From The Archive
Dubravka Ugrešić
No. 21  November 2012

The Code

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I. The Code

You need to know how to talk to these small nations. At the recent Bosnian and Croatian premieres of her film In the Land of Blood and Honey, Angelina Jolie gave a master class in how it’s done. As a film star, Jolie could’ve done as she pleased, yet she acquitted herself with exceptional humility, declaring with complete sincerity that she’d fallen in love with Bosnia; that Bosnia had suffered terribly in a war started by the Serbs; yes, of course, she added, the whole region had suffered too, in its own way. But she really got them when she said that she made the film (not without cinematic merit) to showcase Bosnia’s suffering to the world. Her words cooled the gaping Bosnian wound like a balm.

She was a hit with everyone, the men in particular, so much so that no one noticed that her deferential manner was the kind you put on when talking to children. With an unfailing human instinct, Angelina Jolie unlocked the code. She kissed the finger slammed in the drawer, gave the naughty drawer a good smack, naughty, naughty drawer, and the evil spirits slunk away. The Croats and Serbs waited in line with outstretched pinkie fingers, and I’m pretty sure that, at least in their heads, the Slovenes, Macedonians, Albanians, and Montenegrins were all there lining up somewhere too. Angelina Jolie blew them an air kiss. The Serbs were pissed and beat their fists in the dung heap: they’d expected more than just air.

If the rules of political correctness prevent us from abusing ethnic, national, racial, gender, and other types of difference—all unreliable in any case—and we’re looking for something to fall back on, there’s always the code. Social groups, tribes, sects, gangs, religious communities, mafia structures, families, Internet fan clubs—they’re all characterized by codes of behavior, written and unwritten, conscious and unconscious, enduring and susceptible to change, respected and disrespected. If not by a code of social behavior, how might we explain why Americans—just for example—almost never bellyache when meeting an acquaintance, but rather portray their lot in life as shiny and good, while Croats and other Yugozone[*] residents can’t wait to start bitching the second they clap eyes on someone they know. If they’re not whining about their personal problems—a toothache, a bad haircut, the long line at the post office that morning, a neighbor who turns his TV up too loud, a relative who landed in the hospital, their kid who got an F at school—then they’ll be bitching about rising prices. There’s an authenticity to the bitterness there, because prices seem to go up every day. The thing is, however, the bitcher-in-question gives you the impression that the price rises are directed at him personally. His bitching and our attendant commiserations work like morphine on him. It’s like Yugozone residents spend their lives wandering around with a little finger outstretched, just waiting for someone to blow on it and give it a kiss. And when someone does, presto, the pain disappears as if it’d never been there.

Yugozone residents, the men in particular, all behave in a similar manner toward their leaders. The genius of Slobodan Milošević wasn’t that he said, C’mon, let’s go smash some Croats, Bosnians, and Albanians, but that with an unfailing fatherly impulse he put his finger on the code and promised Serbs: No one will dare beat you again. The genius of Franjo Tuđman was not that he created the Croatian state, but the way he delicately positioned himself among the Croats, the very same way Milošević positioned himself among the Serbs. And Tuđman could even boast the advantage of a doctoral title. Yugozone residents love “doctors” and “generals” (it’s in our ganglions is how my former countrymen like to put it, just because they like the word ganglions), because only “doctors” and “generals” can decree—sorry, I meant guarantee—that everything will be as it should. This explains a square in downtown Zagreb being called Dr. Franjo Tuđman Square, the doctoral honorific probably making the square a world first. Although a number of doctors and generals, beloved leaders of the Yugozone peoples, have met inglorious ends—one currently languishes in a Hague jail (Dr. Radovan Karadžić), another in a Zagreb jail (Dr. Ivo Sanader)—their political successors rely on the same code. Current Croatian President Dr. Ivo Josipović recently encouraged the almost half a million unemployed and disenfranchised Croats with the following: “Look after your health and fight for your rights.” While this sort of tripe would sink anyone else on earth into a deep despair, Croatian workers took solace and comfort.

The consequences of behaving in accordance with the given code are as one might expect. Yugozone residents frequently elect doctors to represent them, and on a regular basis these doctors drag them into armed conflicts and other sundry financial and moral dead ends. And so the circle remains unbroken. It explains why in everyday life, for example, our Yugozonian will always stop the first passerby to ask for the street he’s after. It wouldn’t cross the mind of an American, German, or Englishman—he’s got his map, his guide, his iPhone. And I’m sure about all this, right? Absolutely! I myself am an exemplar of “transition”; I’ve got my maps, guides, and iPhone, but I still prefer stopping the first passersby in the street. What’s more, I get a vague sense of satisfaction in doing so, like I’ve outfoxed all the crap “other dumbasses” use.

Don’t Yugozone residents, the men in particular, behave like children? For chrissakes, no way, that’d be an inadmissible colonial prejudice in our postcolonial time, a politically incorrect claim in these politically correct times. But the thing is, any observer, any Freudian amateur, might well hit upon the thought that Yugozone residents, particularly the men, are stuck in the cozy anal phase. What’s more, it might occur to such an observer that Yugozone men don’t want to grow up, which perhaps explains why they give their all to cut down those who have.

It was wise of Angelina Jolie to not linger longer in the Yugozone. Why? Because if she had hung around, the Yugozonians would’ve gnashed their teeth and bared their fangs. Naturally, they’ve got the softening-the-foreigner-up act down to a fine art. First of all you drown him in local wine (which is of course the best in the world), and then you stuff him with local food (also incidentally the best in the world). In the process you invent tribal customs (such as guests not being allowed to refuse food or drink lest the host take offense), whistle local songs, pluck your tamburica, and wander around showing the alienated foreigner your region’s natural beauty and miraculously weed-free local ruins. Finally you adopt and domesticate him: you turn Jeroen into Janko, John into Ivica, Angelina into Angie.

The Yugozonians will indulge in hearty backslaps with our foreigner, con him into partaking of imaginary local customs (we kiss five time here!), all until his muscles relent and soften, until he’s pliable. And when they’ve finally reduced the foreigner to their own size, when they’ve got the foreigner well-marinated in their own toxic slime (and Angelina’s become Angie), it’s only then that the symbolic mastication begins. Yugozonians hate everything foreign, they down only what’s theirs, and if they do manage to get something new past their tonsils, then oh boy do they give it a mauling first. Albert Einstein, for example, to them he’s just “our Bert,” the guy who had a Serbian mother-in-law. That’s the only way they can take him.

Yugozone residents, the men mainly, hate pretty much everything and everyone, yet stubbornly and irrationally insist that others love them. To the commonsense question of why anyone might thus love them, and whatever happened to reciprocity in matters of the heart, oh don’t worry, they’re not lost for words, they’ve got a ready answer. They remember well those moments of unconditional love. They remember their mothers burbling, “Who did a big poo for mummy? Who did a big poo for mummy?” They remember their joyous kicking little feet and gurgling confession, “Gu-gu-gu-I-did-a-poo.” The magnificence of this moment is forever fixed in their memory. And consequently, they delight in dumping everywhere for as long as they might live.

II. The Dream of Dorian Gray

She shows me a photograph. In the photo are children from her class, the image taken at the end of the school year. She points to a sweet little face.

“Dora’s the prettiest in the class,” she says.

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Dora’s a little girl with long blond hair. My eight-year-old niece has short brown hair. She’s staring at the photo, but she’s all ears. I wonder what I should tell her. I know that responding with questions like “But is Dora smart?” or “Is she a nice person?” won’t help any in getting my message across. It won’t help if I say, “No, I think you’re the prettiest.” There’s some kind of consensus in her class that Dora is the prettiest, and there’s no disabusing her of this. The virus of insecurity has already wormed its way inside her.

“You’re right, Dora’s got pretty ears,” I reply, though you can’t see her ears in the photo.

Lookism is a widespread and devastatingly powerful prejudice based on a person’s physical appearance. There have been attempts, unsuccessful of course, to have it placed in the same category as racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and ageism. It’s a word with plenty of synonyms—aestheticism, physicalism, appearance discrimination—all signifying the same discriminatory practice: fat people, short men, tall women, the elderly, the ugly are to be rounded up and herded into one of life’s dark corners.

When I was my niece’s age, other little girls seemed more beautiful to me, too. Lidija had auburn hair and bushy eyebrows. Zlatica a light, translucent complexion, with tiny bluish veins below the surface. Jasminka full lips and oval baby teeth, shiny like silky candies. It was back then, in elementary school, that we all got it into our heads that the prettiest girl in the class was also the best little girl. With time the grind of everyday life bumped the painful subject of physical appearance from our list of priorities. The dream about the frog that turns into a princess, and those thousands of before-and-after photos that we absorbed like thirsty sponges, they worked in parallel, shunting our unconsciousness toward a hazy future in which we’d leave the miserable before far behind, and the desired after would last forever.

In the meanwhile, small women’s sizes have become smaller, skinny women skinnier, cosmetic surgery more popular, and clothes for the fuller figure both harder to find and more expensive. If the Berlin Wall hadn’t fallen, luxury Italian fashion designer Marina Rinaldi would have had to shut up shop. Today her clothes are all the rage with Europe’s “Easterners,” women whose husbands have made a quick mint in the intervening years. Rinaldi has boutiques all over Eastern Europe, even in Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital, where Russian women shop on their summer vacations, alongside the odd solvent and more corpulent Montenegrin woman. Weight is a class marker. Only poor people are fat. Fat is ugly because poverty is ugly. While the poor pack on the pounds, the wealthy remain elegantly hungry. Research suggests that every second American man would have no qualms about divorcing a fat wife. There’s no mercy anywhere for the fat. Bloomingdales in New York recently amalgamated its clothing section for plus-size women with the one for baby clothing: fat women are either pregnant or losers who don’t manage to wiggle into size Victoria Beckham the day they waddle out of the maternity ward. Saks Fifth Avenue is closing its plus-size section Salon Z, formerly a temple of solace for the well-to-do fuller-figured woman. The message is clear: being fat—right there next to being a smoker—is an intolerable social evil. Sometimes you see the fatal fusion on New York streets. The smoker will be the fat girl.

Let’s be straight with one another now: ever since beauty stopped lying in the eye of the beholder and the marketplace began enforcing its own standards, the world has become a boring place. There are fewer and fewer unique faces around, and all the interesting “honkers,” “beaks,” and other factory defects have pretty much disappeared. Gone are the men who stink of cigarettes, garlic, and sweat; hairy chests, beer bellies, and black vodka bags under the eyes have gone the same way. It’s enough to cast a cursory glance over the gallery of new Russians making waves at home and abroad. Former KGB man Alexander Lebedev, an oligarch who in 2010 bought the English Independent newspaper, is a well-read gentleman with stylish thin-frame glasses on his nose. He looks more like an intellectual than an ex-spy. Punching a fellow guest on a Russian talk show and declaring that anyone who doesn’t have a million dollars deserves to burn in hell hasn’t harmed Lebedev’s domestic or international reputation in the least. Alexander Mamut, a former Yeltsin adviser who not long ago bought the bookstore chain Waterstones, well, he looks like a learned post-perestroika man of letters. Vladimir Doronin (Naomi Campbell’s boyfriend), Roman Abramovich, even Mikhail Gorbachev, once the brains behind perestroika and today mascot for Louis Vuitton travel bags—these guys have all repositioned themselves. Not one of them looks how we might expect. Dorian Gray can rest easy; his dream has been realized. Even Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another Russian oligarch (albeit one who’s languishing in jail for apparently no reason), has a pretty face adorned by thin-frame glasses. He’s become such an inspiration and icon of compassionate capitalism that celebrated Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya has published a book of correspondences with this most capitalist of all martyrs, a fledgling saint. An Estonian composer has even composed a symphony dedicated to this most innocent of oligarchs. A Croatian taxi driver, a former Gastarbeiter, returned to his homeland, fiddled his way to an overnight million, managed to usurp public space for a private parking lot, killed three people (one with a car, two with a yacht), and yet still walks the streets a free man. He’s svelte, got a perma-tan, and wears those smart glasses on his nose too. Without peer, however, is the artistic production inspired by patriotic-homoerotic love for Ante Gotovina, a former French foreign legionnaire and Croatian general convicted of war crimes by the Hague tribunal. Ante Gotovina is a Croat and he’s a handsome man, and in and of itself this is proof enough of absence of sin.

Today everyone is beautiful. Successful female tennis players are beautiful, and beautiful female tennis players successful; successful classical musicians are beautiful; violinists and cellists are beautiful; opera soloists give supermodels a run for their money; high jumpers are beautiful; soccer players are sex symbols; Nadzeya Ostapchuk aside, even shot-putters have been going in for a makeover. Because aesthetic capital is critical for success. Beauty Pays—that’s the unambiguous message of Daniel Hamermesh’s book. Catherine Hakim, author of the bestselling Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, argues the same. And research confirms it: beautiful people earn more than ugly people, beautiful women are more likely to find a wealthy provider. Statistics suggest that our annual spending on cosmetics is enough to end global hunger, yet the question remains as to who’s willing to give up their face cream for a noble cause. No one, I suspect. I wouldn’t either. In any case, let the men first give up their weapons, much more is spent on them.

On the map of the body there are no zones outside the jurisdiction of aesthetic arbitrage. Enchanted by the charms of the surgeon’s knife, and having modified their breasts, faces, eyelids, double chins, lips, jawlines, stomachs, you name it, women now don’t just want any old vagina, but a tight one, a neatly mown one. There are plastic surgeons specializing in transforming everyday vaginas into pretty ones, tired old ones into rejuvenated youthful ones. And with the standards of physical beauty clear and generally accepted by all, everyone can, if they want to, be beautiful. Boredom might yet prove the only resistance factor to this mass bodily beautification.

Maybe all this explains why women are presently so obsessed with their rears. New York women seem to love wearing teenager tights. A pretty ass in elastic, skintight leggings (let’s forget for a second that they look like diving gear) gets way more attention than a pretty face. I spotted this kind of ass near Central Park and promptly joined a small throng who had stopped to let their admiring eyes glide along after her. Stylish in body-hugging tights and a snug leather jacket that barely made it to her waist, the ass’s owner paraded Central Park like royalty. It was a Saturday, and the young woman was taking her amazing erotic capital out for a walk.

III. A Middle Finger

I often go shopping in Amsterdam’s Osdorp neighborhood, mainly because I enjoy the long bike ride through the park on the way there. But the chance to head out on my bike isn’t the only reason. I sit there in a café surrounded by drab residential buildings and shops, my gaze set on a sculpture of an ugly stone coil simulating a gush of water into a perennially dry fountain. There are countless Dutch housing estates built in the sixties like this one. Today they’re home to immigrants and to elderly Dutch who in a distant time swallowed the line about prosperous, functioning social housing, and all the rest that goes with it. We eventually come to love our own unfortunate choices, particularly if righting them requires too great an effort.

I sit there in a café with a depressing view, with a dishwater coffee, and waiters like you don’t even get in Montenegro anymore. There’s a lovely café with a calming view of the lake barely a hundred meters from here. Why, then, do I slouch in this one? I do it for the three, four, or five specimens I encounter here; it depends on the anthropologist’s luck. I imagine that I’m here on a secret research mission, that I’m on a periodic follow-up visit to confirm previous results. The men are all around my age, my “countrymen”—a word that makes me wince. Every morning they descend from their apartments in the surrounding tower blocks, landing here like paratroopers. My ear, a keen hunter for spoken nuance, remains bizarrely tone-deaf, unable to discern the region they’re from. Maybe because they’re too much from some former Yugoslav backwoods. Their garishness and stubborn typologies eliminate linguistic or ethnic specificities; they’re simply sons of the culture in which they grew into the men they are today.

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Their clothes and gait give them away. Their faces are sponges that have soaked up the faces of the men they grew up alongside, one imprinted on the other. These faces bear the traces of fathers and grandfathers, maternal and paternal uncles, men from the neighborhood or village, from their army days, from their local bars, from their workplaces, the faces of their countrymen, friends, men you see in the newspaper, on the TV screen, the faces of politicians, generals, soldiers, murderers, criminals, thieves, the faces of all those who brought them here, to Amsterdam’s Osdorp, where every day they descend from their apartments like paratroopers to drink their morning coffee among their own, because they don’t have anyone else but their own. This is the ground they’ve been allocated. It’s a rare occasion they make it downtown; they’re not that keen in any case, curiosity’s not their strong point. So they sit on their chairs, legs spread wide, faces radiating sovereignty over the territory conquered, bodies suggesting they’ve planted their flag. “Historically” settled, they liberate their hands from their pockets and gesticulate wildly. They rarely smile, but snigger often. A snigger is their defense, it’s how they get one over each other, hide a momentary defeat. They’re not capable of engaging in conversation of any length or depth, not even with their own; they’ve never learned. A snigger is a reprieve, an eraser with which they wipe clean what’s been said, their own speech or that of another; a snigger turns everything into a josh. They frequently let out an eee-he-hee, hee-eeh-hee, spurring each other on, approving or condemning, a backslap and circle jerk. Ehee-heee . . .

They know everything, they’ve always known everything, no one needs to explain anything to them; they know it all too well. The first phrase out of their mouths is: I’ve always said . . . They talk about money, politics, sports. Sometimes they lose it a little, and sniggering as they go, exchange information about the horrors of health checks, prostate and rectal exams, and the like. They rarely mention women, and if they do, it’s to take the piss out of each other, like schoolboys. Eee-he-hee, hee-eeh-heee. They don’t know what they’re doing here, but they’ll be going back, they’ve got a share in a house, an apartment, a bit of land somewhere, it’ll be enough to survive on. The Dutchies will throw them a crumb or two, which by God they deserve, having blessed this country with their arrival.

They drink coffee or slurp beer from the bottle, swap what they’ve read in the papers from down there, pick over the bones of Milošević, Tuđman, the present, Karadžić, Mladić, the future . . . When’s down there getting into Europe? (What the fuck do you care? You’re already in Europe!) They’re the real victims of the war, and, adding insult to injury, they messed up their choice of country—they went from a small one to a smaller one, Christ, you can’t even see the sun or moon from here. The Poles get ahead better than they do (Goes without saying. Poles are like Jews), even the Bulgarians are doing better (Maybe so, but only the Bulgarian Turks, you didn’t know the Turkish mafia runs everything here?), only Bulgarians would clean Dutch toilets, they wouldn’t do it dead. They’re the ones sucking the big one, sifting about here not knowing why, and down there everything’s going for a song, everything’s been stolen or sold, foreigners have bought up the coast, and now they’re schlinging their schlongs, raving and partying, polluting our ocean (Whaddya mean “ours” bro? Uh yeah, I meant the former “ours”. . .). Down there foreigners are multiplying like Gypsies, that’s what you get for not respecting your own—others start living it up . . . Eee-hee, hee-eh-hee, the whole world’s gone crazy, and those fags have been breeding too, you don’t know who’s a man and who’s a woman anymore (You don’t even know who’s a Serb and who’s a Croat! Look at that little shit on the HEMA billboards . . . Who? You know who I mean, the little fucker’s everywhere. That fag kid from Tuzla! Paić! Nah, it’s Pajić, Nah bro, it’s Pejić! He was my kid I’d drown him with my own hands!).

The trio of my countrymen wouldn’t have heard of the “fag kid from Tuzla” if he hadn’t been plastered all over sumptuous billboards for the Dutch chain HEMA, advertising a push-up bra. But who is Andrej Pejić? Andrej Pejić was born in Bosnia the same year Yugoslavia fell apart and the war machismo and thievery began. Andrej Pejić, the child of a Serbian mother and Croatian father, immigrated to Australia, emerging from the slimy Balkan darkness as a new human species, as a brilliant unicorn, a divine lily, a god and goddess in a single body, a miraculous metamorphosis, an enchanting transgender beauty, the world’s most famous catwalks falling at his feet. Pejić is a middle finger flipped at the land where he was born, a divine error to take one’s breath away, a middle finger to Balkan men, and Balkan women too. Pejić is a symbolic figure who at this very moment is tearing down cruel gender barriers faster and more effectively than all the gender activists, academics, and advocates combined. Pejić is a middle finger to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam, a middle finger to myths of Balkan heroism, to macho-martyrdom, a finger up the snouts of commanding officers, police, thieves, and politicians. Andrej Pejić is a youth with breasts, or a girl with a penis, or worse still: he’s a Croatian woman with a penis and a Serbian man with breasts, in a single body. Having got as far away as one could ever get, Pejić has become a dazzling ray of light for the tens of thousands of Yugoslav children dispersed to the four corners of the world by the wars. I often run into them on my travels: a smart girl from Pirot, hustling her way into an academic career in Berlin, a lesbian; a finely etched young man (the son of a chest-beating, big rig–driving Serb and a cowering Croatian mother), conscientiously studying at Harvard, a homosexual; a young guy from Banja Luka, a receptionist at the Hilton in London, a Thai son-in-law and passionate reader of Hannah Arendt; and many, many others . . .

My three from the café in Amsterdam’s Osdorp shopping center (just like their numerous male countrymen down there) are still crapping on about politics, dribbling, gulping their morning coffees or beers, sniggering away. Finally they get up, thrust their hips out, linger over their goodbyes, let out an eee-he-hee, hee-eeh-hee, just to carve their names into the indifferent surface of the surrounding concrete, just to leave some kind of scrape to mark their existence. Then they go their own ways; it’s lunchtime. They depart not understanding that they’ve been dead a long while already, that the morning encounter with their own has been but a brief outing from the grave.

IV. Who Is Timmy Monster?

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Someone in my building in otherwise docile Amsterdam has been terrorizing the rest of us. How? Simple. Late at night and early in the morning the mystery man (or woman?) starts shunting furniture around his apartment. That’s our best guess as to what’s going on; we’ve got no way to be sure. There’s just this ghastly scraping that penetrates every floor and apartment, its effect like an electric shock. We all think the racket’s coming from the apartment directly above us. We suspect each other, and the more vociferous among us knock on doors, wag their fingers, and leave warning notes. We all plead innocence—no, it’s not us. When the mystery man cranks up his racket, we vent our distress on the central heating pipes that connect all the apartments. The scraping falls silent for a second, as if it’s got the message, and then the torture erupts again, more brazenly than before. We’re at war. And what drives us most insane is that we don’t know who our enemy is. For months we’ve been walking around with cupped ears, leaning against walls, none the wiser as to who’s behind the damn scraping.

Yes, we’re at war. Our fears multiply from one day to the next. They arrive as a scraping that makes the walls of our apartments quiver, they arrive via the television screen, the telephone, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter; the more we’re wired together, the more our fears are fueled, like gas balloons. We’re all there on an invisible psychiatric couch.

I meet up with an acquaintance. She’s approaching sixty, two adult sons. She and her husband are modest Dutch folk. For a time she worked as a teacher, and then she started doing charitable work teaching young Moroccans Dutch. She does so firm in her belief that the cultivation of neighborly relations, a smile on the dial, and small interventions make life on planet Earth a little more bearable. She was telling me about a new course she’d just been on: touch therapy, something between tapping therapy and haptonomy. She does it with Moroccan kids, boys mostly, the kind who mark the territory out front of their tower blocks until late into the night, brawling and stealing, dishing out beatings and dreaming up childish ways of making others’ lives hell. Sometimes it’s shitting on a neighbor’s doorstep, other times it’s pissing up the door.

“What do you do with them?” I ask.

“I tap them a little, give them a hug, like a mother would her baby. Touch reduces aggression, you know that.”

I look at my acquaintance—her face radiating a somewhat unhealthy enthusiasm—and I’m not sure what to make of it all.

There’s definitely something not right with humanity. Some psychopath from Belgrade bought a little girl from her father for a thousand euros. Why? So he could rape her on a daily basis. In Texas a twelve-year-old strangled a four-year-old with a skipping rope. Senior high students from Karlovac raped a classmate with a chair leg. A fifty-year-old from Zagreb garroted his seventy-seven-year-old mother with a piece of wire. In a Croatian village a grandson twice set fire to his grandfather’s house, and eventually pummeled him to death. A husband and wife with a three-year-old jumped from the sixth floor of a Belgrade hotel. A Frenchman bundled his three-year-old son into the washing machine and turned it on. Why? The kid had been naughty.

Yes, there’s definitely something not right with humanity. We each haul an invisible psychiatric couch along with us. We seek understanding, yet few are ready to understand others. There’s only the market, ever ready to offer comfort. With every new year that rolls around, more and more people have started wishing each other Happy New Fear. The words fear and stress have entered our everyday lexicon, like bread and milk. Fear of an itch, fear of the dark, fear of noise, fear of madness, fear of pain, fear of open space, fear of enclosed space, fear of the road, fear of crossing the road, fear of sharp objects, fear of cats, fear of the opinions of others, fear of dust, fear of driving, fear of insult, fear of looking up, fear of people, fear of anger, fear of floods, fear of touch, fear of bees, fear of amputation, fear of numbers, fear of fire, fear of falling, fear of thunder, fear of asymmetrical objects, fear of ruins, fear of failure, fear of filth, fear of loneliness, fear of flying, fear of microbes, fear of steps, fear of depth, fear of change, fear of mirrors, fear of bats, fear of money, fear of food, fear of theft, fear of sleeping, fear of the grave, fear of sweating, fear of glass, fear of animal fur, fear of crowds, fear of knowledge, epistemophobia, fear of ideas, ideophobia, fear of speech, laliophobia, fear of words, logophobia, fear of memories, mnemophobia, fear of everything new, neophobia, fear of everything, pantophobia . . .

In a distant episode of The Muppets, the forgotten comic Zero Mostel recites the Jerry Juhl–penned poem “Fears of Zero.” Mostel enumerates his manifold fears: fear of spiders, fear of dentists, fear of baldness . . . Fear muppets appear from somewhere in the darkness and crawl all over Mostel, threatening to swallow him up. Although terrified, Mostel insists that he needs to count his fears, confront them, overcome them, and that they’ll then disappear of their own accord (Once they are counted and compelled, they can quickly be dispelled!), and miraculously, they really do vanish. The fears were figments of Mostel’s imagination. Having dissipated his lesser fears, Mostel senses that a new, greater fear is to come. And indeed one does come along, in the form of Timmy Monster, and this time Mostel’s magic formula proves of no help. Mostel disappears, and from Timmy’s stomach we hear his voice. Mostel admits that he’s just a figment of Timmy’s imagination.

Humanity has never been more terrified than it is today. We each haul our psychiatric couch along with us. People cry as if hit by tear gas and withdraw into their safety zones. Computer screens are our bunkers, the virtual world offering security, a place no one can reach us. People hang out less and less frequently, they avoid relationships, avoid touching, are scared of one another, intolerant of one another, get along only with the greatest of difficulty. Of course some men make appropriate arrangements and buy “real dolls,” “boy toy dolls,” “love dolls,” perfect silicone partners. They sleep with their “babies,” clothe them, bathe and comb them, take them out for walks, on little adventures, spend the weekends with them, and occasionally take them in for repair. The wealthier are collectors and have multiple partners. Some, like Kevin, are in complex relationships: he keeps “real dolls” at home, and goes out with organic women. Some claim the dolls are “perfect listeners,” others that “they can’t get pregnant,” others that a doll “improves quality of life,” others are enchanted by their “beauty and stoicism,” others maintain that only a doll is able to “love them in spite of everything.” Gordon from Virginia dreams of joint burial (“We’ll be turned into dust together, and it’ll be a beautiful thing”). Matt, a doll maker, claims his handicraft is therapeutic, because it’s better “to have sex with a piece of rubber than not have it at all.”

Some women are also taking appropriate steps. The marketplace has provided them with “reborn dolls.” At first glance it’s hard to tell the difference between the artificial and the organic. Sharon Williams has a collection of forty-one such “babies,” all one of a kind, totally unique, each sleeping in his or her own idiosyncratic way. Maybe these “baby” owners, these weirdoes and sickos, are the moral avant-garde of our time. Instead of shoving their children in the washing machine, or waiting for someone else to, it’s possible these women have worked out that it’s better they cradle and coddle hyper-realistic silicon surrogates. Perhaps the many aging mothers who have raced out to buy reborn babies are acutely conscious of the fact that they’ve given birth to potential monsters, who tomorrow might rape a classmate with a chair leg, so these women buy a comforting ersatz, a simulacrum. Reborn dolls, they say, “fill the emptiness in your soul,” they don’t scream, don’t pee, don’t let out a squeak, they don’t grow up, they sleep an eternal sleep. Family life with them is straightforward, just sometimes you need to wipe the dust off them, position them, reposition them. Simulacra are simultaneously our defeat and our solace.

Manufacturers try their hands at making all kinds of stuff “lifelike,” from chocolate-scented USB sticks to strawberry-scented earrings. Autumn Publishing, for example, is preparing a collection of children’s books, which they’re going to call Smellessence. When touched, the books release the scents of chewing gum, berry fruits, and the like. “This advanced technology and the smells it creates are so real they take children’s reading to a magical new level. We wanted to inject some fun into the reading experience and this is a powerful way to do just that,” said the company’s director, Perminder Mann. Given that farting has recently made inroads into children’s publishing (Walter the Farting Dog; The Gas We Pass: The Story of Farts; The Fart Book; Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder, and many, many others), Autumn Publishing is having a go with its own picture book, The Story of the Famous Farter, which on the last page is to smell like a lowdown, dirty ripper.

Yes, there’s something not right with people. Whether with our voluntary acceptance of the virtual world we are to mutate into different people—just as pet kitties that play with artificial mice eventually turn into different kitties—it’s hard to say. One thing is certain: we’re all volunteers in a mega-experiment. We’re all the figment of someone’s imagination. And just as no one in my building knows who among us is making that hellish scraping, humanity doesn’t actually know who the Timmy Monster is. Or it’s pretending it doesn’t know. What if Timmy Monster is all of us?!

Translated from the Croatian by David Williams.

 


[*] The Yugozone is my coinage for the region encompassing the disintegrated and disappeared former Yugoslavia. Someone recently came up with the term “Yugosphere,” and although the meaning is the same, I still prefer Yugozone.

Dubravka Ugrešić is a Croatian writer who lives in the Netherlands.

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