What Exile from himself can flee?

To Zones, though more and more remote,

Still, still pursues, where-e’er I be.

The blight of life—the demon, Thought.

—Lord Byron

Thus a previous occupant of our palazzo. Romantic rubbish, you say? Venice not remote enough for him? Should have tried some other zone, freezing rain in October and 40 below in March, shovel in hand and memories of a cigarette as his main divertissement? In the vulgar idiom of a less fortunate generation:

Next morning the fog was all gone.

The furious waves calmed down,

Before us arose Magadan,

The Kolyma zone’s head town.

As I write this, with the gentle voice of Italian winter for a soundtrack whimpering pitifully somewhere beyond the Arsenale just as the 20th century has always been meant to whimper in farewell, there is but a single thought in my head, namely, that the Christian world as we know it is going to relive the history of totalitarian Russia in our lifetime. I look at the demon thought this way, and that; I turn it over in my mind, and look at it sideways, and then again in the face; I look at it in unaccountably frequent moments of happiness and during bouts of depression; dead drunk and stone sober; alone and in conversation with friends; but no matter how I look at it, I see no escape from what appears to be unavoidable. Not historically inevitable, mind you, because I am not fool enough to get worked up over theories of history, or entangle myself in ontological disputation; not divinely predestined, for roughly the same reason; but simply unavoidable, in the sense that an egg will surely crack if the huge leather)’ bottom of an adult hippopotamus comes to rest upon it.

I am not talking politics, either. Even if I came to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that the ruling junta in Russia will suddenly terminate its continuing nuclear, chemical, and biological armament while the West will curtail its own strategic disarmament, with the result that the United States, France, and Britain will retain some viable deterrent against global blackmail in the years to come; or that Pat Buchanan, despite having neither campaign funds nor a political machine nor a fair press, will be elected president by a landslide, neither to invoke Averell Harriman in his inaugural address nor to lunch with Henry Kissinger the day after; or that the tomatoes offered for sale in a supermarket in Birmingham will become as real as the homegrown produce of Sant’ Erasmo which I can still find on some mornings at the Rialto; even if I came to believe all that, and in the tooth fairy besides, I would conclude that the bad news balanced the good 1:1 in the sense defined by the seller of sausages with a filling of horsemeat and partridge in an old Russian story, meaning one horse to one partridge.

Over Christmas I bought the “Numero Millennium” of the Italian current affairs weekly Panorama, mainly because the magazine’s cover story, entitled “Welcome to the Twenty-First Century,” was largely taken up with European Union statistics. Obviously, nobody with a desk job in Italy was going to work over the holidays, not even in Milan, and the issue had been printed well in advance, some desperate journalists having hit upon the ploy of publishing raw data in feverish anticipation of skiing in Cortina d’Ampezzo. Since I was probably that issue’s only reader—everybody else was out buying giblets and stocking up on lentils—I must report the stale news it contained, in the form of the Index of Preparedness for the Future and another called the Index of Social Harmony. “Which of the fifteen member states of the European Union,” the statisticians were asked, “is the most innovative and dynamic (più dinamici e innovativi)?” Last on the list was Italy. “Which European country affords the best opportunity of living in peace (dove si vive più serenamente)?” First on the list is Italy.

What I am saying here, politics apart, is that Panorama’s cockamamie sociologists are obviously right on the money. Like Lord Byron, the world is unhappy. It yearns to be innovative and dynamic. It wants new, stranger, and stronger sensations and experiences, not peace and homegrown tomatoes from Sant’ Erasmo. It is only nominally Christian—as, anyway, was Byron—in the sense that it no longer feels Christ’s wounds as its own, and certainly has no intimate, keenly remembered knowledge of any more recent wounds, and of any more efficient methods of inflicting them, than the Crucifixion. The zones less remote from physical suffering are, for the people of the United States and Europe—in whose hands the prosperity and the liberty of the world are still held provisionally—something akin to the famous Steinberg cartoon of Manhattan, where Rhodes, Kerensky, Attlee, Hitler, Stalin, Attila, McCarthy, Napoleon, Mao, Nixon, Lincoln, Washington, Churchill, Franco, Henry VIII, Charles IX, Nicholas I, Gorbachev, Medici, and Milosevic make up a giant Pol Pot of schoolbook history twaddle whose relevance to the individual citizen of the West, mutatis mutandis, is infinitely smaller than the appeal of a nationally advertised brand of sportswear.

Which one of us, on being approached by a homosexual prostitute in the men’s lavatory at Grand Central Station, most plausibly a Hollywood scriptwriter who was last paid for a story 15 years ago and has since become a heroin addict, will give him $100 and whisper: “No, his life is not over. He can start again, maybe learning to weave baskets for a gallery in the Village, or to make funny-shaped pies for children’s parties. Better yet, he can set up an Internet site, where even Siberian villagers can share his sad experiences and learn from them. He can change, get married. read Kant’s Prolegomena on Saturday nights and the Bible on Sundays. At the very least he can become a real-estate broker. Did Saul not become Paul?” What I am saying here, I repeat, is that the world’s accelerating slide into the totalitarian abyss is as culturally preconditioned as the likely self-destruction of the man in the lavatory. Politics, in view of the wholesale evisceration of democratic politics in America and Britain—to say nothing of the Russian and Eastern European simulacrum that was never intended to supersede or impede the ruling Andropovite junta—ave only a small factor in this process of degradation, and even the soundest possible electoral outcomes can no more reverse the trend than the unexpected, and frankly unlikely, gift of a $100 bill can change the life, and avert the death, of a degenerate moron on the skids.

The difference, heartbreaking as I feel it, is that the Christian world of today still full of beauty, still God-abiding of a severe winter day, still verdant in springtime—is more like the doomed Lord Byron than it is like the HIV-positive scriptwriter. It is external circumstances that have changed. If a British peer of the realm in 1820 was, like Britain and the rest of the Christian world at the time, the undisputed master of his own destiny, even the wealthiest American of 180 years later is, like the United States of today, but one vector in myriad other strategic quantities of which tomorrow is composed. It made no difference to Byron’s future that the richest countries of his day were three times richer than the poorest, including the part of the world now called Pakistan. Today, it ought to make one hell of a difference to a Briton that the world’s poorest countries are 77 times poorer than the richest, and that Pakistan has successfully tested medium-range nuclear weapons.

I don’t know. I’m going to have some giblets with lentils for supper, smoke a Tuscan cigar, and see if that makes the perspective any more rosy.