Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is best known for its space operatic portrayal of moon-dwelling anarcho-communists, but what fascinates me most are Le Guin’s meditations on communal living arrangements. On the utopian world of Anarres, no one owns property, and Anarrestis rarely inhabit private rooms. Most dwellings are organized into dormitory-style living arrangements that are allocated upon request to those seeking shelter. If someone moves to another town, their previously occupied bed or room is reallocated to the next Anarresti.
At one point in the novel, Shevek, the novel’s protagonist, moves to the town of Abbenay to work on his magnum opus – a treatise that would unify space and time into a single theory of simultaneity. Upon arrival, Shevek is dismayed at being assigned to a private room. “As a child, if you slept alone in a single it meant you had bothered the others in the dormitory until they wouldn’t tolerate you; you had egoized. Solitude equated with disgrace” (p. 110).
Despite his initial misgivings, Shevek eventually discovered that “It was the right kind of place for his kind of work. If ideas arrived at midnight, he could turn on the light and write them down; if they came at dawn, they weren’t jostled out of his head by the conversation and commotion of four or five roommates getting up; if they didn’t come at all and he had to spend whole days sitting at his desk staring out the window, there was nobody behind his back to wonder why he was slacking” (p. 111).
To me, this passage captures something fundamental about the human need to have access to a private place in which to be free to think, reflect, dream, create, or simply relax – even in communal societies that disvalue privacy and ownership. As Hannah Arendt puts it (1958, 71), “The four walls of one’s private property offer the only reliable hiding place from the common public world, not only from everything that goes on in it but also from its very publicity, from being seen and being heard. A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow” (Arendt 1958, 71).
Even on the Urrasi moon, where the Anarrestis have created a society that resembles a scaled-up version of GA Cohen’s camping trip or Peter Kropotkin’s utopia, Shevek still needs a room of his own to write physics.
On the other hand, total isolation can rob us of our humanity. History Channel’s Alone, a show that pits ten wilderness experts against one another in a competition to see who can survive the longest while living alone in the wilderness, paints a vivid picture of the dehumanizing aspects of social isolation. The first thing constructed by most contestants is a basic shelter – a lean-to, A-frame, or other modest structure assembled to conform with an idealized image of a place recognizable as “home.” Some create kitchens, beds, or outdoor spaces that replicate those places that provided comfort in the past, while others experiment, crafting new spaces from memories of what worked on previous episodes of the show. (My favorite so far is Roland’s “rock house.”) Despite their efforts to reconstruct home in the wilderness, most contestants eventually come to the realization that while long-term wilderness survival is possible, long-term flourishing is difficult in total isolation. Most contestants eventually “tap out” of the contest after bouts of homesickness and a realization that their constructed existence is incomplete without the love and support of friends and family. Home is an empty vessel without the companionship that fills it.
This is the irony of home. The home satisfies our need to be isolated from time to time, but absolute isolation can rob us of our humanity. In Edgar Allan Poe’s last published work, “The Lighthouse,” Poe describes his elation upon arriving at his new lighthouse home: “My spirits are beginning to revive already, at the mere thought of being — for once in my life at least — thoroughly alone.” By the end of the passage, Poe unearths flaws in the lighthouse’s foundation, which is made of chalk, and realizes that similar holes compromise his plan to be thoroughly alone. The home’s ability to shelter and separate is among its most important functions, but if a home’s walls are impenetrable and disconnect us from the rest of humanity, the home that protects us becomes the home that neglects us.