Swans Commentary » swans.com June 4, 2007  



The Uncertain Heart of Utopia
Tobias Jones's Utopian Dreams: A Search for a Better Life


by Peter Byrne


A Book Review



Jones, Tobias: Utopian Dreams: A Search for a Better Life, Faber & Faber, London, 2007, ISBN 978-0-571-22380-0, 220 pages.


(Swans - June 4, 2007)  Tobias Jones's book on contemporary Italy (The Dark Heart of Italy: Travels Through Space and Time Across Italy, 2003) surprised old Italian hands. Its approach was familiar enough. Jones blended first-person travel writing with a look at recent political events that his English-speaking readers might find remarkable. From his perambulations and enquiries, he drew conclusions about Italian society and that wood-wormy chestnut, the Italian character. It was a lively book written with feeling, a good read for visitors who wanted a glimpse beneath the surface.

The Dark Heart of Italy didn't surprise because it revealed a somberly picturesque dysfunctional political and judicial system or the blasé persistence of most Italians to look the other way. Nothing new there. What surprised was Jones's astonishment that all this existed at all. It went beyond the familiar British conviction that the Mother of Parliaments did things much better. Jones seemed less like a visitor from London than from some non-terrestrial haven untouched by earthly evils. Tobias Jones discovered sin in Italy and was pretty indignant about it.

So it's understandable that in his second book he headed for "a better life," and was willing to venture as far as utopia to find it. All the same he disconcerts us once more. The preamble of Utopian Dreams tells why he decided to turn his back on his unsatisfactory existence -- well, anyway, close the door on it, say, half way, for a spell -- and look to new horizons. Like some penitent, Jones forsook the ways of the world and cut out cross-country unencumbered by his possessions and bad habits.

What had been his misdeeds? He confesses to having fallen into "rampant consumerism" and an addiction to movement. He and his wife were hardly ever at home for a weekend. They were visiting friends and relatives spread around Europe. He laments the absence of a close-knit community. He has also been kept on the move by work as a journalist and author of TV scripts and a book. The heavy workload has become necessary because of his need to buy what advertisers offered as the latest life-style requirement. These don't seem to go far beyond the usual house, car, clothes and assortment of electronic devices.

Jones sees the treadmill his tastes have landed him on as a tragic stage. He thinks his discontent had to result from a flaw in contemporary society. There's too much on offer, and we have too much freedom to grab it. All those possibilities make us -- well, him -- miserable. We are without gratitude, vile-tempered, plunged in vulgarity, quaking with impatience. "When I walk home in the evening the pavement is covered with the greasy shreds of kebab cabbage. Red-eyed smokers with center-partings are screaming abuse at each other. Train carriages smell of warm polystyrene and fries." (Page 14)

These dire straits can't be remedied, apparently, by a decent restaurant with a no-smoking policy that welcomes soft-spoken diners who shave their pates. Our decadence has something to do with our tolerance, a noncommittal thing, and our lack of community that excludes stopping and belonging. Jones misses a "macroscopic, universal, cosmic creed" that might rout what he sees as general cynicism. He craves idealism, which he suspects will be found more in religion than politics. He intends to find out by sharing the life of people who have decided to live together in purpose-built communities or communes.

Jones promised he would take his wife Fra and infant daughter Benny along on his quest. So we are disappointed when he turns up in the environs of Turin alone. Has he left them out with the bathwater of his wicked past? He hastens to explain that Benny isn't born yet and Fra is confined at home "heavily pregnant." He will go ahead regardless, and happily for us ignores any market-researcher's methodology. He knows two languages and two countries and will check out utopians he's heard about in Italy and Great Britain. He obviously feels that being random and subjective is a slap in the face for the successful and frustrating "modern" life he's been leading.

Damanhur is his first stop, a utopian community in the Chiusella valley of Italy near the French border. Alberto Airaudi, an ace insurance salesman, started it in 1975 when he began conducting research in esoterica with friends. There are now six hundred Damanhurians who inhabit the valley intermingled with ordinary Italian residents. Another thousand honorary "citizens" lend support. Tourists stop by, paying to gawk at members who do a lot of laughing as they cavort in flowing garments made of linen or hemp. Loose organization and business sense typify this utopia. Many of the members commute to Ivrea, Milan or Turin to work in various non-utopian professions.

After a rocky beginning, Damanhur gradually privatized and went commercial in the 1990s. It now sells organic food, art, furniture and clothes as far away as Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. Buying up local property, it created studios for artists and boutiques. Jones doesn't mind paying ten euros to hear Airaudi speak, or fifty-five to visit the temple. However, even he, a former binge shopper, objects to shelling out hundreds of euros for a "spheroself," a kind of new-age paperweight whose luxury models supposedly contain pink alchemic liquids.

Apart from commercial efficiency, the feature of the place is a goofy underground temple that consists of five thousand cubic meters all dug out by hand at night. That's only a tenth of what will be created, according to Airaudi or rather Falcon. For all Damanhurians take animal first names and vegetable last names. Jones met Lamb Radish, Orang-utan Rice, Ant Coriander and other tasty members.

The traveler has difficulty putting his finger on exactly what except business acumen Damanhur is all about. It claims not to be a religion, but a philosophic enquiry aiming to parlay its "holy city" into "a new species of humanity." More likely it's simply a monument to its founder Airaudi's gift of the gab: "He's trying to enunciate and elucidate something unknown, unknowable, unspeakable." (Page 26) Adman's optimism rules. Evil has been left behind with all those threadbare real names.

Jones next touches down at Nomadelfia on the sea between Florence and Rome where any such new-age coquetry would be met by an uncomprehending grunt. Danilo Dolci, called the "Sicilian Gandhi" for his social work on the island, had stayed at Nomadelfia in the 1950s. It was founded by Zeno Saltini, a WWI veteran. He became a priest and started a system of "vocational mothers" to look after abandoned children. A social, not a political reformer, Saltini nevertheless clashed with Fascism. After WWII he turned a former concentration camp into a home for orphans.

A philanthropist gave Saltini the three hundred and sixty hectares on which Nomadelfia stands. There followed trouble with the Vatican, and Saltini dropped out of the priesthood to carry on with his project. It excludes private property and the circulation of money. People of all ages live together in groups of about thirty, each with a central building and vegetable garden. Every three years the groups break up and re-mix. Brotherhood is the byword; modern nuclear families the bugbear. The aim is to give parentless children a family life. Some couples aged fifty or sixty have reared dozens of children. Five thousand have grown up at Nomadelfia. At twenty-one they have the option to become permanent members.

The community is eighty percent self-sufficient. The men do the farming and other manual work. Surplus produce is sold, as is much of the large wine production. Other cash comes from the state pensions of older residents, charitable donations and payment for taking in orphans and young offenders. Jones, who stayed there with Fra and Benny, liked the idea that advertising, violence, and sex were cut out of TV by a resident censor. As on most of his visits, he worked his way and delighted in physical labor. But eventually the narrow Catholicism at Nomadelfia got on his and Fra's nerves. They had enough of old-fashioned quaintness when an aged woman told Fra her uncovered shoulders were indecent.

Jones still felt that religion, though perhaps not Zeno Saltini's, was the answer to his existential unease. He, Fra, and Benny set out for the city of York, in England. The Quaker businessman and philanthropist Joseph Rowntree built a garden city in those parts a century before. In the 1990s, the Rowntree Trust, still active, created Hartrigg Oaks, a community for retirees consisting of one hundred and fifty-two bungalows. They were for people over sixty who could afford to buy them. This was strictly a middle-class set up. There was no work that Jones could do, and he had to rent accommodation nearby.

Enough Quaker homebuyers had been attracted to set a religious tone. After the loquacious Italian new-age Damanhurians and the preachy Tuscan Roman Catholics, Quaker absence of ritual and sermons refreshed the travelers. Worship consisted in sitting amongst neighbors in a meeting hall and keeping quiet. Once or twice someone would break the silence by enouncing a thought that had come to him, such as, "Friends, obedience and listening have the same root in the Latin, audire." (Page 91) More silence followed and that wound up churchgoing for the day.

Jones had no trouble continuing his enquiry. The residents prided themselves on being active old folks, and considered drinking tea and chatting with the younger man to be great fun. Gossip turned up some scarcely utopian attitudes. Some residents admitted that the last thing that brought them to Hartrigg Oaks was a thirst for community or religion. They came for the health care, guaranteeing, no matter what ailment hit them, that they would be treated in their own bungalow or at the hospital on the grounds. Once they put down the money for their home, they were set for life or, rather, for death. They need never stir more than a hundred yards from their bungalow door. The average age at Hartrigg Oakes was seventy-nine.

There were dissident factions. Some of the retirees so disliked communal living that they objected to the arthritis free, full-throated young people who lived in the vicinity. Others, though aged, wanted out desperately, but found they had contracted to sell their bungalow back to the Trust for roughly what they had paid, while non-utopian British house prices never stopped rising. Everyone seemed more hardheaded than the dreamer Tobias Jones. He went back to Italy, this time to Palermo in Sicily, to continue his quest.

If Sicily gave birth to the Mafia, it also engendered some astute anti-Mafia organizations. The olive oil, pasta, chickpeas, lentils, honey and wine of Libera Terra are sold all over Italy. It's a co-operative that works land the state has confiscated from the Mafia. For, organized on family lines, the Honorable Society is vulnerable in matters of patrimony.

The Jones settled on a Libera Terra farm fifty miles from Palermo. It was a community for recovering addicts. The situation was intriguing. The Mafia drew its wealth from narcotics. It used that wealth to buy up huge tracts of Sicily. The state seized the land and turned it over to the addicts who had contributed to the wealth in the first place. Now by physical work they were trying to shed their addiction and earn a livelihood.

But it wasn't easy. This was Mafia country. Tractors had been destroyed, fields burnt, harvests ruined by sheep that mysteriously got through fences. The government procrastinated in turning over land, its bureaucrats were unhelpful, and when a co-operative obtained possession it was given no start-up funds. The former addicts did not always toe the line, but the visitor noted that physical work did them as much good as it did him.

Jones had come to see how a secular community compared to a religious one, but found something religious in the attitude of the workers who had got beyond all hypocrisy and were, so to speak, morally naked. A priest warned him that religion shouldn't be confused with addiction therapy. But Jones seemed to be heading for a religious conclusion:

In the perfect community, freedom and obedience become, not mutually excluding opposites, but the consequence of one another. It's incomprehensible to materialists, but someone who glimpses the ideal does believe that obligation and freedom are not mutually excluding. (Page 155)

Nothing more English than the next stopover of the Jones family. Pilsdon in Dorset is a 17th century country mansion, with a farm and its own mediaeval church. An Anglican clergyman bought the place after WWII and set up an informal community. There are permanent residents, but it's also a way station for tramps that come and go. A good number of them are alcoholics or men who have done time in jail. Work on the farm is expected of everyone, and the produce furnishes most of the food served. Donations supply the rest. One of the residents describes Pilsdon: "This place isn't a commune, it's just a village, part of a village. We keep animals, cook our food and eat it. Some people are Christians, most aren't." (Page 164)

For Jones, the value of Pilsdon was that it suspended stress and left space for thinking, while still remaining very much in the world. He liked the idea of cutting hedges with someone who might be an ex-con or a bishop laid low by booze. But the reader can't help suspecting that he also loved Pilsdon because it corresponded -- with a few reformed bad guys added -- to the view of the countryside that has always misted over the eyes of the British urban dweller. Quoting St. John of the Cross, Tobias again packed the Jones's suitcases.

He returned with Fra and Benny to his native Bristol and found a city pretty much stressed out by contemporary societal problems. Jones licked his traveler's wounds and contemplated writing his book. But he couldn't kick his habit of seeking out communities. He took up with the Emmaus group founded by Abbé Pierre. It gave the homeless a place to live and set them up as recyclers of other people's junk. Jones put in time driving the Emmaus van transporting last year's lifestyle breakthroughs.

The book got written and embodies Jan Morris's advice to travels with a notebook: They should seek out something very specific and stay on target. Tobias Jones did that. But in the event his target was unworkably huge. It was, to say the least, utopian to embrace the boundless question of how we should live in the third millennium. His thoughts, often repetitive, sometimes diverting, leave too little room for the description that we go to travel writers for. He set out on his voyage because he was fed up with not "stopping and belonging." But, hopping between communities, he never managed to tarry long enough to portray fully any of the people he met. He leaves us with only one portrait, that of a questioning and questing thirty-something being button-holed by a mid-life crisis that came to call too early.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 4, 2007