[Submitted as a term paper for the Utopia and Creativity module, MA Creative and Critical Writing, University of Sussex, January 2015. Mark: 68]
A study of Ernst Bloch’s essay ‘Art and Utopia: The Creation of the Ornament’ (from The Utopian Function of Art and Literature) exploring the symbolism of stone and lines within the essay and how these contribute to the formation of the utopian drive in fiction, with particular reference to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and including my own creative response, Lines.
Ernst Bloch’s essay ‘Art and Utopia: The Creation of the Ornament’ is infused with the momentum of the utopian drive that he describes and advocates passionately for the Arts and Literature. He examines the ways that art and literature have embodied utopian urges throughout history and applies this understanding to argue that art and literature have a uniquely utopian function. The essay primarily focuses upon the utopian function of architecture, and in examining the contrasts between the Egyptian ‘will to become like stone’ [p89] expressed in the construction of the pyramids and the Gothic ‘will to become like Resurrection’ [p91] Bloch outlines an aesthetic of the utopian urge that can be applied metaphorically to the literary form. Architecture is concerned largely with style, form, structure and space, and I will be applying these areas of focus to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to explore the ways in which this novel embodies Bloch’s portrayal of the utopian dynamic.
The word ‘utopia’ itself literally means ‘no place’, although a derivative interpretation layered on top of this suggests ‘perfect place’ (the Latin prefix ‘eu’ giving rise to eutopia, meaning ‘perfect place’; the prefix ‘u’ giving rise to utopia meaning ‘no place’). Bloch’s examination of the utopian function of art and literature powerfully and eloquently argues that the only way to achieve ‘eutopian’ perfection is through recognising its ‘utopian’ existence, through negative dialectics – the presence of what is absent within itself. Literary fiction is in a unique position to achieve this paradoxical communion.
In Bloch’s essay, he repeatedly returns to the image of stone to describe a closed system, a revealed utopia. He presents the idea of the Egyptian pyramids as the epitome of this mode of thought. To Bloch, the vast stone tombs of ancient Egypt typify the drive towards preservation and death. In this mode, the building of cold, hard, stone edifices which are designed to preserve the bodies of the Pharaohs in dark stasis represents the urge to capture and define an image of a perfect world, a utopian ideal, which can never be what it purports to be. The capturing, defining and describing of an idea of perfection can never deliver what it promises, and contains within itself its own death and dystopia. Bloch asserts that ‘the Egyptian rigidity operated as the danger of complete, uninterrupted construction at the end of any “style”, especially when it reached the serious point of composure or rest’ [p89]. This suggests that the will to reach a closed and completed end-point in any construction of creative momentum in art or literature (or even in life) is the danger of a will to death, to the end of creation and construction. The idea culminates in the figure of ‘Egypt, as the total domination of inorganic nature over life,’ where, ‘man looks ahead but sees himself dying, hides in the grave’ [p89].
In contrast, Bloch describes the Gothic lines which arc and flow ever onwards into infinity. It is these lines, he suggests, that provide the best metaphor for the utopian. For Bloch, the eternal interweaving of the gothic line, the ouroboros of the snake devouring its own tail, reveals the image of that which is ‘in the process of being’ [Something’s Missing p15], or becoming. Figured in this way, utopian drives become dynamic, living, ever-evolving spaces inhabited by limitless possibilities. Unlike the will to death of the Egyptian stone, the Gothic line contains an ‘inner life’, which, ‘as it drifts toward itself, glows again even more strongly’ [p91]. The living dynamic of the utopian drive, the urge for ever-progressing possibility, is figured within the infinitely winding and coiling Gothic line: the endless dynamic of life unfolding. Bloch describes this desire as ‘that which is curious, that which moves like something brewing, that which is scrolling’ – it is an endless questioning of the potential of the possible, an openness to intrigue, and a verb in the continuous present-tense of arrival. In the Gothic line, there is no final destination, only an ever-living moment of passionate creating.
It is precisely in this way that the utopian mode of thought comes into being through literature, through the fictional creation of spaces that do not exist in the physical world, but are perpetually in the process of becoming: as they are written, read and re-read, re-interpreted and given life anew with each moment of re-investment. Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway embodies this passionate utopian dynamic in a rich variety of ways. Clarissa, who ‘love[s] life; London; this moment of June […] with an absurd and faithful passion’, who ‘was going that very night to kindle and illuminate; to give her party’ [pp6-7], exudes a joie de vivre that is relentless, even in the face of death, and the drive towards the moment of her party imbues the novel with a utopian energetic which ‘moves like something brewing’ throughout the unfolding narrative. Structurally, the novel resonates with and resembles the Gothic lines: the narrative flows in interwoven arcs of consciousness between characters, times, places and events, all driving towards the occasion of Clarissa’s party in the evening. Spatially, the characters must inhabit a utopian ‘no-place’ if they are to successfully communicate their truth and embody their desires. Woolf explores the extent to which this kind of utopia is possible in the novel form, using the model of the party to bring all her characters into a shared time and space within which the heteronormative boundaries can be explored and perhaps transgressed.
From the outset of the novel, the reader is immediately plunged into an abyss by the narrator – who seems to occupy the central locus of each character’s consciousness in a way that is overlapping, rippling, rebounding, spiralling and often telepathic. The narrative voice drives the story forward with unstoppable momentum – one character’s thoughts and experiences open out directly into another’s and the interlinking stories of each character circle around each other towards the event of Clarissa’s party. There are no chapter divisions, no formal structures around which to build and change perspectives, locations, time of day. Everything takes place within the sweeping arc of the novel as a whole. This ever-forward-moving, unstoppable motion and momentum embodies a utopian urge towards that which is perpetually in the process of being, or becoming.
In contrast to this exuberant energy of style, form and structure are the ‘leaden circles’ of Big Ben’s hourly chimes, which serve as formal markers of the passage of time throughout the novel: heavy, dull and oppressive. The image of these leaden circles as grey and ponderous edifices moving out across the city are reminiscent of Bloch’s figuring of Egyptian stone and its ‘total domination of inorganic life over nature’, which is nothing more than ‘the affirmation of death, the suppression of the inner life, the will to become like stone’ [p89]. Big Ben’s hourly domination over the sweeping passage of living time within the novel is representative of the phallocentric and heteronormative social structures that dominate and suppress the flow of the organic inner life, which Woolf explores through language and the fluid relationships that circle around interconnected meanings and consciousness between people. In this novel, the energetic dynamic of the inner life, with its looping consciousness and boundless interweaving between self and other, embodies the urgency of a utopian poetics that opens up the possibilities of a different way of being in time and new ways of relating to the other. Ultimately, Big Ben’s leaden circles ‘dissolved into the air’ [p205], suggesting that even such seemingly impenetrable structures as the leaden discs of patriarchy may disappear into thin air in time: marking the world with their presence for a while, then gone.
It is the interweaving and overflowing of consciousness between self, other, time and place that leads Clarissa to her ‘transcendental theory’ in the novel. Having said while riding the bus up Shaftesbury Avenue that ‘she felt herself everywhere […] She was all that. So that to know her, or anyone, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places […] – even trees, or barns,’ she was able to believe, ‘or say that she believed (for all her scepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death. Perhaps – perhaps’ [p168]. In this way, the traditional notion of the self is overturned, becoming something manifestly more fluid, organic and timeless. The sense of the self as being parcelled up and contained within the confines of a single body, or a single lifetime, gives way to a utopian dynamic between self and other (including time and space) that is ultimately self-encounter: an encounter with the self within the other and the other within the self, completing each other in boundless fluidity. Only in this sense, Bloch suggests, does the drive of the Gothic line become ‘the real, not only organic, but organic-spiritual transcendence’ [p94].
This implies that meaning emerges – at least in part – from our self-encounter as we encounter ourselves through the created object. As readers, this dynamic is energised by the unfolding of meaning as we encounter ourselves through our reading of the text in the novel form. Indeed, Bloch states that ‘we search for the creator who allows us to confront ourselves in a pure form, who allows us to encounter ourselves.’ [p100]. Woolf, in Mrs Dalloway, gives expression to this self-encounter through the encounter with the other, not only in the form and structure, but also in the style and content of the novel. In capturing a more diffuse notion of consciousness and communication, which explores and embodies the ‘spider’s thread of attachment’ between people [p127], the ways that people and places can co-exist within each other’s consciousness quite independently of time and space, there is the development of a utopian poetics that is both the vacating of the space of the self and also equally its completion and fulfilment. Meaning is co-constructed in the intertextual process of communion and communication – through the interweaving of characters’ consciousness within the temporal space of the novel and also through the interaction between text and reader that is constructed in space and time through the act or process of reading. This is the ultimate utopian ‘no-place’ and the epitome of the expression of negative dialectics, where inarticulable possibilities enter into the dialogue of created meaning as ‘that which is brewing, that which is scrolling, that which is in the process of being’.
Significantly, it is the explorations in articulating the inarticulable that give this novel its most radically utopian dynamic. Clarissa’s love for Sally Seton and Septimus’s affection for Evans both represent inarticulable homoerotic drives and desires, but whereas Clarissa ‘had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine,’ Septimus ‘had flung it away’[p202]. Clarissa’s attempts to grasp and articulate her desire for Sally, though unfulfilled, give her the power of resistance to heteronormative social structures and therefore grant her some degree power over the phallocentric world represented by Big Ben’s delineated time: the power to embrace life and its boundless possibilities for communion and encounter. In this way, a utopian ‘no-place’ of the not-yet-conscious is in the process of being constructed.
Bloch suggests that the act of creating a utopian fiction sets into motion the energy of the not-yet-conscious to enter into the process of becoming. ‘But it is not something like nonsense, or absolute fancy; rather it is not yet in the senses of a possibility; that it could be there if we could only do something for it. Not only if we travel there, but in that we travel there the island utopia arises out of the sea of the possible’ [‘Something’s Missing’ p3]. This is another example of negative dialectics creating the space within which utopian self-encounter becomes possible. In that we create the space for a utopian future, which is necessarily different from the present set of social norms, we energise the possibility of its becoming – but it never will become the image we have imagined it to be, because that is merely a mask and cannot be a true expression of what will become. However, Bloch asserts that ‘the essential function of utopia is a critique of what is present […] and by concretizing itself as something false, it always points at the same time to what should be’ [‘Something’s Missing’ p12]. Fiction as a literary form is uniquely placed to energise that fundamental aspect of utopian poetics: the creation of an idea that exists outside of space and time, that is perpetually in the process of becoming, and uses the inherent energy of words to figure spaces and silences in between the lines of meaning which can contain the infinite possibilities of the inarticulable within their articulations. Bloch confirms that ‘the true thing determines itself via the false thing […] That is actually the only form in which utopia is given to us at all’ [‘Something’s Missing’ p12].
Throughout the novel, the need to communicate – to express oneself in relationship with the other – is paramount to the utopian drive of each character. Septimus embodies this desire in its most extreme form – his feeling of having a ‘message’ of ‘truth’ which he must communicate to the world at all costs is the most prominent form of his ‘madness’. It is symptomised by his talking to himself, continually feeling thwarted, interrupted, silenced and not being listened to, or heard. Septimus, a former poet and reader of Shakespeare, feels he has a message to communicate to the world, but that the world cannot understand him. This is symptomatic of the artist’s drive, the embodiment of the creative/destructive power of utopian creativity, and the drive to explore new possibilities of meaning within the world. ‘Now for his writings; how the dead sing behind rhododendron bushes; odes to Time; conversations with Shakespeare; Evans, Evans, Evans – his messages from the dead; do not cut down trees; tell the Prime Minister. Universal love: the meaning of the world. Burn them! He cried’ [p162]. It is Septimus’s inability to communicate his truth and be heard that ultimately leads to his death – his final, irrefutable self-statement: ‘”I’ll give it you!” he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings.’ [p164] In this way, Septimus embodies the tragedy of heteronormative society: his utopian urge meets only with resistance, like stone, and is denied the possibility of forward momentum. Rather than becoming an expression of limitless possibilities through the poetics of language, he lacks the opportunity for transcendent self-encounter and feels himself trapped, seeing only his death as he looks ahead.
However, the character of Septimus also raises questions about the attempt to communicate a fixed and solid definition of ‘truth’, as in the figure of a graven image. Bloch says that ‘to all those who, with each expressionist painting, must ask what it represents […] hell can shrink and resemble a street corner for their eyes,’ [p100], giving expression to the concern that attempts to reduce meaning to something specific and definable are always to shrink and distort the beauty contained within. Theodor Adorno states that ‘[t]his [commandment against the graven image] was the defence that was intended against the cheap utopia, the false utopia, the utopia that can be bought’ [‘Something’s Missing’ p11]; and Bloch agrees, suggesting that once something has been ‘“cast into a picture”, one is thus deceived’ [‘Something’s Missing’ p11]. Rather, meaning, beauty and perfection are held within the negative spaces of the not-yet-conscious, the continually coming into being, the perpetual drive of the utopian urge of the becoming possible.
Therefore, utopias cannot exist as concretised ideas, as graven images or pyramids of stone, but can only enter the world in the spaces between what is and what might become, in the slippery silences between words and their meanings: ‘the spaces between them were as significant as the sounds’ [Mrs Dalloway p26]. Woolf explores the supposed fixity of language and meaning, signifiers and signified, in various ways throughout Mrs Dalloway. The aeroplane writing words in the sky suggests the drifting, shifting, vaporisation of meaning and the unreliable significance of words and letters: ‘But what letters? […] Only for a moment did they lie still; then they moved and melted and were rubbed out,’ [p23-24]. And yet there is an ecstasy of writing that is embraced and embodied, too: the aeroplane writes letters ‘like something mounting in ecstasy, in pure delight’ [p33]; Clarissa ‘must also write’ [p43]; Peter would ‘write books’[p178] if he retired; Septimus may have been found at any night in his youth ‘writing; […] tearing up his writing; […] finishing a masterpiece at three o’clock in the morning’ [p95]. The drive and desire to write and rewrite is insatiable and interminable – the utopian must be written in order to become, and yet it will never become what was written. It is this infinitely embracing dialectic between words and their inarticulable meaning, embodied by the indefatigable energy of the utopian urge to creativity, that drives creativity forward, striving for ever more perfect expressions of perfection – the coiling embrace of the Gothic line, the twin dragonheads, the ouroboros. The utopian drive must create in order to destroy its own creation, because the inarticulable can only be held in the gaps and silences between the articulated lines.
Woolf circles around the articulation of the inarticulable in the song of the old woman at the crossing opposite Regent’s Park Tube Station. Peter hears her words as the repetition of formless sounds, ‘ee um fah um so / foo swee too eem oo – ‘ and likens her to ‘a rusty pump’, a ‘wind-beaten tree’, which ‘rocks and creaks and moans in the eternal breeze’ [p90]. The woman and her song become blended and interwoven with each other, as an expression of the inarticulable which is infinite, boundless, and eternal. ‘Through all the ages […] the battered woman […] stood singing of love’ [p90]. There is the wild echo of the natural world and the sense of the uncanny return of something primeval:
As the ancient song bubbled up opposite Regent’s Park tube station, still the earth seemed green and flowery; still, though it issued from so rude a mouth, a mere hole in the earth, muddy too, matted with root fibres and tangled grasses, still the old bubbling burbling song, soaking through the knotted roots of infinite ages, and skeletons and treasure, streamed away in rivulets over the pavement and all along the Marylebone Road, and down towards Euston, fertilising, leaving a damp stain. [p91]
The wild and inarticulable ancient presence seeps through the sounds of the song, leaving a manifest impression in the world and ‘fertilising’ future possibilities. Bloch says of the Gothic line that it is ‘restless and uncanny like its figures: the bulges, the serpents, the animal heads, the watercourses, a tangled criss-cross and twitching where the amniotic fluid and the incubation heat sit, and the womb of all pains, all lusts, all births, and of all organic images begin to speak. Only the Gothic line carries such a central fire within itself in which the most profound organic and the most profound spiritual essence come to maturity’ [p93].
Through the dissolving of formal language structures (words which figure as elemental sounds, letters which dissolve and disappear in the air), Woolf explores the ways that words can be emptied of formal meaning, creating the space within language for new and deeper possibilities to arise. In figuring the song as belonging to a time both ancient and eternal, both before and beyond the constraints of linear temporality as signified by Big Ben’s chimes, Woolf hints at the utopian possibilities of the inarticulable that dwell beneath the surface of all heteronormative, patriarchal language structures. This inarticulable other is deeply feminine: the battered woman who stood through all the ages singing of love. Peter stops to listen and ‘couldn’t help giving the poor creature a coin’ [p91], perhaps prompting the curious to wonder at the rich possibilities of buying into the ancient and eternal song that echoes beneath the surface of our everyday words. For Bloch, too, the uncanny restlessness of the Gothic line is figured as feminine: it is the amniotic fluid, the incubation heat and the womb of all ‘not-yet-conscious’ possibility.
In exploring the possibilities of language to communicate the inarticulable in Mrs Dalloway Woolf opens up the poetic structures of the rich depth of unbidden meanings that gather beneath the surface of words, thus exploring the utopian possibilities of language, communication and consciousness. Woolf demonstrates the ways that language works below the surface of ordinary consciousness to make links, patterns, threads and connections between seemingly unconnected people, events, places, times and ideas, reminiscent of the infinitely interweaving Gothic lines: ‘when the sentence finished something had happened. […] For the surface agitation […] as it sunk grazed something very profound’ [Mrs Dalloway p21]. Pulsing through the collective, boundary-less experiences of time and space is the rich possibility of a utopian poetics of language, in which meanings can be diffuse, through undercurrents of assonance and rhyme, self-reference, rhythm and repetition, the possibilities of losing oneself to others, of language working within the interstitial spaces, rather than sealing up the boundaries of the self, become open and limitless. Intertextual references to Shakespeare reverberate throughout the narrative, weaving their thread between Clarissa, Septimus, the reader, the writer, and the whole history of the English literary canon. The quotations from Cymbeline (‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, / Nor the furious winter’s rages’) and Othello (‘If it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy’) echo and repeat throughout the novel, reverberating in the interstitial spaces between Clarissa and Septimus, inhabiting both of their spheres of consciousness and Clarissa’s thoughts about Septimus, creating a utopia of intertextuality in which threads are continually being woven and creativity is constantly in the process of creating – as new threads of meaning and resonance are piling up one on top of the other within the text and outside itself. The space which these quotations inhabit is a utopian no-space, coming into being with every re-reading, re-interpretation and re-investment. Bloch suggests that the Gothic line in architecture flows in ‘mesh and loops […] tracery and rose, curvature arises, not vaults, and a dynamic pathos is pushing upward with all parts.’ [p95] It is these architectural loops which figure this sense of the dynamic undercurrent of language that weaves and flows within the narrative of Mrs Dalloway.
Figured through the metaphor of Ernst Bloch’s Gothic lines, Woolf’s explorations of the utopian possibilities of language, consciousness, community, society, space and time resonate with the powerful undercurrent of negative dialectics and the possibility of becoming. Bloch, in his essay on the utopian function of architectural structures, provides a compelling and energetic metaphor for the study of the utopian dynamics at play within the literary text. Through the metaphors of stone and line it is possible to explore the ways in which utopian desire inhabits and drives a text structurally and stylistically. Applying the energetic movement of the Gothic line to the dual creative processes of writing and reading, we may figure the mutually desiring and interweaving intertextuality of the space created and inhabited by a literary text as not only utopian in location, but also utopian in spirit.
Wrapped in music, eyes closed then wide open, Mi casts shapes and shadows on the walls of the barn. She’s immersed in herself and this moment; the moon above and the circle of revellers; she’s never felt so alive, so real and so free. The changing beats and pulsing rhythms move her muscles, blood and bones from deep within. She’s open, swirling, reaching for the stars, then crouching, curling, stalking on all fours. So alive. She feels her heart and soul beating, breathing, being.
Everything’s glittering in the low-level blue and purple lights, flickering in the jars of candles dotted around the dance-floor, sparkling in the universe that’s being projected onto the canvas screen.
Strangers, friends and enemies, all gathered under one roof for the Wild Swan Festival Trance Dance. Mi gives a smile to Esther and dances up close to her for a while, feeling the warmth of the connection they’ve shared since school, then turns away in a spiral towards Dom. They hold each other’s gaze, a pole of axis in their celestial twisting and grinding until he peels off to her right and she is face to face with Kerry. Momentarily, Mi shudders inside. She hears the staccato croak of a magpie, sees a flash of blue-black wing, the gleam of stolen gold. Something painful rises up inside her, like a knot of toads threatening to burst – seething, teeming – out through her chest, her throat, her mouth. But she forces it back down. Brings her mind back to the dancing, the moonlight and the music. Makes herself forget that Linden rests his head on Kerry’s pillow now. Fear no more the heat o’ the sun… Half-buried words emerge from the muddy earth to remind her of – what? She isn’t sure. All lovers young, all lovers must consign to thee and come to dust.
A guy she hasn’t seen before cuts in and she follows his arabesque lead towards the centre of the floor. He’s attractive, a good dancer, and she’s glad of the interruption to her thoughts. They wind and coil towards each other and away. So close they’re almost touching; then only the fingertips of their souls are entwined. If it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy. They find each other’s rhythm and repeat until this is all there is.
‘My mobile’s gone missing,’ Mi scrabbles around in her bag as the barn empties and ecstatic dancers make their way out across darkening fields.
‘Are you sure?’ Esther searches the pockets of her own jeans and jacket, but of course it isn’t there.
‘I’m certain.’ Her face twists into a grimace. The crowd snakes away, and there’s no way of finding the phone or discovering who took it. Mi flushes hot with anger. ‘It had my whole life on it!’
‘Yeah, all your photos – ‘
‘All the pictures I’d taken for my – ‘
‘College photography project, oh yeah. Oh no! You had some good – ‘
‘I had great images for that. My best work yet. Fuck.’
‘It’ll be ok. Maybe we’ll get it back, it’ll turn up.’
‘All my phone numbers – I don’t know any of them without it. I don’t know anything. Even that guy Reuben I was dancing with – ‘
‘Oh, he gave you his number?’
‘Yeah. He was –‘
‘Maybe he took it?’
‘I’d’ve noticed. No, it’s more likely to be fucking Kerry. Not the first thing she’s stolen from me this year. Bitch.’
‘You don’t know that –‘
‘I feel lost without it. Like I’ve lost a limb, or a part of my brain, or something.’
‘Come on, let’s go and see what we can find.’
Around a large fire in the centre of the festival camp people have gathered, encircling it: drinking, eating, whispering, listening. They’re listening to someone telling stories, and the murmur of the crowd seems to be the hushing hum of attention and desire. Mi can’t see the face of the storyteller, it’s obscured by smoke and flames, but she can feel the pull of a thread that binds her to those words. She lays aside her fruitless searching and leans in, hungry in her empty desolation.
The voice of the wild woman at the fire is the howl of wind across the marshes; the burbling torrent of an icy spring as it tumbles down the rocky hillside; the echo of the stars in the eternal night.
Mi hadn’t known she was parched. But the gush of water that’s spilling out from this rusty pump is enough to drench her: she purses her lips and drinks deep.
‘Aaaaaaaawwennnnn… An’ the magic words was spoken. Jus’ then: Eeeeee-aaaaagh! Three drops o’ the potion splashed onto Gwion Bach’s thumb. Ooh, they burned. So before ‘e knew what ‘e were doin’, ‘e’d stuck ‘is thumb into ‘is mouth, and… All the knowledge an’ wisdom Cerridwen had been brewing up for ‘er own son passed to Gwion Bach: suddenly ‘is eyes was wide open an’ a golden light shone from ‘is brow. The cauldron cracked an’ split in two, an’ the rest o’ the potion bubbled away, poisoning the river where they stood. Silence. Nobody moved or said a word.
‘Then the explosion! Grrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaggghhhhh! Cerridwen was furious. She leapt at Gwion Bach to seize ‘im, but ‘e was wise an’ ‘e’d seen what she was plannin’. So ‘e turned ‘imself into an hare an’ shot off across the fields. Enraged, Cerridwen turned into a fox an’ tore after ‘im. ‘E reached a riverbank an’ changed into a fish, but she dived in an’ became an otter streaming forrards; ‘e soared up becoming a bird, but she was an hawk an’ hunted ‘im down; ‘e saw an heap of winnowed wheat an’ became a single grain, but she became a crested hen an’ plucked ‘im with ‘er beak.
‘Cerridwen swallowed the grain: Gwion Bach was gone. But where? –‘
Mi listens to the story entranced. Through fire and flames she glimpses the cracked teeth and leathern face of the woman who speaks with the voice of Time itself.
Golden visions float through her mind as Mi curls inside her tent. Coiled and tangled with Reuben, who found her at the fire. And now they’re so close they are truly touching, body and soul entwined. They find each other’s rhythm and repeat until this is all there is.
Bloch, Ernst. ‘Art and Utopia: The Creation of the Ornament’ (1973), in Bloch, Ernst, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg. Cambridge (Mass.)/London: MIT Press 1988, pp78-102
Bloch, Ernst and Adorno, Theodor. ‘Something’s Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing’ (1964). Collected in Bloch, Ernst, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg. Cambridge (Mass.)/London: MIT Press 1988, pp1-17
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway (1925). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996
Selected Secondary Reading
Beaumont, Matthew. Utopia Ltd. Ideologies of Social Dreaming in England 1870-1900. Boston, 2005
Bersani, Leo. ‘Sociality and Sexuality’ Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Summer 2000). The University of Chicago Press, pp641-656
Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. University of Nebraska Press,
Greenblatt, Stephen. ‘Utopian Pleasure’, in Cultural Reformations: Medieval and Renaissance in Literary History, ed. Cummings and Simpson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010
Zipes, Jack. Introduction: Toward a Realization of Anticipatory Illumination, in Bloch, Ernst, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg. Cambridge (Mass.)/London: MIT Press 1988, ppxi-xliii
 Bloch, Ernst. ‘Art and Utopia: The Creation of the Ornament’ (1973), in Bloch, Ernst, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg. Cambridge (Mass.)/London: MIT Press 1988, pp78-102
 Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway (1925). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996
 Bloch, Ernst and Adorno, Theodor. ‘Something’s Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing’ (1964). Collected in Bloch, Ernst, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg. Cambridge (Mass.)/London: MIT Press 1988, pp1-17
7 thoughts on “Ouroboros: Utopias of Style, Form and Structure in Literary Fiction”
Let me see if I understand this? The Pyramids = the vast stone tombs of ancient Egypt typify the drive towards utopia = preservation. But, “The idea of perfection can never deliver what it promises, and contains within itself its own death and dystopia.”
Yes, that’s it 🙂
Bloch uses the stone tombs of Egypt to signify the kind of drive towards perfection that encloses its own death and stagnation. Their dark enclosed spaces are geometrically perfect, but they are closed, sealed, airless and stagnant. For Bloch, they signify total completion, which would equal death – the end of any striving towards perfection.
In fiction, this represents something like the kind of utopia envisioned by Thomas More (although his understanding of it is much more subtle and nuanced than that, so maybe it’s a bit like what people expect from More, rather than what More really is) – the kind of utopia that’s perfect and complete and stagnant within its own walls. That kind of utopia actually has many limitations – it necessarily excludes (often by death, punishment, or self-enclosed division) all those who don’t fit into it’s neatly drawn circle. That means that there’s still something left outside of it that isn’t utopian. However perfect it might seem inside, it’s not complete because it’s not whole. It’s also likely that this kind of utopia can only be maintained through strict rules and discipline – not necessarily everyone’s idea of utopia. This can be seen in Plato’s Republic, too. So, even though the enclosed, perfected utopia seems perfect, it continues to have its limitations and its dystopian shadow.
More than this though, Bloch suggests that total completion of the utopian ideal isn’t possible, because it would mean the end of itself. Particularly in fiction, narrative is driven by the desire for something that’s missing from the outset. If the picture was completed, the drive would no longer exist, and the utopia would become negated through its inertia.
In contrast, Bloch offers the architecture of the Gothic line, which arcs and curves into infinity in an endlessly unfinished pursuit of itself/its other. This is how he analogises the utopian drive that keeps us pushing forward, and keeps narrative moving in fiction.
That’s why any kind of utopian fiction is likely to have some kind of imperfection within it – it’s what gives it the narrative drive to become a story.
So maybe that’s why ‘utopian fiction’ doesn’t really exist as a credible genre within sci-fi/literature…?
I’m interested in exploring that paradox and I really appreciate your comments which are helping me to keep pushing the boundaries of my own understanding on this. Thank you 🙂
I’d love to hear some of your recommendations for good sci-fi reads that would give me some new perspectives!
I like the idea of literature as being able to have a utopian drive or dynamic, rather than utopian literature as forming a genre. And the sense of ongoing communication between texts/across time and place/within spaces. It seems like there are many possibilities within this type of literature! 🙂
Thank you Fleur. Yes, I think when utopia is considered in terms of a dynamic drive, rather than a stagnant outcome or perfected end-point, it does open the possibilities that almost all literature/fiction might have the potential to be utopian! I would love to hear some thoughts and recommendations from you 🙂