Departments

Community

[I have also written about individuality and community in The society of trees.]

Community is best to have, worst to be had by. The nostalgically-tinged fancy for community, and the word's incantatory use, is a kind of desire for death—to be submerged in the group, to be known in full and thus finished, to be assigned a place, to be enfolded by a web of explicit rules and expectations. But community is an abstract quality, not a phenomenon; like marital bliss or individual excellence, it exists only relatively, and can exist only where and because each manifestation is unique.

Community is not in itself a bad thing; but so far as it is powerful for good, it is also simply powerful, and therefore can be dangerous. Of course, we are all inescapably part of the anonymous community of commerce, law, and arms. Even the hermit relies on the general peace to preserve him from molestation and harassment—by drunkards looking for someone to beat, by vagrants looking for someone to rob or move in with, by seekers who imagine that to be closed to the world is to be open to them, &c.

Community on a personal level is an exhilarating thing, worthy and strengthening in moderation; but when relied upon, addictive and thereby limiting. Little is worth doing in life which is not in some part defiance or abandonment of community—even if it is only the widening of one's community; for the closer a community is jointed, the less room it has. Here, as elsewhere in life, the pleasure of security is bought against the profit of change.

A role in a community is a cell, and cella continuata dulcescit. The stronger the community, the more it will hypnotize itself into keeping you in your role: remembering what fits, forgetting or rating as aberration or peccadillo what does not. Strong though you are, given time, resistless expectation will hold your life to one story; turn your words and your thoughts into your lines; turn your taste to your image; turn your face to your symbol. This happens to the famous in the world at large; but in a close and closed community it is more forcible. Even a virtual community has the power to depose from you a kind of declaration of personality, with articles of nicknames, statistics, lists of favorites (modest lists, more concealing than revealing), &c. This is not an awkward imitation of community: real communities are more awkward and straitening yet than anything which human beings could bear to consciously make.

It can be comforting—it is certainly convenient—to allow yourself to be shaped in this way; and it is to some degree inevitable—even our hermit must look like a hermit, if he does not want nomads or hikers to start conversations with him. But to surrender to this is not to live as befits the equipment and the powers of a human being.

There is no honor in demolishing communities; but there is good in building them only if you do not immure yourself. Keep more than one; and if one tries to claim you, whispers or shouts that every other is a lie—you are mine only, mine to judge, mine to keep, mine to make and re-make—leave it. It is death in life.