Locating Utopia: the Orient and cultural imaginary of the Middle Ages

Uebel, Michael David, Department of English, University of Virginia
Duggan, Hoyt, Department of English, University of Virginia
Hult, David F., Department of French Language and Literature, University of Virginia
Kellogg, Robert L., Department of English Language and Literature, University of Virginia
Apprey, Maurice, SA-African American Affairs, University of Virginia
Cook, Robert, Department of French Language and Literature, University of Virginia

I offer an account of the origin and functions of utopia that differs markedly from traditional accounts in literary history. I argue that the inception of utopia in the twelfth century is tied to the cultural and psychological work of imagining Western self and Oriental other in dialectical relation. Cultural fantasy in the Middle Ages always cuts two ways: as a form of wish fulfillment, issuing from profound insecurity in the face of the alien and unpredictable, and as a form of sheer pleasure, delight in the exotic. Utopic fantasy reflects the extent to which medieval society distorts reality in direct relation to its own insecurity, at the same time that it reflects a liberated alternative to a repressed or impoverished Christian society.

The first chapter reads the threats Islam posed to the self-identity of Western Europe, and suggests some of the ways religious otherness actually produces social critique and ultimately self-transformation. Through an examination of the symbolic significance of the desert in chapter two, I suggest that the desert functions in the medieval imaginary as the ground for social transformation. The last chapter deals with the specific social strategies figured by narrative forms such as the fictional letter, the list, and the montage. Throughout, I emphasize the reconfigurations of identity called into being by otherness.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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