Vancouver is sometimes called Lotusland, a reference to the Lotus-eaters of Odyssey IX. The Lotus-eaters lived blissfully on fruits of the lotus plant, a kind of opiate, which once fed to Odysseus’ sailors sapped away their desire for homeward struggle. One translation of the passage follows thus:
For nine days I was driven by fierce winds over the teeming sea: but on the tenth we set foot on the shores of the Lotus-eaters, who eat its flowery food. On land we drew water, and my friends ate by the ships. Once we had tasted food and drink, I sent some of the men inland to discover what kind of human beings lived there: selecting two and sending a third as herald. They left at once and came upon the Lotus-eaters, who had no thought of killing my comrades, but gave them lotus to eat. Those who ate the honey-sweet lotus fruit no longer wished to bring back word to us, or sail for home. They wanted to stay with the Lotus-eaters, eating the lotus, forgetting all thoughts of return. I dragged those men back to the shore myself by force, while they wept, and bound them tight in the hollow ships, pushing them under the benches. Then I ordered my men to embark quickly on the fast craft, fearing that others would eat the lotus and forget their homes. They boarded swiftly and took their place on the benches then sitting in their rows struck the grey water with their oars.
Further themes of the Lotus-eaters were elaborated by Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his poem The Lotos-Eaters. These included a passivity toward human struggle and a surrender to peaceful hedonism. It is here that Vancouver’s nickname finds its most chilling reflection. Indeed, Lotusland is as much an aspiration as an accusation against our polis. We live by the pleasure principle, our city being organized for enjoyment and harmony, but do not care for weightier matters.
The popular inattention to news, ideas, or history that permeates Vancouver is perhaps our greatest hindrance to global status. We have everything else: a spectacular setting, good infrastructure, excellent urban design, and decent arts. But engaging Vancouverites in difficult questions of purpose, morality, cosmopolitanism, or any other ponderous subject from the Old World — or even Central Canada — can seem an exercise in futility. Opinions are in short supply. We cannot be a leading urban population without engaging in debate and aspiring to a shared sense of creative and intellectual dialogue. Among the young adults of Vancouver, the taste for this is virtually absent. The many delights of living here — the beaches, the seawall, the ski slopes, the yoga studios, and engineered “conviviality” — can be thought of as fruits of Lotusland. Are we fundamentally content to eat the Vancouver lotus, when any great society demands more?
One wonders if the Lotus-eaters also suffered a shared anxiety of social isolation, between moments of drowsy bliss.