Rohse: In search of the elusive utopian community

For centuries mankind has attempted to establish a utopia, defined as an imagined community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities.

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), a scholar who wrote during the enclosure movement of farm consolidation in England, coined the word “utopia,” when, in Latin, he wrote his book “Utopia”— a fictional political satire later translated in English.

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McMinnville's Elaine Rohse is fascinated by words, books and writing - and spends much time sating that fascination.

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After numerous utopias failed, perhaps an appropriate addition to that definition might have been: an impractical scheme for social improvements, in an imagined and infinitely remote place.

Utopia has numerous synonyms: Camelot, Cockaigne, Eden, Elysium, fantasy land, paradise, promised land, Shangri-La, Zion. Names of utopias include Modern Times, Harmony, Songdo, Palmanova, Arcosanti.

Many books have been written about utopias, including Brave New World, The Giver and Looking Backward. History has recorded numerous theoretical utopias.

In his book, More envisioned utopia as a place of about l00,000 residents made up of 54 cities, laid out in a crescent-shaped island. The cities were sited no more than 14 miles apart — no farther than a day’s walk.

The uniform and contiguous houses each had a garden in the back and proud was the owner of that garden which was most lush.

The utopia’s capital city, Amaurot, was arranged in a square with each side two miles long.

The family was the basis for political and social structures, and there was neither private property nor money.

Every month, free goods were exchanged. Families brought produce. These goods were taken to storehouses where each family’s father picked up his family’s needs. If shortages occurred, that need was supplied. The ultimate pleasure apparently was cultivation of the mind. There was a general belief in god and tolerance for all creeds.

Husbands had the power to chastise their wives, and the wives’ duties included serving meals.

The island of Pala, one of the most famous utopias, was created by Aldous Huxley. I chance to presently be reading Huxley’s novel, “After Many A Season Dies the Swan,” but it concerns itself little with utopias.

As envisioned by Huxley, Pala was a blend of science and religion. The religion was Mahayana Buddhism, which teaches that everything from food to sex can be a road to liberation and enlightenment.

One scientific effort of the utopia was to devise psychological means of reducing aggressive personalities. In Pala, residents provided most of their needs. The population was controlled so that there were not more people than goods.

Competition had been eliminated by a mutual aid system. Artificial insemination was widely practiced. A maximum of three children were permitted. Islanders practiced a yoga of love similar to the male continence practiced in the Oneida Colony in America.

All members of the Pala community work and enjoy the opportunity to work. Workers are permitted to change jobs and indeed are encouraged to do so because of added experience and to avoid boredom. In addition to blood relatives, on the island of Pala, everyone has deputy fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, and so on, and this allows children freedom from parents, and parents freedom from children.

An integral part of life in this utopia is Moksha, a mescaline-like drug that produces mystic visions allowing islanders to achieve ultimate consciousness. The drug is part of the education for island children. They take the drug in order to experience “transcendental unity with other sentient beings.”

But Pala as a utopia collapsed when the island was invaded by a militaristic neighbor eager to acquire Pala’s rich oil resources.

Another theoretical utopia is the Republic created by Plato, a meritocracy in which leadership is elected on the basis of intellect. Manual work is regarded as “narrowing.” The family is a community in which no parent knows which child is his; similarly, no child knows his parents.

Only the “best” of both sexes are brought together, and if the “worst” have children, those children are “put out of sight.” Children are raised in a state nursery.

Other theoretical utopias included Commonwealth, Harmony, Icaria, Christianopolis, Shangri-la, which was created by James Hilton, in his 1933 novel “Lost Horizon.” Shangri-La is a monastery of some 50 lamas who reside in a lamasery that overlooks the valley and a village of about 1,000 Tibetans.

The lamasery and village are ruled by the High Lama. Under direction of the High Lama, lamas spend their time in pursuit of knowledge and arts. The community is built around “moderation,” observed in everything from love to government.

The monks pursue the aesthetic and the villagers do the work. Good manners, moderation and conservatism are the keys to all.

Other utopias and attempted utopias include Harmony Society, Nashoba, Brook Farm, Fourier Phalanx Movement, Modern Times, Oneida, Ferrer Colony and Spanish Anarchist Collectives.

In the utopia of Commonwealth, law ruled all. The utopia had no money or wages. Personal goods and houses were privately owned. Returns from production were held in common. Parliament gave orders for planting and reaping of Commonwealth land.

The father trained the children and did not spare the rod. Every child was educated in a trade. Common penalties were slavery, whipping, death, and any who espoused religion or sought to privately possess land could anticipate penalty.

Harmony, a theoretical utopia, “matched” people with work most appropriate to their type. Customarily, every worker in Harmony Utopia had tried 40 or more occupations.

Monogamy was rare. Social instructors were responsible for ensuring no one capable of love was ever frustrated.

Etienne Cabet (1788-1856) brought followers to America and started a new nation, but his attempt failed. His utopia had been built in the shape of a circle. All streets were straight to attain symmetry. Thousands of horse-drawn streetcars provided transportation.

Glass canopies covered sidewalks. Orders for merchandise were received at a control warehouse and the dispatched goods sent by pneumatic tube. Everyone worked a certain number of hours each week. Courtships were six months long. A committee determined the number of meals, mealtimes, the number of courses, daily menus and ingredients. Another committee determined aspects of daily attire.

The utopia, by name of Utopia, provided each citizen an annual income of $4,000. Retirement was at age 33 on half income. A leisurely life after 45 included sports, hobbies, travel, or one could stay home and have sermons and music piped in.

Another utopia with the name of Utopia was envisioned by William Morris, who invented the Morris chair. This utopia had no national government. Care was taken to permit the minority to express itself. In personal matters, everyone did as they pleased. There was no private property or wages. People worked for the pleasure it gave them. There were no schools and no prisons.

A surprising thing about these utopia is the lack of unanimity in what they perceived to be a utopia.

What would you want your utopia to have?

For many here in Yamhill Valley, we may well have reasoned that we already were living in Utopia — and then coronavirus came to our door.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at rohse5257@comcast.net.


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