On a balmy spring day, a visitor to St. Mark’s in Venice, if he is adventurous enough to make his way to the top of the cathedral and look down, will see the subjacent piazza covered in a species of vermin. Excoriating the global tourist is almost as banal a pastime as trailing through an Italian city in shorts and trainers behind a colored umbrella, and I scarcely wish to follow suit. I merely want to draw the reader’s attention to the specific morphology of the creature, which bears an uncanny resemblance to an insect mentioned in the Apocalypse, the locust with a human head. This disinterested insight, part entomology and part eschatology, has led my Russian photographer friend Alexander Gusov to give the title Locusts to a vast portfolio of images devoted to the emergence of mass man in the nominally individualistic West.
Photography, as it happens, is the mobilizing impulse of the species under discussion. One can hardly imagine a locust swarm without at least one camera for each family subunit, and their progress through the world is a geometric series of voracious juxtapositions of landscapes, monuments, and backgrounds with their own likenesses, a kaleidoscopic process involving trillions of eventual permutations yet immovably focused on the self. Like a plague, their progress is expansionist and triumphal, arithmetically burgeoning on its advances, swelling with each pandemic success; like an infestation, it is vampiric and amoral, as unquestioning of its nature, its aims, and its ethics as any feeding beast’s; like a sign of the times, it is revelatory in its finality, a chilling sensation which its tidal ubiquity, from Rome to Damascus and from Bath to Tibet, drives home with what can only be described as an apocalyptic force. The camera, far more than the airplane or the automobile, is the pale hobbyhorse astride which this nightmare rides in insensate triumph through individual consciousness.
Permit me a fanciful digression. There are English words, deeply rooted in our common Indo-European mentality, whose onomatopoeic intent seems almost wholly repulsive, notably the cluster beginning in gn-, such as gnat or its cognate nit—respectively, gnus and gnida in Russian, where the initial g is not silent. Gnaw is another, as is the Russian gnoi, “pus,” and gnash, and gnarly. Now, it may well be that drawing the verb to know, along with the Greek root of gno as in gnosis, into this cluster is a folly of spurious semantics, but I am a writer, not an etymologist, and I can read words whichever way I like. Unlike the Marxist linguist Nikolai Marr, who had managed to derive the words of all the world’s languages from the Russian for rye only to be exposed as a fraud by Stalin, I merit this small indulgence. It is not my fault that, in the exasperation of an Italian mother telling her child “non fare lo gnorri” (“don’t act as if you know nothing about it”), I hear John Donne’s bell tolling for all mankind. And it occurs to me that if one wishes to describe with any degree of clinical accuracy the millenarian pestilence that has come to gnaw on civilization, one must begin at the beginning.
The beginning is where the Bible, and Kierkegaard in our own waning Victorian day, found Original Sin in the Fall of man. Famously, the Danish philosopher compared the fear that Adam desires to conquer through wisdom with vertigo, noting that the lapse into sin invariably takes place in a kind of dizziness of promise—particularly the promise of liberty. Contrasted with that hallucinogenic abstraction is faith, which, to the contrary, is akin to clarity and is, unlike phantom knowledge, a real power. An etymologist, incidentally, might support Kierkegaard’s view by pointing out that the English word soul originally meant “strength in the face of opposition,” a sense retained today in its cognate, resilience. It was man’s spirit, in other words, that proved unequal to the temptation of knowing.
Developing Kierkegaard’s view, one can describe the forbidden fruit of Genesis as a sort of controlled substance, as man’s first hallucinogenic drug, whose consumption in ever-increasing doses, as is the addict’s lot, has been the main feature of man’s progress to civilization since his expulsion from Eden. Wisdom, knowledge, understanding have served, like the mirages induced by certain narcotics, to rob him of the life force of faith he has been given as his main hereditament, leading him ever farther afield into a land of fantasy which he has long had no choice but to call reality. In Russian underworld argot, to introduce another point of semantics, heroin addicts speak of injecting the drug as broadening (“D’you broaden?”), while cocaine is known as plan (“Gives you a clear head”). So, too, is science a perpetual and unstoppable dilation, a worldview whose values obsolesce and pass like the effects of an addict’s hits, its reason parasitically insatiable, its escalating demand for fresh injections of knowledge a telltale paragraph from a case study in addiction. If drug abuse is slavery, it is slavery that befalls those in search of freedom.
“He is, like, on speed all the time.” Is there a more succinct way of introducing modern mass man? Come to think of it, is there a more accurate way of characterizing the workings of reason in a modern individual, of which Socrates is perhaps the first notable example? Does not the ineluctable sophistry of Plato’s Dialogues have that essentially interminable quality of modern life, elastic like chewing gum on the one hand and hard as teacher’s chalk on the other, which only the most wayward of pupils, after smoking a couple of joints, can savor with equanimity? Of course the joints, in this case, are the gnostic suppositions and epistemological contradistinctions, inventive metaphors and clever analogies, by which the philosopher broadens the argument in his obsession to expand his domain of thought and thereby to assert his own immanence in the soulless world he regards as real.
To be fair, like Nietzsche after him, Kierke-gaard spares Socrates the kind of ridicule he heaps on every philosopher from Aristotle to Hegel, but now is not the time to be consistent. It takes no more than ordinary human courage to drink the hemlock, while the challenge to withstand temptation by immortality has been known to defeat titans, to say nothing of Adam in Eden. As the Russian writer Lev Shestov, one of the first to appreciate Kier-kegaard, noted nearly a century ago, partaking of the fruit of knowledge
has made man lose even the ability to see his newfound impotence as a misfortune. He has become a knight of resignation, equating knowledge with truth. He has lost his freedom, yet he is quite unperturbed by it.
In other words, what Marx has famously called the opium of the people is not religion but Marx himself, Marx and all his predecessors in speculation starting with the eminently sympathetic Socrates. The opiate of the people is human reason.
And so it came to pass that, as the visitor to Animal Farm “looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again,” in the concluding sentence of Orwell’s prescient satire, “it was impossible to say which was which.” Clearly, the apocalyptic morphology of the freedom-loving swine fascinated the English writer, much as the tourist’s mutation to locust fascinates my Russian photographer friend. A swine is a warm-blooded quadruped, however, with a distinctive symbolism that belongs to a kinder, gentler epoch, one in which the creatures of Manor Farm had given names and identifiable characters before their lapse into revolution. Not so with the world that has passed these ultimate decades in narcotic stupefaction, reminiscent of the scene in the film where Al Pacino, in the role of amateur drug dealer, leaps face-first into a heap of coke like a hog diving into the feeding trough. Which of man’s recent triumphs of reason, I wonder, does that heap represent? The neutron bomb? The White House at night? Russian democracy under President Putin? The nanotechnology superweapon being developed by friendly China?
Speculative philosophy and its many offspring, from political economy to quantum physics, share Adam’s desire to understand by generalizing and to see by expanding. They want to broaden the mind, to come up with a plan of action without which one’s head spins and all is fear, confusion, chance, and God. But no sooner is the needle in the forearm, no sooner is the formula on the blackboard and the people have heard over the wireless that something rational has just taken place in Munich, in Yalta, or in Washington, as everything becomes clear again, at least until it transpires that Hitler’s a villain, Joe Stalin is nobody’s uncle, and FDR had known that the Japs would attack Pearl Harbor, at which point a new injection of truth becomes necessary. The sole constant objective, meanwhile, is to keep on going, to go on broadening and planning, and to continue being revolutionary, like hamsters on a wheel, in search of the universal truth that sets man free.
“Man lacks the courage to think in categories by which he lives,” wrote Shestov, “and is reduced to living by categories in which he thinks.” Where the Apostolic Church, with Her methadone of occasionally imperfect faith, once had the task of mediation, as a kind of drug rehabilitation center, between man and the universe, in modern times it is Art, or even more absurdly Culture, that would encourage him to face reality. Yet, dipping into semantics once more, one finds that the meaning of art, extant in English in the word artful, is “trickery” or “illusion,” whereas in Russian, the word means “temptation.” Khudozhnik, Russian for “artist,” is even more frank, literally meaning “evildoer” or “malfeasant.” The tribesmen that until recently resisted the Europeans’ attempts to photograph them, like the primitive Saxons or Slavs who blackened the magic of art in their own day, had a fair sense of what progress is all about. Indeed, a believing Christian can easily argue that much in the evolution of Western aesthetics since at least the Renaissance has turned on deception and enfeeblement of the soul.
As for the modern mass man’s penchant for culture, it is a matter of indifference to the locusts swarming St. Mark’s Square whether the “bellini” at Florian are made with the real juice of white peaches, now out of season, or with the bottled simulacrum manufactured under the label of Cipriani. Nor is the fact that Bellini the painter and Cipriani the publican have nothing in common except fame, as a sports car and a lollipop may have nothing in common besides the color, detectable to their lens-like insect eyes, which perceive no reality apart from the reassuring heartbeat of individual immanence and the empowering conformism of collective ratiocination. What sort of language is it that has only I and we for pronouns? Whose verbs have only one tense, the future, and only one mood, the complacent indicative? Where the distinctions between man and pig, the White House and the Kremlin, right and wrong, are less significant than those between the yen and the euro?
What sort of culture is it that speaks such a language, and what salutary effect can its mediation possibly have on the ever more swift fall of man? I laugh from bitter experience, for I was born into a culture that overtly embraced the ethical positions covertly, unconsciously, or chaotically espoused by the materialist culture of the West today. Was not my Moscow of half a century ago the world capital of philosophical positivism? Her optimistic people were like insect soldiers, locusts moving in serried ranks, worker ants marching toward a luminous future, hoplites rubbing forelegs against shields with a deafening noise that drowned out the doubt of individual conscience. And here I stand, in St. Mark’s in Venice, in Piazza di Spagna in Rome, in Trafalgar Square in London, and see the same glassy eyes, which have now gone digital, still focused on a collective appraisal of a collective existence.
There, one is photographing his wife against the great winged lion. It is famous, that lion, which means it has immanence to spare. Hence truth—or wisdom, or knowledge, or culture—must belong to it, appertain to it, saturate its exterior like an invisible yet potent elixir, envelop it like biblical manna or cleave to it like greensward to the Apennine hillside. His wife belongs to him, after all, and, by making her a part of this gnomic marvel, he can sink his jaws into the very heart of the matter. Snap! His wife now exists, resplendent in a baseball cap and Adidas, and he has a picture of her to prove it, inside the little machine of whose workings he knows so much less than a prelapsarian Adam knew of shrubs and trees.
Snap! goes the gnathic shutter. Wow, that was a great one, honey. He is nobody’s fool, not him. Not one of those stupid morons who’d lived under communism for all that time, in Russia or wherever, until it went bankrupt and they started to live like us human beings again. Or one of those ignorant people in the Dark Ages, who only went to church and had all that garbage drummed into their heads from morning to night. Back home, he’s got television, of course, but once in a while, it’s good to get out. The fact is, he quite likes going places. Seeing things. Broadening the mind. And that’s the name of the game these days, though he did once hear some curmudgeonly foreign fellow say that if you broaden it too much, your brains will fall right out. Quite a joker, that Danish fellow.