I am sitting on the porch of a pretty house in Fairhope, Alabama. Last evening I read the visitor’s brochure to Geoff over dinner. He shelled the steamed shrimp, while I explained that we were visiting a Utopian Society. Back in 1894, someone said this little town had “a fair hope of success.” The original settlers (who came from Iowa) identified with an idea. They called themselves “single taxers.” Took us a while to figure this out in contemporary terms. We settled on calling it a type of social engineering that was supposed to discourage land speculators from holding property without improving it, while all around them their neighbors toiled to maintain and improve their own properties. The “single tax” is a flat tax levied on all properties, regardless of its state of repair or dishevelment. So the tax code does not “punish” people who invest in their properties by raising their taxes, nor does it “reward” lazy landowners who do nothing by letting their taxes stay low. Well, gosh, this is just a hop and a skip from socialism. What were these people thinking?
They really did see themselves as creating a Utopian Society. That was their stated mission, not just my snarky take on it. The town does seem idyllic, if not exactly Utopian, whatever that means. We also found in our brief research that pretty much all the experiments in “Utopian Societies” of the late 19th century in America (many of them in upstate New York) failed. Except Fairhope, Alabama. Not sure how to explain that. Perhaps Fairhope is small enough and its founding idea, the single tax, simple enough that it could survive the inevitable chipping away of idealism that comes with time and more people. Honestly, the only Utopian Society that works is one devoid of human involvement because people always wreck things. To attempt a utopian society is to pursue the notion that a well thought out system can eradicate badness (or at least the propensity toward wreckage) from human nature. Picture this, okay: A society whose success depends on everyone being rational and responsible and abiding by the founding ideal. In order to work, the society assumes that when you let people into your society, they are magically shorn of chaos, greed, envy, deceit, hostility, rage, petty meanness, (name it!) the moment they cross the threshold. Further, that people really prefer to be good, and bad can be removed from human nature and behavior by the strength of a rational idea. Surely, that will result in Eden on Earth. Makes perfect sense. It’s kind of sweet really. This longing for the Garden. Sweet and absurd.
Here’s a fun fact: The first librarian of Fairhope, over a century ago, was a nudist. She was known to settle on the public green with her book, bathing her unadorned self in the morning sun. I’ll bet any amount of money she was some Yankee bluestocking, a graduate of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, no doubt.
Emily has something to add to this discussion:
#1238, c. 1872
Power is a familiar growth —
Not foreign — not to be —
Beside us like a bland Abyss
In every company —
Escape it — there is but a chance —
When consciousness and clay
Lean forward for a final glance —
Disprove that and you may —
Emily says power is inevitable. Put another way, any place where power is pre-eminent, there love cannot also exist. Power and love cannot occupy the same space at the same time. At the moment that power walks in the front door, love scoots out the back. Impossible to hold a true heart-felt compassion, if you also assert some form of power. To love is to be helpless, without delineation of self-hood. The exercise of power demands separation from others.
Em says that as long as we exist in bodily form, “that consciousness and clay” we will grapple with this tension between power and love. The concrete shape and delineation of our human form brings a person inevitably to Self or selfishness. We want what we want because this fortress of flesh is all we have. Or so it seems. We think we depend on it. With power there is no merging of fortresses, no letting down of those battlements. Not really. We can play at it from time to time, but we always return to the fortress and pull up the drawbridge because that is the only home our limited consciousness can conceive. We might glimpse something more expansive, but we don’t trust that. We forgot the Garden a long time ago.
Only at the end as we are about to be wrested from the fortress by the force of Death, may we, if wise and careful, consider a life without the delineations of power. Emily suggests that we may shed our desire for power. Although not everyone does it. You have to die first. Or maybe she means “die first”. The death she suggests may feel as drastic as the literal death of the body, but I’ll warrant it’s a death of another sort. One that shatters the felt sense of separation.