Monday, October 25, 2010

The Society I Would Want To Inhabit

In the past I have described my ideal government, reading utopian literature one cannot help but form one’s own versions. Despite claiming to be composed of ideals mine and those of others were generally somewhat less than their name, they assumed a great deal about man that seems inescapable in modern society: issues of population, bureaucratic control, military strength, and industrial infrastructure being examples. This essay is an attempt to describe my ideal society in its purest form, that is to formulate a culture that accounts for only the basic nature of man and none of the modern dilemmas of civilized life. Issues of applicability will be addressed, but they will not affect the final form of the society described. The underlying idea of this exercise is simple and somewhat egotistical, it is to describe not a society that would be economically successful, politically just, or socially liberating, but a society, in as detailed a form as I know, that I would actually want to inhabit, a society in which I would no longer feel the compelled to imagine a better (yet still real) world.
The most basic problem with creating any feasible utopian society is that of connection with the modern world, since the 1960s idealistic young men and women have been forming communities based on the principles of simplicity, nature and anti-industrialism but these have always been short-lived. Aside from the constant temptation to re-join mainstream society the greatest problem they have faced is one of generational rebellion. Our society is one that glorifies revolt, unconventionality, innovation and originality; while this was necessary for the overthrow of the entrenched traditional ideals that culminated in the dysfunction of the Victorian age it has since hampered any attempts to replace those traditions with an equally resilient, but yet non-repressive, system. What anyone who attempts to engage in utopian dreaming needs to realize is that rebellion, revolution, can never be an end in and of itself, the Maoist idea of permanent revolution is the path to total societal destruction (as was experienced during the Great Cultural Revolution, which continues to haunt the Chinese psyche). Thus somewhere in this account there must be the creation of a tradition, a strong, enduring social order that children feel neither the desire not the imperative to revolt against. This might seem impossible to the modern reader, as we equate the teenage years with rebellion; but as someone who has observed, because of his upbringing in the current society (and perhaps his nature), a tendency to rebel against any idea he has heard enough times, it is absolutely necessary to avoid this pattern of thinking.
The basic function of a society is the propagation of the human race, and thus the most essential system of society is its life-cycle, the expected path of its children from birth to old-age and death. But before this kind of description some background must be given regarding the geographic basis of the proposed society. This essay will presume that the region inhabited is temperate, forested, at least somewhat mountainous and sparsely populated. Alaska and Western Canada between the 65th and 55th parallels being perhaps the best example of this. The basic communal structure of the society is a small to medium sized village, the exact population of which would be heavily dependent upon the resources of the region, which will be henceforth referred to as the Polis, in the manner of the Ancient Greek philosophers (certain similarities between this Polis and the Polis of Sparta need not be denied, the reforms of Lycurgas were among the most direct inspirations for this train of thought). The life of a member of said Polis begins when he or she is born to a married couple (man and woman) living and working in the community. Their lifestyle is one of the settled hunter-gatherer, depending on subsistence farming for their staples but still engaging in hunting and foraging. From birth until the age of five the child is the responsibility of his or her parents, although assistance from other member of the community, specifically older (post-menopausal) and likely parental members is assumed. Between the ages of five and sixteen the child is educated communally, in a largely informal but extremely rigorous manner, the child continues to live with his or her parents but most, if not all of their waking time is spent with his or her peers away from the home and their biological parents. This education takes two forms: physical and mental, neither being favored over the other. Physical education consists of the skills necessary to survive in the wilds and involves both physical conditioning and skill acquisition (both practical: tracking, designing shelter; and theoretical: mathematics, biology etc.). Mental education follows, somewhat vaguely, the classical form - Philosophy, the love of wisdom. Put more concretely - how to think. This would involve training in thought (or logic - what is generally thought of as philosophy), literature, and history.
Upon a child’s 16th birthday her or she becomes an adult and the male and female paths diverge, the young man is cast out of the Polis and forbidden to return for four years, if he survives he may return and marry. The young women remains in the Polis for an indefinite period of time (at least two years) until she is wed to a returning man. Her education however, is not over. For at least two years, more often four to six, she is trained in one of the advanced crafts: farming, herding, tanning, sewing, metallurgy, word-working, music and the fine arts being among them. The intent of this division is two-fold, first it aims to get young men, restless and potentially rebellious, out of communal life. No demographic has the potential for societal destruction of young men, whether their efforts are directed toward their peers, specifically their female peers, or their elders the results are never good for the community; the only way to avoid this pattern without intense repression during early youth is to literally expel them, force them to ‘make their way in the world’ or die. Ideally this would be seen as a test of manhood and not as a hostile rejection and young men would be eager to pass into this phase. For the path of a young women the intent is somewhat more complicated; anyone with a knowledge of modern feminist theory would point out, quite accurately, that this sort of society would tend toward paternalism and male-dominance. Men, after learning how to survive in the wilds and returning to claim their just reward, would see their wife as somewhat inferior, a very valuable possession, but a possession regardless. The extra education for women is aimed to minimize this, despite his superior skill in hunting and general wood-lore a man would need the skills, not just the womb, of a women to procreate effectively. In this society women would be the primary artisans, and thus would not fall into the place of a second-class citizen and would never be subservient to men.
One could claim that this dilemma would be entirely avoided if only young women too, having received the same training up until that point, were cast out; for women are certainly just as capable as men of tracking large game or operating a crossbow. This however, would jeopardize the survival of the society. It is assumed in this system that some of the young men who are cast out would never return, killed by starvation, exposure or larger predators; this is accepted not only because it functions to weed out the weak and incapable, those who would be a burden to the Polis rather than an asset, but because it maintains a high ratio of women to men, which would compensate for the inevitable child-bearing related deaths. Maintaining this ratio is much more than a matter of convenience, the growth of a society is a function of the number of women and societies with an excess of men tend to be very violent and unstable (much of medieval european history is an excellent example effect these measures attempt to avoid).
After marriage the newly wed couple would return to the wilderness and live there, alone or in small communities, until the wife becomes pregnant, at which time they would return to the Polis for the raising of their children. This time apart is meant, aside from further avoiding the problems of unoccupied young men, to solidify their relationship; forced to live together without refuge or die the couple’s bond would ideally become strong enough to last until death. While this is partially to compensate for the comparatively minimal time they would have spent together between the man’s return and their marriage (no more than a month or two) it is also to avoid the blight of divorce that seems today as intractable as juvenal delinquency. After their child-bearing years were over an older couple would have the choice to remain in the Polis and continue in an increasingly advising capacity or return to the wilderness.
While life outside the Polis, as that of the young man or young couple, would be relatively simple, nomadic hunting and gathering, life in the Polis requires additional explanation. Following the Spartan model members of the Polis would eat two meals a day together, this would help to create a communal spirit and avoid factionalizing and isolation. This, and several other measure, are meant to deny a more economically successful couple any means of expressing superiority. The most powerful of these is collectivization, two thirds of all food and other materials gathered, hunted, or farmed would be collected, one third for immediate use in communal dining and one third for winter or other times of famine. Necessitated by this practice would be some sort of authority structure, decided annually and by lot. Two Overseers would be picked from different families in the adult population of the Polis to regulate collection and distribution. In addition to these a Judge would be selected, likewise by lot, to mediate any disputes, once appealed to his or her decision would be final; these decision would be enforced, if necessary, by two Officers, one appointed by each Overseer. If the Polis were ever to be threatened by an external force these Officers would be responsible for defense, and therefore should be male, as they would be better trained for combat through their experience hunting and tracking in the wilderness. Above all of these positions would be the Archon, the oldest member of the Polis, who would be responsible for major decisions and to whom the Overseers and Judge would answer.
All of this in place, a number of issues remain; principally how, and if, such a society could be implemented. This kind of utopian theorizing ranges somewhere between pointless and totally ridiculous if it has no relevance to our actions today and obviously this particular ideal is of no use, as Plato or More’s utopias, as some sort of metaphor or model to strive for. Either it can exist, and we should go off into the wilderness and create it, or it can’t, and all of this has been a pointless exercise in rhetoric and reasoning. The most problematic issue is that traditional societies, as this one would be, cannot co-exist with modern society, even if adults cling to the “old” ways the young are always drawn to a easier, more immediately appealing, life. Societies that resemble the one described here all over the world have been destroyed and absorbed by civilization whenever they encounter it. Their fates have varied from invasions by anthropologists and missionaries to open violent to simple, gradual absorption, in which the way of life that makes them unique disappears over the course of a few generations until it is nothing but an artistic aesthetic and an ancestry box to be checked on government surveys. To avoid this, total, or near total, isolation would be a prerogative, cultural exchange of any kind would have to be avoided.
A less conventional issue in “traditional” society is one of implementation. A planned society will always be somewhat artificial and thus will never have the strength of thousands of years of custom. While this would likely be a problem for only the first two or three generations of the Polis it would be a very difficult one to overcome. Tradition is validated by history, the less history an idea has the easier it is to reject, and as of this moment this vision has less than 24 hours of history. Instilling in a generation an ideal that they (the previous generation) admittedly made up, especially when such a thing required them to separate themselves from all other humans for years at a time (a trial their mentors may or may not have undergone themselves) would be difficult.
On a more theoretical note the very notion of planning society has intrinsic problems. According to Kaczynski’s Third Principle of History “If a change is made that is large enough to alter permanently a long-term trend, then the consequences for the society as a whole cannot be predicted in advance.” In other words, complications would surely arise that would challenge the “traditional” societal structure. Not the least among them being what exactly four years alone in the wilderness would do to a 16 year old youth and whether they would be willing to subject their children to the same test. And once the culture begins to disintegrate the individual’s clear, direct and appealing path (the creation of which was the goal of the entire exercise) would be lost. The world would still be a confusing and ultimately unlivable place and if the children of a planned society are ever planning for themselves their own utopias, their own escapes from the world in which they live, the plan can officially be said to have failed.

For a full understanding of the motives behind this ideal consult the following texts

Industrial Society And Its Future (The Unabomber Manifesto) - Ted Kaczynski
The Spartans - Paul Cartledge
Into The Wild - Jon Krakauer
What Is Ancient Philosophy? - Pierre Hadot
Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk
The Athenian Constitution - Aristotle

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Further Adventures Of

In the introduction to The Tolkien Reader Peter Beagle commented that should Frodo, Aragorn and co. have failed, and Sauron had total dominion over Middle Earth, Tom Bombadil would have been the last to fall. I'm not sure of the textual basis for this but it got me wondering what that would look like.
If I was a true Tolkienite I would have written this in some obscure Anglo-Saxon meter but I'm not so I didn't. Call it fan-fiction if you want, I don't really care. Tolkien left too many undeveloped areas to justify the creation an entirely new epic; in other words, if this is fan fiction so is the Aeneid.

The Death of Tom Bombadil

Bombadil is going to war. He has taken up his wood-ax and is shaping it upon ground stone. From hardest ironwood he has hewn himself a sturdy shield and from his mantelpiece his has taken a mighty halberd, gift from some ancient Dwarven king. He is garbing himself in leather and tying his hair and beard into braids. For Melkor had come back through the doors of night and all the earth has hearkened to him.
No elven lord now stands to mar him nor elven maiden to bind him with sleep. No mountain kings to withstand the fiery assault of his dragons nor tree herders to bring the waters down upon his citadel. From the deepest pits his Balrogs have awoken and from the withered heath his wyrms descend. His orcs and trolls were hunted from the earth but men now people the ranks of his host. Men of every land and tongue to fight for the author of all evil. And so old Tom girds himself for battle and, having sent Goldberry west to the halls of Tulkas, prepares his home of the coming of the enemy.
About his lands he casts a mighty enchantment so that no fires will burn and among the trees many traps he lays, pits and springs and wires to dispatch the unwary. He teaches the streams to swallow up any who step even a little into their waters and the badgers to haul trespassers below into their dens and slay them with their own knives. Old Man Willow needs no instruction.
For himself Tom takes up his weapons, ax, halberd and iron-shod stave, and seems to be on all paths at once, patrolling every border and watching every gate. But though many a scout is caught unawares still the host of Melkor comes. Last of all men and maiar is Bombadil to fall and smoke drifts ever through the treetops of his home.
When Melkor’s armies at last converge the land in every direction is burned and barren and flying high as he dares Tom’s sparrow cannot see the far end of their great encampment. The night before the assault a wind seems to blow in every direction from Bombadil’s house and the clouds are banished from the sky. Last of all nights Tom gazes at the stars, Earendil shining still though his nemesis has risen again.
The morning is dim and fog-bound when Melkor commands his forces forth into the wood. First are men, frightened, confused, easily ensnared and cut down. Tom is grieved to do it but he strikes not at the children of Illuvatar but at Melkor himself, of whom they have become a member. Many fall in the mist but slowly his deceptions are found out. Tom is seen to be struck by a dart but no body is found and he is soon seen unhurt on another path. At last come the mighty of Melkor’s servants and the forests are leveled. The dragon’s fire dies in their throats but their cold strength cannot be ruined. On the hillock where once his home stood Tom gives them battle and the wyrms are struck down as by the mountain kings of old. But men come still. Tom’s halberd splinters and so he casts it away and draws stave and shield to fight until he stands on a great mound of smote bodies. At this time night falls and Melkor’s lieutenants tally their slain. Many, they count, have fallen to this one man or elder being and their lord is displeased. His great drakes are all but slaughtered and Bombadil’s enchantment stands still, holding his Balrogs at bay. Men seem of no use against this wild primordial thing and so he resolves to do battle himself on the morrow.
The night is long and Tom had no living thing to keep vigil with him. All around him are the hewn and the fallen, men and trees and beasts. He thinks of his long life, of Goldberry the river-woman’s daughter, of the hobbit folk and their merriment now silenced, of the stillness of the river at dawn and the warm peace of the evening. The evil clouds have come and he has not the strength to drive them away and so neither moon nor stars he sees, only the glow the fires of his enemy.
Again at first light he sends forth a mist, but Melkor, emerging with his terrible mace, banishes it and they fight in the open fields of carnage. The dark lord towered above even the trees in the elder times and now is strong as he ever was but Tom seem to grow to match him and fights him as a peer. Across the battlefield the combat rages until Tom’s shield is shattered and Grond hangs in fragments. At noon they take reprieve and Melkor is frightened, for even in Fingolfin he had not such a foe. When again the duel resumes Tom wields ax and stave together and Melkor draws a great black sword, larger in handle than the height of a man and set with all manner of barbs and hooks, but both are tired and the day ends before either have fallen.
At this Tom takes heart, for he cannot know what else they could send at him; what, he thinks, could best he who fought Melkor to a draw? And thinking thusly for half the night Melkor despairs and wonders from where such an enemy could have come then recalls his youth and giving order to the greatest of his lieutenants he sleeps.
Tom is awakened by a great stench and he knows that this day he will die. Brought forth from the deepest cavern of old Mordor is the last daughter of Ungoliant, and she has feasted since dawn on the flesh of the dead. Swollen she is and strong, as Bombadil rises and takes up his ax Melkor reminds her of their promise - kill this last Aniur and all of Middle-Earth shall be hers. She turns to him, eight eyes ravenous, fangs dripping with venom, spinnerets preparing a hideous web, and he is afraid. But as they circle each other a different thought enters Tom’s mind: he will die, there is no preventing that now, nothing he can do can avert that fate and so likewise he should have no fear for no action of his can truly affect his life, its length or its composition. All that stands before him now is to fight and to die and to do each of these well he knows he can.
At that moment the great beast saw in his eye a tear and thinking it to be of terror instead of joy she struck. And Bombadil fought. And his ax cleaved from her two hairy legs but her poison and her entangling web found him and he was overcome and consumed.
Thus did Tom Bombadil die, slain by the most terrible thing ever to walk on Middle-Earth.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Clio's Nightmare

High on Olympus Clio slept. And as she slept she dreamt a dream.
This was her dream. This was her nightmare, spoken by the many headed demons of Khaos.

Here is a world that could exist.
Men are insane. Without sanity, irrational in their every action. The laws that govern them are hunger and thirst and lust. They compose tales noble of their lives and its meanings, but these are lies. Here is a race of men totally ignorant of the root of their actions and terrified that their lives might lack what their fictions possess.
Some among them, by twist of mind or birth, perceive a world so different from that of their brothers that their hungers and lusts too are altered, and so they are chained in wheel chairs and injected with sedatives so that those whose vision is mode would not be bound to question their sight.
Here is a world that is the essence of meaninglessness and yet always they are blind to it for ever is their premise: I must be the master of my fate; me and my fictions, we are the center of all.
So sure are they that significance permeates the universe that they dream up gods and demons to do battle beyond the doors of night for the troubles of the earth. But this is false, all of it false, their is no order in their epic, the deepest desires of these men’s hearts is for bread and water and woman, all else is fiction.
In the beginning was not the word, for the beginning was silent; as it should have been, as all things should be. When first they began to wander, few and scattered, these illusions did not enter their minds. Their thoughts were of the hunt, the mammoth and the rhinoceri. Their gods were horses and their goddesses cattle. They ate and drank and were satisfied. But the desires of men, though simple, compounded upon themselves and as the earth began to fill men grew fearful. They feared that their hunger would never be satisfied nor their thirst quenched and that all the beautiful women would be in the bed of another. And so they raised walls and forged swords and went to war and called themselves glorious.
And men grew thick upon the earth and each man’s desires built up the raging insanity of the race until they forsook the land and gathered into vast cities of false stone and glass and hewn wood and spent all the hours of their lives deceiving their brothers, tricking them to trade meaningless scraps for food and drink and all manner of pleasures that would destroy them, body and soul.

And then she awoke in shaking and sweat and pondered what she has seen. But swiftly it passed from her and again she slept.
Beware you who call upon the muse - here is a world that could exist.
Here is Clio’s eternal nightmare.

Passive Engagement

Composed of equal parts self-pity, loneliness, and a crippling inability to take the initiative, i have decided to expand my social program of passive engagement (not unlike the predatory strategy of the orb-web spider, but without any ability to entrap those who come near) to re-activating this blog. in which, as before, i will be posting the stuff i write, on which i will now comment.
Borges is my most recent inspiration, he is perhaps the only Latin American author i have read who wrote on a topic other than Latin America, and his ideas, if not always his style, are astoundingly original and unlike anything i have ever read, except for at times Lovecraft (to whom he is far superior).
On a more personal note, i have abandoned poetry. For the first time i am taking an english class in which the structure of poems is analyzed and there is a craft to it that i have never been aware of and have no desire to emulate. Meter and verse are not of interest to me, i see no benefit to sounding rhythmical, it only subtracts from the gravity of whatever it is I'm trying to say. given the apparent viability of micro-prose (Borges published it alongside poetry and short stories) dividing my thoughts into stanzas is pointless.