The Story of Utopias, by Lewis Mumford, , at sacred-texts.com
IT is a sunny day and I am sitting on the top of a mountain. Until this morning, it had been the mountain of a fairy story that was twenty centuries old.
Now, it is a mighty hill and I can feel its warm coat of white reindeer-moss, and if I were willing to stretch out my hand, I could pluck the red berries that are in full bloom.
A hundred years from now it will be gone.
For it is really a large chunk of pure iron, dumped by a playful Providence in the very heart of Lapland.
Do you remember an old tale of Norse mythology? How somewhere, far in the north, there stood a high peak of iron, which was a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide? And how a little bird came to it once every thousand years to sharpen its beak? And how, when the mountain was gone, a single second of all eternity would have passed by?
I heard it told as a child.
I remembered it always, and I told it to my own boys when they began to learn history. It seemed the invention of some prehistoric Hans Christian Andersen. It belonged to the imaginary scenery of our dreams.
The story has come true, and I have found my old mountain where I least expected it.
To make the cycle of coincidence perfect, this hill was named after a bird. The Lapp, with a fine sense of sound, called the ptarmigan "Kiru." Kirunavaara no longer hears the shrill "kiru-kiru" of rising birds. Twice a day it listens to the terrific detonation of half a hundred charges of dynamite.
Then it is shaken by the little trains which carry the rock to the valley.
In the evening, it sees the lights of the large electric engines which hoist the valuable metal across the arctic wilderness of Lake Tornotrask.
Two months later, the ore has been melted and worked into those modern articles of trade which go by the name of bridges
and automobiles and ships and apartment houses and a thousand other things which once promised to elevate man from the ranks of the beasts of burden.
What has become of that promise, the survivors of the last eight years know with great if gruesome accuracy.
Even the humble Lapp has heard of the great upheaval, and has asked why the white people should kill each other when the whole world was full of reindeer and when God has given us the hills and the plains so that forever there should be food enough for the long days of summer and the longer nights of the endless winter.
But the ways of the Lapp are not the ways of the white man. These simple followers of a pure and much undiluted nature follow the even tenor of their ways as their ancestors did, five and ten thousand years ago.
We, on the other hand, have our engines and we have our railroad trains and we have our factories and we cannot get rid of these iron servants without destroying the very basis of our civilization. We may hate these ungainly companions, but we need them. In time to come, we shall know how to be their masters. Then Plato shall give us a revised Republic where all the houses are heated by steam and where all the dishes are washed by electricity.
We are not suffering from too much machinery, but from too little. For let there be enough iron servants and more of us shall be able to sit on the tops of mountains and stare into the blue sky and waste valuable hours, imagining the things that ought to be.
The Old Testament used to call such people prophets. They raised strange cities of their hearts' delight, which should be based exclusively upon righteousness and piety. But the greatest of all their prophets the Jews killed to make a Roman holiday. The Greeks knew such wise men as philosophers. They allowed
them great freedom and rejoiced in the mathematical precision with which their intellectual leaders mapped out those theoretical roads which were to lead mankind from chaos to an ordered state of society.
The Middle Ages insisted with narrow persistence upon the Kingdom of Heaven as the only possible standard for a decent Christian Utopia.
They crushed all those who dared to question the positive existence of such a future state of glory and content. They built it of stone and precious metals, but neglected the spiritual fundament. And so it perished.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries fought many bitter wars to decide the exact nature of a whitewashed Paradise, erected upon the crumbling ruins of the mediæval church.
The eighteenth century saw the Promised Land lying just across the terrible bulwark of stupidity and superstition, which a thousand years of clerical selfishness had erected for its own protection and safety.
There followed a mighty battle to crush the infamy of ignorance and bring about an era of well-balanced reason.
Unfortunately, a few enthusiasts carried the matter a trifle too far.
Napoleon, realist-in-chief of all time, brought the world back to the common ground of solid facts.
Our own generation drew the logical conclusion of the Napoleonic premises.
Behold the map of Europe and see how well we have wrought. For alas! this world needs Utopias as it needs fairy stories. It does not matter so much where we are going, as long as we are making consciously for some definite goal. And a Utopia, however strange or fanciful, is the only possible beacon upon the uncharted seas of the distant future.
It encourages us in our efforts. Sometimes the light is hidden by
the clouds and for a moment we may lose our way. Then the faint light once more breaks through the darkness and we press forward with new courage.
And when life is dull and meaningless (the main curse of all existence) we find consolation in the fact that a hundred years
from now, our children shall reach the shore for which we were bound when we ourselves left the bridge and were lowered to the peaceful bottom of the ocean.
And now the sun has gone down and a chill wind blows from Kebnekajse, where the wild geese of little Nils Holgerson live amidst the endless silence of the eternal snow. Soon the top shall be hidden in the mist and I shall have to find my way back by the noise of the steam shovels, plying their elephantine trade at the foot of the first terrace.
The mountain of my fairy story once more a will be the profitable investment of a Company of Iron-mongers.
But that does not matter.
Lewis Mumford, for whom I am writing this, will understand what I mean.
And I shall be content.
14 Sept., 1922.