A person learns how to read all his life. Having learned how to read letters in school or independently of school, he is then forced to learn how to read faces, to discern various signal systems, upon the ability to read of which his life and the life of those around him depends (for example, the language of street signs).
Every culture is a complex system of notifications, warnings, reminders of the past, and prohibitions.
A person who does not know how to read these cultural signs will be swallowed up by a reality they did not understand, similar to how a person is struck by a lethal shock if he ignores a sign reading, “Do not enter—deadly!”
One has to learn to read.
Sometimes people put out for show their signs of belonging to a subculture. By the way they tie their neckties, their brand of wristwatch, the color of the handkerchief sticking out of their pocket, or by their tattoo, you can immediately learn what the person himself wants others to know about him, if those others are able to notice these nuances.
Sometimes, to the contrary, someone might brazenly mark his territory, littering the area with signs of his presence, but people around him take not the slightest notice, because they are not taught to read particular systems of signals.
* * *
Basically we know what it is—a television show along the lines of what appeared earlier on our TV screens: programs such as “Behind the Glass,” “House 1” and “House 2”. It is an easy opportunity to become a “star”—only one pays for this transformation with total publicity and many days of life before the eyes of innumerable television cameras. Along with this, a correct relationship to this show leads us deeper and further; in any case, it forces us to acquaint ourselves with certain literary works. I am referring to George Orwell’s novel, 1984.
This clear and sharp example is not deprived, if not of clairvoyance, then of a vision of anti-utopia. European thought spread the idea of “utopia” long and hard. The word “utopia” comes from the Greek ou not, no and topos place [Webster’s dictionary: an imaginary and indefinitely remote place. —OC]—something that does not exist in nature, but one really wishes it could. It is what imaginary countries were called, where, according to the authors life is happy and peaceful. These writers conceived utopias as heaven on earth, but an attentive reading of these dreams brings a dismal feeling of enclosure in a real concentration camp. Such is life in Thomas More’s ideal state, such is political Platonism, if one reads them carefully. It was not so terrifying a matter as long as life did not remain ideal, and its ideal models lived only in the heads of the thinkers.
Everything changed in the twentieth century. People decided not to just dream of heaven on earth, but to create it. The result of great efforts and large-scale bloodletting, as out of spite, was in fact not heaven at all, but veritable hell, or at least its earthly threshold. That is when anti-utopian novels began to appear in literature. Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Evgeny Zamyatin, and in part, Andrei Platonov, portrayed in their books the tragic shattering of dreams about a beautiful society. In Hans Christian Anderson’s story, an ugly duckling becomes a swan. In Orwell’s novel, a swan becomes a viper. Anti-utopian writers took down much of what they wrote from real life, while much was revealed to others through their creative intuition.
Big Brother is a mysterious person who rules the life of Oceania—a state described in Orwell’s book. No one in Oceania knows whether Big Brother really exists, but his portrait watches people from everywhere. “Big Brother sees you,” say the posters that are drawn in a way that makes you feel you are in his field of vision no matter where you go.
The country headed by Big Brother is a totalitarian state. This state makes demands not only of a person’s behavior, but also of his thoughts. There is a concept there of “thought crimes,” that is, opposition in one’s thoughts to the regime, or disagreement with it. A person has only to find himself under interrogation or torture, which is conducted by the Ministry of Love (sic), and he will tell anything at all about himself. Besides the Ministry of Love there is also the Ministry of Truth, which lies twenty-four hours a day, and the Ministry of Peace, which constantly wages wars. In short, the picture is recognizable. Recognizable and horrible.
The book is worth reading. In any case, no one who reads it will be likely to agree to participate in a reality show.
* * *
Our people, who have experienced not a motion picture but the real press of a totalitarian government, should have cultivated in themselves a certain feeling of fear in their bones, a kind of defensive reaction against attempts directed at fooling them, controlling their consciousness, at crawling into their souls with dirty boots on. Not in the least. Many still have memories of live, real surveillance, and some still have nightmares of authentic interrogations; meanwhile a television show, called by the name of an imaginary concentration camp, is shown on the screen. Fr. Seraphim Rose was right when he assigned a special place in twentieth century history to Disneyland and the Gulag. Disneyland glitters with lights, little children joyfully shriek on the merry-go-rounds, while in the background are watchtowers and barbed wire, but no one is paying them any attention. For now.
But this is only the upper layer of this phenomenon. Let us go further.
Shame is a natural feeling for man, along with the urge to hide from strangers’ eyes if only for a little while. Even the builders of barrack socialism preserved the right to guard one’s bed from the eyes of others or to hide behind a plywood divider. It is unnatural for a person to be always in the field of someone else’s vision. In the given case, we have a person’s voluntary agreement to climb into a “cage” and bare his life before the TV cameras, barring nothing. We are also faced with the desire of a huge number of people to observe a person who is absolutely deprived of intimacy and secrecy.
Either these experiments cripple those who agree to them, or we are talking about already crippled individuals, for whom life is that which is normally brought by death.
* * *
Experiments on people are not only the ones revealed and condemned at the Nuremburg trials. History has been moving forward under the sign of experiments on individual people and entire nations for a number of decades. Experiments with crossbreeding an ape with a human have been consigned to the same oblivion as attempts to create an international brotherhood of workers through blood transfusions [real experiments of the early Soviet era —OC]. But other experiments have taken their place. They have moved into the psychological realm, into that secret and mysterious darkness where the memory lives, where the voice of the conscience can be heard, the voice of generations and inherited awareness.
Sweeping away all the taboos, breaking all the prohibitions, digging down to the depths of the subconscious, the experimenters strive to reach the heart of the personality. They are motivated by the desire to free man, to change his thought codes, to make him the child of the new age and new horizons. They are more likely to split rather than heal the poor personality, these bold—or base—experimenters. They shove a person in the back and only hasten his movement toward the abyss to which he is headed regardless of that shove.
* * *
“Big Brother” is just another parody of the Almighty God, and man under the unsleeping eye of a TV camera is a parody of Abraham, to whom the Lord said, I am thy God, be well-pleasing before me, and be blameless (Gen. 17:1). And Abraham walked before God, remembered Him, turning his everyday life into ceaseless service.
Big Brother (let this be the collective name for all reality shows) is directed to the person who has already forgotten or is trying to forget about the existence of the Almighty, and says to him, “Get used to being seen everywhere. Forget your shame. Pretend that you are in a movie. All life, in essence, is a game. I don’t require any purity from you. More than that—I need you to be impure. Be impure and walk before me.”
“Be impure without any pangs of conscience and remember that you are always under observation.” These words, exuding the coldness of a grave, could be directed one day at all inhabitants of the earth.
* * *
Our ideological adversaries like to say that we priests are eternally frightening people because we want to keep them in submission. Well, it is hardly possible to change the minds of those who are convinced that their thesis is true, and I will not particularly try to do so. For me it is much more important to inform other people, those who read the Bible, of the Biblical view of what is going on around us. To teach them, for example, how to look at animal tamers at the circus and see a pale similarity with life in paradise, where animals obeyed Adam and saw him as their master and not their enemy. Or, when hearing the weather report, to remember Christ’s words: O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?(Mt. 16:3).
So, when looking at the billboard with the large eye and the words, “Big Brother”, I cannot shake off a whole swarm of thoughts and associations. These are thoughts about the omnipresent God and walking before Him. They are thoughts about how a totalitarian state tries to imitate God and replace Him with itself.
They are thoughts about the past, which we know, and the future, which is ready to crawl out from behind the horizon.
These are not simple thoughts. It is dangerous to immerse oneself in them while sitting behind the wheel of an automobile. So I try to scatter them by turning on the radio.
As a rule, at that moment some official from the Ministry of Truth or Love is talking.