The direction taken by progress to the America of the future, as I saw it, was toward abstraction. If one looked to the natural world to supply the measure of what was concrete, then this world was long in the past, perhaps not actually with the dinosaurs, but certainly with the Model T and the Saturday Evening Post. It may be that an apple was first the apple of paradise, and then an ordinary apple, but the apple of today was the representation of an apple in three dimensions, that of tomorrow in only two, and finally in one, at which stage of progress the flesh would become word and the sweetly old-fashioned, fragrant name apple would be the only reality allowed it. Perhaps it could even become a number instead of the retrograde name, not unlike a supermarket bar code, and scanning it with a personal handheld wish-fulfilment device would be real enough for the average Joe.
The movement toward abstraction was unstoppable, because the less reality people had to their share, and the fewer the tastes, the colors, and the sounds they remembered, the more the system of symbols that had come to envelop them became the only one in which they knew how to live. Their plasticine food and electronic money, their leatherette careers and television democracy, their satellite wars and paper egalitarianism, their digital pleasure and interactive pain, their artificial air and reconditioned water, all rendered them as unable and unwilling to function in any other environment as fish asked to walk on land. To this futuristic metamorphosis, women were better suited than men because men had always been more real, a controversial point that I shall amplify presently.
When the Roman plebs wished to reduce human life to a single demand, this was, famously, bread and spectacle. Christ paraphrased it as bread and wine, perhaps because he was not of the metropolis, and the people he was addressing were people of the soil. But anyway, by whatever reckoning, what life is understood to consist of are these two elements, one as real as a loaf in the belly, and the other a lot less real but a lot more fun, a thing of the spirit. Christ, who left the first element more or less unchanged when he asked his followers to pray for their daily bread, redefined the second as forgiving and being forgiven, and history records that, by and by, the swinging metropolis came to accept his revolutionary definition. Despite this, the architects of the Christian Church laid inordinate emphasis on spectacle, generally, and on that of the oblation of the Eucharist, in particular, suggesting that what had been poured into the new bottles was the same old wine.
Looked at in another way, the elements are the male and the female. One is the panis of man, as excruciatingly real as farm labor. The other is the circus of woman, transcendent and spectacular, where man forgives and forgets like Odysseus in the arms of Circe. Bread does not entertain; it stupefies. Theater attracts and is not meant to satisfy.
Originally created from man’s rib as an antidote to solitude, like a robot or an electronic home-entertainment device, woman became alive and indispensable, yin to Adam’s yang in the totality of life. The story of Original Sin is nothing if not an eternal reminder that satiety needs caprice as much as caprice requires satiety, and now that paradise has been lost, it remains to man to toil in the sweat of his brow with the sole aim of feeding, like a drug habit, his abiding hunger for entertainment. His insatiable appetite is for the transcendent, the spiritual, the playful, the impractical, the paradoxical and the generally unpredictable, and, though God chose to allow these qualities to develop and embody themselves in the form of woman, it is not uncommon for man to seek them elsewhere: elsewhere in man, or else in books, in monastic seclusion, in a London casino, in a Warsaw café.
Man is the hard crust of reality, a big brown lump of what little there is, just enough to make the vital difference in meaning between life and death. Woman is the spirit of suspended disbelief, a mirage, a fiction, a play of the imagination. Unreality, insatiability, incompleteness are qualities that make up the very essence of theater, which simulates the immaterial by material means, such as using a crude mise-en-scène of ropes and pulleys to make the audience dissolve in a flood of tears. And the theater of femininity has the whole wide world for its mise-en-scène. The whole world is falling over itself to design its masks, sew its costumes, perfect its maquillage, and ready its props, and all for the singular satisfaction of being stimulated by a continuous spectacle whose very object, like the tales of the Arabian nights, is not to satisfy.
I am not saying that women do not exist—merely that they exist more in art than in reality. In the same sense that the universe was an idea of God, women are an idea of man, which sprang from his imagination, his loneliness, and his desire for abstraction. And that is why, when faced with the futurist utopia of a new paradise on Earth implausibly called the United States of America, it was women who were once again more easily seduced by the possibilities it offered, possibilities that appeared coadunate with the art which, from the beginning, had been their principal sphere of immanence.
When the noblewoman Marie Antoinette turned the story of Cinderella inside out and put on the dress of a lowly shepherdess, this coup de théâtre created a worldwide furor that reverberated for centuries after her death. Until fairly recently, in America as elsewhere, costume could deviate from class, fortune, character, and occasion only in exceptional circumstances, and the Manhattan Cinderella who dressed up as Marie Antoinette to attend a masked ball was not any freer to choose her day-to-day clothes than was her low-born Venetian counterpart five-hundred years earlier. But then one fine day, as if put there by the postman’s fairy hand, the promise of a new paradise, in the guise of a junk-mail circular from a women’s magazine, lay on her doormat: “You shall go to the ball! Quote reference number and batch issue below.” She was now free to be what she wanted to be, as the imitation copperplate had it, meaning she could dress up as any other woman living or dead, 24/7, and the opportunity this created was nothing short of magical.
She could dress up and was allowed to act the part. She could wear the clothes of a schoolgirl in the morning, those of a lady of leisure in the afternoon, and transform herself into a prostitute in the evening. She could wear workingmen’s boiler suits, or gangster pinstripes, or kilts of Scottish clans, or hardly anything at all; she could rustle in taffeta and slither in satin; she could pretend she was Mary Magdalene, or Cleopatra, or Marie Curie for that matter. Once a mere Cinderella, she was now a whole harem of women, limited in number by nothing except the prince’s solicitude or his appetite for novelty, and all that remained was to exhibit her newly liberated art before the male audience on whose enthusiasm it still depended whether the taffeta for rustling in was to be natural or synthetic, and the satin, all-polyester or fashion-blend.
Clothes were only a fragment, of course, of the American dream of progress, by means of which the art of femininity would be released from the shackles of postlapsarian tradition, but together with all the other fragments, it soon took its place in the story of women’s liberation. Progress meant science, too, and carnival masks for the theater of the everyday could now be made by the manipulation of women’s subcutaneous tissue, by injections of artificial substances such as silicone, indeed by a whole new commercial branch of medicine. Progress also meant politics, and here the collision over new roles for women reenacted a series of largely irrelevant—though, of course, highly entertaining—spectacles from the era of the American Civil War, which no sooner emancipated the people from one rhetorically veiled reality than it made them slaves of another, economically more vast and socially more enduring.
As Soviet totalitarianism found itself imperiled, at least at the initial stages of its development, by any political arrangement that permitted, say, a cobbler to make shoes in the privacy of his home, so American futurism could not coexist with a competing philosophy, such as that of the Old World from Petrarch to Byron and from Rabelais to Wodehouse, which held, in essence, that some people are noblemen though most are born commoners, that certain men are clever no matter what and others lifelong dunces, and that some women are divinely beautiful while the rest are plain. The insidious tactic of progress, accordingly, was to use every means at the disposal of a mature capitalist democracy to eradicate the competing philosophy down to the last vestige.
[This article is an excerpt from Andrei Navrozov’s novel Earthly Love]