In Borges’ story The Lottery in Babylon, narrated by an exile from that place, we learn that there had once been a regular lottery in Babylon, in which only the winners were announced, but that it began to lose popularity because it had no moral force or purpose, and so the old lottery was replaced by one in which there was a loser for every thirty winners. This small adjustment titillated the public interest and people flocked to buy lottery tickets. The penalty was at first a fine – which, if the loser could not pay, was replaced by a prison term – but then, as you can imagine, the desire for punishment and the administration of retribution on selected individuals became the driving force of the enterprise. Crowds love a victim: look at the stocks in medieval English towns, public hangings at Tyburn in the eighteenth century, or the popularity of public stonings and other barbarities in those places that still practice such things. In Borges’ Babylon the Company – i.e. those who administered the lottery, took control of the society and acquired omnipotence within it: the lottery came to rule the lives of all those who lived in Babylon.
Borges might well have been thinking of the role of the Catholic Church – or of any other autocratic system – when he wrote this story, but it seems to me to have a horrible contemporary relevance. Terror and misery emerge as being just as essential to human survival as the pursuit of some idiotic and unachievable happiness; the kind of elusive happiness that is offered by our own, commonplace lottery, for example, and which is announced on those absurd little TV slots where some moronic interlocutor commentates on the coloured balls as they whizz through the transparent tubes. The lottery for us is the gateway to a realm inhabited by those who have attained ‘celebrity’. Celebrity, of one kind or another, is the only good worth achieving, and the Company – interpret this as you will, but its omnipotence is terrifying – uses celebrity as a reward, but also, as we have so forcefully been reminded by the News of the World phone tapping scandal – as a punishment. Hell, of a kind: not the imprisonment or tortures endured by the losers in Borges’ story, but the pernicious and constant attentions of paparazzi and a culture of intrusion that renders the lives of all who live in the public eye (what a lovely expression) to be satirized, ridiculed and denigrated. Celebrity has replaced the religious status of the elect once occupied by bishops and popes and medieval saints, but has magnified their sufferings and their ecstasies and placed them all in the public eye. And all of it is registered, every hair of the head counted by an all-surveying Company, its cameras at every street corner.
In Borges’ story there is even ‘a sacred latrine called Qaphqa (pronounced ‘Kafka’) which gave access to the Company. In other words, there were CCTV cameras in the lavatories also.