Utopia Interpreted

THIS magazine has been conducting a contest for the best Interpretation of the astonishing social changes which have taken place between the nineteen-twenties and the nineteen-nineties. In a previous number we published an Interpretation attributing these changes to the widespread — and in some respects well-founded — fear of an approaching Ice Age. In the same number we published also an Interpretation attributing the changes to that modern Franciscan movement among women— the Sharers’ Institute. This issue contains two more Interpretations; these four being, in the Editor’s opinion, the most plausible ones submitted. Readers are invited to vote upon them. The name of the winning Interpretation, and that of its author, will be posted in all the Community Forums next month. — Editor"s note introducing the third and fourth interpretations.

Third Interpretation


THERE is room, in such an undertaking as ours, for an immense amount of sentimentality. Any startling event, any captivating gesture of human nature, is apt to impose itself upon us as the cause, instead of only one of the effects, of whatever situation we are exploring. We may imagine, for instance, that it was some widespread fear, like the Ice Age Bubble, that drew humanity together into the Family Order; or we may persuade ourselves that it was some pageant of the emotions, like the rise of the Fanatical Sharers; but all the time, if we would only go down into the cool cellar of our social house, we should see the stone foundations of Science, in all their quiet strength, supporting the whole edifice above and around us.

I believe, in short, in scientific determinism.

For the benefit of any of the older people among us, who may not have studied social causation very deeply, and who may have some disparaging ideas about scientific determinism, because they associate it with the exploded old doctrine of economic determinism 1 let me tell here exactly what it means.

It’s just this: such facts of Science as we all know familiarly, in the way that we know that the Earth is round, make up the framework inside of which we do all the rest of our thinking. Inside that frame we plan, work, and live. All our conceptions of individual life have to fit into what we have learned, in a large way, about the world we live in. But of course it’s while those conceptions are new that they affect us most dynamically. It is then that our imaginations are most under their power. It is then that we are most interested in them and aware of them. The time, accordingly, to expect any great social change must always be a time when large scientific discoveries have lately become popularized, and mankind at large has begun to realize them imaginatively. It would be at such a time, naturally, that the framework of man’s thinking, having enlarged and changed its shape, all his conceptions would change too to fit the new frame; — and particularly his conceptions of his own relations with his neighbors; for these are the most important things he thinks about.

Now in the unbelievably swift coming-on of the Family Order among us, and the recognition of the Energy of Pleasure, — I prefer to call it Energy, because Nature knows nothing of discipline, — it seems to me perfectly easy and clear to analyze this connection, and to see, spread out round us in full view, the workings of scientific determinism.

What general conception must underlie such an order of society as the pleasant, informal, carefree Family Order we live in, with its unwritten constitution of sublimated commonsense: ‘From every one according to his ability.’ The conception underlying such an order must of course be the conception of oneness, of what Elford Gillis calls ‘our irrevocable mutuality.’ Like most other demonstrations of Science, this was anticipated in a vague and useless way by poets and their ilk, as in the poetical old sayings, so inspiring and so unconvincing: ‘There is neither Greek nor Jew . . . bond nor free. ‘

’Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same.’

Not until Science, with its plain careful vocabulary, demonstrates these things, do they take effect. Slow, experimental, doubting, industrious Science, always a little contemptuous toward the imagination, yet able, above all other things, to fire the imagination! Whatever explained phenomenon she lays in man’s hand, he can keep it; it is really his.

The conception of the Oneness of Matter is the main framework inside of which we have been able at last to erect the pleasant one-family life of the Race, for which so many prophets harangued and reformers sweated!

But of course nobody would pretend that the average man’s conception of the Oneness of Matter is at all like the scientific man’s conception of it. Popularized Science is necessarily coarsened, blurred, distorted, in the process of getting itself across to the brain with only an ordinary background of knowledge. It’s true that the average man of to-day knows what he knows far more scientifically and exactly than our grandfathers, for instance, understood Evolution; but the comparative distance between our notions and the notions of the learned is not very much reduced. While we have been advancing, so have they; they keep their stride ahead of us.

Even so — coarsened, blurred, altered somewhat in outline — the average man’s knowledge of scientific facts still remains the great dynamic force of the world, and must remain so, because the average man is naturally in the great majority. Whatever be his concept of the universe, that, of course, must be the ruling concept. Within the past forty years he has been filled and fired with the — popularized — scientific fact of the one substance of matter; and it was as inevitable as the succession of the seasons that he should so rebuild his social relations as to fit them into this frame. Accordingly, he threw away the polyglot compartments of classes and states in which he had so miserably quarreled with himself before, and forgot as soon as possible the destructive old notion that one man, or set of men, ever is or ever can be the enemy of any other man or set. But only then, when Science had shown it to him as a fact, did he begin to appreciate the visionary instinct of his own old poets:

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Now if it’s true that the real underpinning that made it possible for us to erect the Family Order was our general average realization that matter itself is one, then it must have been the most important thing in the world that was ever done for us, when that scientific fact was popularized and brought home to our imagination. And the person or persons who succeeded in popularizing it must be, I should think, the greatest benefactors of our time — perhaps of any time.

That is why I think Solar y Vesa, the mystic realist among painters, the greatest man of whom I know.

If the early experimental school of painters now called the Intangiblists — but in their own day called Cubists, Futurists, and other guessing names — could only have known to what a height of wonder their first, incoherent gropings would some day lead! For they lived and painted long before painting became recognized as the perfect vehicle of Science. Up to their time, and far beyond it, the printed word and mathematical demonstration were lho usual forces for spreading scientific discovery. Let us imagine if we can what a leap in the dark the Cubists found the courage to take. They knew nothing of microscopic photography as we understand the term. They had no inkling of the natural patterns of form, the form-nucleus, which Science was some day to reveal and which painters were to find so beautiful and significant that the actual outlines of mass could no longer interest them. And still they had the courage of their dream of form, nude form, the reality behind the misleading surfaces of things that we see. Great in their way, too, were those humble forerunners of the inspired Mexican.

Solar y Vesa was the first great painter who ever began life as a physicist. Forsaking the galleries and the studios, he spent what he calls ‘enraptured years ‘ in the study of electrons and the search to isolate ether. Suddenly one day in his laboratory he was struck by the thought that instead of writing or lecturing to express his scientific intuitions, he must paint them. ‘I must paint,’ he said, Those invisible forms of things which I have seen.’

Then followed, of course, his long years of tireless experiment, the supreme romance of modern art. It was in 1959 that he exhibited the first of his eight great canvases: ‘The Embrace of the Solids in the Lap of Air.’ He had been perfecting the conception of it in arduous solitary thinking for two years, living like a hermit in a ruined monastery in the Sierra Madre. It was three years before he was ready to exhibit another such mighty work — though it is said that he painted it in half a morning.

It was the same now used as the frontispiece to the Interracial Science Series: ‘The Shoulders of Wind Supporting the Rurden of Water.’

His first exhibition showed us the immensely superior power of the picture over the printed word for the spreading of Science. The whole exhibition consisted of a few large pictures and a multitude of preliminary studies in pencil and water color. Photographs of these were almost immediately hung in all the great laboratories of the world. Solar was called ‘the canvas poet of physics,’ the ‘Leonardo of the Atom.’ He had ‘painted the portrait of the mystery of Substance.’ Poetical phrases were constantly used to describe him, and a collection of legends began to encrust the simple history of his laborious and uneventful life. Papacallimacch, in his old age, made one of his greatest portrait-cartoons of Solar y Vesa. It showed the Cro-Magnon man issuing from his illustrated cave, his drawing-bone still in his hand, prostrating himself before the learning and imagination of the modern artist. Underneath was the legend: ‘Still graphic, Spanish hand!'

From the beginning the general public seized upon his pictures. Thousands of people waited their turn to enter the small gallery over the Cooperative Carpenters’ Bank in Oaxaca, where they were first shown. Though by the time he was exhibiting in Europe he was using the galleries of much larger Unions, and the crowds had increased in proportion. On holiday afternoons the very children from the elementary schools in Amsterdam used to crowd into the Bridgebuilders’ Hall, where a set of his photographs had been hung.

Of course this popular enthusiasm might have come to its natural end without any very important consequences. But as a matter of fact, it had an immediate and most vital consequence. The World Budgeting of commerce by the Sea Transport Coöperatives, after being talked about for years, was finally achieved in the very year after the first, exhibition of Solar y Yesa. Readers may remember that there was a threat of famine in India that year—another of those appalling rainless seasons that all our precipitating machinery has n’t yet been able to control.

This first really effective budgeting of the tonnage was undertaken with a view to speeding the international relief in wheat. This was significant enough; but there was another and a very curious consequence.

That year the formal dismantling of the old international Ownerscult headquarters at the Hague took place. The Laborization classes started at Dresden in 1948 had accomplished their end some years before; but the old Ownerscult offices had been left standing with the idea that the Federated Historical Societies of Europe might keep them for a Museum of Inequalities. The plan was finally given up owing to a lack of interest in that side of history; and the site has now been turned into a delightful community Playground for the Aged.

But if these effects are important, what shall we say of the stupendous results that followed the second, or Christiania, exhibition? In that collection hung Solar’s mightiest painting, ‘The Snowflakes of Mind Meeting and Parting.’ Such a revelation of the mysteries of matter and of motion had never been seen before — had never been conceived!

It was not a month after it; had been unveiled to the public before plans were on foot in the Radio-Movie Department of the government of Brazil, to throw upon the screens and amplifiers in the schools and homes of (hat country the Micro Dances and their accompanying melodies.

The Micro Dances were n’t perfected, of course, to the point of let ting the public sec them, until the latter part of 1962. They began to be shown almost simultaneously with the last of Solar’s three immortal exhibitions. The first of the crowded years 1962-1968 was the very year in which I was taken, as a child of nine, to see the first Micro Dance: ‘The Living Lace of Steel.’ My father was instructor in chemistry at the Central Federated Trades University in Pittsburgh. I remember how he sat and listened to the strongly thrilling, yet deeply tranquil music of that first imperfect micro-movie, with his eyes shut to the marvelous dancing of the veiled electrons on the screen. But I was so enchanted by the dance of the magnified particles that I scarcely heard the music. At least, I thought I scarcely heard it. It came back to me afterward; in the night I woke and seemed to hear it in the air. Delicate and unimaginably calm music of the rhythms of steel!

The University of Tokyo gave, I believe, the first course ever given in physics by radio movies. Their machinery was liner in several respects than ours, and the dances were consequently more complicated. The next great advances in rendering were made at the Sorbonne and then in the vast open-air theatres in Switzerland.

Meantime the first of our Sunday evening choral feasts had been held — never to be forgotten date — on May Day 1962.

Sometimes now, when we are all strolling in the woods and fields on a summer Sunday evening, singing by flashlight or firelight or starlight; or listening to one of the Nomad prophets, and having listened, drifting away, one by one, to think; sometimes when I see the children’s campfires, or hear some boy or girl chanting some wild ballad of his own all alone in a boat on the lake, I think:—‘This is your work, Solar Vesa, who taught us the stern and beautiful Oneness of all things, the Oneness of our human happiness!'

The effects of the radio-micro came upon us like a dream. Or perhaps it was more like the waking from a dream that the ‘discipline’ of pleasure stole upon us, as we realized that the whole world of matter was moving in the rhythms of pleasure. Taught by the mighty Solar to see that the very essence of what we had called ‘solidity’ consisted of music and dancing, — would cease if they should cease, — we began to conceive that the essence of the moral nobleness we had so dearly loved — and blindly frustrated! — consisted too of the inward movements of pleasure and delight.

There is a certain fact which all alone would, I think, prove my Interpretation. The first of Solar’s pictures was shown in 1959, and the last report by the Syco Review of a mother who was actually known to have spanked a child was in 1989 — exactly a generation later.

Fourth Interpretation


I AM afraid there is something a trifle absurd about this contest — in which, nevertheless, I can’t resist the fun of taking part. I am afraid our Interpretations may all seem quite nonsensical to the real judge — the historian of the future. One hundred — two hundred years from now it may be quite clear by what road we have come to our present high state of health and rich enjoyment of life. But what perspective on these things can our generation possibly have — we who have lived in the thick of the transition? All we can do is to project our imaginations as far into the future as they will carry, and guess as shrewdly as we can at what that unborn Interpreter will say.

Now when I try to do this, I find myself unable to imagine that a mere attack of shivers and chills, no matter on how grand a scale, would be considered an adequate explanation. Nor can I think a band of ignorant women, acting on the discredited principle of deliberate martyrdom, would impress such a judge for a moment. Such a judge, I think, would be unable to suppress a smile if he were asked to regard a single great painter as the architect of a world-wide change in human relations.

But we do know of a conceivable cause, which was as different as possible from all these; which proceeded deliberately from the minds of persons scientifically trained, with definite foreknowledge of what they were trying to bring about: persons, above all, who understood some few little points about their infinitely ticklish and complicated material, the hair-trigger, extravagant, arbitrary social behavior of man. Of course the thing I have in mind is the immortal Report of the Associated Sycoans,2 thirty-two years ago, on Spring Fever and Nomadry — a document which, in my own mind, I always call the Magna Charta of Human Nature.

The real beginnings of the immortal Report came in the forties. It was only about then that sycoanalysis had become firmly settled in its place as the major branch of sycology in all the universities of the world. And that was the point, in the history of sycoanalysis, when the Western world began first to understand how far ahead of it the Orientals were qualified to go — and were already beginning to go — in sycoanalytic theory. Not for nothing, it began to be seen by our less meditative races, had the Asian and African peoples for countless years sunk their thought into the abyss of the study of man the thinker. Then began that great exodus,3 from the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking countries especially, to the leading Syco Institutes of Asia, — the Institute of Nankin, the Institute of Hakodate, and the two far-famed Forest Schools of Burmah. Before 1950 the courts of the Chinese colleges were crowded with Western students4; and by this time too the Syco Institutes at Kiev and Moscow were receiving an enormous influx of young Europeans. So was the Syco College at Cairo. In fact, the vast and thought-fermenting mixture of races with which we have been familiar ever since — which indeed has become the outstanding feature of our modern college life — was brought about by sycoanalysts seeking knowledge and inspiration: another thing we owe to them!

The famous Syco Review was founded at Milan at about this time. It was from the first the most brilliant of the papers devoted to sycoanalysis. It was while the Review was still young that the epoch-making trip through Italy, France, and Spain was taken by two of its contributing editors, the scholarly Bulgarians, husband and wife, who were respectively Professor of Moods and Professor of Wishes at the Nankin Institute. M. and Mme Olgelinck took this tour in order to discuss the question of what sycoanalysis might and should do in reorganizing the social life of nations ‘on lines better adapted to the moods and wishes of the human heart.’

I believe it was during a discussion following one of these lectures, in the City Theatre of Barcelona, that the proposal was first made for an international Syco Commission, ‘to study the distortion of hopes and wishes under repression.’ It was not at first suggested how or where the phenomena could best be isolated and analyzed. But as the project gradually took shape, it became obvious that the best and briefest way to study the distortion of wishes under repression was to go where they were most repressed — in other words, to study the prisons.

Accordingly, plans were laid at a conference held in Beirut the following May. Twenty prisons were to be examined, some on every continent. It was fortunate — the final announcement pointed out — that prisons in general had been so greatly humanized since the dark ages of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early-twentieth centuries; ‘for,’it said, ‘we could never have disentangled the wreckage of any human spirit under the filth and cruelty of — for example — the nineteen-twenties. But nowadays, when repression is so much more guarded and the dignity and eagerness of the prisoner are beginning to be prized, it should be possible for us to make some real contribution to the science of human nature and the art of dealing with it.’

The research began in 1955. The Report came out in 1959. It’s too well known, of course, too much a classic, to be quoted at any length. Children used to memorize passages of it, as their grandparents had memorized Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I’m told the Free-Taught children in the Meadow Schools no longer care to do so. Well, it’s Greek to them, of course. The world they live in is n’t the world in which human beings used to stamp so hard on one another’s bright balloons of aspiration!

One of the passages that used to be thus memorized was the opening bit about spring fever: ‘that restlessness of April days in city offices, that longing for distance and wildness . . . familiar to all the world, but never studied, never allowed for, in planning our all-too-orderly social life. . . . Strange that it has never been capitalized by modern society, as the mediæval Church capitalized it in pilgrimages, and the mediæval universities in their free exchanges of wandering students. Primitive society was wiser yet, for blunderingly and grudgingly it at least accorded the wandering life an important place in the scheme of things . . . and so eventually must we, if we would save the springs of our racial health from running dry.’

The second and principal part of the Report profoundly analyzes crime through all its varied immediate causes, such as the struggle of humiliated selfesteem, the terrible frictions of forced intimacy, the tempests of passion that unsound bodies invite and cannot withstand, down to that bedrock cause of almost every crime — monotony, conformity, and the disastrous tyranny of the clock, combining as they do to produce ‘the deadly sense of boredom in the suffocating heart.’

The last part of the Report takes up the mighty historical rôle that the nomadic life has played. The nomadic life, it points out, is the only ‘fully manly life possible for many to engage in, in which the consciousness of time has ever really relaxed its strangle-hold upon man, since prehistoric times. . . . So long as nomadry was respectable, — was indeed a rather saintly and exalted mode of life, — so long there was an outlet, if not for the average man’s spring fever, which craves a temporary wildness, at least for that exaggerated and enduring spring fever of the born nomad.’

‘ Buddha, Moses, Zoroaster, Jesus, Mohammed, Augustine, Waldo, Francis, Livingstone, Tolstoy,’ the Report concluded, ‘all were wandering men. Socrates, who had no forest, roamed the streets.’

It is usually said, in the histories, that the Commission on Repressed Human Nature issued a Report which helped to make possible that Revival of Nomadry now generally considered the chief accomplishment of the twentieth century. Most of the histories content themselves with stating this fact. I find it interesting, on the other hand, to analyze for myself the way in which the Report accomplished its end. It interests me to notice that they did it by first flashing into the average man’s heart a gleam of sympathetic understanding of his own least comprehended and most neglected experience, spring fever; and then used that rapport to which they had come with him, to entice him into sympathizing with the same kind of experience in other men’s lives, whose avocations misfit them far more glaringly than his own — at times, at any rate — misfit him.

‘And as the best cure for lust,’ the Report said, ‘is not the hair shirt and stone floor of a cell, but an exulting, free, and happy love, the fulfilling of the heart’s profoundest wish, so the remedy for this moral wanderlust, this adventurousness, that has forced its outlet in some social disturbance or other, is not the steady ache of a settled occupation, but a large and fruitful roaming in solitude, the open pasture for the human spirit.’

How wisely the great Report had been conceived, the next months showed. By one of the most dramatic coincidences of all history, the aged Lord Eastcathedral died that autumn. He died possessing one of the last— and probably the largest — of the three or four huge old British estates remaining unbroken. Death duties had swallowed up all the others, and turned them over, in one form or other, to the Commonwealth. By a new will, dated almost immediately after the issuance of the Report, the entire estates of Lord Eastcathedral were turned into a Nomad reservation, of which all Englishmen craving a nomadic life were to take possession; and they were to draft their own rules, ‘with the advice of one recognized Forester, one competent Health Officer, and one of the Sycoan Commission’ who had signed the Report.

Before the Rules — drafted almost immediately— had been posted twentyfour hours, there were a hundred tents set up in the Reservation. But everybody knows the story: how a tract in lower Siberia was next set aside, and then great forest-tracts in New Zealand; and then, by Interstate agreement, the curious long winding Reservations connecting the National Parks in the United States, so that nomads could wander from one corner of the United States to the opposite one across the country, with scarcely a day’s travel outside the Reservations. And then the Himalayan ones, and then the vast reservations of Scandinavia. Everybody knows, for our histories all tell the tale, how fast the cities dwindled in population, how the inhabitants spread out, first into breathing-room, then into elbow-room, and lastly into comfortable spaciousness. All our histories tell how the Canadian nomads first, and then the Himalayan, took over the Forestry Departments of the Governments, and organized their fire protection, and the designation of lumbering tracts. Or if everyone does n’t know or remember all this, everyone at least knows the romantic story of Peter Whales, the multimillionaire syndicator of cotton mills, who had been convicted of employing child labor: how he jumped the bail he was out on, pending a second trial, and lost himself in the forests of northern Europe, and then from his unknown hiding-place, invited the tuberculous children of the world to come into the woods and get well; and how he was internationally pardoned.5

Yes! the romance of the twentieth century certainly is this, how the tramps and convicts and ne’er-do-wells of the world have raised the health of the world so high in one generation by their children’s camps, or what the community doctors of Edinburgh so well call the Tree Nurseries. Who that ever saw —as I was taken in my childhood to see them — the little hammocks swinging from the trees, will ever forget those sleeping faces? I saw one mother visiting her three delicate children in the camp; I saw her kiss the hand of Peter Whales. . . .

What will the romance of the twenty-first century be, if not the fruit — in some great spiritual advance, comparable only with the mighty social advances of our own century — of that revival of Nomad Prophecy which is already arousing the wonder of the listening people at the Sunday evening choral feasts? We sent broken men and women into the noble natural sanatorium of the woods, and they came back with the live coal of prophecy on their lips. Will the lifetime of the children born in this decade, which ends our blessed century, behold a Prophet, or a race of Prophets, rising on the world as compellingly as the Hebrew Prophets rose in their own circumscribed little nation in the ancient days? If so, they will have come from the same source — from wandering in leisure and solitude where thoughts are long and brooding.

  1. The Editors are not committed to these singularly positive statements.
  2. Formerly called Psychoanalysts.
  3. The Editors have received one Interpretation attributing our social change to this exodus — and a very plausible Interpretation it is.
  4. Another Interpretation chooses the widespread use of Esperanto as the cause of our social happiness, since it was Esperanto which made this free intercourse between the hemispheres possible!
  5. The first pardon issued by the International Pardoning Bureau, after the All-Nations Declaration of Interdependence in 1068.