“The authorities were corrupt, even the best of them. The power they held was often by default.... They had as much power as we gave them, and when we wanted to take some back we could. Yes, they might jail us in the end, but only because we held ourselves back. Fear and respect flowed in our blood, and despite all the rage and disgust, we were afraid of what might happen if the system collapsed.”
You have to love a book that so expresses the tenuousness of our sense of legitimacy. So I was prepared to love Keith Scribner’s, The Oregon Experiment. A not-so-young college professor with a professional interest in anarchism puts his theory into practice in Oregon, hooking up, in more ways than one, with a local secessionist movement. Wife and new baby in tow, Scanlon Pratt, transplanted from Manhattan, is returning to something like the state of nature in small college town in Oregon.
My heart belongs with anarchists everywhere. I can’t quite shake the sense that government is a hoax, especially now, when I see right and left posture about the debt ceiling. While these fools bob and weave and avoid any pragmatic sense of compromise, the rest of us sit helplessly by, watching, paying taxes and, at least for the believers among us, praying that the it all doesn’t come crashing down around our ears. Some part of me says bring the crash on. I’ve an active apocalyptic gene.
But I am also late-middle-aged, a man with mortgages, children now out of college, employees, a vast network of commitments in a social web that seems forever out of control, but just serviceable enough to provide an anchor. Like the politicians I abhor, I have become vested in a world that doesn’t work. I behold anarchy with something like a pleasing sense of horror: I want to see what happens when the walls come tumbling down; I just don’t want one of those walls to fall on me or my family.
So fiction, The Oregon Experiment, is a place to experiment. Set me free, Mr. Scribner, to live in a world of principle. Give me the courage of my fantasies.
Scribner delivers the depressing sense that in the end we are workaday stiffs trapped in a world of mundane compromise. Pratt’s revolutionaries self-destruct, and he retreats to the safety of the East Coast, where he improbably lands another professorship, and his wife, who nearly succumbed to postpartum depression, returns to her professional life in the perfume industry. Anarchism as the expression of a mid-life crisis? His portrayal of the life of a small-town academic made me grateful I turned from a scholarly career long ago.
My oldest child lives in the Pacific Northwest and was, for a time, on the fringe of something like the separatism Scribner describes. He spent a year or so living in a teepee. He and colleagues sailed the Northwest in a wooden sailboat they built with their own hands. He walked proudly outside the boundaries of what is expected. Today, on the cusp of marriage, he is working his way back into the workaday world. What to do when would-be anarchists crave a return to a world of dark compromise?
The Oregon Experiment is a good summer read. Scribner has learned a thing or two about the perfume industry along the way, and is preoccupied with the sense of smell as a way of orienting oneself in a world of sense. Pratt’s wife’s olfactory adventures and perspective could perhaps have been better explained and explored for we ignoramuses whose sense of smell ranges from “Yechh” to “Wow” with few subtle gradations in between.
But for all the talk about Pratt’s effort to understand anarchism, the novel falls flat. Pratt remains a hapless academic. He wants to turn chaos into scholarly research and tenure. He runs afoul of Pattis’s First Law of Social Theory: “Action conceived isn’t theory relieved.” I have followed the careers of several former colleagues of mine decades ago at Columbia: they write, edit radical journals and teach at good universities, all sound and fury signifying just what, exactly? Many are the young firebrands writing dissertations, books and articles about brave new worlds that could exist, would exist, if only we got our heads straight. The sad fact is that our heads account for only a marginal portion of our place in the world. Inertia in the web of accumulated experience claims most of us most of the time. Sadly, The Oregon Experiment is less exploration of anarchism than it is a proof text that, in the end, we all aspire to nothing more than a safe perch among the middle class. I wanted a better book, and I want a better life, than that tawdry truth promises.