Wednesday’s Child: The Joy of Falling
Even such preternaturally astute observers of the society of the future as George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Evgeny Zamyatin tended to simplify totalitarianism when they hinted that, intellectually, those living under its yoke would never rise above mediocrity. Freedom, their reasoning went, is first and foremost the freedom to soar.
Turns out, however, that freedom is the freedom for many to plummet and only for a very few to soar. And mediocrity, on this reading, is nothing to be scoffed at. The war machine that is a totalitarian society needs to be operated by competent heads and able hands, and the machine’s exalted owners cannot permit their populace to sink below mediocrity, which is as it were their regime’s golden mean. The time machine that is a free society, by contrast – I call it a time machine with reference to Goethe’s Faust, who personifies the civilized man’s hope for and faith in the eternity of the moment – is a free-for-all where the penalties for sinking below mediocrity are negligible. A free man is, first and foremost, free to be an imbecile.
One sees this as clearly in Italy as elsewhere. Girls who enjoy a vastly greater level of freedom than did their grandmothers cannot cook or clean even as well as their mothers, while what these liberated young ladies have acquired, intellectually or otherwise, in return for their sloth is at best questionable. While boys who, under totalitarianism, would be forced to learn the basics of engineering required to work, say, a continuous-wave radar, have never heard of the Doppler Effect and cannot properly fit an earthed plug to a kitchen microwave.
On the plus side, the girls have elaborate tattoos on their necks and thighs, while the boys live off their parents well into their thirties. And, on the same plus side – with reference to the emotion I focus on in this series of posts – their attitude to life is joyful in the extreme. They are slipping beneath mediocrity under a cloudless Mediterranean sky, to a potpourri of ringtones from smartphones bought on credit, with as few existential thoughts as their virtually boundless freedom will allow them. They are happy campers. Time stands still for them, which as I say is the quintessentially Western definition of happiness.
Childhood is made of such unclouded joys. A few days ago an elated Britain thrilled to what a five-year-old girl from Leicester had said to Sky News: “I think he should leave, because he's been naughty.” She was referring to the Prime Minister of an ancient democracy and a nuclear power who had suddenly found himself reviled for having hosted a cocktail party during the pandemic, and that babble of hers reverberated with the menacing clarity of a Greta Thunberg, yet another child of Western media fame. The Prime Minister, in his turn, is rumored to have blubbered like a schoolboy while apologizing to MPs for that heinous misdeed of smoking behind the bicycle shed. Even more spectacularly, an heir to the British throne – a helicopter pilot in the Royal Navy, a career naval officer and a Green Beret – was revealed to have provided palace servants with a laminated photograph of his collection of teddy bears, so each could be placed in its original position after cleaning.
Famously, while staying in someone’s house without his valet, John Spencer-Churchill – Duke of Marlborough and scion of the Vanderbilt railroad dynasty – lamented that his “toothbrush wouldn’t foam.” Childhood, I repeat, is all about moments like this, yet the average inmate of any totalitarian regime, a rank mediocrity though he may be, would unhesitatingly describe the behavior of those grown men as infantile to the point of imbecility.
Under the conditions of freedom one enjoys falling into this kind of premature dotage, with its highs of causeless merriment and equally careless lows of blissful ignorance, just as many find pleasure in fairground rides, known in Russia, incidentally, as “American hills.” This point was made last week in a reader’s comment, and certainly amusements like horror films, recreational drugs, and even explicit pornography are all spokes on Gretchen’s wheel of nirvana whose endless spinning keeps the free man from attaining – yes, mediocrity.
I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news…. Italian girls might have neck and thigh tattoos, but their necks and thighs are still a size 4. In the States, the girls have neck and thigh tattoos, but they are a size 16…. I haven’t been to Italy in a decade, but the last time I was there, I was amazed at how few people were glued to their phones and other screens. Prior to COVID, when we still enjoyed meals out on occasion, I always made a point to look around at dinner and note all of the people playing with their phones. It was always a majority. In Italy, I never noticed anyone using a phone at dinner. Perhaps we were ahead of the curve and the Italians have fallen into the same awful habits as the American idiots. I was forced to purchase an iPhone for work about two years ago. Prior to that, I got by with a flip phone. I am considering taking a new job, and if I do, I am going to smash my iPhone with a sledge and go back to my flip phone.
Ah, James, but my ancient Blackberry exploded two days ago, taking all contacts to Paradise with it. Apple was the only option, much as I’d like to borrow your sledgehammer. And yes, there’s been much “progress” here over the last few years, with neck sizes as well as with smartphone glue.
Haha. I’m picturing your ancient Blackberry, in the land of milk and honey, seated next to 72 Blackberries, still in their packages, unopened.
Years ago, I had a boss with a very even temperament. He never yelled and rarely grew impatient. The one exception was “technology.” If he was given some new device and it didn’t work correctly, he would smash it to bits, calmly hand it to his secretary, and direct her to order something different.
It is unfortunate to hear that progress is being made in Italy. I’ve had about as much progress as I can take.
We’ve been locked down in the good old USA for a bit more than two years, but on our last trip (when I came down with pneumonia and was not very amusing company for Mr. Navrozov) we spent, in addition to a month in Sicily, a fair amount of time in Rome and Florence. Believe me, Andrei, Italian girls are still decades away from the Americans on all counts except, perhaps, for cellphones, but even there they are typically indulging in the obsessive Italian pastime of chatting up friends and family.
My first cellphone call was in Italy in the very early 1990’s. I was having dinner with a leading Leghista in Como, on a balcony overlooking the lake. I was devouring my structured seafood risotto with great gusto when my friend received a call. He appeared not to be acquainted personally with the caller, and they chatted for ten minutes, establishing identities. Finally he turned to me and said, “E per lei, professore.” The caller turned out to be Pier Luigi Zampetti, a philosopher I was supposed to meet in the next few days. Friends, with whom I was staying, knew I was dining with the Leghista and had given Zanpetti his number. To this day, I am still amazed that the manufacturer-Leghista and the philosopher could spend so much time chatting about nothing.
PS A wonderful piece!
Quite excellent, indeed. Here is an anecdote.
One day my boss, a framing contractor, received a call from the thirty-something year old progeny of a disgustingly wealthy land developer. He had been left in charge of the family empire while the rest were sunning their tuchuses (tuchi?) on the family estate in the Caribbean. He had lost power and couldn’t get his generator to work. My boss sent over a man, a drunk who had spent much of his adult life in and out of incarceration, a habitual abuser of whatever “substance” came his way, an entertaining drinking companion who, last I heard, had had a butterfly net thrown over him as he played air guitar (as he was wont to do while under the influence, so to speak) in the middle of the Vegas strip, to resolve the problem, which, as it turned out, required putting gasoline in the machine and then flipping the switch. He had tried the switch bit but couldn’t quite grasp the fuel aspect of the problem.
James D., very funny. I wonder what would happen to the pictures in the unlikely case of weight loss. Probably doesn’t bear thinking about…but all that wasted ink.
Each and every one of us have a child with us, whether the child is 5 years old or the Duke of Marlborough and in some respects, are shaped by it. For those who deny it as in a totalitarian regime, they are subordinating themselves to the state and denying who they are as an individual brought up by family, school, church, etc.
Excuse me. I meant a child within us.
Mr. James D.
The size 6 of Italian girls versus size 16 of American girls probably has to do with diet. Americans consume too many empty calories as you find in sodas and other high calorie beverages, snacks and fried foods. The foods we eat must be what is called nutrient dense. Consistently, it is compared with the healthier Mediterranean diet which includes fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods and dairy. The other foods should be limited.
Mr. Strenk, but it may be better to waste ink on tattoos than in the pages of the New York Times. Tattoos are by their nature barbaric, but I can imagine a pretty tattoo, but I cannot imagine an honest sentence in the American press.
Diet is important but it cannot be the reason. Americans ate abominably when I was a child, but they got more exercise and ate much less. Of course diet, in the broader sense of the Greek original, means something more like life-style, and it is the entire American life-style that is ludicrous.
Continuing on Mr. Navrozov’s theme, in the anecdote I offered above, the helpless individual was at least spectacularly rich and it has long been the case that such people (but not so much in the ancient world, it seems) frequently have few if any basic practical skills, although, unlike the above-mentioned individual, they used to be generally quite well educated in other respects. The problem is parenting. Starting about with my generation, with a great many kids, little, if anything, was ever expected of them, including good manners. My generation, however, could not get away with living in a dream world when we entered the workforce. You would simply and rapidly be fired if you didn’t measure up. When I started in construction in the mid-eighties, a lot of my older co-workers had been subject to the draft. Many had served in Viet Nam and Korea. They were hard men and competent and they did not put up with a lot of crap from rat-assed kids. Many of them had drinking and drug problems, but showed up on time every day and put a good day’s work in. This brings me to another point. Drug, alcohol and, we might now add, technology abuse used to be something that was done to accentuate something else that one was doing, some more genuine, more social experience. Even going to the movies was something that one did with one’s friends. Now the goal appears to be total obliteration of the real world and all of its challenges. Reality bites but it also bites back and most of these poor kids are not going to be able to handle it. Indeed they are not handling it already if suicide rates in the industrialized world is any indication.
Joy is a somewhat religious concept, something more than just happiness or contentment or euphoria. It can not really be simulated. It’s a gift.
Dot – Responding to your first comment above, of course the point you make is supremely valid. But here, when I write of “the freedom for many to plummet and only for a very few to soar,” I’m focusing on the first lot. “The very few who soar” is what gives freedom its rasion d’etre (and, incidentally, increases its chances of survival in a world of totalitarian predators, as seen with Jewish physicists who, recoiling from Hitler, built the atom bomb to defend America). But that’s a separate subject. Here I’m writing of “the many who plummet.”
One of the major differences between your early experiences in construction and similar jobs today is the complete stagnation or even decline in wages and benefits. I’ve cited this example of the “American Dream” before, but it is the best example I have come across of what has happened to our economy. When I was growing up, there was a family down the street. The wife occasionally babysat for our family. The husband had served in Korea and worked as a furniture delivery man for a regional department store (remember those?) The wife was a homemaker and babysat on the weekends for extra money. They had two children who attended Catholic school from K-12. The daughter became a nurse and the son was very intelligent, attended Berkley and became some sort of scientist or engineer. The husband had a basement and garage full of hand tools, automotive repair tools, woodworking equipment, etc. He had every tool you’ve ever seen. When his wife babysat us, he would do woodworking projects with us or let us mess around with other projects. He liked to work on MG’s, motorcycles, and dirtbikes, etc. He had two MG’s and several motorcycles. They had a modest three bedroom house in a good suburban neighborhood. They took a week vacation to the beach every year. They attended our church where the husband was an usher and the wife sang in the choir. They often took us to the pool or a local amusement park a couple times per year. The husband retired in his early 60’s and lived 25 more years. All of this was possible on the salary of a delivery man with a little extra babysitting money. Completely impossible today. You couldn’t make it as a single man living in an apartment on the salary of a delivery driver today. You would need to have a roommate. This is a huge part of the despair and hopelessness seen in these classes of people today.
James D., I couldn’t agree more. My last boss made a crack one day complaining about payroll. I turned to him and flat out asked, “Do you really think that you are paying me too much? If I had to live on what you pay me I’d be living in a basement apartment in [the worst neighborhood in the area] with three other guys. My wife’s income is subsidizing your business. Without it I couldn’t afford to work for you.” He smirked and shut up because, having been in the business longer than me, he knew what men used to be paid relative to what they are paid now.
Here are a couple more examples to add to your excellent one: One set of great grandparents raised their daughters in the slums of lower Manhattan. My great grandmother was a cleaning lady for one of the big banks and my great grandfather was a window washer on the Empire State Building back when they hung out the window on a leather strap and the Grace of God. He made good money for the Depression era and by the time their oldest daughter, my grandmother was married, they were able to outright buy a three family house in a good working class neighborhood in Brooklyn. By the fifties they also had a country home with a few acres, also debt free. My other grandmother’s oldest sister and her husband bought their house outright in the 40’s, again, a three family home, with $50,000 dollars that they brought by subway to the closing with them in a suitcase. Their lawyer just about had a heart attack.
The problem is much deeper than money though. The people around us seem to be rolling in dough by the way they spend and their children are ill-behaved little monsters by and large. They are a bit better since the “lock-down” because there seems to be more adults around, but the adults here play with their children like children. They treat their kids like peers and that is about their mental, emotional and intellectual level.There are few wise parents anymore with skills that they can, much less want to, bequeath. We are a nation of grasshoppers raising generations of neurotic, ill-mannered, socially inept children who only want to hide from the reality that they can sense without having the capacity to make sense of it. This is a problem of parenting and education. Patriarchy used to do everything that is accomplished in the totalitarianism mentioned by Mr. Navrozov by the state. The restrictions and sometimes oppression present in patriarchy, however, were administered by, mostly, loving families who wanted the best for their own, rather than by a blood-sucking parasitic elite that allows others to progress only in directions most beneficial to that elite.