In this ambitious book, Karma Lochrie presents a re-appraisal of utopian literature (or its perceived absence) in the Middle Ages, offering readings of medieval texts not as "stranded back formations of early modern utopianism" or as mere "antecedents" to later literary tradition (6), but instead as important and rewarding sources in their own right. But not quite, or not only. Throughout the study, Lochrie places medieval texts alongside later sources, from More's Utopia, still the key reference point of the discussion, to early modern literature, Victorian dream vision and even the popular songs of early twentieth-century hobo culture. Lochrie's method is predicated on textual encounters and dialogues, the productive frictions and affinities between historical moments and cultural artefacts. Indeed, Lochrie's approach to literary history animates the wider project of the book: she aspires towards "productively scrambling" (7) narratives of cultural development and positing a "counterintuitive" alternative to linear accounts and analyses (5). The book makes a provocative and stimulating contribution to debates about periodisation, the relationships between medieval and modern, and how we should "do" literary history. It offers many nuanced new readings of medieval texts, as well as rigorous, illuminating discussions of previous scholarship in the field of utopian literature and beyond. It opens up many intriguing and valuable questions, although its efforts to resist critical assumptions and scholarly conventions also present some problems.
In her first four chapters, Lochrie looks at four medieval texts (or, in the case of the first case study, a text highly important in medieval culture) which offer visions or imaginaries which could be described as "utopian." In Chapter 1, Macrobius's Commentary on the Dream of Scipio is understood as utopian by virtue of its experiment in radically-shifted perspective, when Scipio views the earth from the heavens and is challenged with a new understanding of his place in the cosmos--an intimation of other, different ways of seeing and being in time and space. Chapter 2 advances a new reading of poems in the medieval Cokaygne tradition (and will be an important landmark in the critical rehabilitation of these texts as worthy of serious attention), examining tensions between escapist or compensatory utopias and the capacity for genuine social satire or critique, and the shifts and slippages as Cokaygne moved, across cultural and religious traditions, from a simultaneously playful (and self-satirising), melancholy, and challenging vision of possibility into a one-dimensional Protestant moral fable. Chapter 3 looks at Mandeville's Travels, suggesting something of the same tendency to "ex-centricity" (using Jean Baudrillard's coinage, p. 90) as examined in Scipio's dream. Mandeville's accounts, Lochrie argues, employ a range of deliberate devices which suggest mirrorings, parallels and relativisms across the globe, undermining the centre-focused geography of the typical medieval mappa mundi and initiating a project of provincialising Europe. Chapter 4 offers a thoughtful discussion of the importance of crisis, "self-cancellation" (154), and failure to the utopian project of Piers Plowman as well as new readings of the role of Conscience in Langland's vision and the poem's understanding of the value of work. Chapter 5 returns to each of the medieval texts, placing them alongside More's Utopia, listening for echoes and attuning to four key utopian practices or projects (in readings enabled by each of the previously-discussed medieval texts): "estrangement, melancholy, anti-cosmopolitanism, and radical pastoral" (212).
But, in addition to this "reading forward" to More, each of the first four chapters places its medieval text alongside modern sources which, Lochrie suggests, facilitate new and nuanced readings. The success of these pairings varies, as does the substance and critical attention paid to the post-medieval material(s) in each chapter. For example, Chapter 1 devotes a substantial discussion to Kepler's seventeenth-century space-travel Somnium. Across Kepler and Macrobius, Lochrie identifies a distinctly perspectival, affective utopianism, predicated on challenging habits of perception and offering a "new optic" suggestive of alternative possibilities. In Chapter 3, a (fairly brief) discussion of John Brome's seventeenth-century comedy The Antipodes is placed alongside Mandeville's Travels, neatly linked by the "Mandeville madness" of the play's central character, Peregrine, who is wild to visit the other side of the world and is cured by being deceived that he is, in fact, in the Antipodes. The pairing foregrounds the ways in which both texts challenge assumptions and turn the world topsy-turvy. In Chapter 4 the attention given to William Morris's The Dream of John Ball, placed alongside Piers Plowman, is so brief (less than four pages in a chapter of forty-eight) that it seems almost thrown away, though the pairing does usefully extend the discussion of failure begun in relation to Langland, suggesting the subtle interplay, again, of hope, desire and loss in these utopian imaginations. Chapter 2 presents perhaps the boldest and riskiest combination of sources, though invested with more sustained critical attention. Medieval Cokaygne poems are placed alongside songs and fragments of early twentieth-century popular culture. A song such as Harry McClintock's Big Rock Candy Mountain, emerging from hobo culture, offers a similar melancholy--and also a playful self-knowingness--to the Middle English Land of Cokaygne, while imagery of "fritter trees" and unlimited food has a troubling resonance in the deceits used to lure West Africans into slavery.
What Lochrie offers us in these conjunctions of texts, I would argue, doesn't quite conform to the methodologies or requirements we would expect of a typical critical comparison. Indeed, Lochrie herself is aware of this and chooses her words carefully when describing the affinities between her sources. Following a use of the term by Seamus Heaney, she articulates the relationship between Piers Plowman and A Dream of John Ball, for example, as a conceptual "rhyming" (179). The rich array of materials in Chapter 2 evokes something of an assemblage or collage (though not quite as bewildering as the glut of references in Vincent Desiderio's painting Cockaigne, 1993-2003, which ends the chapter). If this were a different book, I might have asked questions about how the relationships between these sources are being construed: Lochrie attempts nothing like a conventional cultural genealogy or a tracing of transmission and reception to map across her materials. But she has made clear, from the start, that the usual rules of literary history don't apply here. Her technique is to place sources in apposition, rather than strict comparison, allowing parallels to surface and resonances to sound. Certainly, this methodology opens up intriguing questions and valuable ways of thinking, theoretically, about utopianism as a project, though occasionally Lochrie's deft and elegant readings had me wondering if I'd missed some scholarly sleight of hand.
Lochrie also anticipates questions, inevitable with a book of this range and breadth, about her selection of material. On the whole, the way in which Lochrie's discussion sparks (mostly unwritten) links and connections to other texts and traditions--such as medieval visionary literature, prophetic writing, or parallels in medieval visual art--is a strength of the book and evidence of its potential to speak to other areas of scholarship. The vast range of Lochrie's remit is further complicated by her deliberate attempts to expand and open up our definitions of what we understand as "utopian." Her use of the term, she makes clear, rejects any sense that it must attach to a place or a geography: instead, varied strands of utopianism emerge as ways of seeing; as kinds of imaginary, critical and affective practice. I appreciated this enlarged vision, but the term "utopian" possibly becomes too capacious here to retain a specific, definable, workable meaning.
At a time when literary histories are making efforts to work across period divides and national boundaries, and to re-examine the assumptions upon which our disciplines are built, Lochrie consciously steps further and rejects linearity and the strictures of chronological reading with what she identifies as her "counterhistorical" approach. This queering of histories and temporalities--to use language Lochrie touches on in her introduction, in the sense of disrupting and resisting conventional cultural narratives--is driven by a similar critical impulse as a book like Carolyn Dinshaw's How Soon is Now? and contributes to a lively and productive moment of re-appraisal of the ways in which we conduct cultural history. I would regard Lochrie's book less as a radical, innovative intervention--not to detract from the many fine, original and important new readings here--and more as part of an on-going move towards experimentation with modes of critical practice in Humanities scholarship. Although Lochrie demurs, in her last chapter, that "I am not, finally, a utopian visionary" (215), her experiments in critical optics and perspectives undertake something of that utopian project of offering habitual views and familiar texts back to us, made new.