“But did Atlantis exist? It is humankind’s oldest island story, forever giving voice to an era’s insular ideal: perfect climate; egalitarianism; protection from invasion; fertility; abundance of food, wood, and metals; gold and silver statues; luxurious temples, palaces, and harbor facilities; written language, with decisions and laws inscribed on temple walls and golden tablets. Symbolizing everyone’s ideal society ever since Plato, Atlantis has led humankind down many paths – but not to where the human capacity for social cooperation, equity and justice actually lay” – Steven Roger Fischer, Islands: From Atlantis to Zanzibar
When we envision utopian civilizations that preceded our own, we tend to maroon them on a distant island, only to then uncharitably submerge them. On the surface this is a rather pessimistic act of castigating them for the hubris with which they defy that elusive and destructive impulse we abashedly refer to as human nature. It’s not that we don’t have our reasons. Of the past 3400 years of recorded history, the human race has only been entirely at peace for 268 years, and that’s only if you care to be generous and politely ignore anything except mass spasms of murder and mayhem. Folks somewhere were no doubt still clubbing each other over the head, it’s simply that their goals were a little more modest. Stealing cows and rustling horses, rather than burning libraries and ending dynasties. Apparently, one of the joys of civilization has always been tearing down someone else’s civilization. From Atlantis to Lemuria to Mu to Rutas, we display a marvelous capacity to dream of ways in which man can achieve the pinnacle of peace and prosperity, marrying technology and conscience in a creative and aspirational act of imagining how life could be, if only we could escape our ecological pressures and annoying neighbors. Despairingly recognizing the gulf between what we are and what we could be, a pesky artifact of consciousness, we inevitably initiate an orgy of cataclysm, for if ever did such a monstrosity as utopia exist, we acknowledge that it will only ever again be achievable through a baptismal rebirth, a washing away of all the grievous sins of the species that came before. We smash the model out of self-loathing, only to piece it back together again with the paperclips of hope and the chewing gum of altruism.
In Umberto Eco’s novel The Island of the Day Before, the protagonist Roberto, marooned on an abandoned ship from which he can see an island that he cannot reach strives to take control of his fate, “by inventing the story of another world, which existed only in his mind, he would become that world’s master, able to ensure that the things that happened there would not exceed his capacity for endurance”. It is as if instinct always exceeds our capacity to strive for ideals. Plato seemed to recognize the death instinct that compels us to turn away from our better angels.
Such was the vast power which the god settled in the lost island of Atlantis; and this he afterwards directed against our land for the following reasons, as tradition tells: For many generations, as long as the divine nature lasted in them, they were obedient to the laws, and well-affectioned towards the god, whose seed they were; for they possessed true and in every way great spirits, uniting gentleness with wisdom in the various chances of life, and in their intercourse with one another. They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control; but they were sober, and saw clearly that all these goods are increased by virtue and friendship with one another, whereas by too great regard and respect for them, they are lost and friendship with them. By such reflections and by the continuance in them of a divine nature, the qualities which we have described grew and increased among them; but when the divine portion began to fade away, and became diluted too often and too much with the mortal admixture, and the human nature got the upper hand, they then, being unable to bear their fortune, behaved unseemly, and to him who had an eye to see grew visibly debased, for they were losing the fairest of their precious gifts; but to those who had no eye to see the true happiness, they appeared glorious and blessed at the very time when they were full of avarice and unrighteous power (Plato, Dialogue of Critias).
We justify our savagery as a reasonable response to the barbarians that surround us, therefore when we construct our utopian castles in the air, they must be isolated, on fertile islands far away, both geographically and metaphorically set apart, but not as the abode of the divine like Olympus or Heaven, rather wholly part of the mundane world, an achievable sacred goal nestled amidst our profane existence. And then we destroy them, drowning them in a sea that makes all things again possible. Mircea Eliade, who noted this paradigmatic destruction of utopia across many mythologies commented, “The waters symbolize the universal sum of virtualities; they are fons et origo, “spring and origin,” the reservoir of all the possibilities of existence; they precede every form and support every creation. One of the paradigmatic images of creation is the island that suddenly manifests itself in the midst of the waves. On the other hand, immersion in water signifies regression to the preformal, reincorporation into the undifferentiated mode of pre-existence. Emersion repeats the cosmogonic act of formal manifestation; immersion is equivalent to a dissolution of forms. This is why the symbolism of the waters implies both death and rebirth” (Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane). We must wipe the slate clean in order to try again, to re-establish our mastery over our own natures, and re-invent utopia, until the rising tides of the next flood.
What are we to do and how are we to dream, now that satellites observe the four corners of the globe in minute detail, robot cars sidle by photographing every corner of every street, and the ephemerality of utopia can be proven at the touch of a button? What flood can wash away the sins of our forefathers and allow us to envision again what it would mean to be both human and divine? Could it be that now we are living in the Information Age, our suspicion is that only technology can save us, turning the genius that has mapped our world to the task of mapping our consciousness? Or will we find an unsavory way to recreate the Deluge and begin again, as Italian author and director Andrea Camilleri suggested, hypothesizing “the next great flood would be caused not by water from the heavens but by the backing up and over flowing of all the toilets, latrines, cesspools and septic tanks in the world which would start chucking up their contents relentlessly until we all drowned in our own shit.”