“Curious Barbara’s got her nose in a sling,” goes the Russian admonition against prurience, more puzzling, if anything, than the equivalent English adage concerning the killing, in similarly umbrageous circumstances, of the cat.  Why should Barbara meet with such a fate?  Just how did it happen that curiosity brought about the death of Fluffy?  As a child, one wonders about these things.  In middle age, one wonders about them all over again.

Recently, a sentence in the Spectator caught my attention.  Explaining why a certain subversive initiative of the European Commission was a new trap for Britain, the author of the article invoked “a document that seems to have been designed to deceive” the British electorate.  Nothing strange here, one is tempted to say.  Why else would anybody bother coming up with a treaty, unless he wanted to get the better of someone else?  It is the rest of the sentence, however, that struck me as significant.  The authors of the treaty, wrote Fraser Nelson, would seem “to take the British people for fools.”

Let me back myself into yet another china-shop display.  The central existential question of all time, and hence the main thrust of all our anxiety, is “What happens in our absence?  What is, when our back is turned?  What was or will be, if we neither were nor will be able to see it?”  In theology, such speculation has produced the ontological proofs of the existence of God; in philosophy, Idealist thinking; in politics, the concept of trust in Democracy.  But the locus classicus and the corporeal location of the itch is our individual experience of love and betrayal.

My observation of human nature leads me to conclude that, in all but the most unusual relationships between men and women, it is not the prospect of loss that aggrieves one or both of the parties, but the suspicion that one’s lover, and hence oneself, is being made a fool of by a person or persons all too well known, or at any rate known enough to any save the myopic object of the dastardly deception.  That Miss X has had her face done so many times that the surgeon now no longer returns her telephone calls is a fact salient in the mind of the woman whose husband has run off with the monster; his incurious passivity with respect to it, rather than his closely held view that Miss X is better at choosing intimate dessous than his natural wife, is the crux of the controversy; and it is probable that, were he to make a clean breast of it, confessing that the feminine art was to him, as to Octave Uzanne, everything, while natural physiognomy was nothing, his wife would at last find peace.

Similarly, when Miss Y has gone off with a Hollywood film producer, it is the expensive research by Kroll Associates, showing that the Italian-American in question has for much of his life been a failure in his attempts to live off immoral earnings in Atlantic City, that inflames the lover’s jealousy.  “Frailty, thy name is woman,” he whispers from Hamlet, meaning that the young lady in question is too stupid to understand that even a real king’s favors aren’t worth eternal perdition, to say nothing of a usurper’s or an impostor’s.  Were Miss Y to admit plainly that she’s so sick and tired of hearing about her lover’s father’s plans to stand for European Parliament as an independent Green that it makes no difference to her that her new paramour is a fraud, he might calm down and start looking for a nice girl in his father’s prospective constituency; as it is, Miss Y’s deception by the rogue, his own betrayal by Miss Y, and the epochal gulling of himself by ubiquitous, aeonian, elemental falsehood are so inextricably intertwined in his brain that the story is likely to end in a double murder.

On the face of it, elementary curiosity might bridge any one of these abysses.  Had the wife been more eager to learn why her husband collects vintage magazines with names like Paris-Hollywood—to say nothing of the girlfriend, who might have used a few hours of her manicure time to inform herself on the prospect of personal enrichment from the European Union feeding trough—none of this would have happened.  Thus, James Stewart, in Hitchcock’s sagacious Vertigo, is impassive when, in the film’s opening sequence, his childhood friend demonstrates to him a brassiere designed, Barbara Bel Geddes explains, on the lines of the cantilever bridge.  Had man the curiosity to learn something about women, Hitchcock suggests, it would save him the trouble of watching them vanish and going mad for their sake later.

A similar impassivity is in evidence in democratic politics, represented since Plato’s day as a macrocosm of the individual self.  First, Western electorates lacked the curiosity to learn about Stalin; then about Hitler; then about why Stalin was a friend of Hitler; then why Hitler was at war with Stalin; then why Stalin was an ally of Roosevelt; then why Stalin was nobody’s friend, not even Mao’s or Tito’s.

“He just doesn’t want to know.”  “The wife is always the last to find out.”  These apparently banal statements from the byways of everyday life are consummately political pivots upon which democratic polities have turned since time immemorial.  The powerful historic kinship between seduction and sedition is a classic illustration, and I have heard it argued that the universal popularity of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa was a key factor in helping the British, including Burke in his Reflections, to see the French Revolution for what it was, rather than for what their textbooks would later tell them it was.  Equally, it can be argued that the numberless misconstructions and simplifications of Richardson’s complex and ambiguous novel, such as Laclos’ Liasons Dangereuses, have contributed to the growth of “revolutionary,” that is to say seditious or subversive, sentiment in Europe.  The tradition of vulgarizing Clarissa’s seduction is alive to this day, as witness just about any women’s magazine that counsels its readers to be free, to cast off the shackles of male dominance, and to follow Lovelace wherever its editor’s particular species of lovelessness takes them.

The libertine, in this frame of reference, is no more a suitable lover than he is a lover of liberty.  Like Robespierre, or Lenin, or the schemers of Brussels whose rhetoric vexes Mr. Nelson in the Spectator, he is first and foremost a demagogue.  “Happy Days Round the Corner!” screams the cover of a children’s fashion supplement to the Russian Vogue (“Let us imitate Hollywood stars,” runs a sample mendacity, “who share their joys and fortunes with their foster kids”), and in the curious person’s mind, there is little doubt that he or she is being led by the proverbial Barbara’s nose, that if Pol Pot, rather than “Madonna with son David” or “Gwen Stefani with son Kingston,” had been more useful in selling cashmere jumpers from Il Gufo and ankle socks from Bon Point, it would be a pyramid of skulls, not the smiling faces of Natalia Vodianova and her adorable children, that would have made the Vogue cover.  Ever the demagogue, the libertine is revealed as a user and an exploiter.

“Khmer Rouge Round the Corner!”  It is hardly surprising that the curious person—reader, thinker, voter, lover, husband, friend—responds to demagoguery by identifying himself as a conservative, while mistakenly labeling the libertine, with his hollow promises of love or liberty, a liberal.  The conservative husband wants to keep his wife, for instance, though the more he loves her, the more likely he is to give her up to another contender without a murmur of protest, provided he is convinced that the cause is just, that she is undeceived in her frailty, and that the object of her affections is not a bounder.  Thus, the conservative voter wants to keep his money but will part with it willingly, so long as he is convinced that the wars financed with the taxes he’s been paying are just, and that the roads for the paving of which he’s been saving do not all lead to Brussels.  So the conservative friend, who does not mind if one of his poker buddies quits the table for the love of a good woman, but may be expected to raise hell if daily sessions with a Manhattan psychoanalyst at $500 per yarn are the reason for the man’s defection.

Envy is not far behind.  Inasmuch as jealousy is a conservative sentiment, envy is brashly liberal-minded.  I have mentioned the Khmer Rouge, and a spot of light reading confirms that Pol Pot was indeed from what in the West would be called an upper-middle-class family, the sort of family that nowadays dresses its children in Il Gufo and Bon Point.  His sister was a concubine in the Great Palace of King Sisowath Monivong, where the future revolutionary often visited her amid the splendor that, even in the enfeebled West, still tends to amalgamate itself with monarchic power.  Thus acquainted with King Norodom Sihanouk from an early age, he went on to attend the Lycée Sisowath, the Eton of French Cambodia, and then moved to Paris, a city that to this day remains a kind of triumphal arch through which the congenitally envious pass on their way to the killing fields.

“He was ridiculously proud of having married a bit of posh,” writes Karl Marx’s biographer.  The scourge of the world bourgeoisie personally designed visiting cards for “Mme Jenny Marx, née Baronesse de Westphalen,” which, adds Francis Wheen, he would flourish “in the hope of impressing tradesmen and Tories.”  Once, when he tried to pawn some family silver belonging to his wife, Marx got himself arrested, as the police in London refused to believe that “a scruffy German refugee” had “acquired these ducal heirlooms legitimately.”  Imagine the envy and the gnawing frustration.  O London!  It is a wonder that Das Kapital is only as long as it is.

The eventual Chairman Mao, whose fledgling ambitions have been nursed to maturity in the Yale-in-China incubator; the erstwhile schoolboy Ulyanov-Lenin, a goody-gumdrops with a B- in logic and an A+ in religious studies; the prince of genocide Pol Pot, agog in the Champs Elysees; the nutty Professor Marx of 28 Dean Street, Soho, roaming flint-hearted Mayfair; the traitor Kim Philby, with Eton and the Cambridge Apostles under his nose; wherever you look, it’s the same old tale.  It is the tale of regarding a great eminence from a position elevated enough to enable one to appreciate it in all its unattainable glory; of being bodily present at a magnificent concert yet unable to identify or to comprehend what the orchestra is playing; of peering through softly illuminated windows to discern a gay evening party that one was never asked to join.  It’s a tale of envy all right.

Before we can understand politics, we must understand ourselves.  The vast social macrocosm out there is not as readily permeable to the intellect as the microcosm of the individual self, and the social forces that shape civilization—of which jealousy and envy are among the most powerful—are more easily visible in the laboratory slides of our own motives and perceptions, our confessions and tergiversations.  If we want to find out how the world really works, like poor Barbara we must risk our noses.