A Modern Utopia

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An agreeable person, though a little distracting, he was, and he talked, we recall, of many things. He impressed us, we found afterwards, as a poseur beyond question, a conscious Ishmaelite in the world of wit, and in some subtly inexplicable way as a most consummate ass. He talked first of the excellent and commodious trams that came from over the passes, and ran down the long valley towards middle Switzerland, and of all the growth of pleasant homes and châlets amidst the heights that made the opening gorge so different from its earthly parallel, with a fine disrespect. “But they are beautiful,” I protested. “They are graciously proportioned, they are placed in well-chosen positions; they give no offence to the eye.”

“What do we know of the beauty they replace? They are a mere rash. Why should we men play the part of bacteria upon the face of our Mother?”

“All life is that!”

“No! not natural life, not the plants and the gentle creatures that live their wild shy lives in forest and jungle. That is a part of her. That is the natural bloom of her complexion. But these houses and tramways and things, all made from ore and stuff torn from her veins―! You can't better my image of the rash. It's a morbid breaking out! I'd give it all for one—what is it?—free and natural chamois.”

“You live at times in a house?” I asked.

He ignored my question. For him, untroubled Nature was the best, he said, and, with a glance at his feet, the most beautiful. He professed himself a Nazarite, and shook back his Teutonic poet's shock of hair. So he came to himself, and for the rest of our walk he kept to himself as the thread of his discourse, and went over himself from top to toe, and strung thereon all topics under the sun by way of illustrating his splendours. But especially his foil was the relative folly, the unnaturalness and want of logic in his fellow men. He held strong views about the extreme simplicity of everything, only that men, in their muddle-headedness, had confounded it all. “Hence, for example, these trams! They are always running up and down as though they were looking for the lost simplicity of nature. ‘We dropped it here!’” He earned a living, we gathered, “some considerable way above the minimum wage,” which threw a chance light on the labour problem—by perforating records for automatic musical machines—no doubt of the Pianotist and Pianola kind—and he spent all the leisure he could gain in going to and fro in the earth lecturing on “The Need of a Return to Nature,” and on “Simple Foods and Simple Ways.” He did it for the love of it. It was very clear to us he had an inordinate impulse to lecture, and esteemed us fair game. He had been lecturing on these topics in Italy, and he was now going back through the mountains to lecture in Saxony, lecturing on the way, to perforate a lot more records, lecturing the while, and so start out lecturing again. He was undisguisedly glad to have us to lecture to by the way.

He called our attention to his costume at an early stage. It was the embodiment of his ideal of Nature-clothing, and it had been made especially for him at very great cost. “Simply because naturalness has fled the earth, and has to be sought now, and washed out from your crushed complexities like gold.”

“I should have thought,” said I, “that any clothing whatever was something of a slight upon the natural man.”

“Not at all,” said he, “not at all! You forget his natural vanity!”

He was particularly severe on our artificial hoofs, as he called our boots, and our hats or hair destructors. “Man is the real King of Beasts and should wear a mane. The lion only wears it by consent and in captivity.” He tossed his head.

Subsequently while we lunched and he waited for the specific natural dishes he ordered—they taxed the culinary resources of the inn to the utmost—he broached a comprehensive generalisation. “The animal kingdom and the vegetable kingdom are easily distinguished, and for the life of me I see no reason for confusing them. It is, I hold, a sin against Nature. I keep them distinct in my mind and I keep them distinct in my person. No animal substance inside, no vegetable without;—what could be simpler or more logical? Nothing upon me but leather and allwool garments, within, cereals, fruit, nuts, herbs, and the like. Classification—order—man's function. He is here to observe and accentuate Nature's simplicity. These people”—he swept an arm that tried not too personally to include us—“are filled and covered with confusion.”

He ate great quantities of grapes and finished with a cigarette. He demanded and drank a great horn of unfermented grape juice, and it seemed to suit him well.

We three sat about the board—it was in an agreeable little arbour on a hill hard by the place where Wassen stands on earth, and it looked down the valley to the Uri Rothstock, and ever and again we sought to turn his undeniable gift of exposition to the elucidation of our own difficulties.

But we seemed to get little, his style was so elusive. Afterwards, indeed, we found much information and many persuasions had soaked into us, but at the time it seemed to us he told us nothing. He indicated things by dots and dashes, instead of by good hard assertive lines. He would not pause to see how little we knew. Sometimes his wit rose so high that he would lose sight of it himself, and then he would pause, purse his lips as if he whistled, and then till the bird came back to the lure, fill his void mouth with grapes. He talked of the relations of the sexes, and love—a passion he held in great contempt as being in its essence complex and disingenuous—and afterwards we found we had learnt much of what the marriage laws of Utopia allow and forbid.

“A simple natural freedom,” he said, waving a grape in an illustrative manner, and so we gathered the Modern Utopia did not at any rate go to that. He spoke, too, of the regulation of unions, of people who were not allowed to have children, of complicated rules and interventions. “Man,” he said, “had ceased to be a natural product!”

We tried to check him with questions at this most illuminating point, but he drove on like a torrent, and carried his topic out of sight. The world, he held, was overmanaged, and that was the root of all evil. He talked of the overmanagement of the world, and among other things of the laws that would not let a poor simple idiot, a “natural,” go at large. And so we had our first glimpse of what Utopia did with the feeble and insane. “We make all these distinctions between man and man, we exalt this and favour that, and degrade and seclude that; we make birth artificial, life artificial, death artificial.”

“You say We,” said I, with the first glimmering of a new idea, “but you don't participate?”

“Not I! I'm not one of your samurai, your voluntary noblemen who have taken the world in hand. I might be, of course, but I'm not.”

“Samurai!” I repeated, “voluntary noblemen!” and for the moment could not frame a question.

He whirled on to an attack on science, that stirred the botanist to controversy. He denounced with great bitterness all specialists whatever, and particularly doctors and engineers.

“Voluntary noblemen!” he said, “voluntary Gods I fancy they think themselves,” and I was left behind for a space in the perplexed examination of this parenthesis, while he and the botanist—who is sedulous to keep his digestion up to date with all the newest devices—argued about the good of medicine men.

“The natural human constitution,” said the blond-haired man, “is perfectly simple, with one simple condition—you must leave it to Nature. But if you mix up things so distinctly and essentially separated as the animal and vegetable kingdoms for example, and ram that in for it to digest, what can you expect?

“Ill health! There isn't such a thing—in the course of Nature. But you shelter from Nature in houses, you protect yourselves by clothes that are useful instead of being ornamental, you wash—with such abstersive chemicals as soap for example—and above all you consult doctors.” He approved himself with a chuckle. “Have you ever found anyone seriously ill without doctors and medicine about? Never! You say a lot of people would die without shelter and medical attendance! No doubt—but a natural death. A natural death is better than an artificial life, surely? That's—to be frank with you—the very citadel of my position.”

That led him, and rather promptly, before the botanist could rally to reply, to a great tirade against the laws that forbade “sleeping out.” He denounced them with great vigour, and alleged that for his own part he broke that law whenever he could, found some corner of moss, shaded from an excess of dew, and there sat up to sleep. He slept, he said, always in a sitting position, with his head on his wrists, and his wrists on his knees—the simple natural position for sleep in man… . He said it would be far better if all the world slept out, and all the houses were pulled down.

You will understand, perhaps, the subdued irritation I felt, as I sat and listened to the botanist entangling himself in the logical net of this wild nonsense. It impressed me as being irrelevant. When one comes to a Utopia one expects a Cicerone, one expects a person as precise and insistent and instructive as an American advertisement—the advertisement of one of those land agents, for example, who print their own engaging photographs to instil confidence and begin, “You want to buy real estate.” One expects to find all Utopians absolutely convinced of the perfection of their Utopia, and incapable of receiving a hint against its order. And here was this purveyor of absurdities!

And yet now that I come to think it over, is not this too one of the necessary differences between a Modern Utopia and those finite compact settlements of the older school of dreamers? It is not to be a unanimous world any more, it is to have all and more of the mental contrariety we find in the world of the real; it is no longer to be perfectly explicable, it is just our own vast mysterious welter, with some of the blackest shadows gone, with a clearer illumination, and a more conscious and intelligent will. Irrelevance is not irrelevant to such a scheme, and our blond-haired friend is exactly just where he ought to be here.


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