Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Thinking more about utopias with Darran Anderson's Imaginary Cities

After I wrote last week's post on utopias--need I even append "failed," or does "utopia" imply that these days?--I began reading Darran Anderson's idiosyncratic, vertiginously referential, overstuffed, pleasantly oracular and fascinating new book Imaginary Cities, and I almost immediately encountered some reflections on utopias that seem like a necessary addendum.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The impossibility of utopias could be reduced to the fact that it's impossible to describe--and therefore fully to plan--a real city. "Cities," Anderson writes, "are never entirely finished, knowable or singular." Planning can only ever get you so far. Life requires avenues for the unexpected, ability to cope with what emerges--good and bad--without intention from our deliberate actions. Just as no system is wholly self-sustaining, no system is wholly efficient. "It is," writes Anderson, "the by-products that undermine utopias, even unbuilt ones." Those by-products aren't merely the obvious ones--physical waste, dead matter--but the more insidious as well, the stray thoughts, the individuals who can't or won't play along, the unintended consequences of innocent decisions. I wrote last week that every utopia contains its doom; every utopia also is perpetually poised somewhere on the continuum between anarchy and totalitarianism, with the middle ground the hardest to hold. "The future not only has side-effects, it is side-effects," writes Anderson: the death of a utopia will almost always come not through dramatic action, but for simple want of a nail, or, perhaps more commonly, for refusal to accept that a nail is needed.

 Yet at the same time, the opening to Anderson's discussion of Plato's Republic offers a useful sketch of the appeal of utopia to a certain kind of mind:
One of the attractions of the utopian island city is that there need be no excess or dissent. . . . To the ominously ordered mind of the pedant, the urge to decide on everything is too much to resist. The all-too-human difficulties and complexities would be forced to yield.
Indeed, while my post last week focused primarily on the inevitability of failure in utopias, the question of their appeal is at least as interesting. I find myself thinking of something a friend's kid said a few years ago, a "fact" he stated built entirely on observing his parents: "Girls drink coffee. Boys drink Coke." The world, to a child, can be ordered, and neat, if only enough knowledge is accumulated. Categories apply.

And to some, the pull of order never lessens--the utopian vision is about believing in perfection, yes, but it's also about believing in categorization, and perfect information, and, ultimately, stasis. If, as Donald Pitzer argued in America's Communal Utopias, both adapting to change and failing to adapt to change can be deadly for utopian communities, that is specifically because both decisions reflect the presence of disorder and uncertainty--both cause questioning of one of the bedrocks of the utopian vision, the idea that control, of any sort, can be perfectly maintained. Perfection isn't a state of becoming; it has no past, no future. As Anderson writes, "the price of the future is that you leave the past, never to return." Though it may be unstated, the first thing utopians must banish from their perfect cities is time.

The draw, nonetheless, remains. Anderson quotes Oscar Wilde:
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.
"The journey and the direction, rather than the destination, are the key," Anderson writes. Knowing imperfection, and seeing it everywhere, should lead us to accept it, and halt out thoughts there. Instead, it shadows forth its opposite, perfection, and we obsess. Next time will be different, and next time, and next time . . .

All of which leads to the inevitable elusiveness of acceptance, and contentment, and brings to mind another passage from another book I read today, Monk's-Hood, the third in the series of Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters. The Cadfael series, which I'm so happy to have embarked upon recently, is an example of the genre of book, and, specifically, of mystery, of which Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels are the exemplar: the comfort mystery, where, for all the crime and murder the books may contain, the point is that each one returns you to a setting, a group, an atmosphere that is reliable, congenial, and therefore, in its own largely unchanging way, even utopian. For Stout, it's the largely self-contained world of a brownstone in 1930s Manhattan; for Peters, it's a twelfth-century English monastery.

Yet neither makes a pretense to presenting an actual utopia, and in fact the first page of Monk's Hood specifically plumps for the virtues of good enough:
Men were variable, fallible, and to be humoured. And the year, so stormy in its earlier months, convulsed with siege and slaughter and disruptions, bade fair to end in calm and comparative plenty. The tide of civil war between King Stephen and the partisans of the Empress Maud had receded into the south-western borders, leaving Shrewsbury to recover cautiously from having backed the weaker side and paid a bloody price for it. And for all the hindrances to good husbandry, after a splendid summer the harvest had been successfully gathered in, the barns were full, the mills were busy, sheep and cattle thrived on pastures still green and lush, and the weather continued surprisingly mild, with only a hint of frost in the early mornings. No one was wilting with cold yet, no one yet was going hungry. It couldn't last much longer, but every day counted as blessing.
Acceptance, contentment, the slow turn of the calendar page. These imperfect glories are our lot. We could do worse.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On the twice-failed utopia of New Harmony, Indiana

With apologies for the longer-than-usual blogging hiatus (vacation, work, the usual), today I'll start with a Twitter essay I wrote a couple of weeks back on the eve of making my first visit to my parents' new home in New Harmony, Indiana.

I really enjoy the Twitter essay--pioneered by New Republic editor Jeet Heer--as a form because of the way it forces internal brevity on a piece of writing. As you'll see above, while thoughts do continue from line to line, the form works best when a line is self-contained, yet at the same time advances the argument or example. And, because of the way Twitter allows sharing and replies, the form can also be malleable, participatory: a reader, for example, canmake a good point about the topic and that point can be incorporated, more or less in real time, within the essay itself.

What you give up in the Twitter essay, of course, is the option of length--and particularly length of quotation. And when a reader of the Twitter essay, my friend Dan Visel, pointed me at Marguerite Young's odd, impressionistic 1945 book on New Harmony and its history, I was glad I had this platform available so I could share part of it.

Young's prose is marvelously strange, moving to a rhythm and patterns of thought that at times seem clear only to her, yet that leave behind them a sense of beauty and a willingness to be lavish with time. Here, for example, is Young on the New Harmony she saw on visiting in 1940:
New Harmony has a charm escaping these and other categories. In 1940, it seemed like a good place to spend one's old age in or visit one's old Aunt Mary, the nonexistent character. School did or did not keep, and nobody cared, and the teacher was pretty, presumably. People did or did not wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday. There were old-fashioned flowers in abandoned lots and gardens--dusty blue morning glories trailing among stinkweeds, spires of yellowing lilies that seemed to flourish in neglect. There was a feeling of both tedium and voluptuousness.

Gradually, in spite of the ten-cent store, which was cobwebbed and insubstantial, the present faded, became of a texture with the past, as if today were only the conglomerate of all our yesterdays. Every item implied, however, desolation, since nothing lingers so like the memory of failure, especially if it has sought the extreme perfection.
At times it feels as if Young is simply letting you in on a portion of a conversation she's long been having with herself, in which some references will always remain a bit obscure. But the style can win you over, and it seems to suit this attempt to explain the inexplicable: the urge to create a utopia, and the entropy and human failings that guarantee its end.

Young's account of the difference between the Rappites and the Owenites is succinct and helpful, fleshing out my thumbnail version above:
It is difficult to visualize this secluded area as once the scene of two Utopias, like the Cartesian split between body and soul--the Rappite, a Scriptural communism, founded by Father George Rapp, a German peasant, who believed his people to be future angels--the Owenite, founded by Robert Owen, an English cotton lord, who believed all men to be machines. The end result of Father Rapp's community, a celibate order, was heaven--and the end result of Robert Owen's, while also incalculable, was the British labor movement.
The Owenite presence is the one that remains most palpable in New Harmony today: in large part through the philanthropy of his descendants and a partnership with the nearby University of Southern Indiana, the town's character as an intellectual outpost remains, in a sense. It's not, by any stretch, the great center of learning that Owen envisioned, but compared to that of other Midwestern towns of its sub-1,000-person size, its liveliness and culture are impressive: there's an art gallery and studios, public sculptures and gardens, and live music, indoors and outdoors, throughout the year. It's sleepy, sure, especially under the enervating humidity of late summer, but it's also charming and odd; I meant what I said about visiting--if you're in Southern Indiana, it's worth a modest detour.

For the final word today on Utopia, I'll turn to Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, my favorite of his books (and one best read alongside Marco Polo's remarkable Travels). After Calvino's Marco Polo has described for Kublai Khan countless bizarre and unlikely cities, we reach the end of his travels:
The Great Khan's atlas contains also the maps of the promised lands visited in thought but not yet discovered or founded: New Atlantis, Utopia, the City of the Sun, Oceana, Tamoe, New Harmony, New Lanark, Icaria.

Kublai asked Marco: "You, who go about exploring and who see signs, can tell me toward which of these futures the favoring winds are driving us."

"For these ports I could not draw a route on the map or set a date for the landing. At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them. If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discotnniuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop. Perhaps while we speak, it is rising, scattered, within the confines of your empire; you can hunt for it, but only in the way I have said."
Polo continues, ending with a note of caution:
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
A note of caution, yes. But also, even for this doubter of the utopian impulse, a note of hope.