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Imagining Atlantis.

IMAGINING ATLANTIS. By Richard Ellis. Knoft. 322 pp. $27.50

You get off a boat and onto a mule, after which it's a thousand steep feet up from the black beach to the white bungalows, the blue Byzantine church and a pink disco. You rent a cave in the pumice cliff, overlooking the caldera, and the mind falls down like Icarus. This is Santorini, the southernmost of the Cycladic islands. Thirty-five hundred years ago, it was Thera, a merchant-princely suburb of Minoan civilization. On its walls, Bronze Age artists painted bulls and birds, lilies and dolphins, bare-breasted women, brown boys boxing ... and blue monkeys. "Don't go too far," Don DeLillo warned us in The Names. "There's the Minotaur, the labyrinth. Darker things. Beneath the lilies and antelopes and blue monkeys." He's hinting at human sacrifice. But what does DeLillo know? He can't get from Linear A to Linear B any more than the rest of us who have puzzled the Phaistos disk. Suppose we need to go too far? If there was ever an Atlantis--or any other lost city, golden age, republic of dreams, utopian community, subverted matriarchy, Eden, Arcadia, Mu or Macondo, Wonderland or Neverland---wouldn't it be nice to think it consisted of this elegance and delicacy, this bygone playfulness? Blue monkeys!

When Sir Arthur Evans dug up Crete at the turn of the century, he found a blue monkey on a fragment of fresco in the palace of Knossos, although at first he mistook the figure for a "blue-skinned boy" gathering ;saffron. Then he rubbed some more and saw that the boy ;had a tail. Seven decades later on Santorini, no sooner had Spyridon Marinatos sunk a shovel into the ruins of Akrotiri than he discovered an entire wall of blue monkeys, cavorting like children in a progressive preschool. Also frescoed were griffins and a sphinx. But these blue monkeys weren't mythological. From the white bands on their foreheads, they were obviously long-tailed guenons, Cercopithecus mitis, probably brought back as pets from Africa to Knossos and. Thera by sailors in the Minoan fleet. As much as lilies and dolphins, they seemed to embody a cheerful, inquisitive, gregarious race of dancers and acrobats, whose language we still can't read but whose images speak of games and gardens. And then they vanished, like Minoan civilization itself, sometime between 1628 and 1480 BC, in volcanic upchuck, seismic shock, killer tsunamis, poison gas, falling ash and repressed memory.

Or did they? Richard Ellis, a marine artist and fluent scribbler of books on legends of the sea, prefers to believe that blue monkeys were around in the Aegean as late as 430 BC and to blame for the Plague of Athens, which knocked off Pericles, since their close relative, the vervet, or green monkey, is responsible for the spread of the Ebola virus in Zaire and the Sudan. Ellis wants to believe this because, in seeking to debunk the whole wonderfully weird literature of Atlantology, before he can disenthrall us from the Thera-Was-Atlantis thesis (all that bull-jumping monkey business, gone up in smoke or down in salty solutions), he must demystify the Platonic dialogues that got us fantasizing in the first place.

According to Plato, he heard about Atlantis from his maternal uncle, Critias the Younger, who got it from his father, Critias the Elder, who was told the story by a peripatetic Solon, who'd picked it up from a couple of priests in Pharaonic Egypt. According to Ellis, Plato made the whole thing up. What he really felt bad about was the decline of his very own Athens, after the Persian wars, the Peloponnesian victory of the Spartans and the dreadful Plague. To add color, he threw in a Temple of Poseidon that sounds an awful lot like the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, just as the sunken-city stuff seems to have been embroidered from secondhand accounts of the 373 BC earthquake that glub-glubbed Helice in the Gulf of Corinth. Atlantis, for which Plato is the only extant source, never happened.

Oddly, this speculative argument comes at the end of a book at pains to rebuke every author who claims to have located Atlantis anywhere in the world, from the Azores to Antarctica, from Scandinavia to the Sahara, from Ireland to Peru. They're all wrong, says Ellis, because they've twisted Plato to suit their own fixations, ignored his co ordinates and riddled with his arithmetic. And so they have, like medieval cabalists. But if Plato was just allegorizing promiscuously, why should we care if later generations of Froot Loops like Edgar Cayce and Immanuel Velikovsky played fast and loose with the details of a Critias that's fictitious anyway? He made up his cave, too. And who'd want to live in Plato's own dreamy Republic, where a stand-up guy like Democritus would've been banned and burned?

Nothing exists, except atoms and empty space. (Democritus)

I review Atlantis books once a decade, whether they need it or not. First 'up in 1978 was The Secret of Atlantis by Otto Muck, a German scientist predisposed to Spenglerian rinse-cycles. Muck went up (working on the v-2 rocket) anti Muck went down (inventing the U-boat snorkel). In between, he theorized an Atlantis on the Azores hump in the Atlantic Ridge, populated by seven-foot Cro-Magnons who spoke Basque and were kind to eels. It was destroyed by a giant asteroid that messed with the earth's axial rotation, punched holes in the ocean's floor and sent up vapor clouds into a smog ball that lasted 2,000 years. Its sudden sinking caused the Flood that made Noah famous, ended the Ice Age by allowing the Gulf Stream to lick the tenderloins of Europe, embarrassed many woolly mammoths, accounts for the migratory. nuptial urge of eels to lay their atavistic eggs in the Sargasso Sea, and explains the heretofore mysterious Mayan calendar, said by Muck to mark the moment when Atlantis went down: 8 pm, June 5, 8498 BC. In the New York Times, I said: "I believe every other word of it."

Paleontologist/astrobiologist Charles Pellegrino doesn't. In Unearthing Atlantis (1991), Pellegrino gave us the Big Picture--from weather reports in the Old Testament and classical literature, from volcanology, glaciology, paleobotany, oceanography and particle physics, and from readings of ice caps, acid layers, carbon exhaust clouds, dinosaur teeth, clam bed fossils, Irish peat bogs and California bristlecones. Instead of being hit on the Azores by an asteroid in 8498 BC, Atlantis/Thera vanished in the fall of 1628 BC in a volcanic whoosh more powerful than the simultaneous explosion of 150 hydrogen bombs. Fifty cubic miles of rock became "as vapor in the heavens, death rolled into Turkey on the tongue of a tsunami," plagues came down on Egypt and the Red Sea parted, after which the Minoan dancers disappeared, leaving behind an ornamental vase or two, minors of bull worship and not a single bone, until archeologists began the disinterring of Akrotiri, which will take another 300 years. Pellegrino will talk your head off on top of the "smoking cathedral" of a volcano or beneath the seas where giant sandworms inhale sulfides and entire continents grind or drift from the pull of moon on bedrock. His is the view from Krakatoa, Pompeii and Mount St. Helens, Stonehenge and Glomar, a Book of Numbers and a Book of the Dead. He sees a culture of genius in business for 1,500 years before the roof blew off: thus the first navies and first condos; flush toilets and other technologies not recovered till the Islamic Middle Ages; brave men hunting bulls with ropes, beautiful women drinking the blood of those bulls from gold cups and artists who painted monkeys instead of monarchs. Because of that explosion, vulgar Mycenaeans took over Club Med and Moses bunked from Egypt.

This is the Big Picture with a vengeance. In Imagining Atlantis Ellis, amused by Muck, is almost furious at Pellegrino: If Plato had been thinking about Them, he'd have mentioned a volcano! Besides, Pellegrino should have credited James Mayor, who beat him to the Santorini punch by a quarter of a century. Fair enough, except that Ellis and Pellegrino are equally in love with Minoan culture. Both would rather write about labyrinths and courtesans, bulls' horns and octopus shields, striped dolphins, silver daggers and a Goddess of Wild Goats than Critias any day. They'd even rather write about volcanoes and tsunamis. What Pellegrino does to fudge up the flimsy evidence is go all the way back to the Big Bang. What Ellis does is make fun of Atlantologists. What neither acknowledges is that, from the beginning, we've finessed Plato's cautionary tale about a powerful and prosperous principality undone by corruption and arrogance because we'd rather use Atlantis to think about something else--to dream a republic in the impossibly nostalgic past, or to imagine a utopia in the always radiant future, but in any case to posit some improvement on what we've got.

I'm not just talking about the oddball monomaniacs and eccentric tangents Ellis entertains, although they are suggestive: Atlantis and Amazons (Diodorus Siculus); Atlantis as Tartessos (Rhys Carpenter); a South Sea island (Bacon) or between Casablanca and Agadir (Felix Berlioux), with a pet leopard named Hiram (Pierre Benoit); in Friesland (Albert Herrmann), Yorubaland (Leo Frobenius), Andalusia (Ellen Mary Whitshaw) or Libya (Otto Silbermann); the Bahamas, the Crimea, the Yucatan or the Bermuda Triangle, unless it's the Sahara (Count Byron Kuhn de Prorok), the Antarctic (Rand and Rose Flem-Ath) or Schleswig-Holstein (Jurgen Spanuth); right next door to the Elysian Fields, the Temple of Delphi, the Asgard of the Eddas and Mount Olympus (Ignatius Donnelly); sister city of Lemuria (Madame Blavatsky) and "prehistory" or "collective unconscious" of humankind (an anthroposophical Rudolf Steiner). At one time or another, Atlantis has been associated with the cult of Osiris and the Popul Vuh, the Hurrian Song of Ullikummi and the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Toltecs and the Tao. And this is to scant novels by Bacon, Donnelly, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells and Ursula Le Guin, and to forget entirely about such films as Warlords of Atlantis, in which Cyd Charisse starred as Atsil, Queen of an Atlantean master race who saucered in from Mars and would have evolved into Nazis if they hadn't been attacked first by pre-Spielbergian velociraptors.

Atlantis as blue monkey business has many more resonant meanings.

Sonia: "I don't believe in a perfect world, but I believe in a better one."

Zimmer: "My poor baby. You've become a liberal."

(Robert Stone, Damascus Gate)

We used to dream of utopian republics in both directions, past and future. An Atlantis frame of mind could be radical--dialectical materialism, Zionism and relativity; Blake, Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and Gandhi's Hind Swaraj; St. Hildegarde of Bingen and Paul Goodman. Or reformist--Mennonites and Shakers, Oneida and Brook Faire. Or moony--El Dorado and Prester John; Agapemone and Micomicon; Shangri-La and Arden; Brideshead and Bomarzo; black forests, sacred groves, Druidic roods, Yggdrasil and Walden; Morris dancing in Tannhauser sandals. One thinks as well, and almost at random, of Erewhon, Telemaque, Christianopolis and Camelot; of Altneuland and Looking Backward; of Buckminster Fuller and Sabbatai Zevi; of Ascona, Ticino, Israeli kibbutzim, Gary Snyder's Zen-Wobbly Kitkitdizzie, Kurt Vonnegut's volunteer fire brigade, Burckhardt's Basel and Gene Kelly's Brigadoon.

To which I'd add personal favorites like Walter Raleigh's The Discoverie, Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne, Sigmund Fraud's Moses and Monotheism, Darwin and I Ching; the dreaming of astronomers in superstrings, of astrophysicists in heliopause, of Mandelbrot in fractals and of Mike Davis about Los Angeles. Dream republics of another sort are found in the carbon clouds and fossil beds of Baudelaire's Paris, Joyce's Dublin, Svevo's Trieste, Musit's Vienna, Doblin's Berlin and Bely's Petersburg, as they are archeologized in the Buenos Aires of Borges and Cortazar, the Havana of Cabrera Infinite and the Mexico City of Fuentes--The city as cinema, starring change, greed, gossip, jazz, quake, zoom, dissolving into multitude, solitude, trajectory and vertigo.

Likewise Atlantological-utopian (and wistful thinking) was the millennia-long quest for God in His own scattered Words, as explored by Umberto Eco in The Search for the Perfect Language---from Hebrew tetragrammatons to the Celto-Scythian Hypothesis, from Dante to Vico, from Cyrano's birds to BASIC and Pascal--via theosophy, alchemy and cabala. Some of these men sound silly, but human brainstuff hasn't changed in 500 or even 15,000 years; it's culture that metastasizes. When, frightened by the Thirty Years' War in the seventeenth century, Johann Valentin Andreae, Tommaso Campanella and Guillaume Postel all took time off from looking for a perfect language to draw up projects for an ideal republic to insure the universal peace, maybe their behavior had more to recommend it than, say, the characteristic paralysis of our own literary vanguard--those ecstatic cabalists who have assured us there's no such thing as causality, history, rational planning, coherent representation, intelligent action or ethical purpose, only showbiz--just as the artists of Them (or Lascaux, or Altamira) could teach Picasso something about jouissance.

Let me dream a couple of republics--one fictional and the other, gloriously, not.

Everything we want in a society is what we find brought out in people in the moment of insurrection. Spontaneity! Spontaneous hierarchy! Self-sacrifice/Staying awake all night/Working until we drop! Audacity! Camaraderie! The carnival behind the barricades--what it feels like when the police have just been kicked out of your quartier! Free eggs, free goods.... And don't forget what it feels like to throw open the gates of the prisons! What a great moment! This is the moment the true socialist worships and thinks will be incarnated in the society, on the morning after. (Norman Rush, Mating)

So much goes on in Rush's nifty novel about true love, star-crossed anthropology and rural development in Southern Africa that we almost forget about the morning after. The morning after is Tsau, "a whole new village built from the ground up, in point of fact, somewhere in the north central Kalahari," an experimental matriarchal "New Jerusalem" and "solar democracy." Tsau has been planned in the Botswana desert by the famously sardonic radical decentralist Nelson Denoon, an amalgam of Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich, from lessons learned on previous projects about scale, vernacular, balancing collective and individual incentives, and "basing your political economy on women instead of men--his theme song, Every female is a golden loom." And it's described in brilliant detail.

In the night, in the desert, first you hear the wind chimes and the blue-green glass bells hanging from chains in the crowns of albizias. Then you see, like flashing sequins of reflected light, the flanged cylinders in the windmills on the koppie; a pair of horns on the glazed ceramic water tank; spiral-channeled disks strong from torii-like crossbars ("a corridor of darling crepitation"); hedges, rondavels; cloud trees and goats. Later, in the blaze of daylight off of solar panels, you will pick out workshops, primary schools, mealie fields, kraals and kilns; pantaloons and parasols; tracking mirrors for the solar ovens and dung carts pulled by children who earn credits for delivering messages or goods; ostrich fanning, abacus lessons, menarche parties, kickball, Snake Women, death masks ...

Never mind the Mother Committee and the Lamentations. At Tsau, women are deeded their houses and plots; ownership entitles you to voting membership in the voluntary labor credit system; inheritance is restricted to female offspring and female collaterals. At Tsau, there aren't supposed to be any motorcars, guns, booze, abortions, witchcraft or other religion. But there are tensions. After eight years, isn't it time for Denoon to cease promoting sauerkraut and croquet, and get on with the rest of his life? "Who cared if he was willing to say of himself that he was wellknown to be gung ho for half measures and that if he had been in the October Revolution he would have been saying some power to the soviets?"

You don't want to know what happens to Denoon. You may want to know what happens to Tsau, but Rush isn't telling, except to hint at the slow subversions of alcohol (shebeens), prostitution (male), sectarianism and, alas, guns. The excuse for guns at Tsau is--surprise--a sudden population explosion of ... vervet monkeys.

Gaviotas isn't a utopia. Utopia literally means "no place." In Greek, the prefix "u" signifies no. We call Gaviotas a topia, because it's real. (Paolo Lugari)

When Paolo Lugari first visited the llanos of eastern Colombia, sixteen hours by jeep from Bogota, what he saw was something other than a steambed seething with malarial mosquitoes, a caramel-colored plain or muck as flat as a leaden sea and four times the size of Holland. "The only deserts are deserts of the imagination." He saw the future of civilization fashioned out of grass, sunlight and water; Third World solutions to their own problems', "a living laboratory" to which he'd summon "pioneer-technicians" and "engineer-dreamers," mathematicians, chemists, botanists, geologists, architects, anthropologists and astronomers; coffee and carnations; windmills and water buffalo and an enchanted forest made for singing.

That was almost thirty years ago; the community he huffed, puffed and enticed into being thrives astonishingly today, in spite of the army, death-squad paramilitaries, narcotraffickers and guerrillas; in spite of the buying and selling of Bogota governments and the dumping of cheap grains and other foodstuffs from giant US producers on Colombia's "free" market; in spite of leached soil, poisoned rivers and a shortage of women. It is this story that Alan Weisman, on assignment with a team of journalists to produce a series for NPR on solutions to social and environmental problems, must have been delirious to discover. His splendid book received a rave review in The Nation [May 4] but has been mostly ignored by the mainstream media, and why not? It will only save our souls.

What the dreamers in the desert did, with a couple of grants from the United Nations and a work force of Guahibo Indians, was to make fiberboard from grass and gaskets out of leaves; turn palm oil extract residues into bovine feed supplements; build windmills, Zhydroponic nurseries and a "giant condom" irrigation system made of plastic trash bags; invent solar water heater panels, micro-hydro turbines, biogas generators and every manner of water pump from ram to sleeve to a wheel mounted on a floating oil dram, not to mention the pedal-driven cassava grinder, the one-handed sugarcane press, the one-man manual cement mixer, a cork-screwing manual well digger and a rotating-dram peanut sheller--all of which they refused to patent.

They also put up a hospital you'd want to send your mother to, and when the government closed it down in a managed healthcare seizure, they turned the building into a research facility for medicinal plants. They contracted with banks and the government to install solar heating for public housing projects in Bogota and Medellin, and hired and trained street urchins to make the solar panels, as they taught a squatters' colony in the capital city how to plant hydroponic farms on their rooftops--so successfully that soon a women's cooperative supplied lettuce to a grocery chain. They created a community with no jails, judges, cops, crime or locks, not much marriage and even less smoking. And it sits there, celebrating the Day of the Bicycle and the Day of the Birds, in the middle of a comeback rain forest, much of it Caribbean pine, whose bark fairly oozes with a resin Gaviotas sells for paints, enamel, varnish, newsprint, soap, ink, incense and to rosin the bows of violins right next door to their factory for harps and cuatros. Not only is this forest good for the ozone layer, but it brings back lapwings and whistling herons, butterflies and parrots--and the acoustics are perfect for concerts.

Enough. I'll end as sappy as a Caribbean pine. Imagine finding Atlantis in Colombia, as if the idea of a dream republic, like the equally abused ideas of sanctuary and asylum, had been hiding out inside a magical realist novel, ready to contradict every ugly Western idea of space--of private beaches and company towns, restrictive covenants and armed response, gated communities and strategic hamlets, panopticons and bantustans--and I haven't even mentioned my favorite Gaviotan invention, which is a sleeve pump attached to a seesaw, so that children playing at recess might supply the water for their school. Think of that. Plato didn't, in his cave. Now, for those children on the seesaw, substitute blue monkeys.
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Author:Leonard, John
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 24, 1998
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