Sunday, August 10, 2014

Utopias, then and now

Dragon boating in Sointula (I'm in the back, in orange life vest)
Sointula, where I am staying this month of August, was founded as a utopian community. As I have posted earlier, it was settled by socialist Finnish laborers at the beginning of the 20th century. According to the website of the Sointula Museum, "Sointula began as the desire of a group of Finnish immigrants working in the Nanaimo area coal mines at the beginning of the 1900’s for a self-sustaining place of their own." They founded the company Kalevala Kansa, and an advance party took possession of Malcolm Island in December 1901 (yes, I know, but they were Finns, right?), 28,000 acres in all. Many of the colony's newcomers were attracted by the ideals of communal ownership, decision making by consensus, equal pay for women and a separate children’s home. Unfortunately, tragedy struck in 1903, when the communal building caught fire. Eleven people died. By 1905 the group was unable to overcome insuperable problems, and the Kalevala Kansa was dissolved, with the island's ownership reverting to British Columbia. Nevertheless, many of the Finns stayed on, and it is from these roots that the present Sointula has developed and grown.

When I left New York I brought along a few old copies of the Times Literary Supplement, which I meant to read on the flight to Vancouver. I only got around today to looking at one of them, in which I found a review of a book entitled Pauperland: Poverty and the Poor in Britain. Its author, Jeremy Seabrook, while exercised by the condition of the poor, is more irate that the poor are attracted by the life styles and habits of the rich and famous. It is not enough that (according to the review) "all wealth, not merely that displayed conspicuously, has been accumulated on the backs of poor people." Worse is that the poor (and all of us, when it comes down to it) "cannot," quoting Seabrook, "get enough of [rich people's] multiple homes, guarded islands,  ... their celestial loves and epic tragedies; even their faliled relationships and expensive divorces, public detox and private rehab," etc., etc.

Empty dragon boat at Sointula marina (click pics to enlarge)
To cure this infatuation, Seabrook proposes that wealth be subjected to contempt, with "the mansions of the wealthy 'mouldering unregarded, the gaze of indifference wandering over their exorbitance'" and all their "jewels, furs, yachts and private islands becoming emblems of dishonour and betrayal, 'their inert beauty being met, not with adulation, but with the careless glance and neutral shrug.'"

Now, where have I heard that before? Yes, in book 2 of Thomas More's Utopia (1516), which describes the contempt of the inhabitants for precious metals. As More writes:

They eat and drink from earthen ware or glass, which make an agreeable appearance though they be of little value; while their chamber-pots and close-stools are made of gold and silver; and this not only in their public halls, but in their private houses. Of the same metals they also make chains and fetters for their slaves; on some of whom, as a badge of infamy, they hang an ear-ring of gold, and make others wear a chain or a coronet of the same metal. And thus they take care, by all possible means, to render gold and silver of no esteem. Hence it is, that while other countries part with these metals as though one tore-out their bowels, the Utopians would look upon giving-in all they had of them, when occasion required, as parting only with a trifle, or as we should esteem the loss of a penny.

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