The Hourglass

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.

40 thoughts on “The Hourglass”

  1. It does begin to make sense of why it seems so easy for so many to accept the bogglingly huge lies we’re currently being fed. We’re talking about a population that’s umbilically attached to smartphones, TV, Tinder, TikTok, etc.

    No takeover necessary, there.

    I’m in the middle of finally reading Brave New World, and the synchronicity with this post is stunning.


      1. Interesting take. Just this morning, I read a Reuters article titled “Norway Outlaws Hate Speech Against Trans People”. You can literally go to jail for criticizing or disagreeing with transsexuals now. You can get a year in jail for making a such remarks in PRIVATE, three years for public statements. Given that there is a jail sentence for making remarks in private conversations, this implies that snitching is encouraged. Otherwise, how else would they know?

        Talk about your lower bulb being poisened.


        1. Here in the US we are being forced to add a statement to our syllabi encouraging students to snitch on each other and professors for saying something unwoke in class. So yeah. That’s precisely the thing I’m talking about.


  2. This is an excellent article and really resonated with me, Clarissa. Thank you. I’m trying to my 14 and 7 year old develop their bulbs and this concept will really help in discussions with my wife.

    Thank you again.


  3. This is exactly right. I’m in a rambling mood today. I hope you don’t mind me holding forth again in your combox, Clarissa. I have deep thoughts to share..

    Fascism and communism, all forms of secularism and materialism, are inherently utilitarian: superficial outward directed, focused on act over essence. Appearance matters far more than actuality, the quantifiable far more than the ineffable. If it’s not in the senses, measured by instruments, it doesn’t exist. Morality and ethics are determined by results, and results are always assessed in the most nominalistic of senses: whatever feels or seems good to the assessor who assigns value, and are certainly not dependent upon any transcendent metaphysical order.. Because that which is not “physical” does not exist. That’s uterque a priori ex post ipso facto, and you know how all that latin mumbo jumbo hocuspocus (exempli gratia,“hoc est enim corpus meum”) is metaphorical (not metaphysical, because nothing is metaphysical, and I’m not being literally nonsensical here) bull crap.

    I’ve been thinking how Foucault rips off Bentham – in his radical utilitarianism, as well as his crypto fascist implications, but most shamelessly (Foucault is not big on shame, is he?) in their most sinister shared idea, the Panopticon.. We’re living in Bentham and Foucault’s cosmic muddle, now. Everything is evaluated by reductive hedonic principles of power pleasure. Pushpins and Pushkin are both great, but really all you need is enough exercise, a little mindfulness and meditation, pornhub, a tinder account, a little water based personal lube with aloe vera and at least 75k a year..

    Copulate with everything and everyone, so long as there is no psychic harm you can even bone a fowl. Chickens love stimulation. So do dogs, and kids.. And a dead chicken feels nothing, so you know, feel free to knock yourself and one out.. And everyone can watch everyone stream it all online, just be sure not to blow a Toobin in front of your censorious cowokers coworkers whomever whatever, be sure consent and disclosure forms are signed, that everyone is wearing facial and all other proper prophylactics, and everyone’ll be gettin and comin’ pruny n’ their own bliss.. it may be a bit viscous, but it feels just like heaven..

    Bonus points with the Panopticon: We can see what everyone thinks just by mining their twitter feed. There are no secrets anymore, we know exactly who we can be friends with, who we can hire. Soon, none of the bad people will have friends or jobs, they can all starve or die in internment camps, then everyone will be having multiple simultaneous orgasms at will, and everything will be bliss.

    Until I read yet another list from one of Toobin’s erstwhile fellow wowokers at the New Yorker or Atlantic or CNN wherever, entitled something like “Seven Data Driven Tips on How to be Happy” which always counsels “self care” “intimate sex” “proper time management” “balanced organically sourced diet” “being present” “gratitude” “volunteering” “pets” “pilates/yoga” and “meditation” and which always includes the admission that no one can be happy all the time, but happiness isn’t the point of life, being useful and productive is..

    See Anita, there may be no point to our lives, but we can be really busy and have the best wine macrobiotics sushi bagels and lox from the sweet coop bakery across town .. We may be empty inside, but at least we vote for social justice, march in Pride, each draw six figures and have a strong portfolio in seven, went to RISD and Yale, drive Teslas, have two kids and a dog and groovy yet very tasteful interior decoration in six thousand square feet on three acres in rural Connecticut. What more can you want? We have Thai takeout and an infinity of television to binge watch. Who needs happiness?

    We have a coffee table book full of artful pictures of every one of Nietzsche’s digs, from rural Germany to the Swiss Alps to Northern Italy – we, like him, are living our most elegant and purposeful life, fusing both the Dionysian and Apollonian principles in perfect balance. We are living our will to power. An ubermensch doesn’t need happiness. I mean look at how poor old crazy Fred came to his end: poor sentimental syphilitic old lunatic died hugging whipped nags in the street. That’s the purity of principle we share: the Crucifixion is for the psychologically weak, it’s opiate for the masses who aren’t clever enough to steal money to buy real opiates. We need no such crutch. We have three bikram yoga sessions and a half marathon to run after our eighty billable hours next week.

    Prayer and repentance are never on their lists.. Especially with the clarification that prayer is not petition for what you want, but intimate communication and union with the source of our being.. Someone who does not exist in the same way that everything physical exists, who is utterly transcendent yet intimately present and felt in ways that rupture and transcend space time our mind and senses. The essential prerequisite for prayer, humility, is never on their lists either. The closest they ever get is gratitude, and that’s because they think “scientific studies” have shown gratitude is effective in cultivating feelings of well being.. “Scientific studies” have shown that prayer tends to as well, but their materialism trumps their empiricism and pragmatism in this one odd way.. Go figure..

    We can take the way of the Cross, and maybe they will follow. Love – self donation – leads to asceticism, asceticism leads to and magnifies prayer. Prayer removes fear of suffering and death, and leads to complete freedom. No fascist – no one at all, not even the demons – can harm anyone who prays. The totalitarians cannot stop us from praying.

    That’s what is meant by “the gates of hell shall not prevail.” It may seem very dark. But look to the East. He comes at dawn on the last day.

    The light shines in the darkness.. The darkness has not overcome it.

    Courage, then. Peace.


    1. I’m very proud that my post is bringing out beautiful essays like this one. So funny! But then also very solemn.

      We are getting somewhere important with this discussion.

      How exactly I’m supposed to abstain from stealing cowokers is a mystery. It’s too good.


      1. Thanks, Clarissa. I appreciate your kind critique. What comes from the muse belongs to all of us. The music of the spheres knows nor recognizes copyright. What is mine is yours. Take, repeat, appropriate, use whatever I say with abandon. I always bless, and will never sue.


  4. Excellent post, Clarissa.

    Btw, I know you talk about systemic issues here, that’s not lost on me. But if you’ll allow me to make a somewhat personal tangent. The following sounds just like my mom’s outlook on the world: “If you can’t sell it for money or get some tangible benefit from it, [she doesn’t] understand why it exists.” She has no understanding or appreciation of art or science beyond one’s ability to make money off it or at least get accolades that other people can admire/envy. I’ve always thought that the woman had no inner life and that was always a source of friction between us. Even when I was a kid, I could tell she didn’t like me or understand me; I could tell she hated and perhaps feared all these aspects of me (pretty much the whole lower bulb) that were alien to her. It sucked to be that kid.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is totally my experience growing up. Wow. We do have a lot in common.

      Living with a person like this is torture if you have even somewhat refined sensibilities. It’s like having a perfect musical hearing and having to live in a cacophony of terrible sounds.

      People like that know on some level that’s something is missing and they hate anything or anybody that reminds them of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Without making light of anything, the way you’ve described it, authoritarian systems are basically country sized versions of a dysfunctional family.

    Interesting and enlightening, thankyou 🙂


  6. I am not sure about the US, but in UK Humanities academia there’s now a real horror of the “lone scholar”. Everything needs to be collaborative and interdisciplinary; that’s what will give you the big grants and hence the career advancement.
    In some contexts, wanting to go away into the archives for one year and then coming back and spending another year writing a monograph, on your own, is seen as hopelessly outdated at best, selfish and even a bit perverted at worst. But but but what do you mean your plans for sabbatical don’t include any collaboration? To me, this is so puzzling. I would go as far as to say that without the figure of the “lone scholar”, the Humanities won’t be the Humanities any longer. (Of course this doesn’t mean that solitary work cannot coexist with other things).
    The funniest thing is that fear and disdain for the lone scholar comes from both management and from the “decolonize the university” crowd that purports to hate the corporatization and neoliberalization of the university yada yada. This makes so much sense under what you say above, and I’ve been having similar thoughts for a few years that I haven’t been able to articulate so far. If in the course of your lonely research you happen to form any ideas that do not conform to dogma, you might be so bold as to keep thinking about them and develop them properly and even (gasp!) put them into an article or book. However, if you are in a collaborative project, your collaborators will talk you out of these ideas before they get into print and hurt and kill thousands.


    1. “fear and disdain for the lone scholar… wanting to go away into the archives for one year and then coming back and spending another year writing a monograph, on your own, is seen as hopelessly outdated at best, selfish and even a bit perverted at worst… that’s what will give you the big grants”


      Individualism and creative genius threaten the mediocre. The hive mind creates safety in numbers for the wokesters. Gatekeeping through the grant approval process ensures a non-threatening conformity and gives them administrative credits to pad their sorry CVs, etc., etc.


      1. “Individualism and creative genius threaten the mediocre.”
        Tell me all about it.
        Yesterday I was “treated” to a long twitter thread (praised by many academics no less) which argued that Mozart did not have any special talent, that talent does not exist and in fact the only secret to Mozart’s “success” was that his father immersed him in music and music-making from birth.
        Like, if you just immersed your child in music in the same way as Leopold Mozart did, he or she would turn out to be one of the most important composers in Western history.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. “Mozart did not have any special talent”

          Well known fact – Mozart’s only special talent was to enjoy white privilege. True story.

          And, here’s another true story of how he employed his white privilege to perform circus tricks at an early age.

          (BTW if you’ve never heard this remarkable piece of music, you are in for a treat irrespective of your colour persuasion)

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Thank you GSW! I am a professional musician- never heard that piece (or Mozart angle) until today! Many sincere thanks!


            1. I am so very pleased, thank you!

              Congratulations on being a musician and double congratulations on being able to make a living from it!

              Allegri’s Miserere mei is indeed a remarkable piece of music – my untutored ear hears reminders of Orthodox chant throughout.

              In recent decades, it has become quite popular in classical circles in the UK, so much so that BB4 aired a half hour programme on it.


              1. GSW – one of my favorite works is Rachmaninov Vespers. Love that piece! Talk about hitting it out of the park! The Miserere mei does have Orthodox overtones….


        2. Hey, I was immersed. I took piano lessons for 7 years since the age of 5. And not only am I not Mozart, I can’t play a tune to save my life.

          Moreover, my child is immersed in foreign languages since before birth. Zero result, zero interest. But she can paint and draw for hours on end, something that nobody in the family ever enjoyed doing.


      2. Individualism and creative genius threaten the mediocre. The hive mind creates safety in numbers for the wokesters.

        I see the same resentment of high individual achievement directed at scientists. At places like The Guardian and Slate they love to decry “the myth of the lone genius”; I swear I’ve seen the same article on the subject recycled dozens of times during the last 20 years. Of course it’s true that science is a collective enterprise, but it’s also true that some people accomplish a great deal more than others.

        Which reminds me, I might as well put this prediction here, so there’s a record if it turns out to be right. After the vaccine rollout and ultimate end of the pandemic, there will be a wave of adulation for the scientists who developed it. But after that settles down, there will be an explosion of bile and vitriol directed at these same people coming from the woker corners of journalism and academia.


          1. “people involved were not diverse enough”

            or weren’t the right kind of diverse… (because we all know that there’s diverse, and then there’s the right kind of diverse)


        1. “resentment of high individual achievement directed at scientists”

          To state the obvious – the lockdowns custom-fit the ‘progressive’ attack on individualism and creative genius.

          An entire generation of the young are being taught to eschew self-reliance and individual creativity in favour of hiding alone in their hidey-holes and taking their marching orders from above.


        2. Oh yes, absolutely, I can almost imagine the headlines of the Buzzfeed articles:
          “Where are the trans and non-binary vaccine developers?”
          “Why are Covid-19 vaccine development teams so white?”
          It’s true that afaik the leading scientists behind the Pfizer vaccine are a German-Turkish couple and the leader of the Oxford one is a woman, but hey when did reality stop the social justice crowd?


          1. “a German-Turkish couple”

            I guess Turks (even though they didn’t make the cut for the EU) would not be the right kind of diverse, right? White or white-adjacent, right? Btw does anybody know if BLM is working on an official Dictionary of Racial Hierarchy for use by the incoming Biden administration – a sort of 21st century update on the Nürnberger Gesetze (Nuremburg Laws)?


  7. This is a strange set of thoughts, but I think I’ll share them regardless. I wonder if things aren’t working in reverse in our society. Not so much trying to suppress the inner life as trying to flare it up.

    The sense of inner self isn’t purely conscious, moral, or rational, and a fair part of it is, so to say, housed in the body. We’ve been fairly good as a civilization at providing a well-regulated experience for the body, so much so that the expected state for an average human, can, surprisingly in comparison to many other times in the world, be a kind of sated numbness. Not a lot of sharp somatic experiences remain, and a lot of them are tied up in your genitals.

    No one would treat a fasting monk with any degree of seriousness today, because hunger is not an internal state that needs to be brought under control or understanding for anyone. Genital transformations, however, are now of civilization-defining importance – trans people are positioned not so much as a class of citizen that need their rights protected so much as the source, symbolically, of all good things to come.

    There’s a difference between a form of life that’s a supposed embodiment of an exalted internal experience and one that is coercively mandated for all members of society. The first is supposed to spur the development of one’s internal experience, the second is supposed to suppress the inner world for the benefit of the outer. I’m not sure if it’s just the second world that’s at issue.


  8. What a beautiful piece this was: I am going to use with my students for my course on the Age of Totalitarianism.
    It moved me in a way that had not happened for a long time. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A beautiful piece, Clarissa. I know exactly what you are talking about. Among the people I know, I too have also seen the correlation between “small lower bulb” and swallowing of all media propaganda.

    You are also absolutely right that our biggest challenge as parents now is to make sure our children develop large lower bulbs. At some future point, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can do this, or how you are doing it for Klara — not all of us have the resources to send our children to Waldorf schools!


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