Taking a survey course on utopias in Western culture has led me back to Austin Tappan Wright’s singular utopian adventure, Islandia, written primarily in the 1920’s but not published until after his death in 1942. I’m happy to have the impetus to revisit this isolated land.
Set pointedly before World War I, Islandia is the story of young John Lang’s term as American Consul, in a brief period in which the reclusive Islandians have opened their family-based agrarian society to Western commercial interests.
Part of a fictional island continent in the antarctic regions, Islandia is rich in natural resources attractive to the industrial West. When Lang arrives, Islandia is in the midst of deciding its future, either continuing its isolation or becoming part of the modern world community.
It goes without saying that this wouldn’t be much of a utopian novel if the emerging consumer society of the early 20th century compared favourably with what Islandia’s traditional culture offers, but the storyline here is not central, although there are love affairs and adventures enough — perhaps more than enough, as the edition I have runs to some 944 pages.
The core of the novel is a before-its-time environmentalism, Wright’s vision of a human society in harmony with nature. Islandia is a modern ecologist’s dream, a kind of egalitarian feudalism with just the right number of people living in just the right way that stability, sustainability, and satisfaction are the hallmarks of a deceptively simple and rewarding way of life.
Like all utopias, Islandia features a number of set piece exchanges, debates, and speeches which function as the primers for Wright’s “less is more” philosophy. Early on, John Lang tries to explain the virtues of industrial-scale mining to his first love interest, Dorna:
“Suppose that a concession were granted to work a copper mine,” I said … “The mines would produce raw copper.”
“Where would it go?”
“Good-bye to our copper.”
“It would be paid for, Dorna. And if the mine was owned by the proprietors of a province, the money could be used to develop the province. There would be better roads, schools, libraries, finer public buildings, electric lighting and power, railroads, lots of things. . . .”
She asked me to describe these things, and I was as glowing as I could be.
“But no one may want any of these things,” she said. “Of course it is simpler to just press a button to make a light, but all the complications of wires stretched everywhere. . . .” She sighed.
“There are two sides to it,” I said. “You would get used to wires.”
“Never!” she cried with a laugh. “Threads going everywhere tying everyone to someone else!”
“It isn’t so bad in practice, Dorna.”
“It’s not our way,” she answered. “And I don’t see the gain. We work some of the time to make candles. Someone else would have to work to make wires and burning things and mills. There would be just as much work.”
“But each person could spend more time on one thing.”
“Why should he?”
“You can accomplish more doing one thing. You become more skillful.”
“But you touch life in fewer ways.”
Wright expresses here a prescient sense of the need for sustainable use of resources, and an awareness of the dangers of overpopulation. From the same conversation between Lang and Dorna:
“. . . But there is another side. There is a need for change in other countries, Dorna. There is great poverty. The value of tis mine going here will help to cure that.”
“But when the mine is exhausted?”
“Other things will have been started.”
“Until the whole world is used up! And won’t there be hundreds more people than there ought to be, all living by exhausting what the world has, and all doomed to die when the world goes barren?”
“No,” I said. “Science will keep ahead, finding new sources of supply.”
“That seems to me a very long gambling chance,” she answered.
Aside from the striking early environmentalism, there is a poignant innocence in Dorna’s worry about “hundreds” of extra people. To a small and isolated society like Islandia’s, a few hundred people would seem like a lot. What about a few billion extra people? Wright spends some time detailing the negative effect of just a few extra children on one clan, the Hyths, a family out of balance and forced into challenging and unwelcome changes.
At the crucial council meeting which decides Islandia’s future path, Dorna’s father, Lord Dorn, gives his reasons for opposing modernization:
In Islandian life, the natural unit is the family and all else is subservient. This is not true in foreign countries. They often announce that the family is the foundation of the state: but by family they mean the small domestic group of husband, wife, and children, not the continuing of generations on the same land; and when they say that this group is the foundation of the state, they mean that if husbands and wives are faithful and have many children, the state will flourish. For them the family is good because it is a foundation for something more important.
Four hundred years ago it was said, “Let us be ourselves in our own land.” From that principle some of us have never moved, and we proclaim it again. Our way of life is an ancient one; the way of life of the foreigner has changed completely in the last few hundred years, and changes daily at what seems like an accelerating rate. Who dares tell us that a thing so new and so unfixed is good for us? With them the son and the father are of different civilizations and are strangers to each other. They move too fast to see more than the surface glitter of a life too swift to be real. They are assailed by too many new things ever to find the depths in the old before it has gone by. The rush of life past them they call progress, though it is too rapid for them to move with it. Man remains the same, baffled and astonished, with a heap of new things around him but gone before he knows them. Men may live many sorts of lives, and this they call “opportunity” and believe opportunity good without ever examining any one of these lives to know if it is good. We have fewer ways of life and most of us never know but one. It is a rich way, and its richness we have not yet exhausted.
Dorna herself, now in a position of considerable influence, uses her close knowledge of her friend John Lang to provide further insight into the unattractive psychology of the West:
They build heavens and put gods into them, and unsatisfied with the gods change them. Or else they turn to another god with the godless name of “science” and destroy these heavens of their own invention, and think that in this new god they have found the universal, which the call “truth.” They rebel against the tangles that they spin in their own aimlessness and they crave the relief of the so-called absolute. Yet all the while they are suffering not from complexity but from unreality. … Oh, they are to be pitied! They are forever seeking to find and to name an aim that will absorb and justify the promptings of the forces that stir within them. All their efforts are fruitless because they have no good soil for the roots of their being. The soil that we have is so natural and so deep that we, satisfied with our aim, are content to leave mystery mysterious.
Wright devotes much space to fully-detailed illustrations of the different psychologies, or spiritualities if you prefer, of John Lang and the Islandians with whom he becomes close friends (and in the case of the young women, sometimes more). Rather than superficial and over-extended pulp romances, the many pages given to Lang’s relationships with Dorna, Nattana (one of the Hyths), and others serve to deepen our understanding of Islandian life on its most personal and emotional levels, giving the novel a human core that highlights the differences between belonging and striving.
These are differences worth exploring — and the choice between the two states, belonging and striving, is a crucial one. In the end, John Lang is given that choice. There’s no surprise in which one he chooses.