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.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:34 PM

    You'd love Gillian Darley's "Villages of Vision."