When his novel was published in 1910, Bunin (who later won a Nobel Prize for literature) was roundly criticized for his realistic depiction of village life, as this challenged the prevailing idealized view of an “unspoiled” Russian peasantry. Bunin noted that his village stood for Russia as a whole, and posed a question about the nature of the country. By changing Bunin’s fairground to the Internet, I hope to pose questions about the “global village” it is claimed we all share now, via technology. What might be made of the individual villages that comprise it? It was said that Bunin portrayed people who have “sunk so far below the average of intelligence as to be scarcely human”; a charge that is often made of the Internet today.
During the long July 4 weekend, Tikhon Hitch spent four days in the virtual world, on the Internet, and got still more out of tune, thanks to his worries, the heat, and sleepless nights. Ordinarily he set out on the World Wide Web with great gusto. At twilight, his Amazon shopping cart was heaped full. Remembering what his manager said, he went to Ebay to see what was for sale; and lost track of time, looking at cushions and an overcoat. Making a late start, he opened another window and went to Reddit, staying all night long until daybreak. First, they indulged in friendly discussion. He smoked. The men told each other frightful old tales of businessmen murdered on the road at places they stopped because of Craigslist ads. Then Hitch disposed himself for sleep; and it was extremely pleasant to hear through his dreams the voices of those who he had e-met, to feel his vigorous swaying of the game controller, as if he were constantly descending a hill, and his cheeks slipped deep into the pillow while his cap fell off and the night chill cooled his head. It was agreeable, too, to wake up before sunrise in the rosy, dewy morning, in the midst of his dull-green bedroom, and to see, far away in the blue living room, the computer shining as a cheerful white spot, and the gleam of the iPad nearby; to yawn mightily, cross himself at the faint sound of a text notification, and take the joystick from the hands of his half-slumbering roommate, who sat relaxed like a child in the morning chill and was as white as chalk in the light of the dawn.
On this occasion, Hitch checked out his carts, and drove himself on the information superhighway. The night was warm and bright; there was a rosy tone in the moonlight. He surfed fast, but became extremely weary. The blinking of the banner ads, and the full email inboxes, the notifications of which were visible on the desktop, and it seemed as he would never empty them—that distant promise of an empty inbox. And the postings on Four Square showed what was hot, and the phishers bit so viciously, and ads ran so frequently on the YouTube clips, and the music played so as he opened window after window, and the cocks screeched and the pigeons rumbled their coos in funny animal clips, and there was always another open window, that he never closed an eye. He slept little the second night, too, which he tried to pass on the Internet via laptop on the couch. The horses raced, lights blazed in Candy Crush, people posted and talked all around him; and at dawn, when his eyelids were fairly sticking together with sleep, the bells on his phone and the desktop began to ring. And right next to his head the horrible bellow of a cow ringtone mooed out. “Might as well be a criminal condemned to hard labor in prison!” was a thought, which recurred incessantly during those days and nights. “Struggling—getting all snarled up—and going to destruction over trifles, absurdities!”
The Internet, scattered over the world, was, as usual, noisy and muddled. Blogs, forums, social networking sites, Hollywood gossip, and Wikipedia articles lay about. A dull, discordant roar hung over it all—the GIFs of horses, the shrilling of children’s whistles on mommy blogs, and the polkas and marches thundered out by the orchestrations of merry-go-rounds too. An idle, chattering throng of men and women surfed about in waves from morning till night on the dusty, dung-strewn alleyways among the World Wide Web, the cats and dogs, the amusement quizzes and the eating Instagram pics, whence were wafted fetid odors of the gaming addict. As always, there was a huge throng of trolls, who injected a terrible irritability into all discussion and banter. Blind men and paupers, beggars, cripples on crutches and in carts, filed past in endless bands, chanting their snuffling ballads in fundraising campaigns. The team of the Internet police moved slowly through the crowd, its takedowns jingling, restrained by the man, who in his profile pic wore a sleeveless velveteen coat and a hat adorned with peacock feathers, and said over and over again, “Don’t feed the trolls.”
Hitch had many interactions. But nothing beyond empty conversation resulted. Gypsies came, blue-black of face; Jews from the south-west, grey of countenance, red-haired, covered with dust, in long, wide coats of canvas and boots down at the heel; sun-browned members of the leisure class of small McMansions, in sleeveless peasant dresses, with designer jackets and caps; the commissioners of rural townships and the village policeman; the wealthy merchant, an old man wearing a sort of overcoat affected by the lower classes, fat, clean-shaven, and smoking a cigar. A handsome officer, Bakhtin, was on also, accompanied in his pic by his wife in an English walking suit, and Jenner, the decrepit hero of the an Olympic ad campaign, tall, bony, with large features and a dark, wrinkled face, wearing long hair, sagging trousers, broad-toed boots, and a big cap with a yellow band beneath which his dyed locks were a dead dark-brown shade.
All these people gave themselves the air of being expert judges, talked fluently about news, race, discoursed about politics and what they owned. The petty gentry lied and boasted. Bakhtin did not condescend to respond to Hitch, although the latter spoke respectfully of his reality show, and said, “It’s a good platform for you, Bruce.” Bakhtin merely “liked” the comment as he continued inspecting his feed, smiling, and engaged in a brief chat with his wife as she made suggestions for their “brand.”
On another site, a troll shuffled up to the thread and casting a sidelong fiery glance at it, his mouse came to a halt, in such a posture that it seemed as if he were on the point of falling down; then he elevated himself, and for the tenth time today demanded a link be followed. And Hitch felt obliged to answer. Out of sheer boredom he clicked and was taken to a site entitled “Oi, Schmul and Rivke: Collection of Fashionable Farces, Puns, and Stories, from the Wanderings of Our Worthy Hebrews”—and, as he sat, he scrolled through it quickly. But no sooner did he begin to read: “_Iveryboady knows, zhentelmen, zat vee, ze Zhews, iss ferightfully foand of beezness_,” than someone commented below him. And Hitch raised his eyes and posted again, although with an effort and with clenched jaws.
He grew extremely thin and pallid, flew into bad tempers, and was conscious of being bored to death and of feeling weak all over. He got his stomach so badly out of order that he had cramps. He was compelled to resort to the hospital; and there he waited two hours for his turn, seated in a resounding corridor, inhaling the repulsive odor of carbolic acid and feeling as if he were not Hitch and a person of consequence, but rather as if he were waiting humbly in the anteroom of a master or of some official. And when the doctor—who resembled a deacon, a red-faced, bright-eyed man in a white coat, redolent of soap, with a sniff—applied his cold stethoscope to his chest, he made haste to say that his belly-ache was almost gone, and did not refuse a dose of antibiotics simply because he was too timid to do so. When he returned to the Internet, he gulped down a glass of vodka flavored with pepper and salt, and began once more to eat sausage, sour black rye bread, and to drink tea, raw vodka, and sour cabbage soup—and he was still unable to quench his thirst. His FB friends advised him to refresh himself with beer, and he went for some. And Hitch ate too, with the little spoon, a Slurpee which was hardly more than snow, and which made his head ache cruelly.
Dusty, ground to powder by porn, Nigerian princes, and SimCity, the sites he visited littered and covered with racist, sexist comments, the place was being deserted by the civil. But Hitch, as if with deliberate intent to spite someone or other, persisted in keeping his fingers there on the keyboard, and sat on and on in his PC. It seemed as if he were overwhelmed not so much by illness as by the spectacle of the great poverty, the vast wretchedness which, from time immemorial, had reigned over this global village. Lord God, what a place! Black-loam soil over three feet deep! But—what of that? Never did five years pass without a famine somewhere. The Internet made certain people famous throughout the world—and many ate their fill of hate. What was the World Wide Web? Beggars, idiots, blind men, cripples—a whole regiment of them—and such monstrosities as it made one frighte