by Erica Wetter
Looking for Utopia
(Faber & Faber UK, 2007)
Living in a city—where poverty is juxtaposed with wealth, where trash and concrete abound, and where it’s not unusual to see people arguing, crying, or urinating in public—it’s hard not to feel an occasional apocalyptic despair. Some people self-medicate with drugs or alcohol; others whip out their credit cards for “retail therapy.” But, when former London Review of Books staffer Tobias Jones realized he “simply [couldn’t] continue living like this,” he set off on a two-year search for utopia that led him to self-contained “fringe” communities across Italy and Britain, and chronicled the curious experience in this insightful and provocative look at just what makes the “good life” “good.”
Idealism appears to be dead; community and rootedness have become rather passé; our identification with products and brands has become dehumanizing; and endless choice has made life meaningless and irresponsible. We no longer have a sense of gratitude or “oblige” to each other, complains Jones, who indulges in some unfashionable questions: Is the devaluation of religion and community responsible? In “the ether of human relationships,” is a sense of the sacred necessary? Is it “better to have aspirations, idealism and beliefs even though you know you’ll fall short and fail?”
With these musings, Jones sets off, soon arriving in Italy at a quintessentially kooky New Age commune called Damanhur, where he learns about time travel, meets people who have renamed themselves Dingo Onion or Lamb Radish, and chops wood barefoot. Damanhurians are an open-minded bunch, but Jones is bothered by their relativism and their abandonment of all history and tradition. Thus, he travels to the opposite extreme: the highly regulated Catholic community and home for orphans and problematic children, Nomadelfia. Here, there is no money, no private property, and nuclear families have been replaced by large, rotating groups. Classical music blasted from loudspeakers begins the day and advertisement-free television concludes it. It’s idyllic and grounded in tradition, but Jones also finds it dogmatic, homogenous, and narrow-minded.
And so the search continues, leading Jones first to a Quaker-run experimental community for the elderly, and then to a group that helps the “down-and-out” farm reclaimed mafia land. It is at these communities that the book shifts gears, and Jones catches a glimmer of what he’s looking for. “I know what you’re writing about: it’s not about self-contained communities or communes or whatever. It’s about places with a purpose,” one person says to him. More aptly, it’s about learning to live with purpose.
His final stop is a working farm called Pilsdon, which welcomes wayfarers and long-term residents, and it is here that he identifies the value that is crucial to his conception of the ideal community: responsibility toward others. Pilsdon is a Christian house, but there is a minimal amount of evangelizing, and sobriety and attendance at meals are the only real requirements. It’s a simple lifestyle—Jones milks cows and has an ample amount of time to play snooker—and his writing seems to reflect this as it breaks down into vignettes, becoming more relaxed and less judgmental, much like the other residents at Pilsdon. As he puts it, “Here everybody has a role, a use, a purpose and in fulfilling that role plays their part in something far greater than themselves.” If this sounds religious, it’s certainly meant to: as Jones sees it, the health of a community relies upon a sense of the sacred—the caveat being that the definition of sacred could be any number of things (God, the environment, you name it)—and a corresponding feeling of responsibility toward that community. Pilsdon exemplifies this model, and as a result it’s the only place Jones leaves with reluctance.
That said, he ultimately finds himself back home. Pilsdon wasn’t perfect and neither were any of the other intentional communities he visited. Yet, as Jones reflects, this is perhaps how it should be: after all, the best of the communities were “built on imperfection….Their merit lay in the fact that nothing was beyond hope.” Of course, this hope is exactly what Jones takes back home, using it to reconnect with the local communities he’d always overlooked, and discovering that with a little effort the “ideal” community can actually be located anywhere. It’s a nice inversion of the word utopia, as well as a fitting, if perhaps somewhat disappointing and predictable, conclusion. But then, perhaps this disappointment is also inevitable; after all, in the end utopias are mostly idealistic dreams—it’s the hope for something better, held out like a carrot, that keeps people striving for the “good life.”
Erica Wetter is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.