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.