back and forth between abstraction and concreteness, so that there is in it “both a little more and a little less than a concept… it keeps the procedure open” (100). This disposes of the usual complaint against concepts, from Nietzsche’s onslaughts on Socrates onwards,  that applying to all subsumed cases they don’t apply fully (sensually, experientially) to any case. Jameson’s dictum comes in a discussion of the somewhat murky Brechtian category of Gestus: since nobody knows how to translate it out of German (a sign just as bad as the untranslatability of the many coy French puns in Derrida), I would myself try to see Gestus as a feature of stance (Haltung), as its collective (theatrical) application. An excellent example of Brecht’s use of allegory, sensually concrete and yet clearly doctrinal, is Menenius’s patrician parable of the Belly and Members, gleefully refunctioned by the plebeian glance in Brecht’s rewrite of Coriolanus, and performatively revealed by the various stances developed toward it by the dramatis personae in that scene.

               Brecht’s central narrative tool, and I think central allegorical genre, of “open parable” must therefore recomplicate the classical–say Synoptic Bible–subservience of  story to intended meaning in allegory, and create a genuine feedback, where the story is a cognitive toolkit in its own right, testing the doctrine. From among the inexhaustible ramifications of parable, I shall here only remark that the feedback Brecht constantly struggled for can also be seen as one  between personal (but class-bound) interest and even the best imaginable doctrine. If we, further, remember his deep engagement with popular culture, his allegories could today be also taken as alternatives diametrically opposed to the hegemonic machines steeping us in fuzzy, rival but always  subaltern, allegories pretending to be none, from Mickey Mouse and the Lion King through allegories of the projective Nation (to which Jameson earlier devoted a seminal book) to Superman and the Invisible Hand of the Free Market.


History is Real: Allegories of Class Collectives, Self-government, “Autonomization”

Brecht’s life was shaped and “overdetermined” by the huge political  earthquakes of World War 1, the Leninist “storm and stress”, Fascism, Stalinism, World War 2, Cold War. Only semi-ironically, a well-known poem of his was directed to “Poor BB”, and it ends with “the earthquakes to come” amid which he hopes to keep his pleasures glowing–in the emblematic image of cigar, uniting oral metonymy and genital metaphor. Next to Russia (and the cordon sanitaire of east-central Europe, from Finland to the Balkans), Germany, that “middle kingdom” of Europe, felt the stress of the moving tectonic plates most strongly: Brecht saw the World War and attempted revolution as closely as one could without being engulfed by them. He landed in a Berlin hospital for undernourishment in his mid-twenties, he watched the social-democratic directed police shooting at workers on May First, and an anecdote has him even listening to Hitler in Munich beer-halls before the first attempted putsch in 1923. For sure, he concentrated grimly on “the housepainter” between 1931 and 1945: almost–or quite–directly in the magnificent failure of Roundheads and Peakheads (Jameson notes its magnificence), and then  in Ui, Schweyk, Terror and Misery of the Third Reich, and innumerable other poems and writings–not least one of the great pamphlet-essays of our age of obfuscations, Five Difficulties in Writing the Truth; but also in Mother Courage, that clear allegory of fake profit in warfare, and very possibly even in his exasperated response to the “blond beast” empathizing, the splendid and still fertile Lehrstücke.3/

The movement of tectonic plates provoking all such earthquakes, we ought to have learned, occurs in magmatic depths we do not understand well. We can only say that something like  Fordism and the Welfare-Warfare State was transforming with equal intimacy our categories of economy, technology, and belief (ideology, or brainwashing if you wish).  On the Left, Brecht was together with Gramsci (to whose stances toward culture-cum-politics he has astounding similarities)4/ the first lonely thinker to realize this meant an epoch-making break in history. And the kinship to Gramsci is also striking in a matter of overriding importance for both: the steadfast, life-long, and central orientation in all of Brecht’s life-worlds  towards not only collectives, but also self-governing collectives. This was the steady bark and compass amidst the hurricanes he met “who had hats on.”

Here too, much more than doctrine is involved: Brecht’s just could not work at any major project without a group of friends for dialogue partners; even though he was then as a rule the first among equals (the only true equals he acknowledged were people whose special skills he did not share: Neher the painter, Eisler the musician, Weigel the actress). This began with his Augsburg high-school group, probably culminated in size and complexity in the Berlin days, and continued even in emigration where a couple of women collaborators fled from country to country together with Brecht, Weigel, and their children; and in East Berlin (GDR) he had his old friends, half a dozen of highly capable theatre assistants as well as official pupils from the Academy of Arts. Brecht’s works contain many lines, phrases or stage arrangements he had  accepted from suggestions or drafts by collaborators, but anything he incorporated was given the unmistakable imprint of his stance and rhetoric, which had by then permeated the group of collaborators anyway.5/

               The collective way of working, the “workshop” with partners and disciples, is comparable to any painter’s studio before romanticism or movie studio today; and if the publishers’ profit striving and the German editors’ doctrinaire individualism could ever be overcome, many Brecht works should be attributed to “Brecht and His Workshop”–as Giotto’s or Rembrandt’s works are without causing fuss. As usual, Brecht’s originality was to have returned, with suitably large changes, to pre-capitalist ways of behaving. This was above all a method which acknowledged that ours is a century torn between the manipulable “masses” of capitalist demagogy and its kindred entertainment industries (see Brecht’s essay “The Theatricality of Fascism”)–and the only efficient alternative, self-governing collectives as creative working groups. One can see how such a collective should work in the exemplary behaviour of the Boy in Brecht’s two playlets, He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No: in a situation of dire and demonstrated necessity, he consents to sacrifice his life in order to prevent the wipeout of the whole community. But dire necessity–say war or civil war–is, or ought to be, the exception and not the rule in human affairs (Stalin thought otherwise). As a rule, the group is here to protect its member–and especially a child, its future. After reasonable consultation where arguments are evaluated according to how they fit the concrete situation, and total necessity is not proven, the Boy withholds consent in the second playlet. The whole group follows his better argument. This double parable indicates Brecht’s halfway house between the special, limit-case of Lenin’s Party, whose Great Law  (doctrine) must be followed for dire survival, and Luxemburg’s Councils (Räte, soviets), which would be the norm for collective decisions of self-governing socialism.  In the “cold Chicago” of the lockouts and Depression, Brecht embraced the Leninist translation of Dantean hell into opposed frontlines of  class  struggle,   as the political embodiment of his permanent epistemological “actant” Contradiction (see Jameson 81ff.). But conversely, Galileo can only constitute a Science to Make the Life of People Easier (a friendly, in fact socialist science), when flanked by an allegorical mini-collective comprising a manual worker (the lensmaker Federzoni), an ethical peasants’ son (the Little Monk), and a curious youngster (Andrea), so that in the end his real treason is to have sundered curiosity from ethics and labour, to have taught Andrea “pure science” of the bourgeois, atom-bomb kind.  Brecht could only go about constituting the Berliner Ensemble by making it a Luxemburgian Council, abhorred and isolated by the Stalinists in power.

Jameson therefore rightly collocates a brief chapter on Brecht’s “autonomization” effects in narrative (43-51) into the part that deals with doctrine (Lehre, the Teaching). Semantic and syntactic form are consubstantial with the message here, the montage procedure (even thematically foregrounded in Man is Man) shows off different possibilities for choosing according to different interests and values. Jameson argues that Brecht’s formal categories “apply… to the collectivity itself” (71): the forms are allegorically linked to the postulated and induced audience; this justifies the central refusal of a catharsis assuming a “general human nature.”  What Sabine Kebir calls the “Courage effect”–not decreeing conversion to “rightness” on the stage but letting the contrary of it transmit an awful warning to the spectator–opens up a possibility not only of appealing to those not sharing the doctrine, but also (as in the Yeasayer /Naysayer) to question the doctrine as to its concrete rightness. Brecht’s maxim ran, “The learner is more important than the Teaching”; and real learning can only come about when the concrete particularity of the embodied situation counteracts the leveling force of conceptual reason, allowing actors and agents the choice of how best to fit the new situation, while the allegorical exemplarity escapes one-dimensional naturalism  and makes their choice exemplary for us. Thus, each autonomous–as it were self-governing–situation acquires equal rights before the judgments of embodied reason submitted to the audience as a “Control Chorus” (as in The Measure Taken).

Precapitalist Wisdom and Technology, Artisan Intellectuals, Luxemburgian Two-way Media

Jameson’s repeated references to peasantry in Brecht’s worlds are among the most stimulating and provocative ones of this book. His argument is subtle and worthwhile: on the one hand, “the immemorial peasantry… stands behind so much of [Brecht’s] work”; on the other, Brecht also participates in a technological modernism with his “delight in aeroplanes and in the radio, the dimension of ‘workers’ to be added to that of ‘peasants’ in any Gramscian aesthetic alliance” (3). Here fruitful discussions may begin, for in whose name or voice, and therefore to whom (to which classes or maybe congeries of class fractions) Brecht speaks is of a piece with how and to whom he might be useful. I doubt that Brecht’s world is a village one. Given that we have to characterize Brecht’s stories, perhaps his friend Benjamin’s  essay on “The Storyteller”,6/ which allots classical precapitalist storytelling to travelers, peasants, and most of all artisans, might be of help.

Travelers, mostly involuntary, are everywhere in Brecht, from Baal, Kragler, and the early pirates through the caravan and mercenaries (see Jameson 165) of The Exception and the Rule and Mother Courage, almost an “eternal Wandering Jewess” damned by capitalist war, to Galileo himself, moving–not too unlike Brecht–from the cozy but philistine Venice to the big, excitingly dangerous but also rewarding Florence and finally hauled before the inquisition at the centre of power, Rome. (Can one avoid thinking of a conflation of Los Angeles and New York here, if only in the sense that Brecht was playing through the political possibilities for an intellectual, as a general staff plays through possible campaigns?) The big town or mass city–Berlin, whose shock reverberates through the icy Primer for City-Dwellers–is impersonal and depersonalizing, strange and most dangerous, but not unmanageable: at worst a cold jungle, swept by the winds from Lake Michigan. After Hitler, the antifascist victory is in the Chalk Circle‘s counter-project to class power tied to Grushe’s march –Titoist or Maoist avant la letter–through villages and icy mountains, a plebeian hegira looping back to victory in the city. As Jameson notes, in Brecht “it is nature which is minimal, and the city, with its jungle and grim profusion, which [is rich]” (134).

Thus Brecht’s world is not a village one but the road or forest of Baal or the estate of the Chalk Circle or Puntila.  The semblance of peasant wisdom is deceiving–when peasants are found in the plays they are grasping and scared. Nor is there much industrial  working class  around: what one might call the totem-field of Fordism is represented, as Jameson notes  (cf. 139 and 165-67),  by machines and by the  “poverty of the poor” (in Saint Joan of the Slaughterhouses, a title allegorically preferable to Stockyards, for the slaughter concerns proletarians as well as oxen and swine, as foregrounded in the emblematic case of the worker who falls into the bacon vats). The  unemployed are a Hellenic chorus of millennial plebeian suffering, oppressed more than exploited: they do not strike, they are locked out. But Benjamin’s artisans do fit the early industrial small town (like Augsburg, traditionally “merchant urban”–just as Sechuan before Shui Ta, see Jameson 139), open to the countryside river for swimming and the disreputable plebeian suburbs of Baal’s taverns and sexual freedom. For all the workshop stress on productivity, which was–together with teaching–Brecht’s central stance (Jameson concludes his book on this note, 174-78), his storytelling fits Benjamin’s worry how to repristinate values based on communal experience and tradition (in the active sense) in an increasingly reified world of mass production of commodities and people to consume them. As Brecht most revealingly observed in The Three-penny Lawsuit,  a snapshot of the  Krupp factory (that is, immediate or surface experience) doesn’t advance knowledge any more: a blueprint and organigram is needed. Brecht’s simplified world of small town and wayfaring is an attempt at such a blueprint, and his hero is the small-town artisan-flyer, like the Tailor of Ulm in the splendid eponymous poem, while Yang Sun from the Good Person is a dire villain because he wants to fly by grinding the face of the small town, embodied in his bride-to-be Shen Te. Similarly, the bearer of his “heroic cowardice” (124) is the intellectual, an artisan commanding the technology of thinking–Me-ti, Keuner, Azdak, and the failed social experimenter Galileo. Jameson rightly observes that Brecht’s fascination with China, which he discusses at illuminating length, and with East Asian esthetics in general, relates to precapitalist culture (62) adopted as counter-world to the Chicago of slaughterhouses and fierce class struggles while Americanization was still being emulated by Stalin’s industrializing Russia.

Jameson splendidly argues that Brecht’s  objective correlative to the machines, or even more to technology, lies in the “starkness, which emerges from the radio play” (165-66 and elsewhere). I would point out that this was precisely the one aspect in which, as both Brecht and Benjamin noted, intellectuals were, in their class essence of artisanal creativity, “objectively” allies of proletariat: they share the delight of the master of the machine or tool or style when it works. This formal spareness reinforced tendencies in Brecht already there from his beginnings, but in the Hauspostille finding outlet in heretic reversals of the severe clerical forms (the psalm, the Loyolan “exercise”, the canticles accompanying the liturgic year). Similarly, Brecht translated the esoteric Buddhist–not simply Zen–world-reduction of medieval Noh into the starkness of both Taylorism (the minimal psychic movements indispensable for efficiency) and early Leninism. Jameson devotes pioneering and revealing pages to this epoch (say 1916-31) of radio and Lindberghian monoplane. I would call these, just as  the ubiquitous automobiles, space-binding machines of collective communication, and only add that it is also the time of silent film–whose importance for Brecht is underscored by the recent discovery that he was the director of the remarkable short 1923 movie “Mysteries of a Barber-Shop.”  Lindbergh, Taylor, Chaplin: the “Americanization” that swept post-1918 Europe also brought the records of vaguely  New Orleans “pop jazz” records–whose improvisational techniques Brecht thought of as exemplary–and the micidial “Spanish flu.”

But then Fordism issues in mass unemployment, Hitlerism, and war, the conveyor-belt leads to accelerated destruction of oxen and people (to the tune of “Work faster” from the Good Person), Lindbergh turns out to be vitiated by his very individualistic heroism opposed to the working collective that produced his plane, and in Brecht’s mid-30s’ “Street Scene”, judging the responsibility for the  car accident may be read as a parable of Fordism derailed. The enthusiasm for Lindbergh’s flying car, the airplane, left Brecht even before the arrival of the Luftwaffe dive-bombers and of the USAF bombing Dresden and Hiroshima; the enthusiasm for cars never did. New technology did not necessarily link self-governing collectives into a plebeian democracy from below, as was assumed by avant-garde enthusiasts, say Mayakovsky in The Bedbug for two-way radio (independently picked up by Brecht’s radio-theory that explicitly invokes utopia) or Tretyakov for two-way Soviet newspapers; it could equally be, and was, used by the Warfare and Police State. As of the coming of Hitler, the new technology is seen from the skeptical point of view of the servants,  like Matti, the car driver of the rich Puntila, diametrically opposed to the engineer as technocrat of “scientific management.” Brecht’s probably most important stage (co-)direction was, as an improvised movie shot at the time by a very young Syberberg confirms, his 1950 adaptation of The Private Tutor, the bitter story of the intellectual as lackey of a boorish upper class.

Twists and Turns, Today

Brecht is then not to be understood simply as gristle for academic sausage mills, not even similar to his closest English parallel combining drama and politics (but not poetry!), G.B. Shaw. Jameson’s parallels to  Pound and Eliot bring about useful estrangements of the Left through the Right: but their plays are too slight, even Murder in the Cathedral. Nor can Brecht be dealt with as Eliot superciliously proposed we deal with Blake (quoted in Jameson 23): a great poet landed with an aberrant mythology, which we should endure by suspending our disbelief just so long as it takes to get at his poetry. (This was Martin Esslin’s position, except that he was writing, as it were, under Pitt, and had to disjoin the poetry and the thought horizons more sharply.) True, Brecht is taught in literature or theatre classes and there is a “Brecht industry” (in which I have toiled); theatre makes everything theatrical, Brecht complained, and academic studies make everything academic. To this Jameson opposes with full right a central distinction  between Brecht and “any number of other ‘great writers'”: “some more general lesson” of joyous enablement, the lesson of his “method” (29). Beyond philology, this is his “portable” (105) use.

One of Jameson’s felicitous choices is to dwell at length on Brecht’s Me-ti collection of aphorisms and anecdotes, accurately subtitled The Book of Twists and Turns. One very instructive anecdote, “Tu Wishes to Learn Class Struggle and Learns Sitting”, recounts how the impatient neophyte revolutionary Tu (read Ruth Berlau) came to Master Me-ti and got instructed in proper sitting instead:

 …for we are just now sitting and we want to learn while sitting. Tu said, If one always strives to take up the most comfortable posture and get the best out of what there is, in brief  if one strives after enjoyment (Genuss), how can one then fight? Me-ti said, If one does not strive after enjoyment, does not want to get the best out of what there is nor take up the best posture, why then should one fight?7/

While accepting the doctrinal goal, “struggle of classes”, Me-ti (guess who) insists its raison d’être must durably inform the behaviour of those learning how to go after the goal: “progressing is more important than being progressive” was one of Brecht’s aphorisms. Progressing or sitting engages the whole body,  a sensorium not reduced solely to cerebral ideas but rather using these as points of orientation. The judgment to be passed on this might be the one passed on the engaging Boy in He Who Says No, whose refusal to die when not absolutely necessary is called “not heroic but reasonable.”

How, then, to summarize at least central elements of Brecht’s method? I would point out three that the method comprises or entails. First, as Jameson strongly argues (70, 90), a number of his categories–often marked by neologisms (stance, Grundgestus, estrangement…)–have cognitive significance on a par with, but usually much richer than, a specialized, “only conceptual” philosophy. They are transportable but not a “system”, since they follow the rule that can be educed from the Yeasayer /Naysayer analysis, and which, as I have argued elsewhere,8/ requires our stance to correspond to our situation, and to reach the stance by a careful observation of the state of affairs, taking into account the embodied nature and the interests of the actors that constitute it. This rule of Brecht’s coincides with positions developed in the same period by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, or by Bakhtin: “there is no essence outside of a concrete situation” and “any empirical situation partakes of imagination or ideology” (cf. Jameson 168-70).

Second, this orientation to practice (Jameson stresses it time and again) is to be taught by teachers-learners, Brechtian Sages very similar to Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxenforde: “gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.” It resembles a Nietzschean joyous knowledge,9/ yet one informed by a militant Marxist socialism acutely aware of the necessities to adapt any -ism, especially one’s own, to new types of experience in the mass capitalism of world wars, as humanity enters upon the Novums of “a whole new world of relationships, like the new world of Galileo’s physics or the new world of socialist construction, into which writer and reader alike must penetrate by means of daring exploration, and appropriation” (168). Brecht’s personae or “faces” combine the Teacher-cum-Chinese Sage  with the Trickster (indeed sometimes the sly Rogue); as Bakhtin noted, each of them carries around itself its own world of relationships.

Third, as one would expect from Jameson’s life-long engagement with utopia, he does not fail to point out the “utopian and salvational” aspect of Brecht, in which pragmatics and pedagogy converge: not nearly so tinged with Gnostic religiosity as either in Benjamin or in Bloch, but running just as deep–as befits the salvational nature of socialism. It is a utopia of communal creativity or productivity (people can produces shoes or love, Brecht held), of constructing the Novum through Marx’s “living labour”, diametrically opposed to the capitalist definition of productivity as what yields profit (see Jameson 174-77). Brecht operates in a tension between a warm and a cold pole,  each of which elicits a major tour de force from Jameson. He comes at an almost Kropotkinian sense of co-operative instinct through the “sublime” line in the Chalk Circle “Terrible is the temptation to goodness” (173-74); and at a hard-boiled plumpes denken (crude thinking) through the great Brecht-Weill finales to Acts 1 and 2 of The Threepenny Opera (144-48 and 133), which demand that the little people get a cut from the big loaf here and now–and envisages the horrors which in fact consumed our century in pursuit of this absolutely overriding demand, equally Leninist and Fordist. The astoundingly many deaths in Brecht indicate how strongly subjectivity is for him intertwined with death: we have a large lesson to learn from him there too.

What Way of thinking or method is, then, the key to successful acting (in all its senses)? Toward the end, Jameson rightly considers that Brecht’s insistence on change has been co-opted by the whirligig of capitalism (168-70). In these times, Brecht’s slogan, “Change the world–it needs it!” should be emended into something like, “Change the world away from the profit-motive warfare–or we shall all perish!”. But: the emendation would itself be based on Brecht, on his admirable hardboiled optimism. This too Jameson clearly transmits. The author of Brecht and Method takes, I believe, his place alongside the great and most fruitful ancestors of Brechtian commentary, Benjamin from the “German takeoff” seminal phase of Brechtian criticism (in all senses) 1929-39, and Barthes  from the “world takeoff” phase after 1954. The field of forces within which Brecht is triangulated speaks for itself: the most frequent names in the Index are, beside these two, André Jolles and his “short forms” as “radicals” for Brecht’s forms, and the political epistemologists, so to speak: Hegel, Lenin, Lukács, Marx, Sartre (less frequent but by no means absent: Adorno, Lacan, Deleuze).10/

At the end, however, perhaps the reader should compare this whole Brechtian and Jamesonian focus on method or Way with the robuster attitude of Marx: “Truth includes not only the result but also the way…. [T]he true inquiry is the unfolded truth, whose scattered members are gathered up in the result.”11/ In this Post-Fordist epoch (but not necessarily beyond it!), we may well be condemned to investigation only, to the membra disjecta with no concrete political results. So be it, then we must have the method. But Marx’s observation may remind us that, if we apply Brecht’s imperative to historicize, method without concrete results is worth just as little as results arrived at with wrong methods. Brecht’s very particular joy of and in fruition, which he pursued as single-mindedly as orthodox Christianity rejects it, encompasses also the–always provisional–fruits. He left us both.


1/ Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method, Verso, London & New York 1998, ISBN 1-85984-809-5, hardbound B£ 19. Jameson’s writing exemplifies what it wishes to convey in how he conveys it, so that quotes from his particularly rich texture will be used here by page number in parenthesis.

I have to mention, so as to  get it out of the way, that D. Suvin is briefly accorded generous praise in two  or three  places. I trust it is not necessary to rehearse again how pernicious it would be to accept the academic critics’ aping of bourgeois scientificity and its strict sundering of Subject and Object. As Jameson notes (27-28), Brechtian storytelling denies the conventional split between historic objectivity and private subjectivity: and so does Jameson’s own work. Instead, the Subject-Object dialectics–as in Brecht’s praise of “the third matter”  uniting Pavel Vlassov and his Mother in the eponymous play–means that not only may a Subject treat itself as Object but that  allegorical Objects are the most important Subjects. My judgments follow my view of Jameson’s judgments and not his views on secondary matters such as this or that critic–unless these become politically strategic,  in which cases I tend to agree with him: for example about the philologically shoddy and militantly capitalist work of John Fuegi (with the proviso that Fuegi is clever and very efficient in driving a wedge between women and the rest of the Left, and should not be dismissed so blithely as Jameson does).

               2/ Brecht’s musicality, beginning with his youthful guitar-picking, is thoroughly followed in the admirable Albrecht Dümling, Lasst euch nicht verführen, München 1985.

               3/ In relation to the Lehrstücke, Jameson is one of the few English-language critics to have recognized the path-breaking theses of Reiner Steinweg. He gives also some hints for the proper approach to the great oratorio of Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken is, in spite of the wrong plural–there is only one measure that counts, the wiping out of the Young Comrade–the best shot at this untranslatable title) which is, together with The Horatians and the Curiatians, one of the two culminations of these  “learning plays.” In it Eisler played Bach to a certain Leninism and Brecht figured the “militant Church” severity of it. Nobody has yet managed to find a proper use for it: neither the Left critics, who attempted to wash their hands of it, not seeing that clean hands often get cut off, nor the “centrist formalist” ones, who saw the affinity to Jesuit militancy but not the thisworldly tensions around mortality, born of a different doctrine.

               4/ See W.F. Haug, Philosophieren mit Brecht und Gramsci, Hamburg 1996, which one hopes to see translated into English.

               5/ Much ink has lately been spilled in vain trying to prove that the collaboration in texts Brecht wrote or staged came mainly from women (this is quantitatively inexact), and at that from women of whom he had carnal knowledge (and it is exact that Hauptmann, Steffin, and Berlau were among his most assiduous collaborators). However, when he and his collaborators remembered, they were generously acknowledged (often they did not bother), even if one clearly could, especially after Brecht’s 1954 breakthrough to world fame, fault the money distribution. Most important, the group–Brecht’s “workshop”–was not only united in the belief they were working for the common (vague) goal of a world revolution, but it is also clear that Brecht gave the collaborators, both in their work and in their lives, as much as he got. To tell women who stuck with him, not without tensions, through thick and thin that this or that critic today knows better how their lives should have been conducted seems arrogant. See for the most balanced account, which does not divorce feminism from class politics, Sabine Kebir’s Ein akzeptabler Mann?, Berlin rev. edn. 1998, and Ich fragte nicht nach meinem Anteil, Berlin 1997 (on Elisabeth Hauptmann); cf. my review article of the latter, “Sabine Kebir, Ich fragte nicht nach meinem Anteil,” Brecht Yearbook 24 (1999): 386-96 (German as “Über Frauen und Brecht,” Weimarer Beiträge no. 3 [1999]: 449-58).

               6/ Walter Benjamin, “Der Erzähler”, Gesammelte Schriften II/2, Frankfurt 1980 (English as “The Storyteller”, in his Illuminations, New York, 1969).

               7/  Bertolt Brecht, Werke, Grosse kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, Berlin & Frankfurt 1998, Vol. 18: 176-77.

               8/ Darko Suvin, Lessons of Japan, Montreal 1996 (essay 5: “The Use-value of Dying: Magical  vs. Cognitive Utopian Desire in the ‘Learning Plays’  of Pseudo-Zenchiku, Waley,  and Brecht”).

            9/ Parallels have been convincingly presented by Reinhold Grimm, Brecht und Nietzsche, Frankfurt, 1979, and Christof Šubik, Einverständnis, Verfremdung und Produktivität, Wien, 1982; further work is to be expected on how they were modified and subsumed in Brecht’s life and work.

               10/ I must complain at the incomplete and strangely organized Index. Incomplete: it does not mention stance, Noh play or the poem “The Cranes”, it does not excerpt the very rich footnote pages; strangely organized, for it puts categories under individuals (!), so that “Weimar” comes subordinated to “Weill”, “modernism” is divided between Adorno and Brecht, “capital/ism” between Brecht and Mother Courage (but absent from Marx and his Capital), peasants between Brecht (where they come under the misleading “working class and peasants”) and Mao. “Allegory” is only found under Brecht though it is obviously one of Jameson’s master tropes for culture in general, here much advanced by confrontation with Brecht. It would be much preferable to itemize both names and key notions or in a redone index, with outright errors also corrected.

               11/ “Zur Wahrheit gehört nicht nur das Resultat, sondern auch der Weg…. die wahre Untersuchung ist die entfaltete Wahrheit, deren auseinandergestreute Glieder sich im Resultat zusammenfassen.” (“Bemerkungen über die neueste preussische Zensurinstruktion”), English in Karl Marx, “Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction”, Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed. and trans. L.D. Easton and K.H. Guddat, Garden City NY 1967; my quote  somewhat modifies the text from their p. 72.

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Darko Suvin

1. This book was first conceived and worked upon in Yugoslavia in the 1950s and 60s; it was written in its present form in North America and England in the 1970s. To those who might know the existential and ideological contexts of those spacetimes in sufficient detail, it might explain most elements of the book’s profile. However, since this may not be very interesting for the impatient reader of the 80s, and since every book ought to be its own best defense, in this brief Preface for my Japanese readers I shall confine myself to two matters only, which strike me as needing some bridging explanation. Appropriately for a book in which one of the main themes concerns the parallels, differences, and passage from spatial to temporal and then finally to a spatiotemporal imagination, these two matters will flow out of the passage of time from 1977, when this book’s manuscript was completed, to today, 1987 (which is, of course, also a passage in ideological space); and with the passage of geopolitical space from the English-language to the Japanese-language reader (which is, of course, also a passage in time since in spite of jet planes we still don’t live in synchronous times all over this shrinking globe, and Japan strikes me as being a very engaging and provoking mix of the 16th, 19th, and 21st centuries in terms of European social-time reckoning).

            Of course, with a total stay in Japan of less than two months, I am not really competent to speak about anything Japanese. I will nonetheless do so out of the sublime ignorance of what the classical Chinese called foreign barbarians and the Japanese, in a geo/graphic spatial metaphor, the gaijin, the outsiders. Those standing outside often cherish the illusion that a glance from a sympathetic, concerned, but not uncritical outsider may stumble on some visions which long familiarity has dulled for the insiders: as Hegel taught us, what is known (bekannt) is not necessarily cognized or properly understood (erkannt). The seamy yet exhilarating aspects of Japanese megalopolis and silicon-chip technology are today in fact being appropriated by the latest interesting US SF development (the only interesting exception, after the feminist SF, within a desert orgy of crass commercial lowering of standards in the SF of the Star Wars era), the cyberpunk of Gibson and Co., as a metaphor for new existential modes of alienated life. For me personally or if you wish intimately Japan is, furthermore, not only a very real nitty-gritty country which is one of the wonders and delights of my life experience (and I don’t mean primarily Nara temples but the back streets of Tokyo, such as at Nishi-waseda, and the people found there) and where I by now have dear friends and esteemed colleagues; it is also the country of a unique tradition culminating, say, in the Bunraku, the Tales of Genji, Hokusai’s Views of Fuji ukiyo-e, and  the subtle Japanese language. All of these I despair of ever mastering yet I persist in studying and  using — and probably abusing — in my other guise of writer of haiku, tankas or sedôkas as well as of some short stories (not SF but parables).

            Among other things Japanese — indeed chronologically for me the first of all the things Japanese — I am a largely ignorant but warm lover of Japanese SF, who has read (I think) all that has been translated into European languages, from Russian to English. The works of Kobo Abe, of Shinichi Hoshi, of my friend Sakyo Komatsu, and of so many other significant SF writers of whom I know only by hearsay since the translations are so few, testify that such experiences must be heard by us all, that they have already added a special poetic shudder to world literature — without imitating the dominant US models. Such works are much too little known by us ignorant foreigners, who should learn much more about your SF works and worlds. Only so can we become engaged in the common enterprise of making our little inhabited world inhabitable.

2. In the light of all this, my reflections will focus on the relationships of SF to technology and to politics.

            Japan has been the first nation to experience the terrible fruits of “value-free” bourgeois science: first at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then in the pollution and ecocide of the beautiful country not only of so many clear cultural beacons of mankind but, most important, of the gentle, long-suffering, patient — sometimes I feel too patient — , talented, and all in all most admirable Japanese people. (I don’t dispute that the terrible societal pressures of school etc. brainwashes most males into good retainers of the large corporations; but allow me for the moment to speak as a lover rather than a critic.) It may therefore be less difficult here to understand what has by many of my (bourgeois or liberal) reviewers been felt as excessive moralizing or prescriptiveness of my position about art in general and SF in particular. I deny that it is moralistic: it simply says that art flows out of and finally (with many crucial mediations which no critic can forget) returns to the encompassing horizon of relationships between people; and that if in proportion to its significance it clarifies such relationships, it makes them more understandable and therefore potentially manageable, and so makes life lighter. This is to my mind a statement of fact, but of course it is also normative in the sense that it establishes potentialities against which all actual achievements cannot fail to be judged. The nature of norms is, I trust, open to debate: mine are, if one needs a label, neo-Marxist, yours, gentle reader, may be less explicit or different: but to positivistically deny the existence of norms strikes me as perverse and deeply alienated. Life progresses through choices, and for us people (Homo sapiens) choice also means responsibility.

            Does this mean we should abandon the technology that led to Hiroshima and today’s physical and mental pollutions? Not necessarily. But I think the much more terrible prospects of molecular engineering, computer control of all our financial transactions (the Gestapo and the Belsen doctors were naive in comparison to that!), etc. etc., all mean that we must put it under rational control and wrest it out of the hands of the mad military and the capitalist profit-makers. We must resolutely abandon the notion of a purely mathematized, quantified, value-free, non-qualitative science. We cannot and should not go back to the Middle Ages, to magic and alchemy: I for one would not want to live in a world without water closets, electricity, smallpox vaccine or even telephones and airplanes (how could I come to Japan or talk to my Japanese friends then?). But we can learn from the derided “qualitative physics” that we are not masters but stewards of our planet, which will finally rebel if we vex it too much (we can already see that in the new diseases, the failing of the ozone layer, the African drought, etc.). We keep it in trust for humanity as a whole, comprising not only the powerless nations and classes of today (the four whales that hold up the world: women, the workers, the lovers, the learning) but also the past and the future generations. Writings which cannot speak (in the properly oblique, roundabout, parabolic ways of fiction) to the relevance of our existence in such a world are irrelevant to the world. Writings which do speak about and to it are exercises in mental hygiene: they are what I mean by liberating cognitive statements. And only cognition, true understanding, can lead us to an intelligent politics of the human species — which has nothing in common with the derisory antics of parliamentary parties but means, as in ancient Greece (and China or Japan), “the affairs of the polis, the community”, its sickness or health. Marx has as much in common, for me, with Aristotle and Confucius or Me-ti (as their negation but also dialectical absorption of the positive aspects of a genuine conservatism) as with Jefferson. But all of them would have agreed that (as the ancient Romans put it) salus rei publicae suprema lex, the salvation of the body politic is the supreme rule. While I don’t at all wish to have art (nor SF) be deadly earnest preaching, while I think there is a place for readable escapism of non-pernicious kinds for our voyages on the Yamanote subway line or the Shinkansen high-speed train, I must impenitently maintain the stance of this book that there is no value-free description, either in SF or in SF criticism. Pretending that there is one means simply that you are unwilling to discuss the presuppositions of your values. This seems to me unworthy of an intellectual (and as Gramsci and Brecht noted, every being that plans for tomorrow and makes choices is an intellectual).

            How do I, then, think one should approach SF? Perhaps this can be in brief explicated here  by transcribing the speech I sent to the SF Research Association when it gave me its annual Pilgrim Award:

     “From my earliest reading of Verne, Wells, Thomas More, and the Groff Conklin anthologies which circulated from hand to hand in postwar Yugoslavia, I have as a socialist been fascinated by the “it ain’t necessarily so” aspect of SF — which, for me does not start with Gernsback, Verne, or even Shelley, but with the universal legends of Earthly Paradise and the Promethean impulse toward a knowledge to be wedded to self-governing happiness on this Earth.  Of course, this embraces also all the narrations which deal with analogs to such radically new relationships among people — however narratively estranged into other worlds and other figures such relationships might be, for the good and sufficient reason that one needs a complex optical system in order to see oneself.  Bearing in mind that every SF narration is a dialog with the reader here and now, this also embraces all the stories that deal with radically worse relationships than the reader knows, since his/her reaction to such stories — by the rule of minus times minus makes plus or of negating the negation — recuperates these new maps of hell for the positive vision.

     Looking back upon my criticism of SF, it seems to me that I have tried to mimic in it this stubbornly contrary and contesting backbone of the narrations I was writing about.  I have contested Henry Ford’s saying “History is bunk,” and tried to persuade my readers that an understanding of the living, even if subterranean, traditions of the past is the only way to give the present a chance of evolving into a tolerable future.  I have contested the saying, whose equally immortalizable author I forget at the moment, “SF is what I mean when I point at some books,” and tried to persuade my readers that any general statements about SF have to be a negotiation between empirical evidence and logically as well as sociohistorically defensible notions and systems of notions.  I  have contested the twin orthodoxies that SF is either the singer of technological progress/breakdown (as the case may be) or a thin disguise for the expression of eternal and mythical human-cum-cosmic verities.  Instead, I have tried to at least approach a systematic argument on how history and society are not simply the contexts of fiction but its inly interfused factors,  shaping  it at least as intimately as shores shape a river or blanks shape a letter.  Finally — and possibly as a premise to all the other stances — I have contested on the one hand the academic elitism wrinkling its none too perfect nose at the sight of popular literature and art, and on the other hand the fannish shoreless ocean of indiscriminately happy passages to continents full of masterpieces miraculously emerging year upon year.

      And yet, SF is not only ‘it ain’t necessarily so’ but also ‘things could be otherwise’; not only militant but also (at least in approximation) triumphant.  Taking my cue from the matter at hand (as any materialist should), I  too have tried to be positive about it and about its criticism, and to say something about those writings which help us to illuminate our interrelated existences: of More, Cyrano, Morris, Wells or Zamyatin, but also of Čapek, Dick, Le Guin, the Strugatskys or Lem.  How much I may have succeeded in that in my own writings, or in coediting some books, but above all the journal Science-Fiction Studies, is for you to say.”

3. But then, some of my well-meaning middle-ground critics asked, if you think SF should do such-and-such, why don’t you deal with the significant modern SF? Why stop at theory plus ancient history? I have two answers to this correct question. First, the present cannot be understood outside of a double perspective, synchronic (theoretical) and diachronic (historical). This book tries to supply such perspectives for future work. Second, we are all limited by time, money, sympathy, and so on. I did here what I could with the means at my disposal, and I am happy to see that some of my colleagues, in particular (though not exclusively) many of the collaborators of the periodical Science-Fiction Studies, have been able to use some of my instruments for work of their own. Furthermore, I have after 1979 committed two more books on SF which not only apply but also, I trust, significantly build on the horizons of this one.

            The first one is Victorian SF in the UK: The Discourses of Knowledge and of Power, published in Boston 1983. This monster of 500 pages focusses on all the SF books published in Britain between 1848 and 1900, beginning with an annotated bibliography of ca. 400 titles, continuing with an identification of most of the authors, and ending with a long study of the social discourses involved: who (which social groups) was in these texts talking to whom and for what axiological and ideological purposes; and finally, how can such books therefore be most usefully read as participants in this social discourse, which I found polarized between Power and Knowledge. This second book could thus supply a partial answer to those of my critics (mainly from the Left) who have rightly, if somewhat impatiently, complained about the lack of concrete institutional discussions in the present book. But that book is a frame-setting overview, and it never pretended to be a complete and detailed history (which would have to be written by a team with the necessary, and today non-existent, financial and other presuppositions, rather than by a single immodest know-it-all).

            The second book, just appearing as I write this (London, 1987) is Positions and Presuppositions in SF, a collection of my essays written at the same time or after the present book. They  attempt to deal, first, with further developments in SF theory, in particular with the thesis that all SF narrations are extended metaphors and parables about the relationships in the author’s world. They also discuss, second, some central modern writers in the world (Lem, Dick, Le Guin, Yefremov, Asimov, the Strugatskys, the Brauns, C. Smith) as well as some crucial issues in SF criticism and teaching. Both of these two later books of mine would then explain further how I think one should approach SF.

            In an ideal world, of course, they — as well as some further essays not collected in them, about Weinbaum, utopias, etc. — would have been presented to the Japanese reader at the same time. In the real world of commercial and other strictures, I can only hope that such curious readers — who would take the moldy slogan of “a sense of wonder” so seriously that they might in its name be willing to put into question their own presuppositions while weighing those of the present book — will like the book whose Preface I am now concluding so much that I will be able to say to my kind Japanese publishers: “Now, since you had a succes with the first book, why don’t you publish what I’m writing in the 1980s?”.

Dômo arigatô!

                                                                       Darko Suvin, Montreal, March 1987

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Andrés Lomeña


AL: I would like to locate your ideological position in literary theory. I suppose that you feel close to Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson (even Slavoj Žižek). Moreover, I suppose that you disagree with aesthetic purism (Harold Bloom) or certain relativisms (Stanley Fish and his interpretative communities, poststructuralism and deconstruction). I would like to know your reflections on current literary theory—for instance what about the New
Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt?

DS: I remember a splendid note of Lenin’s in his Philosophical Notebooks, where he says that to an intelligent materialist critic an intelligent idealist critic is nearer than a stupid materialist one. So allow me to begin by doubting, not the existence or importance of, but the exclusive nature of ideological kinships. For example, I’ve followed step by step almost the whole of Jameson’s opus, especially since we collaborated in the journal Science-
Fiction Studies and other venues, while I have used Eagleton’s Theory of Literature as the best introductory survey in my graduate teaching at some point but otherwise not learned too much from him. On the contrary, I’ve been deeply influenced by and am still writing in the wake of his teacher, my friend Raymond Williams.
I loved some of Bloom’s early works, say on Romanticism, but when he became an ideologue pure and simple, that stopped. This is the problem with most postmodernists: while declaiming against absolutisms, their supposed relativism is more absolute than that of most modernists. I do make an exception for some so-called deconstructionists such as most Guattari and the later Derrida (after the Marx book). My criterion is simple: what can I learn and build upon from any critic? A little from Greenblatt, almost nothing from
Fish, a lot from the materialist feminists, how to charm people by bringing together philosophy and pop culture from Žižek (and of course how to fight against the prohibition against talking about communism).

AL: Metamorphoses of Science Fiction is a masterpiece. I think that the first world edition was in 1977. We have lived through a lot of events since then: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Dayton agreement, September 11 attacks, war  in Iraq and Afghanistan, financial and economic crises, Wikileaks’ revelations, and so on. Also literary theory has changed: the rise of feminism (Nancy Armstrong, Elaine Showalter, etc.), the rise of gay, lesbian and queer theory (Judith Butler), and so forth. What would you change of your book in order to update it? Or perhaps you would prefer not to add or modify anything (I see there is a Croatian version in 2010, maybe that is the answer to my question).

DS: It was published in 1979 but written in the preceding ten years. I don’t think the book can be updated: it should remain as it is, branded (as Brecht said, like calves on the ranch) by its historical date: the epoch of hopeful High Modernism. What must and therefore can be updated are some of my views— though NOT my values. I dislike renegades. I have done this, as concerns both my epistemological approach and, in particular, some aspects of the Fantasy genre, in numerous articles of the last fifteen years, the longest of which is the “Afterword” to the Festschrift for me edited by Patrick Parrinder, Learning from Other Worlds (Liverpool University Press 2000). It also has a checklist of my publications where interested readers can follow the post-1979 developments.

AL: What do you think about “theory of fictional worlds”? For instance: Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds by Lubomir Dolezel, or Fictional Worlds by Thomas Pavel, even Postmodernist Fiction by Brian McHale. I ask you this because there is a strong connection between fictional worlds and science fiction as a genre; I think that sociologists of literature should study how society creates different fictional worlds (that is, connections between types of societies and ontological properties in fiction stories).

DS: You’re quite right about the kinship. If you had looked at my work after 1979, say the four other books on SF, you’d have found me using a variant of Possible Worlds’ theory. I knew both Dolezel and Pavel, I had my students read them, not quite casually: we were all immigrants to Canada, with experience of different worlds… McHale is too postmodernist for me, in panic flight from orientation: he refuses ontology (that there is a real world out there) in favour of hermetic epistemology (that we can only live in imaginary worlds, so to speak). And my methodologically most advanced book on SF, Victorian SF in the U.K. 1848–1900, is an attempt at a Williamsian “social history of literature,” indeed within a certain class spread in authors and readers.

AL: In your opinion, what will be your legacy? How to follow your enterprise from a Marxist perspective (or post-Marxist, as you prefer) in a world ruled by late capitalism and the end of history (Fukuyama)?

DS: I think Fukuyama has been proved totally wrong, don’t you? The present crisis of senile capitalism is proof that history goes on, as murderous class conflict at that. Our alternative is socialism or barbarism (for the bland “socialism” maybe we better substitute a “communist direct democracy”). In that perspective, my legacy is of secondary importance. In one case it will be forgotten as an aberration, in another maybe cherished as a far-off precursor who didn’t quite have all the tools but at least identified a field and
a stance toward it.

AL: I know that you are not a novelist, you are an accurate thinker. Anyway, I really enjoyed your book as a really good novel. By the way, could you tell us three or four books, fiction or non-fiction, that you consider compulsory to read?

DS: You are not quite right, I’ve published four books of poetry and some short prose. This should be as accurate as any scholarship, only less exclusively notional.
My four books: Marx, Das Kapital; Brecht, Saint Joan of the Stockyards; Saramago, The Cavern; Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina (but I could name 40 others, only fanatics can exist on less than that, the One Final Book).

AL: Any conclusion?

DS: Early on, I wrote an essay in praise of open endings.

AL: Thanks so much.

This interview originally appeared online at .

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