Last year, when I first came to live here—as bearer of the Carta Venezia, the photo ID which entitles the city resident to buy water-bus tickets at 75 cents instead of the tourist’s three dollars, I have every right to say “live” rather than “visit—I made a private pact with Neptune and the spirits of the lagoon. That’s how we Russians are: Just give us a nice little pact and some secret protocols, and you can keep your money, your girls, and your red Ferrari.

Leaving out some of the duller codicils, I can disclose that my principal obligation under the terms of the pact was never to throw a cigarette butt into the water. I never smoke less than a pack a day, and was perfectly used to flicking the yellow-filtered butts with a James Dean sort of moodiness onto the pavements of many a world capital, but here a manifest change comes over the most repulsive of God’s creatures. Even the most recalcitrant provincial egotist in the millipede mass of sightseeing brutes, who, when in Rome, would not think twice before scattering Hershey’s wrappers on the floor of the Pantheon, may well hesitate before throwing his stupid rubbish into the hyaline stillness of a Venetian canal.

The vow was made to the Adriatic and the lagoon, rather than to the city, because I always knew that one day I would have to get myself a boat of my own, which is what I’ve recently done. However easy and peaceful it is to putter at five miles an hour through fire canals of Venice, once you are out in the lagoon, where changing currents, submerged sandbanks, and treacherous fog are considered a serious challenge to experienced islanders, you are in the power of Neptune, who will at least soak yon to the marrow of your bones by way of admonition, if not actually skewer you with his trident like a piece of vinegar-dressed musetto that, of a misty cold morning, goes so well with a glass of Treviso cabernet. Neptune must be appeased, I reasoned, and at the risk of looking perfectly ridiculous I took to stuffing cigarette butts into my coat pockets, to throw them away later. I used to dump them in little heaps, like carnival confetti, right on the ground, on the indifferent, impersonal, unfeeling ground.

Now to change the tack for a moment. I had dinner the other night with Edward Goldsmith, founder of The Ecologist magazine and brother of the late Sir James Goldsmith, the man who died trying to save British sovereignty from the encroachment of a Europe where, to paraphrase an old prophecy in a way that is relevant to my personal concerns, the writers would be Dutch, the tax inspectors Albanian, and the vintners Finnish. We talked about wine, as it happens, which very few growers nowadays do not muck up with pesticides and stabilizers, about Alain de Benoist, about free-range chickens and organically raised vegetables, about liberty, about Monsanto, about Margaret Thatcher. But the spectral question, one whose invisible, clammy, embarrassing presence I felt all through dinner, was this: Are we spoiled? Are we just a couple of spoiled brats, sitting on this dining-room banquette at Aspinalls and bitching, like Marie Antoinette with Maria Theresa, about the world outside and whether gingerbread cake ought to be banned because it ruins digestion?

I do not think so. I think there exists an objectively demonstrable connection between human happiness and the integrity of life. This last, like the political sovereignty which Sir James fought to defend, is a quality—such as that of a chain possessed of certain tensile strength—rather than a quantity, measurable in chicken-in-the-pot and DVD-in-the-bedroom units. It is, furthermore, a connection that can be shown to exist at all economic levels, from—I nearly wrote “the humble gondolier” before realizing that this would rather impair my reputation as an astute social observer—from myself, the only genuinely poor man of my acquaintance, to my millionaire interlocutor, Teddy Goldsmith.

You cannot be a bit of a fallen woman, or something of a virgin. Once the chain is broken, it doesn’t matter what bribes the electorate has received in the process, and how many chickens there are now in every pot. P’or theirs are not chickens, but reusable plastic effigies; theirs is not liberty, but an ever-thinning mess of latitudes; theirs is not life, but a general-issue simulacrum. I am not an environmentalist, or I would make the point by describing the degradation of the chain link by link, from plankton to fisherman to poet. Nor am I a political scientist, who could make the point by mapping the erosion of the rights of the individual in the present epoch of transnational government and multinational corporate interests. I am just a 20-a-day smoker who vowed to Neptune he would not litter in the lagoon, and I’m making the integralist point as best I can.

One sunny day there came acquca alta, for the first time that year and mv very first in Venice. It is easy to describe what this is like to another Russian, because it’s exactly like the first snowfall, when the known landscape of yesterday is converted overnight into the surgical cotton warehouse of a Martian field hospital, while the banal, leafless tree branch outside your window that had been looking almost utilitarian since September suddenly takes on the irrational contours of a beautiful and profligate thought. The children are out in the street, horsing around in the newsworthiness of it all, knee-deep, as if, literally, there was no tomorrow, while the parents are uncharacteristically indulgent, as if their own childhood, along with everything that’s ever gone right in their lives, has been restored to them in that blessed instant.

To a person who knows nothing and wants to know nothing of the transport of the elements, somebody who would insist that a more urbane and forthright description be supplied to him, I can say that acquca alta works exactly like the bathtubs of Claridge’s, that great flagship of pre-war, afternoon-tea-perfect hydro-pneimiatic engineering in London, whose porcelain vastness the water fills through the plug holes from below, rather than the taps from above, with the expensive consequence that, after the initial gurgle of welcome, it is utterly noiseless. Here in Venice the streets, which are rarely wider than a Claridge’s bathtub, fill up through small plughole-shaped grates cut into paving stone with just the same plush noiselessness and the same efficient quickness born of the eagerness to please, to provide Old World value for money, to compete with the Hilton and win. The water rises, changing the aspect of the city and providing the resident with the excuse to buy special rubber boots that anyone but a sexual deviant would agree look like medieval armor, stays a few hours, and eventually recedes, leaving the cobblestones clean as a shop window and the occasional ground-floor shopkeeper cursing the day he turned down the offer to move to Mestre.

And my cigarette butts? They got washed away and ended up somewhere out in the lagoon, in an unwitting yet direct violation of my pact with Neptune. The ground of Venice and the islands, it turned out, is not as indifferent and impersonal as I and all the other transient foresti might have supposed, but is the solid shell of the liquid sea and part of its mystery. So, too, with the chain of wellbeing, whose healthiest sections—the ones least likely to snap right in front of me, the ones most certain to last me until absolute disillusionment settles in—I devote myself to seeking out and recording. Only rarely does the chain show itself to be stronger than one has assumed, and as ever it is only nature that is capable of pleasant surprises and of teaching the cynical pupil a cynical lesson.