Three days after the birth of Volodymyr Zelensky in January 1978, Saturday Night Live premiered the Olympia Café sketch, a masterpiece of truth meets fiction in which, in the end, truth reconfigured itself based on fiction.
The skit, the brainchild largely of Chicago-area boy John Belushi, was a takeoff of a bar called The Billy Goat Tavern in downtown Chicago. Insult was on the menu there, as well as fabulous, cheap food.
When you literally stepped over the threshold, you would be greeted by something like this, in an aggressive voice with a thick Greek accent:
“Who’s next? YOU? NEXT!” An equal opportunity offender, the proprietor didn’t care what colour or class you were – everybody was essentially the same waste of time and space. If you took the time to take a breath to collect yourself, to peruse the board with the daily specials, there would be something like this in response:
“Don’t look at the menu! Look at ME! I order for you – CHEEZBORGER! No fries – CHEEPS! No Pepsi – COKE! What’s wrong with you, can’t you talk? Get out! When you learn to talk, come back, OK? I have no time. NEXT!”
And “NEXT!” was what Zelensky has said to the House of Commons, the EU Parliament, the US Congress, and the other assembled bodies he has talked to via Zoom. The presidents of three countries travelled by train through a war zone to meet him.
A guy who won Ukraine’s Strictly Come Dancing, was the voice of Paddington Bear and played a fictional president on TV, majestically took command of the world’s airwaves. And then, as Shakespeare has Henry V say to his troops: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.”
Henry also says: “But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger.”
Now war is blasting like it has never been on the European peninsula since the second world war. Most of us alive now were not even born then, but we “know” all about it; what it must have felt like.
In this knowing, this real-life president who played a president on TV has presented us with a new reality. Zelensky and the invasion of Ukraine conjure up the nightmare templates of our collective unconscious.
What lies before us is a new reality. Not World War III, as Joe Biden has warned, but World War II: The Reboot. dressed in military fatigue green, this incredible man, Zelensky, conjures up our past.
Just as people went to The Billy Goat Tavern to have the fictional Olympia Café experience, so this “recreation” of the past we have never lived is partly an answer to why, for example, CNN is doing 24-hour wall-to-wall breaking news coverage of the war in Ukraine.
If part of what it is to be human is to be conscious, then we have to look at the conflicting realities at play within this western template in which people die and cities are destroyed.
In the red corner is Vladimir Putin, born in St Petersburg, a city whose Soviet-era name was Leningrad. His grandfather was a personal cook to Lenin. Putin lost an elder brother to diphtheria during the Siege of Leningrad, one of the most brutal in human history. His uncles disappeared on the Eastern Front, and you can believe it is Leningrad that runs through him hard and deep as well as the Tsarist empire with its place in the world.
Zelensky’s parents are Jewish, which makes him Jewish, which means that even some of his family surviving as Jews during the second world war in Ukraine is a miracle in itself. They did not all make it. He lost a great grandfather and three uncles in the Holocaust. His grandfather served in the Red Army during the second world war.
So this western collective unconscious comes together to continue an old-fashioned European ground war in which, by the way, Joe Biden is 100% correct not to provide air cover. That would involve the US directly encountering Russia, and with Russia having more nukes than the US, nobody needs this game of poker.
There are no winners from this tragedy, yet together with his patriotism and bravery, Zelensky’s savvy when it comes to the media has helped to push his country’s cause deeper into our souls.
We respond to media performers. Boris Johnson first came into view on Have I Got News For You, a programme only the British could invent, mixing hard news with satire and cynicism. Even when, at his first appearance, Johnson was derided regarding his association with Darius Guppy, it was possible to discern the nascent emergence of a media darling who would tap into the British unconsciousness. He is doing it still; playing on the deep British attachment to toffs and to privilege.
Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump’s presidency became possible because the unconscious American trope concerns cruelty and survival of the fittest. The Apprentice, created for him, is a fantasy of unlimited power. In real life he achieved that and then was fired.
I have to admit that some friends and I went to The Billy Goat Tavern, on which the Olympia Café was based, mainly because we had seen the sketch on our favourite late-night Saturday show. Who knows how much the proprietor remade the place to fit the fiction?
But flipping some cheeseburgers and shouting is certainly not where we are right now. Our memories – which are not our real memories, but which are, too – drive this unfolding horror and keep us on an edge that could create, quite frankly, The End.
Will we watch The End on our mobile phones? Will Instagram and TikTok give us a platform for one last post? How many Twitter retweets will The End get? Will Ant and Dec have the time to play it back to us?