The only substantive change to my character that I have observed over time is in the workings of the spleen, the abdominal organ once regarded as the seat of what are now called the negative emotions. When I was young, the objects of my hate were precious few, though, of course, I used to fulminate against them at the top of my voice; nowadays, I seem to loathe just about everybody and everything, while saying little or nothing about it. This must be why we tend to imagine death as a kind of engulfing stillness, because, by the time it comes, we have grown to despise the world so perfectly and completely that silent rage is the only commentary really suited to the occasion. Sometimes I think that, if everybody’s spleens functioned as well as mine, running like trains under Mussolini, we would all be living and dying in a more enlightened Christian way.
Overheard in Piazza S. Marco the other evening, as the band in the middle distance, probably Florian’s, let flow the tears for the vanquished in “The Hills of Manchuria,” a microwave-quick female voice from a group of married couples, walking back to their hotel in Riva degli Schiavoni after a day of sightseeing: “Moe, Curly, and wass dee udder’n?” The creakier voice of a somewhat older woman, waddling excitedly beside the life of the party: “Leh-ah-rrry!”
The life of the party, flirtatiously, to the three men dragging their feet behind them: “Larry, Curly, and Moe!” Provocative laughter from the three women. A man’s voice in stern rebuke: “Now don’t start, Maryann.”
An issue of Time magazine opened at random, while in a doctor’s waiting room, to an article headlined “Putin’s Bold Move”: “Joining the West in its war on terrorism was the easy part. Now can he keep the generals happy and safeguard his country’s backyard?” By Maryann Bird. Could this be the same woman I overheard in Piazza S. Marco? She quotes a Russian source: “‘It’s not NATO that now expands to the east,’ writes Leonid Radzikhovski, a columnist for the weekly magazine Itogi. ‘It’s Russia that is drastically expanding to the west.’” To anybody with eyes, the point made in Itogi would seem as plain as Larry, Curly, and Moe; here, however, is how Maryann extrapolates it:
Directly or indirectly, Russia and the West may begin to sort out a broad range of issues: the expansion of NATO, the proposed U.S. national missile defense system, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, nuclear weapons capabilities, Russia’s bid for membership in the World Trade Organization, debt repayments to Paris Club creditors and greater Western understanding regarding Russian tactics in Chechnya.
Maryann I and Maryann II, two peas in a pod, two housewives on a rampage, two faces of one and the same uniquely Western creature. Truth to tell, if I felt totally free to vent my gloriously healthy spleen just now, I would be asking unanswerable questions like Who allowed people like that into S. Marco? or Who will answer for the decision to fill reputable journals with housewifely twaddle? With a twinge of something like remorse, I realize that such questions are not merely splenetic or rude; they sound elitist and even authoritarian. Alas, culture—in particular, the culture that democratic governments, their intelligence services, and their defense establishments lack so laughably—is more in tune with the workings of my spleen and other abdominal organs than with the editorial selection process at Time or the CIA’s recruitment procedures. The proof of this assertion is that World War III—the tepid war that, in all likelihood, will be won by Russia without a single shot being fired by a Russian hand—has in effect already been lost, before it ever began, by cheeky, flirty, and fat Maryann I; by important, Ivy-League-educated, and voluble Maryann II; and by a myriad other Maryanns whose different virtues and vices are less specific than the one characteristic that they have in common, namely, their uniquely Western philistinism.
It is a quality easy to decry, but difficult to describe, although the first thing that springs to mind is the voice. It is always there, the Scourge of Air, as Catherine the Great of Russia called the tongue, raised above the music in the piazza and poised to slash the evening mist to ribbons. It is always there, the penchant for expressing what magazine editors call “opinion,” rooted as it may be in 20th-century America’s inability to discriminate between diversity and obesity, conservatism and conformity, originality and hooliganism, idleness and uselessness, intelligence and education, art and spectacle, knowledge and information. It is always there no matter where you go, because housewifeliness, though originally a branded product of American prosperity, is now the globally audible soul of a more and more meaningless West.
Once, many years ago, in a restaurant called the Gay Hussar in London, I was given the famous Hungarian cold cherry soup. Ever since then, whenever some Mittel-European subject is broached, deep within myself I detect the impulse (which, of course, I have the sense to suppress immediately), to work the cold cherry soup into the conversation. And the reason I have not once mentioned that very odd dish, in all those years of convivial Mittel-Europa banter since I tasted it, is the stage whisper from my cultural conscience to the effect that I know nothing about it. That is to say, I don’t know how it’s made, when it’s eaten, who eats and who doesn’t eat it in its native land, and, indeed, whether there’s such a thing as hot cherry soup.
The housewives who are losing World War III for democracy have no comparable restraining mechanism in place. They have no cultural conscience, and this characteristically 20th-century American defect—which, consistent to the last, I would compare with the fatal atrophying of a vital bodily organ such as the spleen—permits them to be as free and easy, as stupid and trivial, as audacious and mendacious as the newspapers they read or write in, as the political leaders they work for or want to impeach, as the teachers in their children’s schools, and as the children themselves. From anthrax to Andropov, from computers to nuclear weapons, from peace treaties to Louis XIV, from the Venice Biennale to hot and cold cherry soup, they have an opinion about everything. If you disagree, just take a look at the New York Times one Sunday.
Throughout this tepid war, as I monitor the vital signs of Western political and cultural opinion—television commentators, government spokesmen, newspaper pundits, university experts—I am reminded of a wealthy Frenchwoman of my acquaintance who has married an artist because he looks artistic. I am reminded of the American book reviewer, who does not know what a poem is but always seems to know what the poem is like, and hardly bothers to conceal her childlike delight at the prospect of using her thousand words to tell the readers how to read it. I am reminded of the English waitress, who has certainly never seen a cappuccino in her life, but will place the scalding cup of brown cinnamon-scented dishwater in front of you with the aplomb of Phileas Fogg. And, saddest of all because this is where I now live, I am reminded of the Italian resort hotel manager, demonstrating her newly installed swimming pool, which is the size of a Palm Beach bathing cap with yellow daisies, and insisting that I agree with her that it’s American.
If the remarkable fact that it is women’s voices that I hear in my head when I think of the housewives who now govern the West—anatomically male, many of them—should appear shockingly misogynist, do not blame any of my bodily organs. It is just that, in times of crisis, such as war, pestilence, or famine, every society stands or falls by the way it chooses to deal with its share of babbling Maryanns, be they its Kerenskys, its Chamberlains, its McNamaras or Kissingers. Male, female, or neuter, these are the philistines of T.S. Eliot’s prophecy, whose world of kitchen certitudes can only ever end with a whimper of submission. And, after what seems like centuries in the evolution of my spleen, it is indeed a surprise that I still have the requisite bile to jeer their indecorous life and inglorious fate.
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