October 28th, 2008


The Shakers live again

I'm interested in the Shakers today, because the last parallel Scotland I wrote for my Book of Scotlands unfolds a scenario in which an evangelical Scottish entrepreneur called Brent Shouter decides to use his influence and wealth to make Scotland go Shaker. He arranges exhibitions and launches a heavily-subsidized lifestyle chain called Shakestation which sells stark, simple furniture in the Shaker style. Shouter is so successful that Scots retreat from cities to self-sustaining, celibate rural communities, disconnecting from TV, radio and the internet. When the Shouter character dies, the government sends an androgynous "Government Christ" to beguile the Shouter-Shakers back to living in cities and reproducing. It's urgent, because celibacy is making the Scots die out.

Researching this story, I found a wonderful 30 minute documentary about The Shakers on the Folkstreams website. Made in 1974 on 16mm, the film (I'd recommend the Real Surestream version) mostly consists of interviews with Shaker women born in the 1870s. They've outlived all the Shaker males, and linger on, the last generation of a beautiful cult erased from history by their own fear of sex. As one of them sings: "Come light Shaker light come life eternal, come shake out of me all that is carnal". It's precisely this "shaking out of all that is carnal" that has erased the Shakers from history.

I'm interested in connections some observers have made between Shaker design and Modernism, and Shaker design and Japanese crafts. There does seem to be a connection to both (a big draw at the American pavilion in the Osaka Expo 70 was Shaker furniture, for instance), and it's something to do with modesty and simplicity, functionalism and avoidance of ostentation -- the kind of qualities we'd call "Protestant", basically, and which connect extreme practicality with a kind of micro-spirituality; which say, in other words, that functional things are also spiritual things, because God loves people who work.

Unfortunately, God also loves people who reproduce, and the Shakers... didn't.