The glorious weather has broken – and mist is swirling around the hills. So my thick soup for breakfast. Yesterday the reading was a bit harrowing – picking up Michael Foley’s The Age of Absurdity – why modern life makes it hard to be happy from where I had left him (a week or so ago) bemoaning the misery which seems to the lot of a lot of Brits, moving on to Utopian Dreams whose author, Tobia Jones, takes the same starting point but then spends some time in some special communities in Italy and England to see if they have any answers to our existential Angst. I finish the day learning for the first time about the events from 1914 which left more than half of Smyrna (Izmir) on the Aegean coast being burned to the ground in September 1922 and unknown thousands of Greeks and Armenians slaughtered either on site or in later forced marches. I knew of the Armenian massacres during the First World War – and of the massive exchange of Greek and Turkish populations which took place after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire but nothing of this particular tragedy brought on by a combination of Lloyd George’s misjudgement and Greek political ambition.
In summer 2002 we saw several of the abandoned Greek villages as we drove around the Aegean and I have on my shelf here a terra cotta vase from the area where, I now learn, at least half a million people were trapped by flames, the sea and Turkish soldiers ninety years earlier. Strange how we are allowed to forget! One of the powerful aspects of the story is how a few individuals could make a difference – on the positive side a Turk,Rahmi Bey Governor of Smyrna from 1914 who protected the majority Christian population from the violence which was occurring elsewhere essentially by ignoring all orders which came from Constantinople. But he was eventually sacked in 1918 by the post-war Turkish government, wrongly imprisoned by the Brits in Malta with other members of the previous government and eventually released to spend his last days in Casablanca. When the Greeks were stupidly allowed (by Llloyd George) into Smyrna, several hundred innocent Turkish citizens were slaughtered by Greek soldiers – but their ringleaders were punished by the new Greek Governor, Aristeidis Stergiadis, who then set out to rule fairly for the various communities. The third person to demonstrate immense courage and convision and show what an individual can achieve when the world is collapsing was an American, Asa Jennings who set out single-handedly (and with no authority) to arrange the rescue of thousands of the trapped – mainly by bullying of 40 Greek captains whose empty ships were sitting useless at a nearby island while people burned.
In Utopian Dreams Jones undertakes a series of sojourns inside ‘modern, self contained communities’ in order to ‘cross-examine the values by which we, in the so-called “real world”, live’. Jones’s pilgrimage is a journey of existential exploration, a genuine attempt to discover a way of life that will answer a personal desire for something better – a desire sparked by a sense of dissatisfaction with several (apparently disparate but actually linked) aspects of contemporary life in the ‘real world’. Jones outlines the problem with modern life, explores a series of proposed solutions lived out in community and, to his evident surprise, discovers one such solution that he can embrace for himself.
More than half of my friends or relatives have been on anti-depressants. Me too. Many still have blips and have on-off relationships with their therapists years after the initial darkness descended . . . Everyone seems caught up in a vortex of debonair desperation. We’re all yearning for perfect relationships at the same time as insisting that rootedness and belonging are alien to our vaunted autonomy.Jones diagnoses ‘the real world’ as suffering symptoms caused by a philosophical disease, a linked combination of ideas that underpin contemporary western culture but which have disastrous consequences. Principle among these disastrous ideas, for Jones, is the idea that freedom of choice is an unqualified and absolute good:
We’re miserable despite enjoying a freedom which is unprecedented in human history . . . it’s deeply unfashionable to offend those twin objects of modern desire, choice and rights. But they have become millstones around our neck, hindering our ability to raise our voices to other virtues. I want to get back on the road not to contradict rights and choice, but to find the complementary virtues they require to remain themselves virtuous.Foley’s book balances the profound and the profane. Drawing on philosophy, religion, history, psychology and neuroscience, he explores the things that modern culture is either rejecting or driving us away from:
Responsibility – we are entitled to succeed and be happy, so someone/thing else must be to blame when we are not
• Difficulty – we believe we deserve an easy life, and worship the effortless and anything that avoids struggle (as Foley points out, this extends even to eating oranges: sales are falling as peeling them is now seen as too demanding and just so, you know, yesterday …)
• Understanding – a related point, as understanding requires effort, but where we once expected decision-making to involve rationality, we moved through emotion to intuition (usually reliable) and – more worryingly – impulse (usually unreliable), a tendency that Foley sees as explaining the appeal of fundamentalism (“which sheds the burden of freedom and eliminates the struggle to establish truth and meaning and all the anxiety of doubt. There is no solution as satisfactory and reassuring as God.”)
• Detachment – we benefit from concentration, autonomy and privacy, but life demands immersion, distraction, collaboration and company; by confusing self-esteem (essentially external and concerned with our image to others) with self-respect (essentially internal and concerned with our self-image), we further fuel our sense of entitlement – and our depression, frustration and rage when we don’t get what we ‘deserve’
• Experience – captivated by the heightened colour, speed, and drama of an edited on-screen life, our attention span is falling and ‘attention’ (at least in the West) is something we pay passively rather than actively and mindfully