Controversies, #2 (Fall 1999)

"The political functions and risks of literature in the real world"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #2: Though we encounter it "entombed" in the Norton Anthology, literature originates in a lively cultural setting which actively rewards and punishes authors for their works.  More was well aware of the dangers besetting an author who dabbled in political satire and polemic during the reign of Henry VIII, and this discussion aptly begins to pick out the ways in which he protected himself while inventing interesting ways to rethink what government could be.  This "what if" capacity was among the first great inventions continental Humanists brought to the technology of book publishing.   Particpants: Nicole Barnabee, Amanda Ripley, and Arnie.

More's Risky Behavior--Nicole Barnabee, 9/28/99

        Is anyone else struck by the apparent risk More took in publishing Utopia? He bashes courtiers and counselors (in servitude more than in service; their goal is to flatter and improve their own images, rather than provide true council), criticizes his culture's obsession with wealth (precious metals used as chains—are the rich enslaved by their wealth? And even Utopian children recognize that gold and jewels are toys for babies alone), and attacks the commonwealth as a "conspiracy of the rich" (who he describes as men and women who make their living "by doing either nothing at all or something completely useless to the commonwealth").

        As the book was written in Latin, its intended audience was exactly the set that he satirized the most heavily. He does pull a Chaucer—reminding the audience that he's just repeating the words of another, and for his part, he doesn't really agree with what the true speaker is saying (namely the parts that would offend his noble audience)—but would this be safeguard enough against the possible wrath of the king or a high-ranking courtier? I know that satire is generally intended to provoke critical examination of the subject being satirized, and I know that More probably intended to provoke debate rather than serious social change, but I can't imagine that a genteel audience would be terribly interested in serious examination of a society in which they occupied the top rung—why fix something that, from your perspective, isn't broken?

        When Utopia was published, was More at a point in his career at which he might not need to worry about political backlash? (Though, given his eventual fate, it would seem unlikely that any court office would offer complete safety.) Or would the knowledge that the book was written in the satirical mode simply make the members of court less likely to take offense?

        On a side note, is there a more accurate translation of Buthrescas? More translates it as "specially religious," but given the importance of names elsewhere in Utopia, I somehow doubt that his translation is entirely accurate, and I am curious as to what he really thinks about Utopia's religious zealots.

Reply to Nicole--Amanda Ripley, 9/28/00

        I had a very similar reaction to more's brazenness (is that a word?) when I read Utopia, but unlike you, I assumed that his little disclaimer at the end of the piece WAS enough to keep him out of trouble with the court. I think we as students reading this in 1999 have some hindsight, and the help of the Norton Anthology, to let us know that some or most of the things written in Utopia were the opinions and viewpoints of More concerning how to make a society more ideal. But perhaps courtly people (I hesitate to say the king or queen him/herself, because I have no idea who would have handled this sort of thing), and this is not to say that courtly people were stupid, but maybe they really took More's disclaimer literally. That is, maybe they read the last paragraph of Utopia and said, "oh, I get it. he's MAKING FUN of the Utopians. he doesn't really think society should work this way. It's amusing, really." maybe it was something they saw as entertaining. I'm sure there were some people who got a little riled up and/or worried reading it, but maybe they were unable to do anything about it because of the disclaimer. I think you said that in your post. I hope that all made sense.

Reply to Nicole and Amanda--Heather Baron, 9/28/99

        I tend to agree with amanda that the disclaimer at the end is enough.  I think it's also important to notice that the way more set up the book helps support his disclaimer... he is not professing these views, he is merely recounting a story and conveying the views of someone else.  Now we, with our hindsight, know that Hythloday is made up, but the premise is that he's a real person more met in Antwerp. also, since Hythloday's name means "dispeller of nonsense," more has created for himself an even stronger defense.