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  • Notes on Mutopia
  • Istvan Csicsery-Ronay


People move. We become refugees from violence, and exploitation, and poverty, and boredom. This has happened before. But before, we believed we would settle, or resettle, or die trying. Now we go around and around. We no longer believe there is settlement. Painful for the Enlightenment, for the point of the freedom of movement was to arrive at a destination: an ultimate home better than the birth-home. And the Enlightenment was to bring the ultimate home even to the provinces. It worked so well that now, even when folks live in one place for generations, the world migrates under them. The differences that once were ideologized into essences or principles are recognized to be mutable. High-speed computer and communications technologies have linked different peoples so closely that only “irrationally” protected cultural secrets can survive becoming currencies and stories in the information market. Fill in your own CNNtelepoliticsGoldCardtransnationalfrequentflyerhomeshoppingworldbeatprogrammedtrading HungarianhiphopcrackinBenares story. Bet on it: your parody is empirical, prime-time, your high-rez muezzins chant “in the name of Allah, The Compassionate, the Digital.”1 This is the Age of Absolute Oxymoron. Hang ten, this is a big one.

Mutability is no longer about the physical body’s sad corruption, nor about the freshness of the New Thing. Enter Tao, exit Reason. To live in this flux, Zen demands mu, “unasking the question”—for the question invariably asks to preserve the unpreservable, in language of the reified present. What shall we call our culture of coping in this tide of historical samsara? Let us call it: mutopia.

The Mountain of the Night

When wanderings on the smooth spaces become intolerable, survivors seek magic mountains; spaces that become mountains by rising suddenly; or villages that disappear down a dead-end branch.

The central plateau of southern Africa was ravaged for most of the 1820s by vast hordes of displaced peoples wandering from place to place, pillaging and devouring others to survive. The greatest of these groups, Mantatee’s Horde, numbered over 50,000. A small Sutu clan, led by their young leader, Msheshwe, was forced out of its area.

Msheshwe was appalled at the destruction by which he was surrounded, and alone refused to join in the general pillaging. He gathered his clan, perhaps 2,000 people, and led them south, to the foothills of the Drakensberg (his grandfather Peete was eaten by cannibals on the way), and here he found a most unusual mountain. Thasa Bosiu—“The Mountain of the Night”—was a flat-topped hill in a deep, hidden valley with 150 acres of good pasture and a spring on the summit. The plateau was surrounded by a steep scarp with only three access trails. Msheshwe established his clan on top and supplied each trail with enormous mounds of boulders, which could be rolled down to break up attackers. Perched on this stronghold, he formed the only island of sanity in a sea of madness, and over the years was able to build his clan into the Basuto nation. He pieced it together from debris cast up in the general havoc, offering succor to the fragmented groups that eddied and swirled through the foothills. His security was greatly enhanced by a carefully planted rumor that the mountain grew to an immense height at night and subsided to its normal 300 feet during the day.2

Solvitur ambulando

The past is the natural place to look for the seeds of utopia. The future writes its record into the past. First, idealize pre-industrial agriculture—organicism, closeness to the earth, stewardship, co-operation. When it turns out that agriculture inspires oppressive customs to order settledness, the quest is for hunter-gatherness—even closer to the earth, which h-gs do not try to transform, living in happy communication with the animals, on the borders of faery. But h-gs are inclined to become herders, pastoralists, and the question of turf perpetually incites war over property and grazing privileges. Nay, the very war-machine. Where to next? Neanderthals, perhaps, long maligned, but possibly gentle giants wiped out by aggressive Cro-Magnons (i.e., us). Or even the earliest hominids in the Olduvai Eden.

Bruce Chatwin...