The Utopian Ideal and Critical Methods for the Humanities
Scholars such as Fredrick Jameson and Ernst Bloch have illustrated how ideal themes and images appear in nearly all artistic productions, even those very non-ideal in spirit. Humans cannot stop thinking about a better world and most larger-scale literary texts implicitly suggest answers to the question "How accommodating is the cosmos to human desires and how effectively can humans act?" Further, the study of texts in the Humanities (including non-verbal texts such as painting) across time presents a history of individuals able to think differently and imagine a better world, conceptions which have laid the imaginative foundations for concrete historical action; one must imagine before one can do. I will elaborate these points and outline a critical approach which explicates a text's ideal images, motifs and themes and considers their importance for interpreting the work and its position in the process of historical change. I shall also demonstrate a type of 'resisting' reading using examples from the 'ideal' ancient Greek and more 'realistic' Roman novels. While current criticism focuses on the sexism, ethnocentricity and class prejudice of these texts, one can also extract the lineaments of a better world, such as found in the concluding Longus' Daphnis and Chloe, where the worlds of city and country, aristocrat and slave, humanity and nature are merged during the protagonists' wedding. Those baleful attitudes, which should be pointed out, are not alone; to some extent, the author imagines better things than what he can fully accept, and this we must keep in mind. Such a critical approach supports a progressive agenda by demonstrating the force of this irrepressible urge to make a truly human and humane world.
Keywords: ideal themes, utopian elements, literary criticism
Dr. Jean Alvares
Associate Professor, Department of Classics and General Humanities, Montclair State University