You know what you hardly see around anymore? Professions. Professors—hell, yes, one sees professors around, even in backward Italy, pinched, untidy, jealous of beauty, suspicious as cuckolds in Molière, speaking with the forked tongues of p.c. texts. But surely “professor” is a title or rank, not a profession or vocation.
At the dawn of the 20th century the Russian philosopher Konstantin Leontyev predicted that European culture would accelerate toward simplification, whereas in ages past the trend had been toward complexity. In music, for instance, the movement from the contrapuntal writing of the Renaissance to the rich harmonies of the Baroque involved a massive complication of technique, while Bach, in his turn, might have looked on Liszt as an impossibility on a par with time travel. Complication, incidentally, is a watchmaker’s term, and nobody would deny that the first wristwatches had been less complex than the Breguets favored by Byron and Pushkin, just as in chess, ancient gambits and openings are child’s play next to the Rubik’s Cubes of Alekhine and Capablanca. Complicating the position on the board, as every player knows, is what chess is all about.
Leontyev believed that civilization is complication, while simplification is barbarism and, ultimately, death—because nothing is quite as simple as death. In this, his thought was an echo of John Stuart Mill’s definition of diversity as a litmus test of a culture’s vitality, a thesis misappropriated a century later by cunning hypocrites of the academy in order to quash what remnants of diversity there had remained.
Professions, which gave us surnames like Miller and Smith, once lay at the heart of that complexity. At first glance subdued by the monolithically Christian matrix of European culture, professions were a way for the individual to profess a unique personal creed, as their sameness was only the sameness of nomenclature. Each craftsman defined his métier anew, and the fact, for instance, that he was called a “mason,” like Brunelleschi, or “goldsmith,” like Ghirlandaio, did not impede the building of Santa Maria del Fiore or the painting of the Tornabuoni Chapel.
Anybody one is likely to meet nowadays is called a businessman. Winemakers, dentists, and electricians exist, but in the public consciousness they are no more real than abbots or highwaymen. Even “banking,” “management,” and “information technology,” those workhorses of a recent past, seem like unfashionable atavisms, rather like the word transport that has been obliterated on the sides of even the humblest moving vans, clearing the way for logistics.
Numbers are taking over from names, as foretold in the Apocalypse, where business is the only occupation to draw an explicit mention. (“And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark.”) The streamlining, unification, rationalization, standardization, and digitalization of everything under the sun, precisely as thinkers like Mill and Leontyev intuited, means death by simplification for Western culture.
Remember the good old days, when prostitutes were known as “working girls”—in other words, professionals of their calling? Now even the world’s oldest profession is no more, because society hostesses, to say nothing of actresses and models, have taken over the business. “The art business,” in the last generation, has with similar insolence taken over the arts, the excuse being that a permanent plug-in with business will help the arts to survive and keep their practitioners from starving.
Yet the starving artist of centuries past is, in fact, a vicious fiction, put about by those who are so mired in modernity they cannot tell fame from repute, oblivion from obscurity. If Mozart were truly great, they think, he should have been to the people of his epoch what Madonna is to their own contemporaries. Yet Mozart, like the rest of that unjustly lamented crowd, had a dedicated following that kept him in Brie and Chablis; if it was erratic or insufficiently generous, or if the beneficiary of its devotion was bad with money, well, that’s life, isn’t it? True, on more than one occasion Pushkin had to sneak off to the pawnbroker, his wife’s precious shawls in hand; yet the shawls had been there to begin with, as were the late-night card bets, the club, the champagne, the horses, and the audiences with a concerned Czar Nicholas.
The individual’s uniqueness, clad in the modest garb of a profession, was what made Europe synonymous with civilization. Now those demure vestments are being peeled away, in a kind of terrifying striptease of biblical proportions, and the barbarian stands before us, stark naked save for the number on his forehead and hand. That he calls himself and is called by others a businessman, I repeat, enhances rather than diminishes the accuracy of the prophecy.
What of the professors? I believe that here I can improve on Scripture, for surely they will be there on the day of ultimate tribulation, right beside the businessmen. Like cockroaches, professors survive every ice age that befalls a fretful and intractable mankind.