Well, from New York actually, with a stopover in London where we took on board and I was able to read again England’s four competing and mutually adversarial “serious” daily newspapers, not counting the specialized Financial Times: the Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Independent, and the Guardian. None of them is perfect, or perhaps even very serious, on its own, but added together they amount to something without which political life is meaningless and delusional, a culture of broadly polarized debate that is in its own way as miraculous as a great Bordeaux and as much a product of human art as the Trevi Fountain.
I am now happily restored to Rome and can hear the famous fountain outside my front door taking in $5,000 a week in fives and dimes like one of those maximalist. High Baroque cash registers, all opera-diva curves and flora-shaped curlicues, that they used to have in Woolworth’s before the revolution. What revolution, you may ask.
One morning in New York I was having breakfast at the Yale Club in the company of a lively Anglo-Russian child, and looking around the room saw a score of identical broadsheets billowing like the sails of a flotilla of conformity over a sea of watery coffee. “Look, they are all reading the same newspaper!” I exclaimed. There must have been something manic in my voice, because my companion, like a hospital orderly persuading a patient not to throw plates, suddenly grew agreeably philosophical. “It is like everybody in the world cutting wood with the same saw,” he said. He wanted to produce an analogy that would highlight the fantastic absurdity of a country where every person who wears a clean shirt and owns cufflinks reads the same issue of an upper-class Pravda, while the grubby multitudes just grunt and look at pictures in the Sun and the Sunday Sport. I suppose he thought the notion of there being just one handsaw for five billion people to share was just absurd enough to keep me calm.
The other social venue of my narrative is Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, named, significantly, after Leonardo da Vinci, where on my return I drank a small espresso. It was all right. Now, please try to imagine yourself making something for tens of thousands of faceless and nameless foreigners, none of whom you are likely to ever see again and few of whom can taste the difference between good and evil. Would you need to make it well? Would you bother?
And now for the grand synthesis. The revolution I mentioned earlier was really the French Revolution, which could not have occurred without the accompanying assault on the irrational component in the fabric of European life by what is called reason. It is quite obvious, looking back, that the cultural strands which held our society together had not been spun in the dark satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution, nor bought with paper notes in Adam Smith’s free market, nor designed by science for the benefit of all mankind. Concepts like God, duty, honor all come off a different spool, and though this is not historically demonstrable, it is philosophically accurate to claim that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a logical denouement of the West’s effort to bring the backward country into line with the rest of Europe by destroying in Russia what had been destroyed elsewhere since 1789.
This is an inexhaustibly, absorbingly dusty subject, and I only wish to concentrate on a single speck where the two social vignettes with which I began combine into a whole observation. The vulgar adaptations of famous rationalist principles by which the world now lives are legion, as by and by we come to learn that there is no organ in the human body that could conceivably accommodate the soul, that one cannot win at roulette because statistically one must lose, and that virginity is a prejudice that went out with the geocentric model of the universe. In a recent survey, 19 percent of New Yorkers admitted to having had “group sex,” while what 32 percent of men “looked for in a partner” was an apartment and what 31 percent of women wanted in a man was a car.
But perhaps the most ubiquitous and dastardly of these is the nursery-school birds-and-bees biologism of supply and demand. Ask a well-meaning, decent, concerned American why there is no other supplier of serious news and opinion in the country besides the New York Times, and he will tell you that it can only be because there is no call for anything else, mumbling something like “I guess it does the job.” This is tantamount to proposing—which, consistent enough with the historical origins of this particular absurdity, is exactly what Darwinists propose—that a camel has two humps because one would be too few and three would be too many. Something exists, ergo it must exist; it changes, hence change was inevitable; it becomes extinct, therefore its possible existence is not even a matter for discussion.
Here is something I read on the plane on the way over. The author of the article, a well-known British art critic named Waldemar Januszczak, thinks “photography could be the new painting” because
[t]he lively photo-art crowding our galleries has been produced by an impressive array of labour-saving photo-gadgets: digital-enhancement screw-ons, computer solutions, disposable cameras, autofocus jobs, and all sorts of easily buyable ways of making the production of memorable pictures an effortless process. The result has been a freeing up of photography, and the enfranchisement of all sorts of fascinating artistic imaginations.
All right, you may murmur, he is just another idiot, one of thousands, pay no attention. What is at work here, however, is not so much the pretentious prattling tongue of a random illiterate hack as the invisible hand which seems to direct much of contemporary ratiocination. Leonardo painted because there was demand for Leonardo. Waldemar Januszczak is intelligent because there is demand for intelligent people in newspapers. And of course both are only possible because easily buyable, labor-saving screw-ons have enfranchised their artistic imaginations.
Well, then, why is the espresso at Fiumicino good enough to drink? Silence.
I would define genius as the quality of the human mind which makes a person capable of risk. And risk, by anybody’s definition, is neither rational nor prudent. The gnarled little Sicilian barista, working the antiquated and gadget-free espresso machine to make coffee when ordinary dishwater would do, has an artistic imagination a million times more powerful than the art critic’s. Like Leonardo, he does what he does because he cannot do otherwise, gambling away his time and energy without certain recompense, probably the way his father and grandfather did, and the day he stops will be the day he dies or is replaced by Starbucks. He is, in short, supply incarnate, supply profligate, supply defiant, supply existing independently of demand and testing itself by its own irrational surveys of honor, virtue, and courage.
Everything good in this world, including the world itself, has come from the same source. It is impossible not to become what a Darwinist would call a Creationist upon reflecting that if the universe had not been created by God and was the product of evolution then all the art critics would write like Waldemar Januszczak, all the newspapers would be like the New York Times, and all the coffee would be undrinkable. We are very nearly there, of course, but we have our memories to remind us that things weren’t always the way they are and our children to ask us why the airport is named after a Renaissance barman.
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