“Ye that make mention of the LORD, keep ye not silence.”
I am holding in my hands a scatola musicale the size of a matchbox, which somebody gave me the other day as a frivolous keepsake. You can buy one just like it in any souvenir shop in Venice for two, maybe three dollars. The thing is so cheap because it is made in some Oriental sweatshop, of course, but also because it is not really a music box in the conventional, nostalgic or grandmotherly, sense. More precisely, it is the guts of one, under a removable plastic cover. The mechanism is exposed, and, when you turn the little handle, you can see how the little tines catch on the little bumps, printed as though in Braille on the revolving cylinder:
Dark eyes, passionate eyes,
Eyes smoldering and bea-u-u-ti-ful . . .
I am but a poor, lovelorn Russian emigré, and I happen to like the tune it grinds out. Naturally, as one who has heard Zina—said to have been the last of the legendary Dmitrievich family of gypsies—sing the original at the Raspoutine in Paris, I understand that it is not the actual little tinkling sounds made by the little tines as they catch on the little bumps that I love, but the underlying reference to the original.
Yet the fact that the original is suited for mechanical evocation by such simple means—ta-ra-ta ta-ta, ta-ra-ta ta-ta, go the little bumps as they poke away at the little tines—suggests that it, too, is only of value to me insofar as it is, in its own turn, a reference to some other, still more evanescent and irretrievable original. That original is the smell of freshly made sturgeon ukha and the beads of condensation on the crystal decanter of bison-grass nastoika; it is careless, already tipsy guests being freed from their furs and eased into their seats by smart waiters; it is the crackling of frost outside and the gleam of linen and silver within. And it is also, needless to say, the real-life dark eyes of your imagined vis-à-vis, as she laughs maddeningly at some remark that the joker to her left has dared to whisper into her alabaster ear, throwing back her head until a shameless wave of candlelight . . . And so on, in that vein:
Ochi chernyie, ochi strastnyie,
Ochi zhguchiye i prekrasnyie . . .
Yet that original, too, I realize, has little definitive value beyond a certain narrowly epicurean appeal, which is not even all that inextricably bound to a specific epoch. Thus, it would be fair to say that in the starched cream of the waiters’ jackets under the camomile light of the wall sconces of Harry’s Bar in Venice circa 2002, in the delicate steaming of the risotto alla primavera, and in the topaz coolness of the Tocai in the ice buckets, an aesthetic appetite less capricious than my own might find the necessary elements to recreate a nostalgic Russian scene circa 1914, to say nothing of a nostalgic European scene circa 1929. So the ultimate original that I am searching for, and drawing my pleasure from, is not the maudlin scene I have begun to sketch but the novels, the poems, and the plays in which that scene, in one form or another, has figured in the last hundred or so incorrigibly Romantic years, and consequently—since culture is endlessly self-referential and, therefore, indivisible—in the entire record of human history since Genesis, Gilgamesh, and Homer.
The important thing to note here, however, as I crank up the little box, is the general direction of my thinking. My associations and ideas have moved from the simple to the complex, and then to the still more complex and possibly more inchoate, as though in an opium dream. This is not, as the modern saying goes, politically correct. Moreover, in a certain very real sense, this mode of ratiocination runs contrary to the mainstream of the West’s cultural development since at least the Renaissance.
If the human mind were not as complex as it is, culture would be a mere plaything. After all, its supreme function is to make life interesting. The truth, however, is that, when we fall in love, or eat risotto alla primavera, or say prayers before bed, we willingly and knowingly place ourselves in a constitutional compact with our cultural progenitors, an arrangement that is all the more binding for being unwritten. Without its protection, there is neither love, nor food, nor God. Indeed, it was in Stalin’s Russia, for the first time in history, that a sociologist established the ideal scientific norm of consumption (of rye flour, of course) for the average healthy male (meaning a Soviet army soldier), and, in his own crypto-Tolstoyan way, the good Dr. Strumilin was right on the money. Twenty-nine hundred calories a day when alive, and six feet of ground when dead, is all a man really needs. No opium for Stalin’s masses.
We like to suppose that totalitarian abnegation of this kind is alien to us in the West. We are free. We are alive; we think; we listen to music. We fall in love; we taste rare wines and sample exotic victuals. Sometimes we even pray. And yet, I submit that the road chosen by Western culture has been taking us—in a direction which, as it happens, is contrary to that of a growing, ripening, fruitful thought—from complexity to simplicity, from life-giving chaos to deadening rationality, from color and light to regimented shades of drabness. From the intoxication of a wild night with the gypsies, in short, to the metal guts of a wind-up mechanical toy.
The inexorable slide from the complex to the less complex and, finally, to the downright simple—a type of regression that, in my view, characterizes the unstoppable forward march of Western civilization—is not unlike the regressive movement from the original to the copy and, finally, the imitation. Put aside, for the moment, the fact that, in social and political terms, such regression is usually described as “development” or “progress,” for bleating its own praises is an inalienable right of every herd.
The complexity of the human mind, while the brain is alive, is as good a measure of infinity as any. Yet, when its owner dies, we are left with the relative simplicity of a few kilograms of organic matter. The complexity of social relationships in, say, the Republic of Venice under the Doge Pietro Orseolo may be illustrated by the Pala d’oro altarpiece in the Basilica of San Marco, which is composed of 1,300 great pearls, 400 garnets, 90 amethysts, 300 sapphires, 300 emeralds, 15 rubies, 75 balas rubies, 4 topazes, and 2 cameos set into three-and-a-half meters of gold and Byzantine enamel. Yet whatever residual complexity is in evidence in these parts 1,000 years later, it is obviously undeniable that the larger social and political realities of present-day Venice are effectively subsumed by the monochrome sameness of federal, European Community, and transnational structures.
But as monochromatic and uniform—compared to medieval Europe—as modern democracy is, nothing is simpler that totalitarianism. “Conform or drop out,” says democratism; yet here the dissenting individual may at least find consolation at the prospect of disturbing the social norms of moribund uniformity, as he dreams the sweet dream of dropping out of society in some new and interesting, original, or even conspicuous way. “Obey or die,” commands totalitarianism; and here the individual dissident has no such consolation. He knows that death, especially under torture and unseen by the world, can never be interesting or original. Besides, dying is itself an act of simplification. Thus, it is enough to observe that the modern democratic polity is rectifying itself at an ever-quickening pace to conclude that totalitarianism, perhaps the most straightforward and rational among all forms of social organization, is the logical terminus of this movement.
A salient feature of Western culture—in which I incorporate by reference the irreversible degeneration of the 19th-century politics of qualified democracy into the 20th-century charade of shameless democratism is its insistence on quantity at the expense of quality. This has always distanced the West from the notion of the original, reconciling it with the ideas of imitation, verisimilitude, and popularity inherent in the copy. A Russian icon—any Orthodox icon, so long as it has been consecrated—is a sacred object and is said to be “not made by human hand” (acheiropoetic). By contrast, a religious painting by Rembrandt, even when it should lay a similar claim to uniqueness, is not thought to forfeit any of its spiritual power when turned into engravings “for every home.” But wait, what Rembrandt! The Scripture itself is thought to gain when “translated out of the original tongues” into a simplified vernacular, which, with the passing of centuries, is rendered ever more simple and accessible. Now, perhaps it is too literal-minded to say, with the early opponents of air travel, that, if the good Lord had wanted us to fly, He would have given us wings. But only an ignorant lout would deny that, if God had wanted the Holy Writ to be more accessible, He would have managed to achieve this without Mr. Coverdale, to say nothing of the gay and lesbian ministry.
As with the holy image, so it is with everything else of which our culture is composed—novels, plays, poems, ideas, images, customs, music, dress, food, love, and, finally, life itself. Admittedly, the cumulative momentum of simplification, or deterioration, is different in every case, still depending, to some considerable extent, as much on the mode of human expression in question as on the minute particulars of time and place. Thus, it is still possible, under certain circumstances, to find a nice crunchy apple in Kent, or real tomatoes in New Jersey, or flavorful salt in Messina; it is still possible, on occasion, to read a new book that is the issue of the aggregate refinement—which is to say, sophistication and complication—of the human mind; it is still possible to buy something of complex associative value using mass-produced paper money backed by little more than the mendacity of the government that has sanctioned the engraving; and it is even possible, for certain uncommon persons, to live and to love in complicated, not streamlined, ways that may involve praying in private chapels, or drinking from paper bags under railway bridges, or dining at the Raspoutine with singing gypsies. It is equally clear, however, that the entire thrust of modern civilization is against such life and such love.
The dominant predilection of the West, as I say, is for the quantity of copies, not the quality of the original, and, like an epidemic malady, this rapacious force now redoubles its accelerating and broadening sweep with every passing decade. Gone forever are the days when the cynical promise of a chicken in every pot, already back then a piece of laughable demagoguery, beckoned the electorates as a kind of hysterical mirage; now, they must content themselves with the hearty prom-ise of a virtual chicken. Gone, too, are the movies of old, which, impossibly vulgar and infantile as they were compared to the theater of the epoch, at least left their limited “mass audiences” where they found them—in the realm of the plausible; now, with audiences in the billions, their bedlam remakes have replaced the Bible as the cultural fodder of the world with special effects that can only be described as hallucinogenic. And gone are the newspapers of an era—cheap, plebeian, mass-circulation, scare-and-gossip mongering, yet, in their own way, bearers of some contrary authority, residual diversity, and polymorphous mischief; now, the populace is forcibly steered to the internet, where every fat housewife can, in her spare time, become her own newspaper reporter, journalist, and writer, as well as—if she really puts her mind to it—her own prophet, poet, and czar.
What I am saying here is not wholly new. A hundred years ago, such Russian writers as Ivan Shmelev, Konstantin Leontyev, Vasily Rozanov, and Pavel Florensky, to mention only a few, already foresaw that the coming of totalitarianism—masqueraded, as it remains to this day, in fine phrases about reason, justice, and liberty—would be a perfectly plausible culmination of the social and political trends long dominant in the West, rather than some indigenously Russian catastrophe. When, in November 1917, totalitarianism did come—establishing itself on the war-ravaged body of Russia like a parasite that had found a suitable host and subsequently spreading to Eastern, then Central, and, finally, Western Europe—it was only to be expected that the West would describe the contagion in terms that absolved its own culture from any responsibility.
Marxism is not what I mean, of course, because the specific responsibility of Marx and Engels for the Bolshevik coup of November 1917, if greater than zero, is certainly not greater than that of Luther and Gutenberg, Newton and Nobel, Darwin and Hegel. Marx was only a bit player in a game that had lasted for a thousand years before the publication of Das Kapital, all three volumes of which—in the Russian translation, in the 46th year of my life, in the sumptuous isolation of a Venetian palazzo—I finally found the time to read. It is an innocuous book, less inflammatory than a telephone directory, rather like something written by a weekend trainspotter during his bleak work week.
When the game in question began, whether it was actually invented by the Devil himself, and in what it consists are questions beyond the scope of this inquiry. But the outcome, for anybody with eyes, is plain to see. Simplification, rationalization, rectification of the immense God-given complexity that is life—life as our elders still remember it, life as it is described, for instance, in the Old and New Testaments, life with its hierarchies, its taboos, its fantasies, its prejudices, its luxuries, its unfairnesses, and its misfortunes—will inevitably thrust mankind into the totalitarian abyss from which, this time round, there will be no escaping.
No escaping, I say, because, even as the meanings of such life dwindle to inarticulate grunts of simple acquiescence, its means—the means at the disposal of its once and future totalitarian masters—will grow, multiply, and become totally invincible. For these are the same means that have been burgeoning in the West for the past thousand years, nurtured throughout by the selfsame ratio that has been depleting and enfeebling Western culture by demystifying and streamlining it. Once upon a time, these means served a purpose, making the West a citadel impregnable to its enemies. Alas, even this is no longer so. In the 21st century, great means without great meanings are the way of the world.
Those Russian writers foresaw the future more deftly than I foresee it here, of course, because the cultural difference between the world before and after 1917 is almost inconceivably deeper than any possible contrast between the world today and the world 15, 30, or 100 years from now. All the elements of global totalitarianism are already in evidence, and it is now only a matter of time before life as we still know it—from books, from movies, from scatole musicali—becomes a thing beyond the reach of individual memory. And then the salt itself will have lost its flavor, “good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under the foot of men,” though why that should happen is left unexplained by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.
Writers like Shmelev, who survived the Red occupation of the Crimea, can explain why. The flavor, you see, all goes into the tears.