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Authority and Community

Soleri responded: “You don’t understand. I have no power over my students. They are free to come and go. I have only authority. If they come to me because of my authority, and then do not respect that authority, they have no reason for coming to study and work with me. Authority has the power of conviction. Authoritarianism has the power of coercion.”

Paolo Soleri
Paolo Soleri 1919-2013

It is precisely this separation of authority from power that unites the Catholic sensibilities of Ivan Illich and Paolo Soleri. At a conference on “Thinking on a Planetary Scale.” held at York University in Toronto, Soleri presented a slide lecture on the archeological approach to urban civilization. As always happens, some people recoiled in shivers of claustrophobic horror and spoke of beehives. One student accused Solcri of being a fascist because at his Cosanti Foundation the students had to work as the master directed them; there was no participatory democracy in the design of Arcosanti. Soleri responded: “You don’t understand. I have no power over my students. They are free to come and go. I have only authority. If they come to me because of my authority, and then do not respect that authority, they have no reason for coming to study and work with me. Authority has the power of conviction. Authoritarianism has the power of coercion.” But the student missed Soleri’s point. He was ignorant of the tradition of the Renaissance artist in his atelier, and the word “fascist” seemed to exhaust his whole historical vocabulary. So caught up was he in the cant of “free” schools that he could not see that that kind of education contains more subtle forms of manipulation and “behavioral modification” than Soleri’s mastership.

The separation of authority from power is not easily understood in terms of American culture. We based a whole revolution on rejecting European authority and power and lumped geniuses, lords, and cardinals all together into one untrustworthy group. It is, therefore, a historical irony that the country that rejected kings and crowns ended up by idolizing the Presidency and allowed the holder of the office to become more powerful than any Caesar. Lacking the European traditions of culture, Americans collapsed culture into society and made greatness identical with the political leadership of that society. Every boy should want to grow up to be President, and every President should be an Abraham Lincoln, for the only place for a man to be great in America is in the White House. Fortunately, Watergate has broken the spell and now Americans have a chance to create a Republic worth celebrating in 1976. In the meantime we are still holding on to the notion that wealth and power are what civilization is all about. When Einstein used his uncashed paycheck from Princeton as a bookmark, the incident became a legend – not of wisdom. but of how stupid the most intelligent man in the world could be. The legend confirmed the average American in his conviction that the wise guys weren’t smart enough to come in out of the rain. And when Ralph Nader refused to use his victory over General Motors as a start for a campaign for political office, many felt that he was missing his chance.

In hoping to create or maintain a civilization in the wake of the devastation of industrialization, conservatives like Nader are eager to affirm the values of truth, honesty, and community. Nader’s life of voluntary poverty would confirm Ivan Ilich’s prediction about the neo-Benedictine way of life of the new elites. By giving up wealth and power, the cultural leader is emphasizing that a culture is more than a social structure. Gandhi never became President of India. When Americans want Nader to run for President, they show how difficult it is for them to conceive of any human culture separate from the politics of wealth and power. Europe had a civilization before the Industrial Revolution; America did not, so it is small wonder that the limits to our cultural imagination are set by industrial institutions like the university. It is also small wonder that it takes Europeans like Paolo Soleri or Ivan Illich to remind us that in healthy cultures prophet and king are not one and the same man.

The separation of authority from power is the most important feature of the individual as institution, for in working without the powerful resources and rewards of existing institutions, the individual is trying to create new cultural sources of authority. If Nader were a Senator, if Illich were a dean of a School of Education, if Soleri were a director of an architectural firm, each would lose his most critical freedom in achieving the power to act. When the Old Testament Hebrew prophet moved out of his primitive surroundings into the palace of King David, he became, not a Samuel, but a Nathan, the Henry Kissinger of his time.

In the collision of values between good and evil, authority and power, freedom and necessity, there is a scattering of values in which morality cannot be isolated into any one political position.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time…

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

In India the union of the fire and the rose would be called the union of kundalini and the thousand-petaled lotus; in ancient Mexico it would be called teaching the serpent how to fly, how to become a plumed serpent, a quetzalcoatl. The imagery is artistic, but the purpose of the art is to direct one to a spiritual experience. If one stops to admire the expression in verse or stone and does not go on to the experience himself, then he has definitely stopped. Yoga changes the body and the relationship between consciousness and matter, not simply by decorating rnatter with art, but by altering the very structure of matter and physical space-time. What is merely literary in Soleri is quite literal in Aurobindo.

What the followers of Aurobindo see themselves as doing in Auroville is preparing a new planetary city fora new kind of man. If Arcosanti is a cultural vehicle for urbanly exhausted, entropic man, Auroville is a chrysalis for an entirely new species. As Aurobindo has said: “Man is a transitional being.”” Art is important at Auroville, but the Aurovillians believe that you cannot solve the problems of human culture with more art, or more architecture; the transformation is cultural, not artistic. Soleri is a Michelangelo, the expressor of a culture rather than the creator of one. But first things must come first. First comes the re-Visioning of the universe in Christianity, then comes the Sistine Chapel and the B Minor Mass. One confinements of apartment, subway, and cab, so the culture of the new religions will enable postcivilized man to move in and out of space in a wholly new way.

Soleri is a civilized artist and not a post-civilized mystic and believes that “The most verisimilar concept of God is not analogous to the economist, or the politician, or the lawyer, or the legislator, or the technician, or the priest, but the artist, and it could not be otherwise as it is the artist who is end-oriented while the others are means-oriented.” So very much like a Catholic, he regards the mysticism of the young as “quietism.” But if each man in arcology were to be an aesthetic Soleri, a Renaissance Italian artist, he would have to move out to find the space in which to create the physical structures of his own visions. Soleri is something of a paradox; like Frazier in Walden Two, he is a man who builds a culture that could never produce him, and a culture he himself could not live in as anything other than its creator. Of course, these contradictions are not unique to Soleri. McLuhan, the avatar of American electronic kitsch, is a nineteenth-century, high-culture Canadian. Ivan Illich, the iconoclast in education, is a Tolstoyan aristocrat in search of his long-lost peasants. Norman 0. Brown, the prophet of sexual transfiguration, is an extremely cerebral and very shy classicist. And yet for all his contradictions, Soleri is still one of the most interesting and intelligent speculators in contemporary culture.

Ultimately, perhaps, Soleri’s ideas are more exciting than his designs; like Paxton, whose ideas in wrought iron and glass for the Crystal Palace looked forward to the Bauhaus, Soleri may be pointing in a direction he himself will not reach. Too many of the arcologies look like cultural containers rather than cultural vehicles; and yet when Soleri designs a bridge, the superb craftsman in him takes over and the sinuous beauty of design reappears. Even the ugly names of the arcologies, like Babelnoah, Arckibutz, and Theodiga, disappear, and are replaced with the more graceful English of “Stonebow.” In more ways than one, this form expresses Soleri at his best – a builder of bridges over the most difficult cultural abyss man has ever tried to span.

Excerpt At the Edge of History and Passages about Earth: A Double Book 1989,  William I. Thompson