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Thistles from Figs

“Since there has never been a great civilization without poetry,” writes Tom Fleming in the current issue of Chronicles, “we can say that European civilization has ceased to exist.” True enough, but if the day’s newspaper is any guide, I reckon the sainted editor is digging too deep.

The English word “uxurious” was used, and pretty nonchalantly at that, in a mainstream motion picture in 1936, Hitchcock’s The Secret Agent. In 2014, my laptop’s mainstream spell check, Word for Windows, underlines it in red as if it were a typo. Future historians may deduce from a juxtaposition of these two random samplings that in a few decades the barbarization of the cultural mainstream had progressed more thoroughly, with an effect more pandemic, than it had in the centuries after the fall of Rome.

The moving force behind the new barbarism has been the meliorist striving characteristic of this, the mature – some would say, terminal – phase of European and American democracy. As in the proverb about the road to hell, it is a phase in which all of society’s good intentions turn on their heads, its every express wish or avowed aim becoming the opposite of itself as soon as attained or put into practice. It is foolish to expect figs from thistles, but here it is as though the thistle has sprouted, in plain view, from the trunk of a sycamore.

A Sheffield gal by the name of Steph has been in the news in England. She is 24 years of age and mother to two loving children, without, naturally, the author of all that familial bliss being anywhere on the premises. She subsists on benefits from the state, pocketing the same £330 a week – approximately $24,000 a year – she would be receiving if she had been enterprising, disciplined, and lucky enough to avail herself of some hopeless, meaningless, boring job. As it is, she lives like a Diogenes with a salary, master of nothing yet slave to none; indeed, she inhabits the earth just the way I do, doing not very much of anything and enjoying life, as the saying goes, to the fullest; with the difference, of course, that it is her essays in contemplation, not mine, that the British taxpayer supports. Consequent to his largesse – because, besides Steph, there are another 5,999,999 philosophers manqué out there to be subsidized – is the nation’s debt of £1.27 trillion, the weekly interest on which amounts to a cool £1 billion.

“Far from being ashamed of her taxpayer-funded lifestyle,” runs one newspaper account of Steph’s view of the dole, “she describes her life as ‘blessed’ and says she won’t stop claiming benefits” unless she’s offered “a job that pays £5,000 a month.” Her argument is incontrovertible. “To put my kids in childcare from 9 to 5, it’s £400 a week. I’d need to be on at least £5,000 a month to pay my rent, to pay my council tax, everything like that.”

For recreation, this clever gal visits tattoo parlors and has designs of “flowers and fairies” inked onto her commodious arms, explaining that “it’s my money and I can do what I want with it.” Personally, I prefer Dom Perignon and Cohiba Espléndidos, but really, apart from so nuanced a distinction, we’re sisters under the skin, Steph and I. Or at least modern liberal democracy seems to have arrived at something like this unexpected conclusion. 

Andrei Navrozov

Andrei Navrozov, born in Moscow, lives in Palermo and is European editor for Chronicles.  The former publisher of the Yale Lit, he is a widely published author and translator.  His Italian Carousel: Scenes of Internal Exile was published by Peter Owen Publishers.

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