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A Husk of Meaning

What Happened to Community?

 
Cover: August 2007August 2007Medium length read
 

‘Community' has become a soft word. It's not one that belongs in the tough rhetoric of markets and the economy. It's a word that for most of us, most of the time, can slip past easily, and in so far as there's a concept lurking behind it, it's one that doesn't involve much effort. When policy changes and budget cuts release the mentally ill into the community, it sounds humane as well as prudent. Unless, that is, you're one of the families that, in the absence of adequately funded hostels and outpatient care, is what ‘community' translates into. The ‘community sector' fights on valiantly, but the very term puts it at the soft end of public concern.

Thirty years ago or so, the word packed a punch. It's hard to imagine now. In London during the '70s, I fell in with a rather wonderful group of women who were working at community centres and community presses, and elbowing their way out of the strictures of our mothers' generation by living collectively. I was only there for a year, but I remember it, and the memory is both exhilarating and troubling. Since then I've watched the downward slide of the word, and for a long time I stopped using it myself; it was both too laden, and too redolent of a time that had been rewritten as foolish and naive. Until, that is, just recently, when I've seen signs that a word disavowed by the bright new order of prosperity might be making a return.

In London earlier this year I saw an old friend from those days of community politics, the Australian expatriate Lynne Segal. Her memoir, Making Trouble, was in press at the time, and she told me that contrary to the fears of many publishers who were nervous of going anywhere near that terrain, there was already a rush of interest. Even before the book was on the shelves, she was booked for all the festivals. That was one sign. Then, entirely by chance, I heard an interview on the radio with a young Englishman who'd spent a year living in communities. There are a surprising number of them in England and Europe, and he had visited five, participating in their life, taking them seriously in a spirit he described as a kind of pilgrimage: he knew what he was travelling away from, but had no clear idea of what he was looking for. Starting at the fuzzy, feel-good end of the spectrum, his search had taken him finally to the radical simplicity that comes with a more rigorous manifestation of community. The interview was riveting, for me not least because the last of the communities he lived in, where he found an answer (in so far as answer is what one finds), was Pilsdon, a place that is lodged in some essential, and too easily forgotten, fibre of my heart. At the bottom of a steep and very narrow road in Dorset's Marshwood Vale, Pilsdon is, like the Little Gidding of TS Eliot's last Quartet, "the unknown, remembered gate".

Pilsdon was established as a community by Percy Smith at the end of the 1950s. His inspiration came from Little Gidding, which Nicholas Ferrar had established in 1625 when he renounced the riches he'd enjoyed as the deputy treasurer of the Virginia Company, bought a dilapidated manor house in Huntingdonshire, and opened its life of work and prayer to anyone who came to its door needing refreshment of spirit, mind or body. The question Smith posed was whether that vision could be taken up 300 years later and given life in the present. The press liked to describe him as a "maverick clergyman", but a better description would be of a high-octane thinker well suited to the spade. He wasn't an idealist so much as a pessimist - more in sympathy with St John of the Cross than Teilhard de Chardin. He liked an intellectual or, better still, a theological challenge and relished the hard work of creating something from the ground up. Hence the spade.

When Pilsdon Manor came up for sale in 1958, Smith and his wife, Gaynor, paid £5000 for the rambling, run-down old house with its own chapel, outbuildings, a splendid barn and a cottage - and the nine and a half acres that would be just enough, with hard work, to make it self-sufficient. At 12, I was old enough to register the excitement in my father's voice when Smith rang, and also the peril of an experiment that had cost "all that money" - and it's true that in financial terms Pilsdon would be impoverished for years, though in no other way could ‘impoverished' be used of Pilsdon, even when it was beans and potatoes for dinner again. In 1958 there were plenty of doomsayers; even the Bishop was doubtful. But Percy and Gaynor Smith were there for 20 years, and so was Gillian, my mother's dearest friend. I was there off and on through my teens; Gillian would come and rescue me from school, or I'd be there with my mother, who turned to Pilsdon in a time of confusion and need, or with my father, also in need, who'd walk up and down the garden with Percy. And Pilsdon is still there and still open, in Gaynor's words, "to the questing, the doubting, the troubled, the homeless, the helpless, the unwanted, the unloving and the unloved". If longevity is to be taken as an indicator, on that alone it is a success.

Tobias Jones, the young man whom I'd heard interviewed, went to Pilsdon as a kind of participant-observer for his book Utopian Dreams (2007). Oxford educated, with a successful career at the London Review of Books and the Independent on Sunday, he lives in Bristol and spends time in Parma, where his wife comes from. His first book, The Dark Heart of Italy, had been well received. So why would such a man turn his back on the "debonair pleasures", as he puts it, and take his wife and small daughter on a tough year living in communities? At Pilsdon, in midwinter, he was milking cows before dawn.

His answer has to do with the pervasive sense of dissatisfaction that shadows even the successes of our lives. He was jibbing against the hyper-modern experience of living (in Ivan Illich's phrase) as a "permanent passenger", dazed by choice and dazzled by material marvels: "Nothing even aims for permanency or perfection ... we're constantly buying because we're cool chameleons. We're ceaselessly changing, dressing up to assume new roles ... The promise never comes to fruition. We can't even remember what the promise was." The book opens with a cry most of us will recognise: "I simply can't continue living like this." So he poses the question of what would happen if he were to opt out of the world we take as real in favour of the mirror world of community, where people work for the common good rather than for private gain, living in harmony with each other or, if not always in harmony, at least with each other. The subtitle to Utopian Dreams is ‘In Search of a Good Life'. Not the good life, but a good life - a small but significant difference.

Rather than set off for Japan or India, Jones knew it was important to stay "on home ground", which for him meant England and Italy, where he is linguistically and theologically "fairly fluent". Three of his five communities came under the rubric of Christian. The first, Damanhur, north of Turin, was based not on a religion but on a "school of thought", and a recent, somewhat cobbled-together one at that. This was the only community that believed in "utopia". At Damanhur, perfectability was within grasp; it was a matter of getting the alignment right, and here the community was much helped, he was told, by being on an intersection of "synchronic lines" that make up the nervous system of the planet. Jones checked in with his credit card and was inducted by Sparrow-Hawk. Personal names are dispensed with at Damanhur, replaced with animal first names and vegetable surnames, as in ‘Hare Violet'. "Happy-clappy", the residents of Pilsdon would call it. Jones meditated in the Temple of Mankind, drank coffee in the Soma Chandra Bar and took in the spiritual boutiques offering copious delights from crystals to cheeses. "The idea of being rich never scared us," Falcon tells him. It's a cockeyed start to the quest - more a caricature of the world Jones is trying to leave behind than a counter to it.

At Pilsdon, in contrast, you pay nothing, and you are paid nothing for the work that is done everyday by everyone who sleeps under its roof. Self-sufficiency takes a great deal of work, and the community is dependent on every hand. More than this, it's work that gives everyone a stake in the interdependency at the heart of Pilsdon's philosophy. "Everyone had a role," Jones writes, "a use, a purpose, and in fulfilling that role plays their part in something far greater than themselves ... No one is surfeit to requirements, no one outside the intricate machinery" of the community. So work is the first rule at Pilsdon. The second is no alcohol. Percy was called unchristian often enough for turning away drunks, but for him Christianity was made of sterner stuff. If Pilsdon was to keep its doors open to addicts and alcoholics, to the emotionally raw and the unstable, the shared discipline of sobriety was an essential base from which repair could begin. Beyond that there were no rules, no proselytising, no preaching. You could come with any belief system, any religion, any politics; you could come from prison and not be judged; you could come, like my mother, from a psychiatric hospital and not be marked; or you could come, like me, because you hated school and not be questioned. The point about Pilsdon was not what it said, but what it did - and what it enabled you to do with what it did. The radical simplicity of its daily practice was rigorous - "there was no place to hide," Jones writes - but at the same time something happened through the alchemy of interdependence which allowed the individual an unexpected freedom. "Our strange shapes seem, finally, to make sense," he writes,

 

each piece in the puzzle seems important. It's a jigsaw, of course, which is never finished: new pieces arrive, others leave, others change their daily labour and therefore their position in the puzzle. And the picture the puzzle makes changes subtly from day to day as pieces morph. But what is extraordinary is the importance accorded to every piece.

*

Looking back, I both can and can't understand why in the mid-'70s I didn't have Pilsdon in mind during that time of community centres and collective living. Gillian in the kitchen - it was her and Gaynor's domain - was not, I suppose, a model for a young feminist. The discipline and hard work of Pilsdon was a long stride from the free-flowing, free-loving world of North London. And Percy - wonderful, clear-eyed Percy - was a problem; he might have been a benign patriarch, but he was a patriarch nonetheless.

And then there was religion, which, despite Pilsdon, seemed irrelevant to the secularism that we thought was synonymous with modernity. It wasn't, of course, but even so I was shocked when I went on the internet and found a barrage of furious responses to Utopian Dreams, all because Tobias Jones said that he couldn't talk about community without talking about religion. You'd think he was a raving fundamentalist, rather than someone who'd turned a supple mind to those aspects of religious tradition and practice that speak to the idea and experience of community. It was naive of me to be surprised when, as a response to the return of God in the most authoritarian of ways, all around us we see this urge to throw out everything about religion holus bolus.

It's the same with socialism, except that there aren't the defenders. You can hardly mention it without being thought to be in favour of the Gulag and the show trial. Despite the scorn of the Right, when we were reading the socialists, however imperfectly, we were attempting to understand the roots of an ideal that of course we knew had gone horribly wrong in Soviet practice. (Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg lent their names to a lot of babies during that decade.) Rather like Percy looking back to Little Gidding in order to move forward with the century - "It is not to ring the bell backward" - the socialist feminists of the '70s read back in order to think towards a pluralistic, secular and creative concept of community that might work in a radically democratic Britain. All that was swept away by Thatcher. And, here in Australia, we are still in the grip of those who'd have us believe that, ultimately, there's no such thing as society, and that power is exercised in the name of individual freedom and prosperity. The rhetorical assault has been so decisive that it's hard to know how to think back before it, and to make a case for a politics of community.

Lynne Segal has done exactly that in Making Trouble. "Strange, surely mythical," she writes, "are the creatures that lived behind our always accessible, collective doors, when surveyed through today's neo-Darwinian lens, focused sharply on individual, competitive survival." She breathes life into the tall Victorian house in Highbury where many of us travelling from Australia stayed over those years, and still do. Back then, in Highbury and in the collective houses of Sydney, it was a way of living I admired and aspired to, though in practice found hard, and it lingers in my memory more as an episode of failure than success. This was partly due to a temperament that likes nothing better than an afternoon alone with a book, but also because I discovered, as Tobias Jones did at Pilsdon, that collective living isn't the escape one might hope it to be. "Communal living brings into sharp focus all your faults," Jones writes, "which is why, presumably, we're naturally inclined to flee from it." Highbury was not a hippy-dippy existence of incense and self-indulgence, and nor were any of the other collective houses I lived in. There might have been incense, and there was certainly self-indulgence, but the indulgences were insignificant compared to daily coming up against the obdurate realities of others and, worse, coming up against oneself in the mirror of those others.

It was the era of the liberation movements, which meant that we were very interested in freedom. But it was a freedom enacted against the constraints we felt as young women, and against the hobbled lives we perceived our mothers to have endured. Segal's take on that era and its "fraught arena of sexual politics" is that our ideas of freedom were full of doubts and contradictions; we were muddled in our thinking and therefore in our living, underestimating how easily we could fall into the trap of reproducing exactly what we were trying to break away from. We learned, often in painful ways, that choice had consequences, and that our own freedoms, let alone the freedoms of others, could leave us in a turmoil of emotion we couldn't think, or talk, our way out of. After reading these two books, my own feeling is that we suffered from having a theory (and Segal's right, it was pretty wobbly) rather than faith - which is another word to be approached with caution.

Freedom, Tobias Jones tells us in a short etymological aside, is linked to notions of "love" and "people". Its religious meaning, he writes, "turns the idea around" towards freedom not as taken, not as a right, but as "granted, or gifted" by one's community; from that perspective it has "a completely different, more profound timbre". If freedom comes only to mean "autonomy", he warns, "it is obviously inimical to community - a tragic, desolate notion of freedom". His image of our hyper-modern life has us all like dogs in our kennels, barking for ourselves.

"The temptation for all of us, everywhere," Percy Smith wrote back in 1961,

 

is to contract out of this real world, to try and create an easier world of one's own, and to keep out of trouble at all costs. The alternative is to accept the challenge of life, to avoid all escaping, however subtle, and to go further and further into reality through decision and crisis and conflict. By doing so we inevitably question the cynicism and superficiality and escapism of our contemporary attitudes.

 

Temperamentally Lynne Segal is rather like Smith: that attractive combination of thinker and doer. She thrived on the dash and energy of community-press deadlines, and campaigns to broaden political agendas around housing, disability, child-care, women's health and so forth. She even enjoyed her share of leafleting, which I can't say I ever did. She was good at putting ideas and action together, in bringing a wide raft of people along with her. In Making Trouble she reminds us that it was the success rather than the failure of those grass-roots campaigns "at the municipal level ... which led to Thatcher's offensive against any sources of public funding for more participatory democratic practices, curtailing the power of local councils in the process".

What makes Making Trouble so rich and of the moment is Segal's capacity to pull the threads of her thinking about community, as well as a questioning of that thinking, through the radically antipathetic changes of the past two and a half decades. Since 1980 Segal has worked as a feminist academic, and in the Labour Party during its radical years in the wilderness before it became New. More recently, the twists and turns of her life have brought her back to a form of identity for years disregarded, and thereby, in her own robustly secular way, back to religion. Where she's likely to meet most trouble with this book is not in her rethinking of the past, or in her excellent accounting of London's New Left, but in the present challenge she makes as a dissident Jew. When, in the final chapter, she quotes the feminist theorist Judith Butler about the need for "translation to understand the role of the ‘other'", she is not so far from the theologians of community: "I am nowhere without you. I cannot muster the ‘we' except by finding the way in which I am tied to ‘you', trying to translate, but finding my own language must break up and yield in order to know you."

It wasn't so long ago - a mere 40 years! - that such ideas were the stuff of political rallies. Remember Martin Luther King speaking to the sanitation workers of Memphis in April 1968? "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" he asked, weaving the parable of the Good Samaritan into this extraordinary speech. "The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?' ... ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?' That's the question." What made the Samaritan not only Good but Great, King said, was that "he had the capacity to project the ‘I' into the ‘Thou' and be concerned about his brother." The Good Samaritan had the courage to do what needed to be done, even when it meant stopping on a dangerous road, risking his own safety to help an injured man. King said this at a rally one day before he was shot dead.

I don't suppose King's call for "dangerous unselfishness" is likely to get much purchase in Australia at the end of the Howard era. David Marr, in the current Quarterly Essay, is persuasive in his argument that we have only the "patchiest record of being passionate about great abstractions - even the greatest of them: liberty". But he and every other commentator, except those in the pocket of the Coalition, report a rising tide of discontent. What comes to mind in the light of these two books is whether, or to what extent, King's question lies somewhere beneath that discontent. Amanda Lohrey sees the filling of the Pentecostal churches as a search for connection, some greater meaning than life alone with a mortgage. In the middle-class suburbs, the spiritual supermarket thrives alongside renovators and stock-market advisors. The cynical view is that even community can be commodified (as clearly it can) and if we want it, in this view, it's as a prop for ourselves that doesn't necessarily mean we're prepared to do anything, let alone give up anything, for others. The more optimistic view is that something deeper is stirring in our collective psyche: an ache of absence that's trying to find a new voice, reaching towards new forms of old ideas that have to do with connection and integration. We've been bewitched by prosperity, bamboozled by the princes of a global economy, and a whole generation has been raised to assume the primacy of the individual. But the questions being put to us now, like WorkChoices or climate change, ask us, as we haven't been asked in a long time, to consider our social nature and the fabric of our shared world, even to the extent of its survival.

It took a man as smart as Tobias Jones a year of pilgrimage to "begin to feel that society and the individual really aren't at odds, because society is where we realise our deepest identities". You could say that what's striking about this isn't the conclusion he comes to, but that it was so hard to arrive at something that's always been there in the storehouse of our cultural memory - a starting rather than an end point for sages and philosophers down the ages. Not that I can talk. It's only now, 45 years or more since I was first read TS Eliot's poem at Pilsdon, that I think, perhaps, I begin to understand these lines:

 

If you came at night like a broken king,

If you came by day not knowing what you came for,

It would be the same, when you leave the rough road

And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull façade

And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for

Is only a shell, a husk of meaning

From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled

If at all ...

About the author Drusilla Modjeska
Drusilla Modjeska is an editor and novelist whose book Stravinsky's Lunch won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. She has edited Meanjin and The Best Australian Essays.