“once upon a time, in a far-away kingdom—well, actually this curious incident happened in our town, a few years’ ago. On a Sunday afternoon, near a wellprotected spot in our Park of Culture some sixty, or maybe even a hundred, well-dressed gentlemen met for some kind of discourse which they had decided to hold in the open air. Later it became known that in our park a sort of symposium had been held of bandits and thieves who belonged to what they call their ‘establishment’. These people have their strict rules. Any infringement is punished with death. To join the ‘establishment’ an applicant has to be recommended by two guarantors. A new member’s chest is tattooed with a slogan: a few words only, just to make sure he is immediately recognised as belonging to the group . . .
The Congress of this bandit ‘establishment’ passed six death sentences, five of which have been carried out. So far they have failed to catch the sixth condemned man because the whole affair has become rather involved. Let me tell you first of all who this sixth man was and what he was guilty of. He was the chief, the president, or in their lingo the ‘pasha’ of their set, the oldest and most cunning of the bandits. He was serving time in one of the provincial prisons and it was there, I expect, in his seclusion that it occurred to him that, really, he had achieved nothing in life and had gained nothing; and time was running short. The whole purpose of a bandit’s life—he said to himself—is to appropriate in the easiest possible manner other people’s wealth: gold, expensive things. But there has been a catastrophic depreciation in the value and the prestige of things in human society”.
“Your bandit, then, was a bit of a theoretician!” our cadres manager interrupted ironically.
“Well, yes, he was a thoughtful person. . . . This criminal who had done so much harm, grew reticent and began to read books. Books are a terrific force! He read a lot of books. He was in no hurry to get out of prison— it suited him to read and think behind bars; and his brother-bandits supplied their chief with any book he wanted even if it was hidden away securely in the State archives. Now. . . . Well, that’s how he came to see that the prestige of expensive things was being fatally deflated. In the distant past rich people, princes, used to fence off parts of the sea to breed some sort of plaice. And these fish they fed on human flesh—on their slaves. To serve such a fish at a banquet was considered in those days to be very smart. But now we can’t even bear thinking of our ancestors’ diversions. Gold once was a nameless metal slumbering untouched in the depths of the earth. Then man gave it a name and value. And it became the fashion to adorn one’s dress and weapons with glittering gold. But now none of us would venture out with a gold chain across his belly, or even with a golden tie-clip. The prestige of gold is falling. And precious fabrics? There’s no doubt that even our most precious modern fabrics are going out of fashion forever. To show off expensive things now is a sign of spiritual backwardness.”
“This bandit of yours gave short shrift to material values, by God! But what I’d like to know is what is going to take the place of things?” asked our cadres manager. He was a little irritated by this story because he flaunted an expensive padded overcoat, and his wife on a casual visit to our lab. had been wearing a rich fox-fur.
“What things do you mean? There are things and things. The bandit was aware of this. He realised that the worship of things would inexorably be replaced by the beauty of the human spirit that can be neither bought nor stolen. You can’t make anybody love you by force of arms. Spiritual beauty is free. As soon as gold and velvet retreated, it occupied their position. And now Cinderellas in their cotton frocks triumph over princesses draped in silk. Because the whole value of a cheap dress is in the beauty of its style, and this is no longer a material value. The design of a dress expresses the tastes and the character of its creator and wearer. And it is not for nothing that many princesses—those who have still preserved some humanity—have begun to imitate Cinderella. And if we meet a woman nowadays draped in furs and precious fabrics, we no longer admire the splendour of her dress, we recoil from the spiritual monster who casts herself before people.
My bandit was aware of all this. And all of a sudden he realised that throughout his life he had never owned such ‘things’ as people’s recognition, human friendship and true love—all his life he had aspired to what has no value. In fact, he experienced something akin to a currency reform. Well. . . .” The speaker’s voice became husky; he cleared his throat. “And the people, the love, the friendship he wanted existed on earth. And he had known it all along . . . There had been a woman . . . But now he could not even show himself to her; he couldn’t risk to reveal his identity.