Monday, August 08, 2005

BOOKS: Special Love / Special Sex

Once again family history has lead me to learn about an interesting pocket of American history. This weekend, I read Special Love / Special Sex: An Oneida Community Diary, edited by Robert S. Fogarty. I had heard of the Oneida Community, mostly because I knew that my grandma grew up there, but I didn't really know a lot about it. This book is actually the publication of the diary of Victor Hawley (my grandma's grandfather), interleaved with extensive explanatory and interpretive material from Fogarty, a history prof at Antioch College specializing in American utopianism and communitarianism. It seems that while the Oneida Community had been studied, there was a dearth of "inside" primary sources until this diary came to light in the 1980s. This book is thus of scholarly interest, but also makes an interesting read for the layman. As Fogarty explains in the intro, the diary tells the story of a man and a woman in love despite their family opposing the union. While the story of star-crossed lovers has been told in many ways, what makes this one unique is its setting in the Oneida Community of the 1870s, and its relationship to currents and transformations within the Community. Fogarty does a good job of explaining the context, and his material is interleaved with the actual diary entries over two years, published completely but broken up into four sections based on turning points in the story. The diary entries are telegraphic, with the most passionate thoughts and dreams interspersed with mundane details of work, sleep, chores and hobbies. At the times when Victor is separated from Mary (his love), he is reminded of her in all sorts of places and his entries are plaintively moving:
I walked down to the middle of the swamp after meeting. When shall I walk with you again. Oh that you were here or I were there if only for an hour. Would to God that you were with me forever.
The love story is sweet, but even more fascinating is the window into the life of a community practicing (and for a good while succeeding) what their founder, John H. Noyes, termed "Bible communism". Growing out of the American "religious awakening" of the 1830s and 1840s, Noyes was part of a movement called Perfectionism, a peculiar spin on Christianity that strove to live lives as sin-free as possible, and sought to create the "new Jerusalem" on earth (in this particular instance, on a farm in central New York state). Noyes' vision included a thorough-going communism in which everyone lived and worked for the good of the community. The community was conceived as one large family to such an extent that they considered all adult members as participating in one "complex marriage". While Puritanism informed the Oneida work ethic, Noyes had completely novel ideas about sex. A strong distinction was made between "progenitive" sex and "amative" sex, with the latter being performed using a technique in which the Oneida men trained themselves to be satisfied with a sexual interaction stopping short of the natural climax. While progenitive sex was planned and limited, "amative" sex was encouraged among the community members as a form of interpersonal community-building, with a variety of partners being preferable. Though it sounds at first like 1960s "free love", it really wasn't that kind of orgy. Though the acts themselves were done in private, these "communications" (as they were euphemistically called) were all negotiated in public light and through third parties, and seemed for the most part to effectively support the communitarian spirit. Getting too attached to any one person, however, was discouraged, as that was seen as selfish and working against the communitarian spirit. (And it was there that Victor and Mary ran afoul.) Similarly, children (the product of selectively planned progenitive "communications") belonged to the community family and were raised communally.

Though the community eventually collapsed in the end of the 1870s for a variety of reasons including a leadership crisis when the founder's less charismatic son tried to assert some new and different philosophy, it did thrive for some three decades, growing from 50 people in 1848 to over 200 in 1868. During that time, the community became economically quite successful, and there are some interesting observations to be made in that regard. One of the ingredients to their success was the ethic for continuous improvement, a spiritual goal that seemed to spill over into their practical life as well. The practice of arts, crafts, and ongoing education were encouraged, with individuals encouraged to seek out their particular interests and aptitudes. The communitarian principle was that individualistic self-improvement and self-fulfillment would naturally align with making the community stronger and better. This was also combined with a philosophy of maximum flexibility in work roles, which included the rotation of everyone through various jobs and duties, and occasional widescale redeployment on large tasks. For example, when a harvest was to be brought in, everyone might take a day off from their current positions and the whole colony would tackle the harvest, getting it done much more quickly and effectively. Hard work was made social and fun wherever possible. I think a modern economist would admire the "labor liquidity" embodied in their approach of highly fluid redeployment of workers as needed, combined with continual skill development. (History has shown that the communist central planning model fails badly at the national level, but I think with the right ethic some communal principles can be quite effective in small to medium-sized organizations, as Oneida proves a good example.)

When Victor Hawley's diary was recorded (1876-77), the community was starting to suffer tensions due in part to the introduction of new philosophical ideas. The founder's son Theodore Noyes was fascinated by eugenics and brought the notion (termed "stirpiculture") to Oneida, in which a committee of elders started to dictate who could make babies with whom. The elder Noyes, through philosophical conviction and personal charisma, had been able to maintain a happy balance that evaded his son, and some of his ideas brought the Orwellian tensions to the surface, with Victor Hawley and Mary Jones playing the role of Winston and Julia (108 years early). The book not only tells a nice love story, but its socio-historical context provides an intriguing foil for currently relevant issues such as the purpose of sex and marriage, and the struggle to resolve the personal versus the communal.

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