by Alex Tabisher
An idyllic world has a population of one. The introduction of a second person triggers the social trepidations, fears and psychoses that make up modern life. The chaos increases incrementally, then exponentially, then we are headed for entropy.
Which introduces my theme for the week: What is an ideal society? I refer to the daily news. A past president treats a commission of inquiry, instituted by himself, with the most blatantly in-your-face disdain.
An army of red overalled demonstrators target a private celebration as a national cataclysm. A modern-day prophet disappears into thin air instead of defending himself in a court of law against accusations of fraud.
This is the stuff of nightmares. We need to fall back on notions of a society where behavioural norms are predictable and accountable. I fall back on my panacea for the woes of the world – I read.
The original political tract that describes the perfect society has to be The Republic, by Plato, written in 380 BC. This is a series of four books where the philosopher, Socrates, poses and seeks to answer questions about an ideal state. To me it is interesting, except where he insists on philosopher kings who rule, and the exclusion of poetry, which, he claims, distorts the realities of life.
Using an historical timeline, we next meet Sir Thomas More. He wrote Utopia in 1516, a 360-page exposition of a perfect world that contrasted with the real world of poverty, crime and political corruption. Unimaginatively, the ideal society is set on an island. He chose the title from the Greek ou-topos, which means “no place”. Do the maths.
Tangentially, I find a connection with Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden in As You like It. There are many references that a reader can draw from in the imagery of the play, including the interesting notion that Arden is a contraction of Arcadia and Heaven (Arcadia being a place of rustic innocence and simple, quiet pleasure.)
1872 sees the publication of a fictional account of a perfect society. The author is Samuel Butler. Of his many publications, the one that was most successful and concerns us is called Erewhon, supposedly the word “nowhere” spelt backwards. Initially, he starts out writing a satire on Victorian society plus his first few years as a sheep farmer in New Zealand. He is one of the first authors to moot the notion of artificial intelligence.
Waiting in the wings are The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Llareggub Hill (Buggerall backwards) by Dylan Thomas and a literal mountain of other readings.
It is my sad conclusion that a perfect society isn’t possible and doesn’t exist anywhere. I underscore our need to consider our realities. We look for examples to improve shortcomings. We redefine the society we occupy and find solace in the possibility of racial and national harmony. It is a better exercise than cataloguing the heinous behaviours of society.
* Literally Yours is a weekly column from Cape Argus reader Alex Tabisher. He can be contacted on email by [email protected]
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.
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