In the autumn of 1909, a troupe of Sicilian actors, led by Giovanni di Grasso, arrived in St. Petersburg to satisfy a refined craving of the Russian intelligentsia, then widely shared in fashionable circles throughout Europe, for the experience of the primitive. Still, only a hundred or so spectators turned up to savor art at its most unspoiled, and, on that wet November evening, the main hall of Conservatory Theater was nearly empty. But in the audience was a reviewer by the name of Rozanov, and, as luck would have it, at least in my view, Vasily Rozanov was the most interesting and original thinker of the 20th century.
From the moment the curtain went up, wrote Rozanov, everyone on that stage was in a state of continual agitation. In contrast with the theater art of Russia and the rest of civilized Europe—where, over many a decade of culturally deadening stratification, acting had became, with notable exceptions, a job, a chore, and a profession—here were amateurs in the purest sense of the word. They literally shone, wrote Rozanov, and all one could think of, while watching them act their parts in the play, was sunlight. “How much sunlight!”
The title of the play was Feudalism, and, since I intend to address the subject of feudalism here, I will take the liberty of translating a long passage from Rozanov’s essay.
“These people were small,” he wrote,
their native corner of the earth was tiny, while their great events and their important relationships with one another were tinier still. But in a single drop of water drawn from a natural lake one finds a greater variety of life than in all the barrels of tars and acids left standing in the yard of a chemical factory. After the Sicilians had departed, some hack wrote in a newspaper review that “from the point of view of spiritual development, the characters in the play, as for that matter the actors playing them, are barely above the apes.” Could he really mean that when the young, unloved husband pulls money out of a dirty rag to give to his wife and recounts, coin after coin, how he has got hold of each of these gold pieces, this is zoology? And when the husband, having learned from mocking songs, and from the wife herself, that she no longer loves him and has taken a lover, is filled with despair, rage, and the remains of his still-tender love, and then proceeds to hack at a loaf of bread with a knife as if it were his rival’s throat, yelling all the while, Mangia! Mangia!, and when the wife refuses, as she refuses him everything, and he smashes, in one great blow, all the crockery and everything else on the table,—is that the story of an ape, I ask you? Naturally, our enlightened litterateurs are no longer capable of jealousy, not only “accepting” betrayal from their wives, but yielding to them in just about everything else besides. But, at this extreme level of politeness, does not the gentleman in evening clothes remind one of chemically distilled water, of which it is said that it has neither taste, nor smell, “nor any colour whatever”? For that water is dead. It never loves, it no longer hates, it is incapable of anger, and if it still retains the ability to scribble articles in newspapers, well, what’s the use of that? Are we not to shed real tears for a literature and a society condemned to wallow in this deadness?
“Whoever has never felt the pain of jealousy for his beloved,” Rozanov went on,
will feel no such pain over the loss of his nation’s liberty or the usurpation of his civil rights—unless it’s a brainy, lazy, bookish sort of feeling. For there is a vast difference between the agitation that stems from people’s so-called theoretical convictions and the agitation that springs directly from the blood. The North lives one kind of agitation, the South another. Liberty is not always a squabble over the rights of man, drawn out like some interminable lawsuit between “the interests of the King” and those of “the Lower House”; it can sometimes come from the sheer joy of life, a surfeit of happiness, an ecstasy of being so complete that man is compelled to invite the animals and even the plants to share in it, and such liberty is born of the southern sun. Let us recall the Bible with its jubilee years, when the slaves would be set free, the creditor would forgive the debtor, and even the fields would go unharvested, but everything would be put to communal use; it is plain that this kind of liberty, liberty as the religious feast day of a nation at peace with itself, differs from the Anglo-Saxon kind, where, despite all the hard-won “rights of the Lower House” the poor must stay poor, the debtor lies in prison, the robber takes to the highway, and as the molecular structure of the nation has not changed one whit, liberty or no liberty, everything is just as it ever was.
The image of the Sicilians as mere painted apes must have been suggested by the concluding scene of the play, where the husband, having finally discovered his wife’s seducer, gnaws him to death . . . I love the moment which precedes the scene, when, grabbing him by the hair with his whole enormous hand, the avenger twists his victim’s face toward his as though to take a good look. The fear and confusion in the blanched face of the trespasser, a highborn and arrogant, skirtchasing dandy, and the triumph, blended with rage, in the ruddy face of the peasant husband—these are simply indescribable. But that’s only an instant, a streak of lightning before the thunderclap. Then he throws him to floor and sinks his teeth into his throat.
Like an animal, you might say. True enough. But do we not breathe as animals, and what’s so base about that? Does not blood course through our veins just as it does in the arterial systems of cows or tigers, so why grieve? Hasn’t the dandy seduced the peasant girl following an instinct that reigns over the animal kingdom? For similar episodes of “seduction” are common in our daily life, and on our theater stage, and at the most culturally elevated levels of our society, yet nobody would dream of calling our society, our theater, and our Don Juans “barely above the apes.” If we can see the human in temptation, even when its consequences unfold in modo animalium, why should we see the bestial in vengeance, when it too unfolds in modo animalium? And what’s our dagger and our revolver, if not a lengthening of the primeval tooth and a sharpening of the primeval claw? And is it not one and the same for the poor chicken, to be clawed to death by the buzzard or to have its head chopped off by the chef? The latter, I should say, is, if anything, more disgusting, and, for the chicken, more terrible; because it’s more inescapable, because there’s nowhere to run, because that’s its fate. No, nature is more beautiful and more compassionate.
In 1909, Rozanov’s Russia was already at a crossroads. The pursuit of Western-style liberty—which he viewed with respect but saw as characteristic of the cold and rational North—had made great strides, yet faced many of the same obstacles as the rest of pre-war Europe, obstacles foreshadowed already by Plato. Briefly, a civic society, free and prosperous when the going is good, reveals itself to be unfit for survival when under stress, particularly when the stress is an external one. And so, in 1917, Russia’s constitutional democracy collapsed under the weight of the war, as Germany’s would just a few years later.
Naturally, I now leave out all the rubbish that has been piling up in the libraries for the three quarters of a century since those very real events took place, the learned discussions of communism and passionate indictments of national socialism, the sensitive readings in Marx and Nietzsche, the questions beginning with “But did they really want . . . ” and “Did they really think . . . ” and “Did they really intend . . . ” Equally, I keep myself from alluding to the many interpretations of the history of those events, be they brave, unbiased, accurate, and enlightened, or cowardly, ignorant, tendentious, and fraudulent. I make no mention of the casualty list for the whole turbulent period, known though it is to run to the hundreds of millions, and I do not propose to catalogue the mind-boggling refinements on simple death by crucifixion to which the epoch introduced its latter-day martyrs. Instead, I cut to the chase, and here we are in the 21st century, trying to focus on a single year—say, 1933. An English writer, Martin Amis, quotes the opening sentence in a book by a friend of his father’s, Robert Conquest, entitled The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine: “We may perhaps put this in perspective in the present case by saying that in the actions here recorded about twenty human lives were lost for, not every word, but every letter, in this book.” “That sentence,” Amis begins to calculate as he writes, “represents 3,040 lives. The book is 411 pages long.”
Horse manure was eaten, partly because it often contained whole grains of wheat” (1,340 lives). “Oleska Voytrykhovsky saved his and his family’s lives by consuming the meat of horses which had died in the collective of glanders and other diseases” (2,480 lives). Conquest quotes Vasily Grossman’s essayistic-documentary novel Forever Flowing: “And the children’s faces were aged, tormented, just as if they were seventy years old. And by spring they no longer had faces. Instead, they had birdlike heads with beaks, or frog heads—thin, wide lips—and some of them resembled fish, mouths open” (3,880 lives).
“The famine was an enforced famine: the peasants were stripped of their food,” Amis marvels.
On 11 June 1933, the Ukrainian paper Visti praised an “alert” secret policeman for unmasking and arresting a “fascist saboteur” who had hidden some bread in a hole under a pile of clover. That word fascist. One hundred and forty lives.
Now, contrary to everything Amis may have heard in his youth from his father’s friends, Stalin was neither a fool nor a maniac. Instead, in my father’s memorable phrase, he was the Beethoven of power maximization. The sanguinary music he composed made him the greatest tyrant in history and his Soviet Union, the world’s first totalitarian superstate. As students of political evil, we must treat his work with the greatest respect, for therein lie the germs—as a musician would say—of nearly every melody we are likely to hear in the corridors of power in our own day.
“I’m the perfect servant,” says a maidservant in a recent film written by an English friend of mine, Julian Fellowes, “I have no life.” By killing off a proportion of his slaves—first, in the one sixth of the world’s territory he had come to possess, and then, after World War II, which he had contrived to unleash, in newly acquired territories to the west—Stalin sought to maximize the achievement of the same wholly rational aim that every employer seeks to achieve with respect to his employees, and every master with respect to his servants. He wanted them to have no life of their own. He wanted their lives to be his. For the sort of militarized society he had in mind—for the sort of dynamic totalitarianism that would subsume Western Europe and, once all of Europe’s scientific and technological potential was merged with the natural and human resources already in his power, eventually conquer the world—nothing less would do.
From the very start, this first of great Stalin’s great projects, making the Russian peasantry into a 100 million-strong equivalent of the maidservant in Gosford Park, was faced with an obstacle. The obstacle was the cow. For a man with a cow is, in the physical sense, what a man with a woman is in the realm of metaphysics. A man with a cow can milk it, drink the milk, make the milk into butter and cheese. He does not care whether he lives in Soviet Russia in the era of proletarian revolution and the first five-year plan, or in the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt in the era of the glorious construction of the Giza pyramid and the Fourth Dynasty. When a man is in love with a woman, whatever commands, words, and ideas you direct at him go into one ear and out the other. He is a law unto himself. He dwells in an ethical universe of his own making. Similarly, a peasant who is in possession of a cow, being physically autonomous, is naturally resistant to political persuasion of any kind. He has got a life.
Stalin took away the cows, and the people resisted. Some resisted as naturally, or savagely, as the wronged husband in Feudalism whose conduct Rozanov had defended so poetically just 20 years earlier, though, of course, teeth and claws were no match for the bayonet and the machine gun. These vestiges of the old world—those who actually resisted, or were likely to resist, or could be suspected of being likely to resist—were honored with a special appellation, kulaks, meaning “the tight-fisted ones.” What the kulaks were clutching in those tightly closed fists of theirs was the last shred of individualism, against which the initiative in question, called collectivization, was directed. Eventually, having taken away the houses, the crockery, the coins wrapped in old rags, the bread hidden under piles of clover, the sheep, the chickens, and the cows, Stalin would take away the wives as well, if only by making them into state informers against the husbands. Now his subjects would have no lives of their own, and the last of civilization could finally yield to the new order.
The total metastasis of civilization ended in militarization, but Stalin’s success or failure in the attainment of his aims is not really my subject here. Militarization is a political term of my own devising for the fundamentally new kind of social organism that Stalin created, which today we mistakenly call totalitarianism. I say mistakenly, because militarization is but one of many varieties, or eventualities, of totalitarianism. Others are now in the making, in Russia as in Europe and in the United States.
My subject here is what I see about me in Europe, the forcible displacement of an old order by the new. As I say, this process need not immediately point to world war, nor to mass terror, nor to pandemic famine; on the other hand, one should not live in blindness to the signs and omens of epochal upheaval. The very fact that people are being loaded into cattle trains should make us aware of something untoward, even if we have not been told for sure that the trains are all northbound.
One of the more politically visible aspects of the process goes by the name of European unification, picking up on the original unification of the two Germanies engineered by the Soviet secret police and later Politburo chief Andropov, his anointed successor and later President Gorbachev, and their agent of influence in Europe, Chancellor Kohl. As a result, pace late Reagan-early Bush triumphalism, West Germany has become, if not exactly East Germany, certainly more like East Germany than East Germany has become like West Germany. So, too, with ongoing European unification, sprung from the same KGB mind that gave us perestroika; for the “restructuring” in question was conceived as a fundamental restructuring of the West (that is, of its millennial essence) in return for a superficial restructuring of the East (that is, of its professed ideology). Thus the Soviet Union did not fall, it merely brought the hereditary freedoms of Europe down to its own level and expanded westward with the new European Union.
The signs and omens accompanying Western Europe’s free fall into the ideological crater left by the KGB’s deliberate explosion of the myth of communism are familiar to the student of Soviet history. The freedoms of speech and expression are circumscribed, in that their value is no longer seen as absolute; ridiculous and often elaborately stage-managed bugaboos, such as the global threat of terrorism, are mounted to scaremonger electorates into relativizing other, until now sacred, absolutes, such as due process of law; taxation without representation is the order of the day, and, though the Union is still incomplete, still centered in Brussels rather than, say, Minsk or Kiev, whole oceans of capital are already being sucked out of the West by the East. In the timescale of Soviet history, Europe is now living under NEP, the “New Economic Policy,” which saw the rise of Stalin and camouflaged his intentions.
Collectivization has already begun, however, and dekulakization is more than an unpronounceable Russian word. Wherever you look, the peasant and his cow are soon parted. Working in concert with political forces in Moscow, Washington, and Brussels, a variety of transnational superpowers—big business—are busy changing the way Europe has eaten, lived, loved, worked, thought, and prayed for a thousand years. Big business thinks it will rule the world, rather as successive generations of Stalin’s henchmen and dupes thought that they would rule Russia. Alas, it would be ruled by him.
The title of this essay, “The Last Kulak in Europe,” is intended as an echo of The Last Man in Europe, George Orwell’s original title for the book that became 1984.
Broadly speaking, as we can always distinguish one thing from many, we may say that there can only ever be but two basic types of social organization, the absolutist (or, under certain circumstances, “totalitarian”) and the feudal (or, under certain circumstances, “democratic”). Centralization, unlimited authority over the lives of men, militarization or crypto-militarization, and uniform disregard of individual liberties are among the hallmarks of the former; decentralization, localized and conditional authority, peaceful or pseudomilitary existence (of which what seems like the climate of continuous war in Renaissance Italy is a good example), and liberties safeguarded by local traditions or old customs are associated with the latter.
As Europe, America, and the rest of the world move closer and closer to the absolutist model—a movement in which the forward thinking of the new totalitarian rulers in Moscow and the blind ambition of the dupes of big business in Washington have worked like twin engines for nearly four decades now—national sovereignty, local autonomy, and individual independence are the principles being purged from the fabric of European institutions. It may seem that the so-called multinational interests, by virtue of being in competition with one another, would contribute to institutional diversity as feudal lords and local princes once did, but far from it; all big business, like Stalin and Hitler, pursues the same objectives and charts the same great Lebensraum for its own expansion. What’s good for one is good for another. What’s OK with General Motors is OK with Fiat; what’s OK with Fiat is OK with McDonald’s; what’s OK with McDonald’s is OK with Heinz. The business of business is business, and that’s OK with the KGB.
In their inspiration, the methods used by the multinationals owe much to the Soviet past. Like Soviet dictators, they want to impose uniformity. (Apples that are all the same size are easier to pack.) Like them, they want to root out dissent. (If only one corner shop is still in business, the supermarket does not really own the town.) Like them, they want to eradicate tradition and custom. (If big chains keep their stores open on Sundays, small family stores, which cannot afford hired help, go bankrupt.) Like them, they want to do away with people’s natural conservatism. (Genetically modified crops are more lucrative to grow.) In short, they want everybody to march to the same tune (if possible, the soundtrack of a Hollywood movie) and would not hesitate to use terror famine (say, for now, in Africa) against those too slow to join the march.
Italy, as a geographical whole, with its remarkable history of feudal independence and anachronistic decentralization, is, in many ways, the last bulwark in the path of the absolutist leviathan. It is perhaps beyond the scope of this essay to argue about whether that leviathan’s heart will ultimately be Moscow or Beijing, though I should say that it is as unlikely to be Washington or Brussels as Wall Street or Beverly Hills. What is important here, I repeat, are the signs and omens of the leviathan’s progress, and Sicily is the best place in Italy to observe them.
Progress is just the right word, incidentally, because it is the term historically favored by proponents of every kind of absolutism—in politics, in science, and even in art—and used by them to describe what is, in reality, the world’s inexorable slide into the totalitarian maw. And Sicily is a stranger to progress. Sicily is savage. In Sicily, husbands kill their wives’ lovers with their bare teeth. Haven’t you heard? Everybody in Sicily is in the Mafia.
Well, I have good news. Everybody in Sicily is in the Mafia. Now, of course, I do not mean to suggest that the Mafia—which is known to have existed for well over a century in something like its fictional Godfather form, and for very much longer in various other forms—is a reaction to the threat of European unification. But, equally, it would be foolish to represent the European Union as having just sprung from the mind of Zeus, or even from the mind of Stalin. The tyrannical notion of depriving a people of their national sovereignty, their ancient customs, and their very identity is hardly novel. It is to be sharply distinguished, however, from the idea that every conquered people will always be made to submit to the ways of the conqueror: Tatar Mongols who conquered Russia did not burn down churches, while Arab overlords in Sicily enriched, rather than diminished, the diversity of life on the island.
No, if a locus classicus for that notion is to be found, it will probably be found in the Roman Empire, where, for the rebel and the dissident, as Edward Gibbon puts it in a favorite passage, “to resist was fatal and it was impossible to fly”:
The empire of the Romans filled the world, and when the empire fell into the hands of a single person, the world became a safe and dreary prison for his enemies. The slave of Imperial despotism, whether he was condemned to drag his gilded chain in Rome and the senate, or to wear out a life of exile on the barren rock of Seriphus, or the frozen banks of the Danube, expected his fate in silent despair. . . . “Wherever you are,” said Cicero to the exiled Marcellus, “remember that you are equally within the power of the conqueror.”
It is above all to this idea of power that the Mafia, in its ideal form, was a response. The Mafia was the Resistance. It was the resistance to
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes . . .
Yes, Elizabethan England was indeed a savage place, where sons avenged their fathers, and men knew something of jealousy and the love of one’s country. In his book Midnight in Sicily, Peter Robb, a liberal writer critical of the Mafia, states that one, admittedly fanciful, derivation of the term Mafia is from the cry of Ma fille! (“My daughter!”), of a mother “whose daughter’s rape by French soldiery provoked the uprising of the Sicilian Vespers.” Another, equally fanciful but just as meaningful, explanation is that it was some kind of “political acronym from the time of Italy’s unification.”
I may be told that I am out to idealize the Sicilian Mafia, and, to some extent, this is true. Just as a government may be discussed in its ideal form, however, so the groundswell of resistance to that government may be discussed. Does anybody seriously believe that the communist-sponsored subversion of the Vichy in France was the work of idealistic boy scouts? Yet this does not keep us away from the cinema. Democracy in America can be discussed, and has been discussed by Tocqueville, as both what it is meant to be and what it actually is. It is not intellectually productive to look at the results of the Florida election and take the view that, hot diggity-dog, god-darn it, I knew it all along—the whole thing’s just eyewash.
For instance, though not one to romanticize the Mafia, Peter Robb cites a passage from a compendium of legal documents entitled The True History of Italy, which shows that it is only in the early 1980’s, with the advent of Toto Riina of Corleone, that the nature of the Sicilian Mafia began to change
from a situation of hidden conflict inside a pluralistic organization still formally governed by democratic rules, to a strategy for the conquest of absolute power by Riina’s Corleonesi, who would transform Cosa Nostra into a dictatorship, no longer founded by consensus but on terror alone, both within the organization and towards society and the state.
The very fact that such clear distinctions—like the distinction, say, between the Russia of absolute monarchy and the Russia of constitutional democracy—are not out of place in the still-recent history of an institution whose name is used to scare gullible electorates and little children should make the most rabid cynic pause a little, reflecting that perhaps he ought to keep a more open mind.
In short, let us not tar the Mafia with the Corleonese brush.
My own experience in Palermo encourages this evenhanded approach. Having lived here now for several years, I must confess that I have not made friends with a single Palermitan who does not have at least one relative doing life in prison. Do not gasp. In Russia, even for a person of my generation, it is virtually impossible to meet anybody whose family has not been unaffected by Stalin’s purges. It is a truism that, in Sicily, the Mafia is a way of life.
Particularly so, I should add, for the middle classes, which is what makes it so charming, rather like the million-strong Countryside Alliance that, one fine day not long ago, triumphantly marched through London in support of fox hunting, the House of Lords, British sovereignty, and anglers’ rights. The lower classes, after all, having less to lose, are always more prepared to make trouble, whether this means taking to the streets or joining a criminal gang. Anyway, not one of my friends—including the mafiosi among them—actually supports the Mafia; but, following an early indictment by the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, certainly none of them supports the government in its efforts to curb the Mafia’s influence. The anti-Mafia effort is viewed as a medicine with side effects far worse than the disease it is meant to cure, if only because, to quote the killer of the legendary 1940’s gangster Giuliano, “Bandits, police, state, they’re all one body, like father, son, and holy ghost!”
Sicily is not the only Mafia stronghold. In the 1980’s, in Campania, there were 2,621 killings, compared with Sicily’s 2,905. Calabria came in third. “Pasolini came south to Naples and the Campania in the late sixties to make his film of Boccaccio’s Decameron,” writes Robb, and, of course, what he says of Naples can be said of Palermo:
[Pasolini] came to Naples because Neapolitans have stayed the same . . . I prefer the poverty of Neapolitans to the well-being of the Italian republic, I prefer the ignorance of Neapolitans to the schools of the republic . . . In another piece I could no longer trace, in one of the perverse, hallucinated visions he elaborated not long before his murder, he’d spoken of Neapolitans as a people who had rejected the modern world. He described them as a desert tribe, camped in their black and red piazzas, waiting for the end, choosing to die. Wrong-headed and brilliant as ever, Pasolini didn’t know the half of what was coming.
Those who have been to Palermo and have seen for themselves the urban blight of its deserted historic center, its Khrushchev-style high rises, its monstrous agglomerations of so-recently-poured-yet-already-crumbling concrete, will call me a pied piper. Is this, they will say, how your bulwark against progress works? Is this better than whatever the bureaucrats of Brussels and the gravy-train conductors of Washington and the Machiavellian schemers of Moscow have in store for us? We’d rather live under communism than in Corleone!
My reply is that, when you travel through Italy and see an eight-lane highway leading nowhere, or “a flyover used only by flocks of sheep” (in one writer’s memorable phrase), or indeed an entire town like Corleone, you must remind yourself that the money that has been stolen here, at the cost of convenience and aesthetics, has been stolen from governments that have stolen it from the people of Italy. More important, it has been stolen for local use. It has not gone to Brussels; if anything, it has come from Brussels. It has not been spent on centers for lesbian awareness and black drama workshops; it has been spent on daughters’ dowries and fish dinners in family restaurants. In fact, to me, Palermo looks like a restaurant table after an enormous, Rabelaisian family meal. The platters with fish skeletons, the tablecloth stained with red wine, the dirty plates full of cigarette butts and chicken bones are not pleasant to look at now, of course, but God what a dinner that was! A feast during the plague.
The reply is a bit hysterical, of course, like a 1920’s fascist response to communist aggression. What can I say? The sense of political impotence is bound to produce social hysteria. For I would describe the epoch we live in as the chaos of lawlessness coalescing into totalitarian order, and I believe that, deep down, everybody shares my perception. Everybody senses that we live under laws we never made, and everybody knows that kind of life does not go on forever. So have a kind thought for Sicily, for Palermo, even for Corleone. They have done what they could to keep themselves, their wives, and their children out of cattle cars with Progress written on the side, and they have wrecked their homes and their lives doing it. Their resistance has been as savage as this land, as ineffective as a Russian peasant burning his own grain, as hysterical as Hitler’s apotheosis, and, in the end, perhaps as suicidal. But they have done something, at any rate, to deter the trespasser from entering their house, which is more than any one of us is doing.