Friday, August 07, 2015

One last thought on utopias, with Ellis Peters

In last week's post about utopias, I quoted from Ellis Peters's Monk's-Hood, the third in her series of medieval mysteries starring Brother Cadfael, a twelfth-century monk from Shrewsbury Abbey. In that post, I likened the appeal of Peters's novels to that of Rex Stout's: that they're less about a mystery to be solved than an opportunity to spend time in a familiar, congenial setting and atmosphere that, unlike the rest of our lives, is all but unchanging--that last being one of the characteristics of a utopia.

At the end of a lovely vacation week largely spent sitting on my porch reading, I find myself thinking of a passage from Monk's-Hood that considers a slightly different aspect of potential utopian ideals. An aged local noble has just deeded his estate to the Abbey in exchange, essentially, for a life tenancy just outside its walls, which sets Cadfael thinking:
Another curious theme intruded itself persistently into Cadfael's musings. This matter of the occasional guests of the abbey, so-called, the souls who chose to abandon the working world, sometimes in their prime, and hand over their inheritance to the abbey fora soft, shielded, inactive life in a house of retirement, with food, clothing, firing, all provided without the lifting of a finger! Did they dream of it for years while they were sweating over lambing ewes, or toiling in the harvest, or working hard at a trade? A little sub-paradise where meals dropped from the sky and there was nothing to do but bask, in the summer, and toast by the fire with mulled ale in the winter? And when they got to it, how long did the enchantment last? How soon did they sicken of doing nothing, and needing to do nothing? In a man blind, lame, sick, he could understand the act. But in those hale and busy, and used to exerting body and mind? No, that he could not understand. There must be other motives. Not all men could be deceived, or deceive themselves, into mistaking idleness for blessedness.
Though I genuinely love my job, time away from it, and from work, period, is always appreciated. And while I would never choose idleness--else why type this when I could be basking in the park?--the draw of a world where needs are supplied, and time is thus freed for non-remunerative pursuits, is strong.

Would the illusion last? Though I'm far from certain it wouldn't, I do think Peters is on to something here--a point that could be applied to her books, and which differentiates the pleasures they offer from the seductions of utopia. What such cozy mysteries, executed with the skill of Peters and Stout, offer is not a perfect world we can imagine moving into, but rather a retreat--a conventual realm, where we can briefly set aside the cares of the world and take up a new, ordered, reliable, unchanging life. They're less pernicious than true utopias both because they don't intend to hold us forever: we're to while away a few hours, then close the book and return to the everyday.

And with that, I'll close my week and start the weekend by opening some Rex Stout. You could do worse than join me . . . and Archie and Wolfe and Lily and Fritz and . . .

1 comment:

  1. The monastic utopia sounds like a stand in for Heaven. And thank you for a posting that motivates me to return to the Ellis Peters mysteries. Nero also beckons. Nicely done.