Closing with Constantius: Teaching Utopia in the Atlantic World

 Len von Morze

University of Massachusetts Boston

I chose Constantius and Pulchera as the last text in a seminar for M.A. students in English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Since the experience of teaching any given text in a grad-seminar discussion will be different from the expectations the instructor has set for it, I’ll first describe how I situated the story within the course topic, and then summarize the insights that my students brought to the text.

The topic of the seminar was “Literature of the Atlantic World: Utopia and the World-System” (course website here: https://sites.google.com/site/litoftheatlantic). My basic question for the course was this: could we read literary utopias, beginning with More but especially in the eighteenth century, as a reaction-formation to the creation of an Atlantic economy? As I was thinking about how to frame this course — our first graduate offering on the Atlantic world — it occurred to me that some of the most prominent features of these fantastical voyages to utopia (planned societies, a sense of remoteness or inaccessibility, an emphasis on economic justice and/or self-sufficiency) could be seen as modes of resistance and/or critique vis-a-vis the most prominent features of the Atlantic market (the failure of imperial control, a pervasive sense of the already-seen or already-mapped, price convergence across the ocean). If a historical utopia (Oceana) tries to formulate laws for all time, key players in the Atlantic world tend to recognize no laws but those of the market. The horrors of the Atlantic transformation of bodies into capital (Equiano’s narrative of paradise lost) are sublated in utopia; the European traveler learns of fantastical lands whose morally superior inhabitants treat procreation as the source of all wealth (the “utopian economics” — to borrow Wilda Anderson’s phrase — parodied in Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville and earnestly espoused in Franklin’s “Speech of Miss Polly Baker”).[1] National and racial characteristics in utopia reflect similar inversions: rather than encountering savages, the English discoverer of these New Worlds is generally the one being civilized and converted (Utopia, Gulliver’s Travels); in comparison with other European powers, the English find themselves defeated or belated (Oroonoko, The Female American).

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