Saturday, April 12, 2008

Anarchy islands

The theme of the utopian island is a very pervasive one in the history of Western literature. Thomas More's Utopia naturally set the stage, not to mention the more ancient Platonic utopia. The island itself is a powerful archetype suggesting a separate universe where evolution takes on a different course, in biology as must as in the structure of society. Not all literary experiments in the creation of utopian societies have been particularly successful, like not all mutations in isolated island populations are evolutionary winners. Much utopian literature created dystopic visions of tyranny. In the twentieth century especially, it may appear at first that the notion itself of utopia has all but sunk into dystopic despair reflecting what history made of the major utopian visions generated in the previous century by socialism and marxism. Dystopic literature abunds, from Animal Farm to Brave New World to, of course, 1984, but what about genuine utopia? A brand that better survived the harsh reality of twentieth century history is the anarchist utopia. A transformation of society that builds itself from the bottom up rather than in the top down manner soviet style socialism exposed us to. A utopia where laws and bureaucracy are useless, a reality of collectives and grassroot structures holding the society together.

After writing a major dystopian vision like "Brave New World", in his last major work Aldous Huxley tried his hand at a genuine utopian vision, in the beautiful novel "Island". The setting is a small island kingdom in an unspecified location in South-East Asia, somewhere between Sri Lanka and Sumatra. The kingdom, one soon figures, is very little of a kingdom indeed and the social structure is much more similar to the idea of collectives and cooperatives of the anarcho-socialist tradition. The happy society of the island of Pala has succeeded in eliminating the damages that religion and family inflict onto the mind of Western people without falling into the traps of soviet style (or Maoist style) communism. Family has been replaced with a loose association where children can adopt a number of different parents, thus freeing themselves from the trap of family neuroses and parental abuse, while still enjoying the benefits of adult role models. The inhabitants of Pala practice a mixture of Tantric Buddhism and Shivaism, with meditation both naturally and artificially induced, through the use of a local brand of "magic mushrooms", mixed a Tantric practice of love and sex that brings them to freely and happily practice free love in both the hetero and homo version. So far, clear echoes of a 1960s Utopia complete with drug enhanced paradise. However, at the same time their culture include a pervasive cultivation of Western science and its analytic method, with a strong emphasis on the role of education and learning. The two main components of the Palanese culture, the philosophical Buddhist tradition and the imported, but not imposed, advanced scientific culture, make this utopian experiment quite different from any other literary attempt in the same genre. The two components of the Palanese culture described so beautifully by Huxley correspond, naturally, two the two main clashing components of left-wing culture: the worship of science that was always a foundational stone for anarcho-socialist and communist came face to face in the 1960s with the new "soft" components of environmentalism, eastern philosophy and Buddhist religiosity, free love, drug enhanced perceptions that came to characterize much of the youth movement of the time. It is difficult to maintain a comstructive dialog between these two components within the same political tradition. Often left-wing militants sport and anti-scientific attitude in the name of environmentalism and an ill digested bland of easter mysticism, without realizing that science had always been the main historic focus of the Left. On the other hand, old time communists often look with suspicion at the "new age" of post 1960s left-wingers, without realizing that the love-not-war Buddhist is as much part of the soul of the Left as the science loving socialist hero. The message that Huxley brings home in his Utopia is that these two very different parts of the same culture can merge, blend, coexist, without losing their distinct identities, and fortify one another into a well harmonized successful world. It is a very visionary book in that respect, not last because it was written as early as 1962, when some of these trends in cultural development were just at the beginning. Island is the most pleasant and enviable utopia to be found in literature.

A more recent take on a very similar theme is Greg Egan's novel "Distress". On a utopian island of Anarchia, which as the name suggests has realized the best form of government ever to be envisioned by the human mind, a congress of high energy physicists is awaiting the breakthrough that will reveal the equation of the "theory of everything". Meanwhile, a strange epidemic of an unknown and deadly neurological condition named "Distress" swipes through the world population. The two events are subtly (or not so subtly) connected and while the island of Anarchia comes under a military attack, which seems to be the common destiny of all utopian paradises, the final steps are taken to unleash the usual cosmic catastrophe that is typical of the author's visionary writing style. Despite the fact that Egan's writing skills are not Huxley's, the novel has quite a few echoes of Island and takes a fresh look at the dream of the anarchist utopia.

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Greg Egan