March 19, 2007
“In countries where military service has been abolished,” my Russian gambling companion blurts out, his eyes taking on the glint of anodised steel, “young people should be sent to the casinos. Compulsory draft, you see? Two years minimum. The state pays for the lot, of course.” He is a celebrated photographer who lives and works in London, with many books and exhibitions to his credit. Once, at a dinner with Taki Theodoracopulos, sore after a particularly bad night at Aspinall’s, he told the poor little rich Greek: “Cheer up, Taki, I”ve lost as much over the last year. Except that in my case it meant losing my house, my studio, my wife and my dog. And my only regret at the moment, I swear, is that I have nothing more to lose.” I had never seen our beloved controversialist more thoughtful.
Another friend, the musical luminary Yuri Bashmet, is famous in our little circle for covering the whole layout with chips, which at every spin bestrew the roulette table like the autumn leaves of Vallombrosa in Milton’s poem. If one listens carefully above the whirring, one can hear him mutter, as he lowers his imperfectly sober face to the green baize: “At least… I won”t… have cancer… ladies and gentlemen… of the jury.” And, as this musician of genius descends the stairs of Aspinall’s and pauses by the now-darkened aquarium by the door, he turns to his entourage to say: “You think you”re coming to see me play in Albert Hall tomorrow night? But how foolish of you. This was playing!”
“I never gamble,” stammers another reckless gambler, uncertain that I will divine the occult wisdom of his apophthegm, “though once in a while I go to Aspinall’s to worship at the altars of chance.” He is right to hesitate, of course. His is a point not easily grasped by minds brought up on the heavenless, altarless, riskless stuff of modernity.
In London, where much of what once kept me happy here has now been uprooted and ploughed under, casinos are among the last anachronisms going. Privately owned and codified in law as membership clubs, they range from the Chinese-populated, cigarette-burns-in-the-carpet, fifty-people-to-a-table emporiums like the Victoria in Marble Arch to the inwardly tense, yet outwardly Olympian, temples to the divinity of chance like the Clermont in Berkeley Square. The truth “ that all of them, high and low, with the blessed exception of the late John Aspinall’s tabernacle in Curzon Street, are owned by casino chains, vast corporate bureaucracies with ties to Las Vegas “ need not be dwelled on, at least so long as their residually Edwardian-minded managers remain unanimous on the virtue of concealing it from the general public. Thus a stretch limousine will still carry the melancholy loser home through the blackness of Mayfair night from even the shabbiest of playgrounds, without his having to present a vehicle request in triplicate with two forms of personal identification to some bright-eyed vixen in an ill-fitting trouser suit of gorgeous lime green.
Apart from the free ride, what is it that the loser wins? I have been pondering this question for the better part of a decade, with financial consequences that many of my friends would describe as unwelcome. And it has become clear to me that I simply cannot not write about playing roulette in London, for exactly the same reasons that I cannot not write about the roast suckling pig with myrtle leaves that I sampled in Porto Istana in Sardinia, or the grace of the Syrian woman whom chance once placed on my right at a friend’s dinner party in Beirut, or the voice of Laura Giordano in Cimarosa’s Matrimonio Segreto at the Barbican. These too are anachronisms, after all, the ebbing life of an island village, the outmoded, harem femininity of an Eastern dancer, and the Europe just beginning to die of consumption in Cimarosa’s duets, “among the most beautiful,” wrote Stendhal, “that the human spirit has ever conceived.”
But chief among these is the anachronism of individual liberty. And what the loser wins, I say to confound my tight-fisted critics, is his liberty, in particular his freedom from the totalitarian dominion of universal reason “ meaning science, accounting, insurance, actuary tables, received wisdom, tinpot democracy, paper money, Aristotle’s law of excluded middle and bank holiday weekends, to name just a few of the tyrannous certainties of modernity. By wagering a part of his life that is in real time “ by tradition, casinos do not allow clocks on the premises “ he gains admittance to the realm of dreams that Shakespeare, having catalogued but a handful of the “thousand natural shocks” to which the flesh of a disinherited nobleman is heir, makes his hero ponder.
I have always held that, in the epochal storm that has been gathering over our civilization since 1789, the wise man should think like a pessimist and live like an optimist. In social terms, this means seeing yourself as a impoverished nobleman while suffering others to see you as a rich bourgeois. In the casino, one is finally alone with one’s thoughts and one’s freedoms, and the percentage of one’s material losses, if there be losses, is but the peppercorn rent for the temporary accommodation of a lacerated and destitute individuality.
There was a time when noblemen, from Charlemagne to Tolstoy, went to church “ among other reasons “ to feel mortal, ordinary, part of the human herd. In the epoch that began in Europe with the rise of the bourgeoisie under the banner of universal reason, and is now nearing its ineluctable denouement in universal slavery, noblemen went to the casino to feel noble, uncommon, above the herd. Not surprisingly, it was in the eighteenth century, when the authority of chance (that is, of birth) was first challenged by that of reason (that is, of money), that gambling it its modern form, and the game of roulette in particular, first arrived in France and England.
Before that, casinos had famously existed in Venice, that autarchic microcosm where the notion of a sovereign aristocracy had been under threat from the mercantile classes already by Shakespeare’s day. “In sooth I know not why I am so sad,” Antonio sets the tone of that epoch in the opening line of The Merchant of Venice, presaging the crushing melancholy to which the lone individual “ who now begins to see himself as a dispossessed aristocrat of the spirit “ has well and truly succumbed by the nineteenth century, as in Heine’s
Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeauten,
Dass ich so traurig bin.
It is significant that gambling is not really written about in the West today, any more than it was written about in Russia when Dostoevsky was first smitten by roulette at Bad Homburg and proceeded to reform his whole creative existence to accommodate the experience. In part this is due to the fact that only in London do casinos still give the player the sense of having found a refuge from the sadness, and the conformity, and the plain boringness of our common totalitarian era that, unbeknown to many, has long begun the countdown to spiritual zero. The gross, modern, and crooked casinos of Venice, Monte Carlo, or Las Vegas “ collectively far better known throughout the world than their putative London cousins “ actually bear almost no relation to the anachronism I am trying to describe here as the source of the kind of liberating experience that Dostoevsky craved in his day.
The other, still more important cause of the silence that envelops gamblers and gambling, is that the West’s writers and journalists are themselves children of reason, bourgeois Sid Sawyers unable to perceive that without hunting, shooting, wenching, whoring, drinking, fighting, snorting, spitting and cursing “ in short, without some risk of actual harm to one’s life, or limb, or at least reputation “ their own bovinely revered culture would have had no twentieth century, and not much of the nineteenth either. “Almost all our literature and art,” wrote Remy de Gourmont in Epilogues, “were born from prostitution, licence, irregularity.” It is true that a newspaper hack of today may go undercover to explore the secret world of massage parlours, while an Ivy League professor will sleep with as many coeds as there are in his English class, or else follow in the footsteps of Castaneda and gather dangerous herbs by moonlight in the town common. But where, I ask you, is the risk in that?
What is still more revealing is to catch adults in the act of explaining things to children. What an avalanche of arrogant verbosity does one see crashing about those innocent little heads! How shamelessly is the word because abused, whether the subject of instruction is volcanoes, onions, or archangels! And what an ingenuous way the old have devised to educate the young in the sacred principles of causality: “Don”t,” they are ever warning them, “because…” Don”t play with fire because you”ll hurt yourself. Don”t touch the vase because it”ll fall and break. Don”t go into the forest because it’s easy to get lost there. And when the child rummages in the hearth without getting burned, when the Chinese vase stands as before, or when a sun-warmed handful of wild strawberries is held right up to the sceptical adult snout, they just shrug. The statistics, they think, are on the side of the house.
Whenever he gets it wrong, the gambler has to pay. Not so with our culture, which seems to think it can be wrong as often as it likes, without ever having to pay a forfeit. Didn”t you crucify your God? Lose Rome to the barbarians? Kill off half the adult population of Europe in a matter of decades? Ah, yes, well, but it all worked out in the end, because we aren”t just individuals, you know. We”re not some bunch of crazy gamblers. We are the institution, the corporation, the casino. We can lose without ever feeling the pain. There’s always plenty of other suckers out there.
The Aristotelian organum, which has increasingly dominated our culture since the Renaissance and found its ultimate expression in the binary code of the computer, has had the effect of reducing Western thought to the level of a game called “20 Rational Questions.” Information, fragmented into bits fixed with A-or-not-A certitude, is used to describe the world with the pixel-pat cynicism of a television image. Yet the picture on the screen is but an artless, airless lie, a tendentious fiction, a mendacious tautology of cause and effect that leaves the substance of life almost totally unexplained. For can”t a woman be ugly and alluring at the same time? Can”t a tall handsome grenadier behave as a vile coward, despite his manly moustache? Can”t a saintly hermit plausibly seduce and then strangle a twelve-year-old? Can”t a dissident rabbi turn water into wine? Can”t a rosy-cheeked Sicilian soprano, without a care in the world to speak of, embody human suffering in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater? Can”t a person win big at roulette?
The practical applications of science “ whence the modern philistine’s concept of miracle is derived, just as his concept of pleasure, generally speaking, is derived from pornography “ now have the world to themselves, and are the gospels of the religion of rationalism. Which is not to say that the other, forgotten, losing religion, though based on the irrational premise of the transcendent miracle of life, was ever illogical. For instance, while it would be right to say that Abraham was given the Promised Land because he had come to believe in the Promise, it would be wrong to say that the Flood came because Noah had started building the Ark.
Apart from being undoubtedly evil “ undoubtedly, at least, for those who know whither leads the road paved with good intentions “ Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity are above all rational. Hope, faith and charity are not. In fact, I would venture to argue that nothing in Christianity, beyond what is already contained in the salutary commandments of the Old Testament, is rational in this sense. How did it come to pass, then, that our professedly Christian, Western culture lost its intuitive moorings to become what it now is, a monstrous double of the pompous know-it-all in Moliere, an adding machine ever crunching meaningless numbers, a travesty-voiced robot spouting syllogistic banalities until the battery runs out and the eternal night of totalitarianism descends?
I am not saying that we must all turn to Eastern mysticism, or try walking on water after a heavy lunch, or even be portrayed by Francis Bacon in attitudes expressive of inner torment. But come on, live a little! Let the careless child burn his fingers playing with matches. Let the faithful adoring wife go on worshipping her husband, the idler in a spotted cravat who is secretly taking all her jewellery to the pawnbrokers. Let the clueless dreamer have a go at saving the fallen woman, who is meanwhile using his driving license to rent the getaway car for a bank heist. Let the frustrated poet take the stretch limousine to the Pieria of emerald baize, where he may or may not lose his shirt of fine cambric linen.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as my gambling friend Yuri Bashmet would say, judge for yourselves. If our civilization has so botched the job of saving itself collectively, if our culture has proved itself so unfit to defend itself rationally, who is to say that the individual man, woman, or child will not be luckier when beyond the confines of reason? For life, in the only form in which it is worth living, is as spontaneous, unpredictable, and complex as the components of the sacred flame in which Christianity incinerated its heretics, in contrast to the chemically pure Zyklon gas later used by the rational West to affirm its total power over the divine play of chance and the unknowable that is the human spirit.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Autumn/Winter number of Aspinall’s Magazine and is reproduced here with the permission of the Editor.