The Argonaut Folly

I set out to commemorate the heroes of old who sailed the good ship Argo . . . in quest of the Golden Fleece. Muses, inspire my lay.

The Gentleman’s Name Is Gorgon!

Once upon a time, according to Apollonius of Rhodes (and before him Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, and countless forgotten mythopoets), a Greek prince named Jason was sent to parts unknown on a mission impossible: to fetch a magical golden ram’s fleece. Jason commissioned a fifty-oared galley, the Argo, and manned it with the noblest heroes of the era: mighty Heracles; the bard Orpheus, whose voice enchanted nature itself; bronco-busting Castor and his immortal brother, the boxer Polydeuces; Zetes and Calaïs, the winged sons of the North Wind; as well as the seer Idmon, the sign-reader Mopsus, fleet-footed Euphemus, eagle-eyed Lynceus, shape-shifting Periclymenus, even Aethalides the mnemonist. After adventures on one perilous island after another, and having safely navigated the Clashing Rocks guarding the entrance to the Black Sea, the surviving Argonauts arrived at Colchis (Georgia), acquired the fleece with the aid of the witch Medea, and made their way back home.

That is what we learn from the D’Aulaires’ and Edith Hamilton’s books of mythology. But a wised-up reading of the Argonautica of Apollonius suggests that Jason’s crew of ultratalented specialists was less a ship of heroes than a ship of fools. Or rather: a ship of heroes is always already a ship of fools.

Take Jason, for example. Except when under the influence of Medea’s pharmaceuticals, he’s more of a dandy and a cocksman than a warrior; and for someone generally considered an inspiring leader, he spends an inordinate amount of time “obsessed by fears and intolerable anxiety,” as he puts it in the Argonautica, and lamenting that all is lost. As for the rest of the crew, they are not only a fiercely competitive but a violently quarrelsome lot. Prone to fits of drunken rage, after which those close to him often turn up dead, Heracles is accidentally marooned by the helmsman, Tiphys; when Telamon accuses Tiphys of doing this on purpose, a cynical reader can’t help but agree with Telamon. And it’s not a little suspicious that overweening Idas, having threatened Jason’s loyal supporter Idmon, should be one of the only witnesses when Idmon is slain by a boar. Later, Idas will off Castor in a dispute over cattle, and Polydeuces will snuff Idas’s brother, Lynceus; later still, Heracles will massacre Zetes and Calaïs. To be an Argonaut, then, is to be a member of an outfit that is, to say the least, agonistic.

But in what sense can the Argonauts be called foolish? They are fools for the same reason they are heroes: because each one of them is superior to ordinary mortals in a specialized fashion. When they’re in their rightful element—council, banquet table, or boudoir, in Jason’s case; in Heracles’, the battlefield—there’s no stopping them. But in every other circumstance, the Argonauts are, as Apollonius frequently notes, amechanos: without resource. Jason is all talk, no action; Heracles is all brawn, no brain. When Tiphys dies (after a mysterious illness that, frankly, warrants investigation), Jason collapses on the beach, lamenting, “We are doomed to grow old here, inglorious and obscure”; and when Heracles breaks his oar, he sits speechless and glaring: “He was not used to idle hands.” It proves only too easy for these intrepid birds of passage to become as helpless as Baudelaire’s albatross, whose enormous wings make him monarch of the air but a cripple on earth. No wonder Heracles grumbles about how they seem more like exiled criminals than heroes: to be an Argonaut is to be simultaneously a superior type and a misfit, a loser, an outlaw.

It first occurred to me to read the golden-fleece myth against the grain half a dozen years ago, around the time that Hermenaut—an independent journal whose title was not uninfluenced by Greek myth, and which I’d spent the 1990s editing and publishing—was foundering. A journal published without the sponsorship of a foundation or university, and also without the benefit of a trust fund or a sugar daddy, is a ship plowing uncharted waters without compass or anchor: each issue is an uncharted island harboring exotic dangers and delights, while the twin hazards of distribution and ad sales typically appear as daunting as the Clashing Rocks. The editors of such journals can only console themselves that their masthead and contributor’s list will one day be regarded as rosters of genius. But in decades past, certain writers, thinkers, and artists have taken off on even more ambitious flights of fancy. For these dreamers, merely collaborating with admired peers isn’t enough. Like the Argonauts, they want nothing less than to live and strive together each and every day.

I call this dangerous, alluring fantasy the Argonaut Folly.

Among Us Hide . . . the Inhumans!

I myself fell prey to the Argonaut Folly in 1989, while taking time off from college. I was 21 and living in the still mostly ungentrified Boston neighborhood where I’d grown up, on the Roxbury border of Jamaica Plain. The elevated train along Washington Street had recently come down, revealing to my eyes, as though for the first time, the disused former Franklin Brewery. I dreamed of moving into the building along with the most visionary young men and women of my acquaintance. Living and working in our massive brick habitat—which would (I fantasized) encompass apartments, offices, and studio spaces; a public restaurant and a private nightclub; a collective library of books, journals, and records; and eventually a school and rooftop playground for our children—we would form a freewheeling, democratic research seminar whose findings would change . . . everything.

I couldn’t afford to do anything of the sort, so I went to grad school. In 1992, however, shortly before abandoning a master’s program in sociology at Boston University, I launched Hermenaut as a photocopied zine. My coeditor Scott Hamrah and I published a new issue whenever I’d saved up enough money from one of my many jobs. In the late 1990s, I went to work for an internet start-up that was acquired by a publicly traded company, at which point I cashed in my options (less than $100,000, but a fortune to me), borrowed more from writer friends and family members, and rented a tiny office in the former Haffenreffer Brewery, right down the street from the Franklin building. Then, after a couple of heady years, the journal and I went bankrupt. Unable to afford a house in my own rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, I moved with my pregnant wife, our toddler son, and a heavy load of unsold magazines and credit card debt to West Roxbury. This sleepy Boston neighborhood’s one claim to fame, I was soon reminded, is Brook Farm, New England’s first secular utopian community, which failed after transforming itself into a “phalanx” modeled on the anarchistic theories of Charles Fourier. I could relate.

In 1841, Brook Farm cofounder George Ripley announced that the object of the colony was “to guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor, adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry . . . and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons [leading] a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.” After failing in ’47, Brook Farm would be remembered as little more than a bucolic retreat for abolitionists, Transcendentalists, and other zealous Bostonians. But here in the 21st century, when all good leftists warn that utopian schemes lead to oppression and mass murder, its reputation has been getting worse: a 2004 revisionist history of the experiment was subtitled The Dark Side of Utopia. The author of that book took his cue in part from Ripley’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who declined an offer to join the colony. Writing in the Dial in 1841, Emerson criticized Fourierism for regarding man as a mutable thing to be “ripened or retarded” at the will of the system: What utopians overlooked, said the arch-individualist, was the “faculty of Life, which spawns and scorns system-makers.”

Although Brook Farm had its downside, its failure became a retrospective success—it spawned American literature’s first account of the Argonaut Folly: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance, read today as a disguised treatise on the failings of thoroughgoing social reform. In ’41, the 37-year-old Hawthorne was casting about for a place where he would have the leisure and energy to concentrate on his writing. Invited to join Brook Farm, he quit his position in the Boston customhouse and became one of the colony’s founding members. A few months later, he moved out. Scholars have tended to describe the fictional colony of Blithedale as a dystopia, and Hawthorne as a proto-anti-utopian like Huxley, Orwell, or Zamyatin. Certainly, Coverdale, the semiautobiographical narrator of Blithedale, reflects ruefully on “our exploded scheme for beginning the life of Paradise anew.” But between the lines of Hawthorne’s novel we discover what Fredric Jameson calls “anti-anti-utopianism”: an effort to free the imagination from the paralyzing spell of the quotidian without falling into the error of totalitarianism.

“On the whole, it was a society such as has seldom met together; nor, perhaps, could it reasonably be expected to hold together long,” Hawthorne has Coverdale say. “Persons of marked individuality—crooked sticks, as some of us might be called—are not exactly the easiest to bind up into a fagot.” One feels compelled to remind readers about the etymology of the term fascism, and to suggest that Coverdale’s apparently negative comment about Blithedale’s failings can be read in another, kinder light. Don’t these crooked sticks, these Emersonian individualists, have anything at all in common? Just one thing, according to Coverdale: Each of them possesses sufficient lucidity to discern what has been called the invisible prison of everyday life under capitalism. “We had left the rusty iron frame-work of society behind us,” exults Coverdale. “We had broken through many hindrances that are powerful enough to keep most people on the weary tread-mill of the established system, even while they feel its irksomeness almost as intolerable as we did.” Not utopians, then, but cranks and slackers: these are Hawthorne’s heroes, his West Roxbury Argonauts.

Unanimity of purpose was never enforced at Brook Farm, as even the new revisionist history admits; nor was it at fictional Blithedale. (Hawthorne quit his labors at Brook Farm not because he was an individualist rebelling against repressive groupthink, but because he soon discovered, as he has Coverdale put it, that “intellectual activity is incompatible with any large amount of bodily exercise.”) In fact, Hawthorne’s Blithedale fails because the colony’s founding members cannot finally agree on the point of the experiment: Hollingsworth is entirely consumed with his own philanthropic theory; Zenobia, a character based in part on Hawthorne’s friend Margaret Fuller, wants to promote women’s rights; Coverdale is an aesthete and intellectual. “Our bond, it seems to me,” the narrator muses, “was not affirmative, but negative. We had individually found one thing or another to quarrel with in our past life, and were pretty well agreed as to the inexpediency of lumbering along with the old system any further. As to what should be substituted, there was much less unanimity.”

Again, we ought to read negativity as an affirmation. An agonistic, dissensual community whose members reject any kind of overarching ideology may be a lousy model for (what we usually think of as) a utopian social order. But for precisely that reason, it’s the only kind of intentional community that Hawthorne could have joined. In his preface to Blithedale, the novel’s author goes out of his way to salute “the most romantic episode of his own life.” The very next year, Hawthorne published a rewritten myth in Tanglewood Tales: “The Golden Fleece.”

Those Who Would Destroy Us!

In 1878, a quarter-century later, Friedrich Nietzsche published Human, All Too Human, a collection of aphorisms with the subtitle A Book for Free Spirits. Harking back to a fantasy he’d entertained when, as a stripling academic, he’d proposed to friends a “new Greek Academy” in which a revitalized Western culture might be forged, throughout Human, All Too Human the 33-year-old Nietzsche reaches out to superior types disgusted by “the ochlocratic nature of superficial minds and superficial culture,” and to those “free spirits” able to overcome within themselves their “origin, environment . . . [and] class.” It’s like a New York Review of Books personal ad. Nietzsche implored “oligarchs of the spirit” to overcome “all spatial and political separation,” by living and working together somewhere in Europe.

Like Hawthorne’s Coverdale, Nietzsche admiringly describes his Argonauts as jailbreak artists, outsiders, crooked sticks. He suggests that “the prisoner’s wits, which he uses to seek means to free himself by employing each little advantage in the most calculated and exhaustive way, can teach us the tools nature sometimes uses to produce . . . the perfect free spirit.” In Daybreak, Nietzsche characterizes his proposed “company of thinkers” as intrepid sailors traversing the void, as voyageurs whose ship may end up “wrecked against infinity,” and as “aeronauts of the spirit”: birds of passage on an island enjoying “a precarious minute of knowing and divining, amid joyful beating of wings and chirping with one another.” Impatiently waiting for these nomadic aeronauts and Argonauts to get in touch, he writes of them, “Is it too much to ask that they should give a sign to one another?”

Alas, Nietzsche’s ads went unanswered, except by Paul Rée and Lou Salomé, who first proposed to him a nonsexual yet “trinitarian” workshop and living arrangement, then ran away without him. And Nietzsche, like Hawthorne, was too skeptical about human nature to go in for utopia; in fact, he was explicitly opposed to socialist utopianism. In his later works, from Thus Spoke Zarathustra onward, he would outline an antiegalitarian utopia organized for the benefit of a caste of Übermenschen, as he now called them, whose sole concern would be the cultivation of their own excellence; the rest of humankind would be put to work.

Ayn Rand, who had studied Nietzsche closely in postrevolutionary Petrograd, attempted to imagine an Argonaut Folly in this more totalitarian vein in the 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. The pro-capitalist potboiler is set partly in Galt’s Gulch, a fictional Colorado valley into which “the men of ability, the men of the mind,” no longer willing to sacrifice their talents to their mediocre contemporaries, have secretly withdrawn. Life imitates art: neoconservative ideologues have, in recent decades, espoused a Nietzschean, Rand-inspired revolt of elites as an antidote to leveling democracy. Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and William Kristol, among others, club together in think tanks and one tight-knit group named after the Roman god of weapon-making, Vulcan. So are these Argonaut Follies, too? I would disqualify them. Bush’s foreign policy advisers more resemble Jason’s scheming uncle, who cynically sends the Argonauts off on a quest he believes to be impossible. They do not want to break free of the established system. They wish to run the jail.

Beware, the Hidden Land!

We arrive now at the intellectual crisis around World War I, when one modernist, anarchist, or otherwise interesting person after another lost confidence in the theories of social progress that had prevailed since the Enlightenment. “How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, Europeanized, enervated?” Hugo Ball demanded in 1916. The answer, many—or not that many—Europeans claimed, was: Argonaut Folly.

In the winter of 1914, D. H. Lawrence worked out the objectives, aims, and laws for communal life in some place far from England, perhaps an island. He named the imagined colony Rananim, and according to the recent Lawrence biography, the word became for him a cherished “fiction about living with a few friends in a better way than conventional society permitted.” Lawrence—seriously? half-seriously?—urged the most talented writers of his acquaintance (E. M. Forster, Bertrand Russell, a young Aldous Huxley) and England’s best young aristocrats to make this daydream a reality, but nothing ever came of it. Nor of the Forte Circle, an international network of radical pacifist intellectuals and artists—including the German anarchist Gustav Landauer, the Viennese philosopher Martin Buber, the Russian-born painter Wassily Kandinsky, the French writer Romain Rolland, and the American novelist Upton Sinclair—who toyed with the quasi-mystical notion that a community devoted to intellectual and artistic activity might halt the progress of Europe toward war. (In 1906, Sinclair had plowed the proceeds from The Jungle into Helicon Hall, a New Jersey commune where eighty intellectuals and artists lived until it burned down the following year.)

The Cabaret Voltaire, however, is a different story—an actual voyage, not just a ship’s manifest. The Dadaists were not exactly a movement in the usual sense of a bunch of artists committed to a particular aesthetic; they were a freewheeling band of exiles. Located in neutral Zurich during the war, the Cabaret Voltaire, named by German founders Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings, became a gathering point not only for freethinking émigrés like Hans Arp (Alsace), Francis Picabia (France), and Tristan Tzara (Romania), but pacifists, draft dodgers, revolutionaries, and iconoclasts of all kinds. Forget for now Dada’s reconceptualization of artistic practice as intervention, its pioneering of montage and the readymade: Dada’s first achievement, it’s been said, lies in its invention of a transnational community of misfits. To gaze upon the thrilling 1920 collage Dada Triumphs, in which Raoul Hausmann imagines a war room for Dadaists bent on world domination, is to catch a glimpse of the finest anti-utopian utopianism of its time, the absurdist optimism of the Argonauts on their impossible voyage.

Out of Dada came Breton’s 1924 “Manifesto of Surrealism.” Breton was concerned with the invisible prison of daily life, whose discourse had become “common sense.” Who can escape this prison and embark on adventures? Perhaps the insane, because their imagination “induces them not to pay attention to certain rules.” In that ship-of-fools vein, he adds, “Christopher Columbus should have set out to discover America with a boatload of madmen.” Breton then describes just such a vessel of foolish Argonauts: “For today I think of a castle, half of which is not necessarily in ruins; this castle belongs to me, I picture it in a rustic setting, not far from Paris,” he writes. “A few of my friends are living here as permanent guests: There is Louis Aragon leaving; he only has time enough to say hello; Philippe Soupault gets up with the stars, and Paul Éluard, our great Éluard, has not yet come home. There are Robert Desnos and Roger Vitrac out on the grounds poring over an ancient edict on dueling . . . there is T. Fraenkel waving to us from his captive balloon,” and so forth. Sadly, in a 1929 “Preface for a Reprint of the Manifesto,” we find Breton describing his vision as “something that, no matter how bravely it may have been, can no longer be. There is nothing I can do about it except to blame myself . . .”

And yet, Surrealism’s failure also led to another success of a kind. Picking up some of Breton’s castaways, like Desnos, Michel Leiris, and André Masson, Georges Bataille developed his nutty antifascist journals and organizations—Acéphale, Contre-attaque, and the College of Sociology—as an intellectual resistance to Fascism’s appropriation of ancient Greek concepts of the state, the sacred, friendship, and hospitality.

Meanwhile, in America, the anarchistic Dwight Macdonald, who had split with Philip Rahv and Partisan Review in the early ’40s, and who’d launched his own journal, Politics, in ’44, never joined the anti-utopian party. Neither did novelist and Politics cofounder Mary McCarthy, whose 1949 novella The Oasis is one more example of the American tradition of discovering an Argonaut Folly in the failure of a utopian project. The Oasis retells the story of Macdonald’s breakup with Rahv (or so it seems to me) as a fable about Utopia, a colony established at a disused Vermont hotel by intellectuals in retreat from wartime New York. Here, the “purists,” led by Macdougal Macdermott (Macdonald) quarrel endlessly over first principles with the “realists,” chastened leftists led by Will Taub (Rahv). Like Hawthorne’s Coverdale (who first praises Blithedale’s mission, “showing mankind the example of a life governed by other than the false and cruel principles on which human society has all along been based,” then rejects it), McCarthy has Katy Norell, a semiautobiographical character, conclude that every utopian colony that “treats itself as a kind of factory or business for the manufacture and export of morality” is destined to fail. Still, though Norell abandons her naïve utopianism, she does not abandon the colony. In the end, she turns her attention to imagining a “new pattern,” neither wholly purist nor wholly realist.

The Coming of Galactus!

In 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr spoke for the chastened ex-socialist writers and editors of Partisan Review when he rejected the widespread utopianism of the ’30s as ‘‘an adolescent embarrassment.” How could any program of radical social transformation be taken seriously after the Holocaust and the Moscow trials? But Niebuhr’s developmentalist analogy is misleading. After all, the blueprints for proto-totalitarian utopias have always been drawn by grown-ups intent on containing the anti-authoritarian energy of youth. In the first decades of the cold war, American adolescents responded to the agonistic Argonaut Folly—in the form of cinematic motorcycle clubs, or street gangs—more than to collaborative utopian schemes. And it was primarily in adolescent fantasy genres that the dream of a noncoercive group of flawed but heroic individuals survived.

In 1961, comic-book editor and writer Stan Lee collaborated with the talented artist Jack Kirby to invent a superhero team that would compete with The Justice League of America, a popular but dull series about uncomplicated superheroes who got along together just fine. In The Fantastic Four, Lee (who in his 1974 book Origins of Marvel Comics describes himself as a “vociferous reader” of mythology) gave the world a team of violently quarrelsome heroes whose godlike abilities render them misfits, losers, and outsiders among their fellow humans. The Argonauts were still among us, tucked into our backpacks.

In ’63, Lee and Kirby launched The X-Men, a comic about teenage mutants who’d been ostracized from their hometowns, and who lived together in a mansion in the suburbs of New York. Myth was mined again: the ill-tempered Beast is Hercules, the Angel is a winged son of the North Wind, Professor X is a seer, and then there’s Cyclops. That same year, Lee and Kirby created The Avengers, a comic about a Justice League–type group of heroes whose number included Thor, whom Lee had earlier borrowed from Norse mythology, and the Hercules-like Hulk; their headquarters was a mansion on New York’s Upper East Side. In ’65, Lee and Kirby’s Inhumans made their debut in issue 44 of Fantastic Four: Black Bolt, Crystal, Karnak, and two others straight out of Greek myth, Medusa and Gorgon, were a peripatetic team of superpowered mutants, exiled from their secret homeland in the Himalayas.

As the 1960s gave way to the era now known as the Sixties, Lee and Kirby’s contemporary mythos played a crucial role: shortly after the debut of The X-Men, 28-year-old Ken Kesey moved to a rural property outside of San Francisco and invited a multitalented, contentious group, later known as the Merry Pranksters, along. In a semiautobiographical screenplay that Kesey wrote in ’66, he had the Kesey-based character refer to the other Pranksters as his “X-Men”: these were Argonauts on acid.

Comic books weren’t the only type of adolescent pop culture production to produce Argonaut Follies. In their movies, from Help! (1965) to Magical Mystery Tour (1967) to Yellow Submarine (1968), the Beatles portrayed themselves as roommates whose deep-seated differences were a source of creative, productive tension. And like Lee and Kirby’s comics, the Beatles’ productions also played a key role in the invention of the Sixties. In 1967, according to Abbie Hoffman’s autobiography, inspiration for the Yippies was found on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Check it out: the album’s illustration asks us to imagine a transhistorical Argonaut Folly in which the Beatles rub elbows with Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Lenny Bruce.

And yet where are we now? Everything today encourages us to see the dark side, the folly, the impossibility, not just of utopia but of an anti-utopian heterotopia where we’d have a project in common besides selling our commodified labor, intellectual or otherwise. Everything encourages us to think we face a choice between detached houses in a row, where we cook our dinners in private, or else the gulag. But there can be—can’t there?—community without tyranny. Sure, the company of other misfits would make you feel bad sometimes; but it also feels bad to have nothing to look forward to but marriage, work, and TV. Maybe the Argonaut Folly would always be a failure. But then atomized private life under the sign of the market is doomed to failure too, if we think of happiness, excitement, joy, or surprise. You’ve got to pick your failures—and I’d like to fail in good company instead of all on my own.

So permit me a lonelyhearts ad of my own: I seek talented individuals—like the Blithedale colonists, who’d “gone through such an experience as to disgust them with ordinary pursuits but who were not yet so old, nor had suffered so deeply, as to lose their faith in the better time to come”—who are neither so mature as to be anti-utopian nor so adolescent as to be naïvely utopian. Write to me in care of this magazine. I don’t know what we’ll do, once we’ve found one another. But is it too much to ask that you should get in touch?

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