Friday, December 31, 2010

UTOPIA IV THE CULT OF PERSONALITY

As I have looked into ideas of Utopia for my fourth novel (of the four I am working on), I realize that writing is utopian by its very nature. We are writing about things that have not yet and may never come to pass. Some writers have absolute control over their material and others seem to just let it range out there a little. A writer writes and perhaps that is as far as it should go. In our work we can give our thoughts the kind of freedom our actions can never have. It is only when we try to put into practice some of the things we have thought that the trouble begins.

Louisa May Alcott (‘Little Women’) was the daughter of transcendentalists who tried to put their theories into practice. The results were not disastrous, at least, but they were disappointing. She summed it up with words to this effect: “Great thinkers tend not to make great farmers.” And, since most utopian efforts are agriculture based, (and often led by great thinkers), you can see the problem.

We here have set our utopian efforts to agriculture as well, on a small scale. (One acre). On a morning like this while I was out shoveling snow and working in the greenhouse and bringing in firewood, I began to wonder if I would ever get to my writing. (The snow does pile up here in Colorado at times – it took three hours just to move it). Of course while you are shoveling snow all morning you can let your mind convince yourself that you are the leader of some great utopian enterprise if you want, but the reality is somewhat grittier than that. And for a writer to be shoveling snow, well, it’s just unseemly. But I guess Robert Frost owned a working farm and if it was good enough for him, who am I to complain? Besides, if we run into economic bad times in this country – as we certainly might - at least we’ll know where our food is coming from.

Utopia is normally considered unattainable and perhaps that is true unless we stick to a micro-utopia like ours and leave it at that. I would like to think ours is the mustard seed of the New Testament Church as it will one day be, but even that may simply be grandiose thinking. Utopia cannot be completely lived out as long as it is wrapped in a society that remains organized around other principles. (With a nod to Karl Mannheim ‘Ideology and Utopia’ 1929). The dominant wish prevails. Or, in the words of Meister Eckhart, “Nothing so much hinders the soul from knowing God as time and space.” Since Utopia in reality is fixed in time and space, we are hindered from other-worldly results. Of course no one would love it more than I if the true Christian ideals of love as taught in the Sermon On The Mount would suddenly burst into existence and that love of one another would become a reality at last, but I think I will have to continue to be patient for that day.

In the work of Utopia we must choose what to remake and what to leave as it is. To tear down without a plan of rebuilding is simple destruction. Yet many a charismatic leader has led followers into destruction. (I am thinking specifically of cult leaders on the order of Jim Jones). The charismatic leader can be temperamental and self-seeking. No, I know the vision must lie with the people themselves if anything is ever going to change. I know that change must be implemented nonviolently. Only in that way can we avoid the pitfalls of violence and destruction.

But I leave this subject with a bitter-sweet meditation, again from Louisa May Alcott: “They said many wise things and did many foolish things.”
For those of us who attempt to step outside the norms of society: Beware.

Have a Happy New Year

Jim

Friday, December 24, 2010

UTOPIA III THE KINGDOM OF GOD

All that is not given is lost. If everyone gave everything they had, everyone would have everything they need. After many years living among the homeless we have been given the solution to the problem. This solution, of course, goes way beyond most Liberal thought and beyond even the urge to communism, (though we have been called that). (“Why is it when we help the poor they call us saints, but when we ask why they’re poor they call us communists?” –Dom Helder Camara). All of this goes far beyond where most people are willing to go, we know, and that is just the problem with Utopia.

The social and political approach to Utopia has left the idea dead. No wonder modern writers trend toward dystopia – all that can go wrong will go wrong (and just when I thought it was going so well). And, looking at the long history of religious Utopia – the Puritans; the Shakers and so on, we see that that idea is also dead.

This leaves only one possibility – the Utopia of the Kingdom of God.
I once wrote an article that was rejected on the basis that, according to the editor, “The Church is not about Kingdom work, but about gathering for worship on Sundays.” This reduces the church to a worship center and as my wife said, “That’s just plain wrong.” Whether or not Christians are willing to come together once a week for an hour to worship God leaves the world unmoved. The only way for things to change is for us to lead in changing them. In addiction recovery groups I have run we said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” Well, that seems to be what most people expect. “If I vote once every few years, everything will change. If I go to church on Sunday, everything will change. If I buy guns to protect myself and my family, everything will change. If I spend lots of money this Christmas season, everything will change. If I give a little to the poor this year, everything will change.” Here’s a news flash: That’s what has been happening for a long long time, and nothing has changed. Nothing will change, either.

Utopian thought as it grows from the Kingdom of God is not about wild-eyed revolution with blood running in the streets. (Nothing changes that way either). It is, rather, the growing up of the new within the shell of the old – eventually bursting its desiccated skin and sloughing it off – as a new order emerges that is not based upon certain rules or religious dogma, but which is based upon the actual ‘laws’ of love. Love others as you love yourself. Do to others what you would have them do to you. Easy to say. Not so easy to do.

I live in a Utopia that actually works. When I and others like me were ready to stop living the way of insanity and to actually live the way of change in the world, we stepped across some invisible barrier that had previously held us in place. Through our work with the poor we came to know the problems of the world first hand. Poverty. Selfishness. Addictions. Violence. All have been a part of our daily lives for many years. And we have found that the only way to solve these problems is to ‘be’ the New Testament Church. Only in self-suffering nonviolent love can we find the solution to these problems. If we are to solve the problem of war and violence, we must live the way of nonviolence in our own lives. (We have not solved the world’s addiction to war, but we have solved it for ourselves – we do not participate). If we want to solve the Gulf oil spill, we must drive a small car or walk or ride bicycles. If we want to solve the problem of resource shortages, we must recycle everything and touch the world lightly. If we are to solve the problem of hunger, we must grow and share our food. We conserve water by capturing rain water and using it for the garden. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
If Utopia is ever to be anything but an abstract idea, we have to begin to actually live it. By my experiences I am in a unique position to write about Utopia from direct experience. I intend to use these experiences to illuminate the final volume of my novel in four parts.

I do wish you a Merry Christmas and the best for the New Year. I know I have not convinced you with this argument. (How few have actually listened to us over the years – sigh). But if you would drop everything and begin again, sharing everything… Well, your world would change today.
Love to you, Jim

I am not copyrighting this piece so that you may spread it far and wide among your friends if you wish. I do invite your comments or further discussion. I’d like to hear your thoughts on Utopia. Thanks.

Friday, December 17, 2010

UTOPIA II THE REALITY OF THE WORLD

Once Utopia leaves the mind, like a child leaving the womb, it is confronted with the reality of the world. The idea is immediately set upon from every side and, whether reality was considered at all in the formulation of the Utopia, it can no longer be shielded from that reality. Reality is no respecter of ideas. Reality will not only attempt to reshape the utopian idea in those places where it does not fit, it will attempt to annihilate any aspect of the idea that does not conform. What seemed so pristine in its conception is now beleaguered in its inception.

Let me give an example. Fifteen years ago I visited a local soup kitchen with the idea of donating some money and then getting out. It was a cold February morning and when I stepped in from the quiet whiteness of the snowy dawn I was confronted with the reality of heat from the kitchen and the smell of cooking and the almost monolithic noise of people gathered in a confined space, all of whom were trying to be heard over everyone else. I met a fifty year old woman who obviously lived outdoors. She was shivering and her grey coat was mottled with damp spots.

“I live in a cave in Horse Gulch,” she informed me. I stayed to share some hot beef stew. “Of course on nights like last night my pets get awfully cold.” She carefully took some rocks from her coat pocket. I looked at her closely to see if she was joking.

“What’s it like, living out like that?” I asked. The nighttime temperatures had been hovering around twenty degrees.

She looked evenly back at me. “Well if you want to know what it’s like, why don’t you come out and try it for yourself.”

This was probably a standard dodge for her. She never thought, and I never dreamed that I might actually take her up on her proposition. But on Friday afternoon I followed her and several others up into the mountains along a narrow trail that led, they informed me, into a place known as Horse Gulch. I had nothing with me but a sleeping bag and a roll of plastic to keep out the cold and wet.

There is no way for me to relate here what transpired over the next twelve years. Suffice it to say that we took her challenge to the greatest extreme possible. We lived among the poor and homeless. We shared meals and led worship and cared for those who were ill and helped in any way we could for all that time. We came to realize that if we set up camp right in the midst of the homeless we could bring positive elements to an otherwise very negative community. And it worked! It worked, that is, until the reality of the world set upon us. It was strange, really, how we were cast away. People did not want to help the poor or homeless – at least not in the way we were doing it, up close and personal – but they also didn’t want us doing it. Apparently our sincere actions made them look bad. So in the end they got rid of us. They closed the soup kitchen on Sundays altogether, so that we would not have a place to gather.

Their actions, however, did not change our commitment to helping others. We moved out into their parking lot in and continued to serve hot meals all winter long. If they would not fulfill their own mission, we would do it. It was something of a Public Relations nightmare for them. At last they negotiated with others to re-open on Sundays and we were not invited.

This Utopia did not grow directly from an idea. Rather, it grew from a need that wasn’t being met. A community was already there. The homeless in our town knew each other and met together, but at the center of their meeting were drugs and alcohol and violence and alienation. What we did was to displace that center and bring a positive community into existence. A community of love and nonviolence and of healing recovery.

We still live in that Utopia. We meet in our home. We share food and love and healing recovery together, though on a much smaller scale. While living in the streets we came to truly understand what the problems of this world are, and what must be done to solve them. Now, we are living every day as a solution to those problems. But that is the subject of next week’s post: ‘The Kingdom of God’.

Merry Christmas. Jim

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

THE DILEMMA OF VIOLENCE

Violence is a way that seems to work. When one gets the upper hand over another, the issue seems to be resolved in favor of the 'winner'. But is that ever really the case? Are we not always left with unresolved issues that will need to be worked out in the future? And, if violence is the way that seems to have worked, will we not be more likely to employ it next time?

A number of years ago a member of our family was preparing to enlist to fight the war in Iraq. Nancy and I had taken a vow of nonviolence years before that, so it was not surprising that we voiced our objection to sending this young man off to be a Marine. It is also not surprising that we were laughed at and our voices left unheard. He joined and went.

Before that, even, we were laughed at whenever we attempted to voice an alternative response to the horrible events of 9/11. Would war really be the best way to lead to peace in the world? We were very lonely then. I went out with a sign that said simply, "Say No To War". People driving by threw things. They made gestures. They shouted out their windows at me. We put the sign in the window of our home and it gained us no new friends. We wrote a letter to the editor of our hometown newspaper and became the target of written animosity.

Now everyone is tired of war. The truths we tried to convey then still hold true today. But has anyone learned anything from these years and years of war, or will we simply be led into another bloody war after this one? And another after that? Our family member went to Iraq for two tours. He was not killed. He came back injured in body and mind. He has turned to alcohol and his anger cannot seem to be contained. What a tragedy his life is turning out to be.

"What are we to do?" people are asking now. (Especially now as we approach Christmas day). "How can we fight evil without becoming evil ourselves?" Ah, there is the question. The dilemma is created by our addiction to violence. Because violence seems to work, and doesn't, we hopefully choose it every time, only to have our hopes dashed. The problem seems too large and thus seems to have no solution. But, as with nearly every problem, we can reduce it in order to find a solution. If I personally choose the moral way of nonviolence - if I choose not to participate in violence - I will have solved the problem of war for myself. I cannot say what others will do. I cannot say what my government will do. But as for me, I choose the only sane way open to us. My writing reflects this stand.

I wonder if others will have the courage to choose a new way, or if the new year will simply be an extension of last year's moral dilemma. May you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Jim and Nancy

Friday, December 10, 2010

UTOPIA I The Dream of the Mind

The utopia of the mind is not the same as the utopia of reality. Writers and philosophers and great thinkers of every stripe; and in fact any old crackpot, scoundrel, and megalomaniac can conceive of a utopia in the mind. That is where utopia works best – in the imagination and in dreams. A utopia in reality is quite another matter and we yearn with all our hearts to look further into that possibility next week.

As you may recall, the fourth book of my novel in four volumes will concern itself with the ideas of utopia. (Utopia as allegory).

The utopia of the mind works best because, after all, who does not have the answer to all the world’s problems? If all the people in the world simply acted more like me or at least did everything I told them to do, the world would be a much better place. And when we read Utopian literature that is what it most often sounds like. Take Plato’s ‘Republic’ for instance. What it seems like on paper is the ideal, if not perfect society, based upon the City-State of the Spartans of another age. But in reality what it would be is the kind of totalitarian nightmare regime we have become so familiar with in the modern age. The Nazis in Germany thought of themselves in Utopian terms and look how that turned out. Their ‘reason’ was formed in a vacuum so when it became reality it was as twisted as their swastikas.

Writers through the ages have always had a Utopian bent. The word itself comes from Sir Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ which can mean either ‘Good Place’ or ‘No Place’. This fits because utopia can be a good place, but it is found no place. His utopia was a contrast to the English society of his day. (He later died a martyr’s death at the hands of Henry VIII, but that is quite another story). Some other Utopian writings are Dante’s ‘Purgatorio’ and ‘Paradiso’; John MacNie’s ‘The Diothas’ (1883); Edward Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’ (1888); ‘What the North Wind Rose’ by Robert Graves; St. Augustine’s ‘City of God’ and B.F. Skinner’s ‘Walden Two’. I remember being enthralled by ‘Walden Two’ back in the day, but now find it simplistic in the horse and carrot manner of solving social problems.

Of course there are plenty of examples of utopia gone wrong such as Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’; ‘1984’ by George Orwell; and the allegorical ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding. We might say that the Engels/Marx Utopian idea of communism went terribly wrong also, but that has crossed over into the world of reality.

America, the dream – not the reality – was very Utopian from the beginning. Columbus dreamed of discovering the Garden of Eden. Puritans sought release from the bondage of European restrictions. (Even that failed, however. We North Americans think of Puritanism with no little embarrassment today.) Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ is a kind of individual utopia. If we are willing to endure loneliness and to live within the laws of nature, we can seek and find the genuine self.

There is something unreal even in the dream of utopia. Once we have dreamed it up (it’s perfect!), are we then to stop dreaming? And the reality is even more removed –who will do the work and who would even want to live in such a place? “That’s your idea of perfection, partner, not mine.” Or – “That might work for a mindless automaton, but I have dreams of my own.” In a way the writer is always somewhat Utopian - thinking. The written word is a utopia created and controlled by me (and I hope you all will fight to the death with sticks and fingernails over the manuscripts and papers I leave behind me when I die!). Most writers have given up on utopia altogether, and have opted for anti-utopia, or dystopia instead. Utopia, they believe, is bound to fail.

All life must grow. In order to grow, utopia cannot become static. Growth causes pain. Pain must either be inflicted on others or taken upon ourselves in self-suffering love. Pain becomes suffering if it is not addressed and alleviated. Suffering causes discontent. Discontent leads to Utopian thought. Utopia fails because the people dream of utopia…

Next Week: UTOPIA II The Reality of the World.

Copyright © James D. Sanderson 2010. All rights reserved.

For some intellectually stimulating and eclectic articles about utopia see:
www.the-utopian.org

Friday, December 3, 2010

TO ALLEGORY OR NOT TO ALLEGORY?

I confess I'm not sure I know exactly what an allegory is. I know one when I see one, (see my list below), but I'm not sure how to define it or how to put it into practice. The reason this is important is that this month I am studying allegory with the notion of employing it in the fourth volume of my novel in four volumes. In September, you may recall, I studied Tragedy with the emphasis on Shakespeare. In October it was Apocalyptic Literature (not post-apocalyptic like 'The Road'), and last month the emphasis was on Prose Epic. So now - Allegory.

As near as I can figure, a work is allegorical when the meaning of the story is conveyed symbolically - where one thing represents something else - or when the story itself represents some other story. (If you know a better definition, please enlighten me). In a way, all literature is allegorical. The quest for Utopia (a rough idea about volume four), is the American story, for instance, or perhaps it is a universal story. Do we not all yearn for a perfect life? But a perfect life means different things to different people, and there is the rub. (American Anglo settlers destroyed indigenous peoples and cultures). Anyway, we'll look deeper into Utopia next week.

Coleridge said allegory "cannot be other than spoken consciously, whereas in... the symbol the general truth may be unconsciously in the writer's mind." A symbol is a physical image of some other thing. It therefore has a deep affinity with physical things. Allegories make extensive use of symbols - the most successful I believe is 'Lord of the Flies' - but they are more than symbolic.

Plot in an allegory unfolds as an exploration of a literal truth that is found in the words themselves, and in the history of those words. This can cause confusion among readers who are used to the standard triangular plot arrangement seen in most writing today. The author may suspend a traditional plot in mid-air, so to speak, and reveal a deeper truth about characters, situations, or words. Wordplay, then, is an organic part of the genre.

Allegory works on at least two levels - the literal and the figurative. The figurative level offers up a moral or political lesson which is indicated by the characters, symbols, and everything else in the narrative. Dante claimed that his Commedia, like the Bible, worked on four levels: 1) The literal level - the historic event. 2) The typological level - writing history as a series of signs, just as God does. 3) The moral level - the turning of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace. 4) The anagogical level - the soul's departure to heaven from the body at the time of death. This definition seems to pose as many questions as answers 'nel mezzo del Cammin di nostra vita' ('halfway along the road of life', or in my case more than half way.

At what point, then, does formal allegory give way to extended metaphor or imagery? Can a sustained metaphor become allegory? All writing begins with words and letters upon the page. Writing cannot be 'real' at all - all is allegorical. The inherent truth on the page is found in the words themselves and the narrative images they produce. If I find the rules of allegory too rigid, can I find a way that does not bind the narrative so tightly? Like Milton, of course, I can choose not to write allegory at all. Or, as when Melville claimed that 'Moby Dick' was not allegory, Hawthorne pointed out that it was "part-and-parcel allegoricalness of the whole." Perhaps I can find what C.S. Lewis ('The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe'), called "the allegorical core". Thank goodness I don't have to decide today. I will continue to study the matter and invite your comments.

One allegorical novel I particularly enjoy is Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter'. Yet even here some of the rules of allegory seem to be neglected or abandoned, especially when one considers how well the 'real' nature of the main characters and the demands of the tradition plot works. Still, who can forget that opening scene - an allegory if there ever was one - with the rose found at the threshold of the prison and the grim 'black and white' vista of the Pilgrim world beyond. Again and again the narrative returns to this opening scene as Pearl and the scarlet letter become one, and the scarlet letter itself becomes the 'letter of the law' written of in Paul's letter to the Corinthians.

What I am looking for may be more 'mythical' than allegorical. Myth is a story that is central to a culture or society. It embodies the values of that culture. An example of myth is, of course, the creation myth. How the universe and people came into existence. There are nearly as many creation stories as there are cultures telling those stories.

While I consider which I will use for volume four, I will be reading (or re-reading) the following books this month as examples of allegory:

'Gulliver's Travels' by Jonathan Swift
'Ulysses' by James Joyce
'Pilgrim's Progress' by John Bunyan
'Divine Comedy' by Dante
'Sea Wolf' by Jack London
'Blindness' by Jose Saramago
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' by Ken Kesey
'Lord of the Flies' by William Golding
'The Heart is a Lonely Hunter' by Carson McCullers
'Death Comes for the Archbishop' by Willa Cather
'Gravity's Rainbow' by Thomas Pynchon
and 'The Scarlet Letter' mentioned above, by Hawthorne.

Alright, I admit it may take more than a month.

Happy Holidays to you all.

Jim