Friday, March 13, 2009

The King of the Ants, Zbigniew Herbert


At the beginning of the Empire the Romans introduced a new deity to their pantheon. It happened almost furtively, after hesitation and without any theological preparations.

Securitas--this is how she was called--was elevated to the altars and watched over the Emperor's security. But attaching her to a single person, though an important one, deprived the goddess of the indispensable trait of universality.

The sober Romans noticed a contradiction in the nature of the new goddess of Security that was difficult to disentangle, even a seed of conflict. A guarantee of protection by the supernatural powers might lead the Emperor into a state of exaggerated self-confidence, pride, and arrogance. As a rule this is disastrous for the security of the citizens.

A compromise had to be invented. The Romans decided to put another, parallel Securitas for citizens in the heavens. But there were more complications: they had to decide whether it would be one deity with two protective branches, or two separate deities with different spheres of power. If there were two separate deities, what would be their relationship? Hierarchy and division of competence are matters of fundamental importance in any administration, including the heavenly one.

The appearance of the new goddess provoked passionate discussion and a split in popular opinion. The advocates of strong power were delighted by the discovery of the new deity. They thought it was necessary, timely, and at last purely Roman--it put an end to the shameful custom of copying decadent Hellenistic models. They loudly demanded an end to subtle religious disputes, so people's minds wouldn't be confused and their hearts could unite around the new cult.

The republicans--or rather their pitiful survivors--declared they were decidedly (though timidly) in favor of one Securitas for all citizens. They argued that the Emperor was, after all, a citizen too, and it wouldn't hurt to remind him of this at every occasion.

Finally, the fortune-tellers and priests exercised the far-reaching restraint characteristic of conservatives. They limited themselves to elaborating a complicated document and sent it to the Senate. The Senate, in keeping with its tradition, could not reach a decision. It deliberated at length, exhaustively considered all the pros and cons, and after many months postponed answering the important question of one or two protectors of Security sine die. No one noticed that on the heavenly field, only the Emperor's Securitas remained.

We do not know the face of Securitas, whether gentle or cruel. Nor do we know her intricate or simple symbols, the ritual, cult, even a single prayer or invocation of her followers. Securitas had the privilege of expressions that were unmarked and unrecorded, of unmeasurable values hovering between zero and infinity. Because of this quality Securitas could penetrate all things, and a moment of inattention was enough for her to become the tissue of our flesh, the backbone of a landscape with a rainbow, the natural order of things.

Only on coins, the oldest dating from the time of Nero, can we see her worn figure: a woman in a chiton holding a spear. Her banal posture and stately immobility are there only to lull our attention. On a small piece of metal it is difficult to express her essence: dog-like vigilance, and furious pursuit.

The victims of Securitas--more precisely, the half-eaten victims--avoided speaking about her. Why should they? The few who had the courage to make their revelations public met with disbelief and a sense of distaste. The conviction is very strong that the misfortune of another reduces, in a way empties, the reservoir of bad fate--that another's bad luck protects us and increases our chances of survival. This salutary illusion always wins over the simple logic of facts. It will be this way forever.

It would be a mistake to think that the constant presence of the goddess was maintained by prophets, priestly councils, and the inspired. Securitas avoided pomp, ostentation, even publicity. She was severe, and content to have faceless executors.

What to call them? The problem appears insignificant but in fact is an important matter, an attempt to define what is the only material proof of the existence of the invisible Securitas. Popular tradition passed on dozens of euphemistic, funny, vulgar descriptions and a whole mine of anecdotes, but this surplus makes the choice difficult. So how should they be called? Functionaries--this sounds very general. Guards--this is full of pathos. Agents--too policelike. We select an emotionally neutral term: Attendants.

The Attendants wait in vain for their Proust. Great art is slow in paying them due justice or crowning their labors. These were countless. Rapt attention, speeding up or slowing down of the pace, sudden turns and pirouettes in a metropolitan ballet, floors, corridors, straining of memory, patient standing at street corners, empty hours in a cafe with a newspaper read many times over, fitting proofs of guilt together from overheard whispers, bits and snatches of conversation, papers, even from the flies on the ceiling. But these were not reflected, with a hundredfold echo, in any long roman fleuve, figurative painting, or opera.

The struggle of the Attendants. Not an obvious one against the enemies of security but a spiritual one, brushing asceticism and even self-abnegation. An inhuman effort of will to erase personal traits, to discard one's own physiognomy--on which the profession left its stamp like smallpox--and to achieve the pure face of a passerby. Only at the moment of attack and boarding, which consists in a delicate or brutal nudge, apologies, entering a conversation about some supposed common acquaintance, vacations in the mountains, participation in an illegal organization--only then will an experienced eye notice how the good-natured face melts away, and the frozen, real face of the Attendant is peering out from under the water. This is all prehistory. In the beginning idyllic, clumsy and awkward, the Attendants move with the spirit of the times and advances in science, carried by the high wave of electronics.

The sadness of the Attendants. Securitas does not lavish warmth on them. Those who have given their entire lives to her ought to abandon any hope of reward. She is a cold and technical goddess whose potestas relies on the laws of nature, not the laws of man. Securitas has created a closed system, drawing energy from itself: the old dream of a perpetuum mobile. In this system she has introduced numerous bodies which, like planets, circle in marked orbits around a motionless center of power. Changing the system seems as impossible as changing the laws of gravity. The Attendants sense it, and at the same time know they are perfectly interchangeable. A single frown on the goddess's brow and they fall into non-existence. Despite this--or precisely because of this--they serve her faithfully. Indeed, there are many who prefer inexorable necessity to deceptive, dangerous freedom.

Researchers in mythology have devoted far too little attention to the goddess Securitas. Some have maintained she is only a pale personification, but they are profoundly mistaken. What other ancient deity has survived to our own times and enjoys such robust health? This fact alone should be an incentive for deeper studies and for scholarly reflection.

We know that each god ruled over a specific sphere of reality, had his own zealously guarded hunting district and favorite human game. The domain of Securitas is murky, determined by an unclear threat. Her entire inventiveness consists in devising ever-new dangers. She skillfully gives these out in doses, for she knows the art of gradation. Sometimes she is satisfied with a rioting suburb, then she embraces a frenzied city, wanders from one continent to another like the plague, captures land, water, air. Her borders are elastic. Who sets them? Most likely fear.

She does not need temples, sacrificial smoke, processions, or sacred orgies. She is satisfied with a profession of faith in our own miserable physiology. A flutter of the heart, sudden paralysis of the legs, cold sweat, shrieking in a dream--it is not us but our bodies that sing a daily antiphony to her glory.

Securitas belongs to the species of monsters. Compared to her, what are all these childish monster-giants, dragons, half-men and half-animals, hybrids haphazardly sewn together? Securitas is very much like us. She is a monster with a human face.

Like every deity, Securitas draws vital forces from our hopes and fears. She possesses a vast amount of psychological knowledge. She does not lavishly give away eternal youth because this is a charlatan's stock-in-trade. She does not promise other worlds, nor does she deceive us with notions of justice, because when all is said and done each of us--in the depths of the heart--counts only on a final act of mercy. Securitas puts us face to face with the cruel alternative: either security or freedom. TERTIUM NON DATUR.

In our harassed epoch Securitas can count on multitudes of followers. We value security, this lottery in which the winning number is just a stake in a game, a pitiful token that entitles the holder to continue the game as long as the hand continues to serve him.

Security, what is security? A faint-hearted formula for happiness. Life without struggle.

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