Huck Finn's précis of The Pilgrim's Progress would serve equally well as a summary of Tobias Jones's new book Utopian Dreams: "about a man who left home, it didn't say why. The statements was interesting but tough."
The book is an unconventional travelogue, journal and meditation of a year spent living in what can loosely be banded together as Utopian communities; unconventional in that it is not Utopia which is put on trial but the author himself. Jones comes to some conclusions he is not comfortable with expressing, because he fears how they will go down in the everyday world of ordinary expectations.
The first stage on the journey, the New Age Damanhur commune in the Italian Alps confirms every ordinary expectation of Utopian life. Guided by an aloof ex-hippy, the Damanhurians have devised their own hieroglyphics, dug an underground temple which is listed in the Guinness Book of Records, finance themselves by selling angel traps, and amuse themselves with telepathy contests. It is not the outlandishness which gives Jones misgivings but how closely Damanhur, with its belief in infinite possibility, conforms to the consumer society which, he argues, fills us all with self-dissatisfaction whether we know it or not.
Jones goes on to challenge that self-dissatisfaction in more austere environments: a Roman Catholic community in Italy originally founded for war orphans, a purpose-built retirement community in York, a scheme to rehabilitate drug addicts through farming land confiscated from the Mafia in Sicily, and a Church of England community in Dorset, which, although open to everyone, attracts a disproportionate number of people too anti-social to live elsewhere.
On his way he takes not only his wife and baby daughter but, apparently, a very large rucksack of books. The journey is not intended as an individual odyssey to discover personal meaning but as raw material for a general enquiry into the nature of community. The book is studded with quotations from the usual suspects such as Emile Durkheim and William James, as well as some more unusual voices, such as that lumbering gadfly G K Chesterton and the mystic Evelyn Underhill. Jones begins with religion through the standard sociological assumption that religion is a product of community. By concentrating on religious communities, he hopes to encounter community in its most primitive form. He comes to the uncomfortable suspicion that community is actually the product of religious faith, and more uncomfortably still, that freedom and meaning depend on religious faith as well.
This is where things become interesting and tough. Jones himself is a little perplexed at finding himself at odds with the intellectual traditions that have nurtured him, but also sure that the questions he addresses concern the heart of rather than the fringes of society, particularly the problem of balancing rights and responsibilities. Rights are abstract, and the demand for rights potentially infinite; responsibilities are not. They belong to the finite world and if they cannot be exercised in a community they cannot be exercised at all. While the secular world tries to negotiate responsibilities via such concepts as citizenship, the Christian religion is clear: if you want to love your neighbour you must find a neighbour to love, even if he or she is not all that lovable. You might not be all that lovable yourself.
Where Jones is hesitant about his conclusions he is enthusiastic about the experiences which help form them: especially encounters with the ostensibly unlovable and the glimpses he got into what is unlovely in himself. The writing about people and places is vivid and enchanting, and Jones has to occasionally balance the idyllic picture with down to earth interjections. It is adorable to see his baby daughter snugly asleep in the tattooed arms of a vagrant, not so cute when, after a morning in the communal living room, her nappies smell more strongly of tobacco smoke than of their natural contents.
Then there are the experiences that do not lend themselves so easily to words. Alone in the chapel of the Church of England community, Jones has one of those spiritual awakenings which can only be described in terms of what they are not. "I had been waiting for something to happen for years, I thought that I might be at the centre of some 'experience'. But when it comes you almost wouldn't know it. You absent yourself and suddenly see with your own eyes, and hear with your own ears. You don't hear a voice, you hear listening."
This particular community claims spiritual descent from the original Little Gidding. An appropriate place to discover a "purpose beyond the end you figured".