Communes old and new

Last night I attended the 40th anniversary of Maos Lyst, one of the oldest communes in Copenhagen, founded in 1968 by a group of idealists, hippies, and students at the University of Copenhagen. It is one of the oldest and most famous communes in Denmark, receiving a lot of attention back when it was founded due to the public imagination of group sex, drugs and alternative lifestyles. It was even the subject of a film back in 1970, but since then, the commune has avoided contact with the press – which have added further to the mythology surrounding the place.

The commune is located in a big, cosy villa in the wealthy Hellerup neighbourhood north of Copenhagen, with a huge garden and is currently the home for 9 grown-ups, several children and some cats, and at any given time in the past 40 years, a number of people resembling that has been living in the house at any given time. The total number of residents is probably somewhere in the hundreds.

My association with the commune is tenuous at best, as my girlfriend had been invited by one of the residents, whom she knew from her work. And I did feel a bit like an anthropologist visiting some reclusive tribal gathering for everyone associated with the house in some way. This was even more evident when the tribal elders sat down to tell stories in the living room, gathering people to hear the stories of how the commune came to be, how it got its name, and how commune life has evolved through four decades:

A tribal gathering

For the first two years after its birth as a commune, the commune didn’t have a have proper name. It was merely named, as everything in the area, after the old mill, Svanemøllen, which was the foremost landmark in northern medieval Copenhagen. It didn’t get its name until 1970, and those first 2 years were extremely uneven: At one point 28 people lived in the house, loads of people did various drugs and made various political statements. There was a heavy involvement with the later so notorious Tvind schools. The residents decided to try out having a shared economy, which turned out to be a disaster, and a lot of the founders moved out in disappointment.

In the spring of 1970, just as taxes and mortgage were to be paid, only a few of the old residents seemed to be willing to stay, and a whole new group of communards moved into the house, and did away with the old ways. Among these were famous Danish hippies such as Ebbe Reich, Troels Erichsen, and Henning Prins. The former two were among the 16 residents who changed their last names to Kløvedal (eng. Rivendell) in 1970, inspired by J.R.R Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and contemporary thinking on neo-tribalism. The shared name only added to the commune mythology of a big family. But the tribal aspect was quite present with all the people – young and old – who all have part in the history of the house.

As to the name, Maos Lyst roughly translates as “Mao’s Delight”. And though it was a celebration of Chinese dictator, all of the the Danish maoists loathed the name at the time. This was because the word Lyst in Danish is typically associated with the naming schemes of working class allotment gardens, and not very pompous at all. Another reason why they liked the name was, as one of the old residents explained, because Mao represented absolutely no freedom at all, yet an obligation to be free, and that was complete at odds with the ambiguities of the word Lyst, which not only means delight, but also urge or lust. One of the current residents said that they had considered changing the name now that Mao is no longer so hot anymore. But they decided against it, because the name has now become part of modern Danish history. So in a way, the name is no longer theirs to change.

There were many more stories. Especially some of the women told intriguing stories of how they’d sought to build gender equality in the commune. And a few of the old men told of how the big meetings and difficult discussions pretty much disappeared in puffs of marihuana smoke.

All of this is quite fascinating to hear directly from the horse’s mouth. Especially to me in relation to the commune which I’m living in now. We’re only six, and our commune is only 8 years old, but Maos Lyst shows how such intentional communities can continue to live on. I think it would be pretty cool to one day be able to attend the 40th anniversary of my commune – my urban tribe of sorts…

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