Blog Post

The Hiddenness of the Open Road

In his dissertation "Medial Situations and Generic Possibility in the Long Eighteenth Century," Colin Moore argues that the picaresque fiction is predicated on a basic communicative situation that he calls "an encounter with a stranger," and that this condition in turn determines the nature of time and space in such a fiction. That is, each episode is a "one-time" event, and the landscape of the fiction is a ribbon of road on which the narrator and the reader cannot stop or go backward.

Following Shklovsky, Moore regards the inns and brothels of picaresque as metonymic for both the road (Moore: "a condensed, immobile road") and the novella itself.

My last post entertained the proposition that Thomas More's Utopia (1516) is a kind of counter-model for the works of European prose fiction that were to emerge in the following eighty years or so, until Don Quixote (1605) installed a new détente between old and new models. I'm considering the notion that Utopia is not only the instance of a new genre but a handbook of preoccupations—many of which it does not represent explicitly, but reveals only in their absence from the fiction. These preoccupations—involving the tension between freedom and regulation, between the sensual and the moral life, between versions of humanism—belong to More, but they belong no less to his contemporaries, many of whom see the uncodified genre of prose fiction as a scene in which to explore them in speculative fashion. In effect, Utopia offers a compendium of topics that will appear over the run of the century in the new prose genres of picaresque, pastoral, epistolary, and bourgeois fantasy.

Like its descendant Quixote, the picaresque depends on the geographical figure of the road. Is there a road anywhere in Utopia? Most of the descriptions of the Utopian landscape emphasize the gross shape of the island and its coastal features such as harbors and fortifications. One remembers that the making of the island by King Utopus involved a deliberate rupture from the mainland that presumably interrupted some road: "Utopus ordered the excavation of fifteen miles on the side where the land was connected with the continent and caused the sea to flow around the land.  . . . [The enterprise] struck the neighboring peoples, who at first had derided the project as vain, with wonder and terror at its success" (113).

On the landscape of the new island, the cities are spaced twelve miles apart with country around each of them; farmhouses are distributed through the countryside; and the cities, like the island itself, are outward-looking, with "a high and broad wall with towers and battlements at frequent intervals" (119). These cities are furnished with streets "well laid out both for traffic and for protection against the winds" (121). But where is a road in the sense that many early modern fictions will represent it, as a passage between discrete places, from one state of life to another? It is not that there is no provision for movement from one city to another, or from the city to the country; the narrator Hythlodaeus observes that people move from one zone to the next, not least when the population of one city exceeds its fixed limits and some citizens move apart to establish another municipality. Cities, rural places, people in motion are all present in principle—but no roads are mentioned or imagined.

The absence of a road in Utopia is the symptom of a preoccupation with neutralizing the kind of experience that roads entail: contingent, unpredictable, linear. The long discussion of worthy and foolish pleasures in Book Two addresses this preoccupation directly, from the vantage of More's particular strain of humanist ideology.  But before we encounter that set piece, we already know in an intuitive way what it tells us, by observing the invisibility of roads. It is hard not to suppose that when the authors of later fictions seek to find a voice for what is sensual and unprogrammatic in human experience (and in doing so, to turn More's variety of humanism inside out), they put the road that was invisible in Utopia at the center of their imaginary worlds.

Next: voices that cannot be heard and things that cannot be said in Utopia.

Roland Greene's picture
Greene is a scholar of early modern culture, especially the literatures of England, Latin Europe, and the transatlantic world, and of poetry and poetics from the sixteenth century to the present. He is the author or editor of five books and many articles. His current projects include books on the poetry of the hemispheric Americas and on the Baroque. Since 2001 he has taught at Stanford University, where he is the Mark Pigott KBE Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences.