In 2010, two of my friends from Chicago decided to move off the grid. Their project took them first to Appalachia, and then to the desert town of Abiquiu, New Mexico, the former home of Georgia O’Keefe. They purchased land and began constructing an Earthship, which is an ecologically sustainable dwelling built from tires packed with dirt and finished with stucco. They bought looms, taught themselves to weave and began teaching at a local fiber arts center. Soon, other friends bought land nearby and built their own homes. Every other year, they host a music festival. The artists Justin Rhody, Andrew Furse and Abigail Smith founded The White Leaves Artist’s Residency in nearby El Rito. They’re aware that time, for artists, is the single most valuable commodity, and not the kind of free time we have now in the midst of quarantine, spoiled by the threat of death and economic ruin, but the kind of time we enjoy when our food and shelter are provided, and our minds are free to wander.
"We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” Lately more than ever, I’ve seen this quote by Ursula K. Le Guin being shared widely on the internet. In order to understand how capitalism became the seemingly inescapable destructive force we now know it to be, it’s instructive to look to the Edwardian Era. Radical groups flourished in the decade between 1900 and 1910, from the International Workers of the World to the Women’s Franchise League to the Free Speech League to the Rational Dress Society. The Industrial Revolution irrevocably changed life in towns and cities across the United States and Europe, and as a result, workers became radicalized.
Not content to simply fight for improved working conditions, many reformers proposed a step further: some, like anarchist Emma Goldman, asked their adherents to imagine a world without political hierarchy. Others, influenced by the Transcendentalists, proposed a return to Eden. In Britain, pre-eminent art critic John Ruskin founded the Saint George’s Guild, a progressive, co-operative farming community for artists and craftspeople which, following the deterioration of Ruskin’s mental health, continued in a much-diminished capacity and still operates to this day. In France, on the edge of the Ardennes Forest, Fortuné Henry established “L’Essai”, a small agrarian community near the working-class village of Aiglemont which, at its zenith in 1904, housed 14 full-time residents and comprised a communal living space, a schoolhouse, barns and a newspaper operation.
In The Colony, published by Editions Dargaud, Nicolas Debon tells the story of L’Essai’s founding, its rapid rise and precipitous decline between the years 1901 and 1905. The French word “essayer” means to try, and loosely translated, L’Essai means “the Attempt” or “the Experiment.” (It’s also the root of the English word essay, coined by the 16th century writer Michel de Montaigne.) The name suggests a certain humility and a willingness on the part of its founder to accept the trial and error inherent in establishing a new model for living. In many ways, Henry proved himself to be an adaptable and flexible leader. In others, his rigidity caused friction and disillusionment. One of the strengths of Debon’s powerful book is the author’s willingness to examine all aspects of Henry’s character and present us with a look at a complex individual rather than a saint or a caricature.
The son of a general in the Paris Commune, the leftist government formed after an 1871 uprising in France’s capital, Fortuné and his brother Emile were raised in exile in Spain. Their father’s stories of the Commune’s heroic deeds and tragic defeat at the hands of French royalists spurred both brothers to action. Following their father’s death and their subsequent return to France, they both became involved with anarchist groups. In 1893, in retaliation for the execution of fellow anarchist Auguste Vaillant, Emile walked into the crowded Café Terminus and detonated a homemade bomb, killing one person and injuring twenty, a crime for which he was executed. Fortuné followed a different path. Rather than attempt to rip the established order down to its foundations and rebuild from the ashes, he chose to model an anti-authoritarian lifestyle so pleasant that others would find it impossible to resist its allure.
The beauty of Debon’s book is that the author has a profound sense of what, specifically, that allure consists. Often, when reading a graphic novel, I ask myself “how does this material benefit from being illustrated?” In the case of The Colony, the answer is that while I know nothing about building wattle-and-daub huts, or cultivating cabbage, the author’s attention to detail and his airy layouts breathe ecstatic life into mundane activities. With each new splash page the reader is freshly reacquainted with the wooded groves, rolling hills and pristine lakes surrounding the settlement, a constant visual reminder of exactly what Fortuné Henry was fighting to protect. The author’s liberal use of long shots, splash pages and splash panels contribute to the book’s cinematic atmosphere.
Debon has a background in children’s illustration, and there is a clarity and a whimsy to the illustration, executed with oil pastels, that borders on the precious but never oversteps the bounds. Like Italian illustrator Lorenzo Mattoti, Debon has a startling command of light and shadow, and he uses warm browns and cool blues in a limited palette to demarcate the dawn and day, the earth and sky, the mundane and the sublime.
Rather than give us Henry’s entire life story, Debon chose to focus specifically on one critical moment in the anarchist’s life, and the choice was clever. Henry’s utopian experiment was the synthesis of years of radical education, the culmination of his ambitions. So many biographies and graphic biographies follow the same template, starting at the protagonist’s birth, following them through their education and on to each one of their professional achievements and the results are often predictably water-logged. Clocking in at just under 100 pages, The Colony is short, but it never feels brief. Like James Romberger in his ongoing series For Real, about Jack Kirby’s service on the front lines of World War II, Debon includes an addendum at the end of the book with research, photographs and a bibliography for those readers eager to learn more historical facts.
Henry imagined that his communities could be replicated all over the world, in small cells, bands of people living, ungoverned, off the land, sharing all of their possessions and raising their children to recognize each one of them as parents. And while, predictably, he and his followers were frustrated by the weather, the limits of their knowledge, and their own selfish impulses, their quest for a meaningful life has been replicated over and over in countless subsequent utopian experiments. These Belle Epoque bohemians helped to lay the groundwork for the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. And as we encounter the ecological fallout from global warming, we will need to radically re-imagine how we live, or be devastated by storms, drought and global pandemics. Heretofore, utopian communities haven’t had a great track record when it comes to longevity. It’s time to revisit the work of thinkers like Ruskin, Henry and Stephen Gaskin, founder of the Farm community in Summertown Tennessee, to figure out what they got wrong, and how we can improve upon their models. Now, more than ever, we owe it to ourselves to imagine radical happiness. The future of our species is at stake.