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Dreamers with deadly dreams

God will succeed where human attempts at utopian communities fail

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In the Missouri Ozarks, not far from where I live, one of the oldest egalitarian communes in the United States still flourishes. Eastwind Community dates from the 1970s era of Woodstockian idealism expressed by Joni Mitchell: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Fifty years on, Eastwind is probably as close to the garden as any group is likely to get, though it’s undergone several revisions and remains small at 80-odd members.

A Quillette article by Ewan Morrison called “The Problem With Utopias” brought communes to mind. Morrison explores how the weaknesses of utopian fiction apply to idealistic social schemes in reality. Even the word utopia, invented by Sir Thomas More as the title for his speculative novel, is a compound of Greek roots meaning “nowhere.” A literal New World loomed on the western horizon when More published Utopia in 1516, and for a ­century European imaginations ran wild about the possibilities. “O brave new world,” Miranda exclaims in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “that has such people in it!” Around the same time, in a raw settlement in Massachusetts, John Winthrop hoped to establish a City upon a Hill that would signal a new beginning.

Idealists of every stripe have followed the vision, leading to a golden age of American utopias in the early 1800s. Most failed within a few years but the vision persisted—if only we could do it right. Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward created a sensation among social reformers but turned out to be the last gasp of 19th-century idealism. And as literature, like all utopian novels, it’s a dud.

In his article Morrison asks why we can’t make utopia work even in fiction. The critique is simple: no plot. What storyline there is follows an outsider finding his way to some hidden region—islands are favored—whose inhabitants live in harmony with nature and each other. Positive adjectives abound (beautiful, peaceful, happy, etc.) because of negative entities (no war, no crime, no exploitation, and, in the case of Charlotte Gilman’s Herland, no men). For pages and pages, the protagonist interrogates a wise and patient guide. At the end he must decide whether to stay or return to his own evil time with news of a better world.

In a word, boring. “Utopian fiction fails because it is ­fundamentally at odds with human psychology and the human condition,” Morrison writes, and fundamentally we all know it.

But that doesn’t keep dreamers from dreaming of pure equality in an unpolluted, war-free world. Robert Owen, who founded the (short-lived) New Harmony commune on the Wabash River in 1825, wrote that the only thing holding humanity in its miserable state was a failure of imagination. Protesters of today insist it’s a failure of political will. Four thousand years of human history tell us otherwise: If fictional utopias are boring, political ones are both boring and deadly.

Enlightenment idealism led to the French Reign of Terror. Racial idealism fueled the Third Reich. Communist idealism spurred Stalin’s gulag and Mao’s purges. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” is a proverb dating from Enlightenment times, attributed to revolutionaries from Robespierre to Lenin. To which anyone at any time could ask, “Where’s the omelet?”

Human sin explains a lot but leaves open the question of why God allowed us to fall in the first place. It’s a question Elwin Ransom, the protagonist of C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, ponders while witnessing another potential fall in another world. Why open a door to the tragedy of human history and go to such lengths to redeem it all, unless—

What if humanity’s naïve infancy in the garden and our tortuous adolescence ever since are part of a utopian tale, never boring or stale, that only seasoned adults can enjoy? We’re living the true story of real consequences in a complex, gripping plot. Once we reach the happy ending, we’ll want to read it again and again. To God, the story is worth the pain. By then, we’ll agree.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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