Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Land of Neverwas

The Shire is envisioned (in words by Tolkien and in pictures by Peter Jackson) as an idyllic place, where noone really goes hungry, where everyone works, more or less, but not too hard, and where even the bad folk like the Sandymans (Sandymen?) or the greedy folk like the Sackville-Baggins branch of the family aren't beyond redemption of some kind. And there are other versions of Eden out there, in Tolkien (e.g., in the appendices to LOTR and the Silmarillion) and in many other places. What the Edens share is (1) small communities, where many interactions are face-to-face and between people who know not only each other but each other's families and extended families, (2) local production and distribution, (3) the capability of meeting everyone's needs with available resources, (4) no grinding poverty, though some may be more or less well-off, (5) little crime, and certainly little or no violent crime, and (6) limited artistic activity, though there may be some "rustic" songs and dances, some local historians, probably good cooks and ale-makers and needleworkers; perhaps in part because such drama doesn't occur in these small venues, there is little of operatic sweep, whether in novelistic, musical, or dramatic form. The events of the Big People reach the Shire in some ways, but the true deeds of Frodo, and their import, remain opaque to his neighbors, even though the whole trilogy is about those deeds and surrounding events. In other words, the simplicity is, in some ways, a naive simplicity.

I'd argue that Jane Austen's and Anthony Trollope's worlds fall into this category, too, for example--though some in the worlds they describe grapple with poverty or the prospect of it, especially the women, the ills that befall people are typically of their own making and are typically resolved by the end of the book. In fact, now that I think about it, a friend was writing his dissertation on Trollope, years ago (he never finished). His thesis was that Trollope's works were about breaks in and the restoration of a community, and, having read nearly all of Trollope at this point, I think my friend was right.

Yearning for this type of Eden is understandable--many of its features are desireable. The difficulties arise, however, when we believe that this Eden once existed, that it's only our own evil (or, rather, our knowledge of good and evil) that has ruined it all, and that following this or that prescription will return us to this pristine state or absolve us of the sins we committed. We've never had an Eden. (Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed is interesting precisely because it both creates a paradise and outlines some of the troubles that are likely to arise.) There may well have been communities of people who lived in harmony with their neighbors and their environment, who rarely faced severe deprivation, etc., but that has not been the common experience of humans, even if it is our fantasy. While I'm not a complete Hobbesian--i.e., I don't reach the same conclusions, or have all of the same assumptions as Hobbes did about human nature--for most people, over most of human history, life has, indeed, been nasty, poor, brutish, and short.

Because the Edenic times never really existed, because no human society is or has been or is likely to be supercalifragilisticexpealidocious (i.e., practically perfect in every way), the accounts of the perfect society, of the events that caused its downfall or disintegration, and of the things that must happen to reconstitute that society are going to vary wildly. Was it the lack of grinding poverty that made the society work? Was it the work-but-not-too-hard approach? Did everyone believe in the same deities? Was it the abundance of face-to-face communication? Was it the local production and distribution networks? Was it the abundance of natural resources? Was it the lack of temptation? (Remember that the Ring found Smeagol as much as he "found" it.) Was it some other non-obvious factor?

But the Edens provide a nice, simple story, and I suspect that's why they're so tempting. The "if-onlies" become manageable and seem to be within the range of accomplishment, especially if one is surrounded by others who believe similarly, in the communities that implicitly or explicitly believe in a specific paradise to come and a specific route to get there. But the reality, I suspect, is much harder to manage, and much messier--and the Edenic views, the Lands of Neverwas thereby do us all a disservice by implying (or stating outright) that these few simple steps are all that are needed to (re)create paradise. It's going to be harder work than that, people.


Blogger Ann said...

Some rambly thoughts:

I'm extremely interested in utopian novels, which seems to be the direction in which you're headed here. I'd describe the Shire as utopian--but not Austen's novels. Utopian novels require a utopian environment (culture, society, rules and consequences--and they're usually utopian by the reader's, not the characters', perspective, which may be what you mean by "naive" simplicity), but Austen's novels take place in a world that resembles the reader's reality. I guess I'd say that she writes utopian plots, i.e., happy endings.

Many utopian novels--Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland; James Hilton's Lost Horizon; Marge Piercy's excellent Woman on the Edge of Time; even Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which is simultaneously dystopian and utopian--are about the collision between the utopian culture and someone (or someones) who represent what we consider "reality." In that sense, I think they're less about a mytical "what used to be" than they are about social criticism. LOTR simultaneously falls into and varies from this theme: Frodo and Sam and the others, including Bilbo, are utopian characters who encounter outside reality rather than the other way around. Utopian novels and LOTR are all about what's wrong with (the reader's) reality, but utopian novels present the problems as unnecessary while LOTR considers them incontrovertible.

Personally, I've never believed that utopia is possible--and I don't think the authors of utopian novels believe it, either. Their books usually end with the utopia remaining isolated from rather than being integrated with reality. But, interestingly, there are still a lot of people who do believe in utopia, only they call it "the good ol' days." They lament contemporary culture and morals; they think a return to utopia is as easy as changing laws here and fining indecency there. That's not very nuanced. [PS. For Christmas my sister made me a T-shirt that says, "Nuanced and Proud." Heh.]

2:25 PM  
Blogger Emma Goldman said...

I like your observation about the LOTR characters being utopians who encounter the outside/non-utopian world. Tolkien is interesting on this and other counts, I think. Certainly, his stories of the fall of the Numenoreans, for example, bear similarities to Edenic stories, but not all Numenoreans "fall"--Aragorn's ancestors are among the ones who do not try to go to the forbidden zone.

The reason I threw Austen in there is that, although her characters are acutely aware of poverty and are required to do things to avoid it, none of them works in an industrial setting, for example, or truly goes hungry. None has to become an indentured servant or the functional equivalent.

The most important thing you note, though, is that Tolkien does, indeed, regard the problems as incontrovertible--as part of life. I hadn't thought of it that way before, but it makes perfect sense.

Love the t-shirt, too, btw--I should get you a companion t-shirt from my yoga studio; it says, "Be present."

12:24 PM  

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