I don’t want to be harsh on people, but the emotional life of our epoch reminds me of central Moscow in the old Soviet days, a time when there was everything.
There were billboards advertising cigarettes and the national lottery. There were competent doctors and crooked lawyers. There were chauffeur-driven limousines; there were girl Fridays and thoughtful academics who knew their Hegel; there were men’s double-breasted suits with impressively large lapels and dinner jackets with shiny satin ones; there were smooth-talking men and hard-to-charm, capricious women; there were eccentric artists in dangerously cavernous studios; there were shops selling seasonal game and live fish, farmers’ markets, dry cleaners, and delicatessens. There was even a kind of praline torte with three chocolate bears on top, one big and two small ones, called The Three Bears.
And guess what? It was all a sham. I don’t mean, of course, that it was a sham for those participating in it, for the stage extras in the centrally planned, century-long political production. It was their life-saving duty, after all, to convince themselves and each other that their experiences were perfectly real, and hence perfectly deserving of the real emotions that went with them. Yet knowing what one does, now and then one cannot suppress a rueful chuckle: “Ah, Grandpa! I can’t believe how you drooled over those military decorations! And you, Dad! How you fussed over those three bears on my birthday! Come on, admit it. You’ve been had, all of you, haven’t you?”
Man lives by caprices, thought Dostoyevsky. Yet the entire thrust of the epoch is against these insubstantial urges of the soul. Nonetheless, outwardly the epoch still bows before them; it still feels the need to dissemble and cannot proclaim its materialism to be universally valid, obligatory, and inescapable. As the Muscovites had that trio of bears, cast in the finest dark soy mass by the omnipotent hand of the state, so too does the epoch feel obliged to offer its inmates a modicum of respiratory, gustatory illusion.
Hence we have bookshops, and books that resemble bricks of pressed straw. Hence we have music, which makes the young dance their Saturday nights away in communal ecstasy. (No, we also have serious music, of course, we have Covent Garden and the Verona Arena and divas with heaving bosoms and sparkly gowns and everything.) Hence we have the established practice of self-expression, predicated on the individual’s right to express generally accepted opinions and sycophantic sentiments in your own words, as teachers explained this right to pupils in Soviet school. Hence we have struggling painters in quaintly unadorned studios, and fine doctors, and crooked lawyers . . . Hence the photographs of unapproachably translucent actresses, of dietetically irreproachable models, of society women said to be beautiful on the covers of popular magazines, though what does it matter, from the vantage point of totalitarian rationalism that is the guiding spirit of the epoch, whether these women are very beautiful, or just beautiful enough, or plug-ugly? Like the chocolate bears made of communist soybeans, they are there to represent human caprice, and by implication the epoch’s covenant with mankind for tolerating it. Otherwise there could be panic. Otherwise people might bolt.
These thoughts came to me as I fed a Russian oligarch and his wife a beef stew I’d prepared. The couple had arrived in Sicily by motor yacht, and I reflected that the daily cost of the fuel their boat consumed was equivalent to the value of all the foodstuffs in all the shops in Palermo combined, possibly also including the shop signs, the chopping blocks and meat cleavers, the shopkeepers’ scales and the white aprons. The lady said she had never tasted anything like my stew. There is no meat like that in Moscow, she declared. And no such vegetables, either, added her oligarch husband.
I was glad of the compliments, naturally, but a part of me wanted to scream bloody murder. A part of me wanted to say things to make them bolt. “Don’t you see? It is all a sham. Not only is your Russian post-Soviet existence a sham, but our Western pre-Soviet existence, too, what with its First World supermarket abundance, diversity, and choice, its Covent Garden, its YouTube, and its New York Times . . . No such beef in Moscow? Relax, you won’t find any in London, either. You may only ever find it nowadays, along with poetry, sentiment, music, opinion, courage, virtue—in short, along with anything worth finding—in the closing interstices, the vanishing crannies of what was once a living, breathing reality and has now become a uniformly asphalted, pre-totalitarian vacant lot. Reality nowadays is like the plants that a sick dog seeks out in the yard to make itself well, and all the money in the world won’t help you find so much as a single sprig of the medicinal flora.
“So bolt, my friends, bolt! Leave your Swiss bank accounts to fools, and let us sit together quietly of a summer’s evening, watching the pauper sun slip into the impecunious sea.”