I know that I use the word “totalitarianism” in a way that confuses people because it’s not the usual one, and I apologize for it. Today in church it occurred to me that I need to explain it more clearly. To do so, I will use the metaphor of an hourglass created by the great Ukrainian writer Vladimir Dudintsev.
Dudintsev said that every human being is like an hourglass. We have two bulbs connected by a very narrow neck. The upper bulb represents our life in the world. It contains everything that constitutes our interactions with other people and with things.
The lower bulb is our inner world. All that others can know of our inner world is the tiny portion that can be glimpsed through the narrow opening. Even the people who know us best can never get inside. They can peek in a little if they really want to, but the rest is concealed from view.
A totalitarian regime hates the lower bulb because, by its nature, it needs to control the totality, and how can you do that if you can’t access the lower bulb?
As a result, a totalitarian regime wants to make sure we live, as much as possible, in the upper bulb and don’t develop the lower one.
This explains, for example, the Left’s obsession with “unconscious bias” and its insane idea that you can be racist without realizing it or wanting to be racist. The goal is to make you suspicious and afraid of your inner world. “It’s deadly, it’s bad, it’s evil, don’t go in there, stay in the upper bulb with us and we will teach you how to prevent that hidden quagmire from ruining your life.”
In totalitarian societies, people learn very fast to live in the upper bulb and not develop the lower one. Back in the USSR, people with well-developed inner worlds knew they were defective and had to conceal it. Everything that helps people develop the lower bulb was interfered with, taken away, destroyed. Filling people’s lives with endless meetings, so that they are never left alone. Taking away religion and art. Poisoning their most intimate relationships with fear and suspicion. Making sure there’s never real silence. Making sure that no aspect of life is just left alone. That people are never allowed simply to be. Alone. With themselves.
The lower bulb is the place where we know the good and the bad. Why do you grab a bag of food and haul it to the food pantry? Because it makes you feel good in the lower bulb where you are alone with yourself. Why don’t you kick a cat in the stomach even when there’s nobody to see you? Because it will make you feel bad inside.
I once did something stupid that got a colleague into a sea of trouble. There was no way she was going to find out who did it. She was on my tenure committee, too, so in the upper bulb it made every sense for me not to tell her it was my fault. But I felt terrible inside. My lower bulb was poisoned by this knowledge, so of course, I confessed and tried to set things right.
But if people don’t have that lower bulb and live completely in the upper one, then the totalitarian regime gets to decide what’s good and what’s bad for them. Betray a friend, kick the weak, and we’ll reward you with stuff that has value in the upper bulb.
The USSR ended when I was 15. But the people without developed lower bulbs remained. Their life is impoverished in a way that they aren’t equipped to comprehend. All they understand is the material stuff.
My Dad has a friend in Russia who does art. She sent some for Klara, and we told the friend how much Klara loved it and how she kissed and hugged the pictures.
“Wow,” the friend said. “Here nobody reacts that way. If you can’t sell it for money or get some tangible benefit from it, they don’t understand why it exists.”
When I left Ukraine, this is what I was running away from. The first friend I ever made in Canada was a fellow student in my freshman class at the university. We were leaving the classroom after a lecture on the Franco dictatorship, and the student exclaimed, “I can’t believe this! This was so wrong! How could they do a terrible thing like that!” And I was absolutely stunned by the realization that I finally met a person who was capable to feel something when told about an injustice that had absolutely no bearing on her life. I had never met a person my age who was capable of that, who would be interested in something bigger than what’s for dinner.
That place inside us that feels something when we see art or notice a beautiful sunset, that hurts with the pain of others, and that makes it impossible for some of us to join the crowd that is stomping on somebody deemed an undesirable – that place can’t be taken for granted. It’s what makes us human. Growing it is a lifelong project. This is why I’m so happy when I read a children’s book to my kid and she sides with the character whom nobody likes. That’s why I sit quietly, trying not to move, when she plays by herself, whispering something to her dolls and enacting scenes with them that only she understands.
In her great book Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff says that the greatest danger of a life that’s constantly surveilled, observed, and modified externally isn’t that somebody will show us targeted ads. It’s that we won’t be left alone enough to develop the lower bulb. The inner world that’s only ours and that is the greatest treasure of human existence.
The people who are putting in place the surveillance understand this very well. They send their kids to Waldorf schools that prohibit technology and hold classes in the woods because the real eugenics isn’t some pathetic messing with genes. It’s this. Some people, a minority, will have lower bulbs and they will be truly human. They will be free. The rest will be like house pets or worse. Cute but without a capacity to engage with the world like a real human can.
There no longer needs to be an all-powerful government with a secret police that drags people into the dungeons to terrorize the rest into abandoning their lower bulbs. The same effect can be achieved more easily. And a lot more profitably.
But here’s the good news. We do have our lower bulbs. We can develop them every day. We can help our children develop theirs. We can resist the efforts to substitute our innate sense of morality with the one forced on us in the upper bulb.
Unfortunately, the upper bulb has been poisoned. We can all see it. But the more time we spend in the lower bulb, the less we inhale the noxious fumes. We can seek out other people with large lower bulbs and find comfort in each other.
There’s a lot of work to be done. Things are not hopeless.
Let’s get to it.