Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Erotics of Luck

Dostoevsky's Last Night, by Cristina Peri Rossi

That's the inside of Donald Trump's Taj Mahal, built with leveraged funds by Mr. Trump on prime ocean-front property in decrepit Atlantic City in 1978, a joint that was once the chief draw on the briefly revitalized boardwalk, a dump today, bankrupt since 2014, purchased on the cheap by Carl Icahn, who is now involved in a court battle as 1,000 former employees seek to recover their pension and health funds. As if. Meanwhile The Donald has moved to greener pastures--Bloomberg's Disney/Manhattan, Chicago, and maybe 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Why not? The golden boy from Queens who was born on third base has evinced little concern for the misadventure on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. You win a few, you get bailed out, and then you win a few more. Maybe run for president. It's a great country.

My father loved the high life and I've always loved the low, so the Taj was perfect for both of us. We went together once, in 1984, to the very room pictured above--a glitzy Crystal Palace without the optimism--faux art deco, rooms reeking of prime ribs, furtive sex, and disinfectant. A louche airplane hanger of a casino brimming with slots and roulette wheels and blackjack tables; crowded with pensioners bused in from dumps like Rahway free of charge, blue-haired ladies given a paper sack of quarters as seed money, gimpy gents wearing baseball caps and banlon slacks (as was my Old Man)  who pumped nickels into the one-armed bandits and gawked at the hookers strolling the worn carpets, cocktails in everyone's hand (you couldn't stand it sober) babes wearing too much make-up adorned in seedy evening wear stroking the necks of the high rollers at the poker tables. Nothing is as depressing as money, nothing, that is, except those who lust after money. 

I'd gambled some before. I liked horse races and spent a fair amount of time betting on the ponies at Monmouth Park. With horses you have a chance; the contingencies are under control. Handicapping is a form of scholarship, Talmudic. How does Serendipity run in mud? Who's riding her, who's her trainer? How did she run at Belmont last week? Not to mention the horses are beautiful to watch, not like staring at a dealer pulling cards out of a shoe. I'd avoided casinos most of my life. Tagging along with my father, I played a few hands of blackjack and hung around the craps table (always the best action). The drinks were watery; we saw a good show, ate steaks, and had a nice time. But gambling, casinos, the whole obsession with luck and beating the unbeatable house--this I never understood. Though I now live a few miles from three or four casinos I'm never tempted, maybe because the desire to see if I could dip my toe in the game--just once, with a limited stake--is too risky. Maybe because of the horror stories about folks who bet their houses (no bailouts for them), or maybe because there are other things to gamble on every day, like whether or not you can get through twenty-four hours intact.

Are there any great books about gambling aside from Dostoevsky's "The Gambler"? The Hustler and The Color of Money, both by Walter Tevis come to mind, but I can't find any others on my shelves--Leaving Las Vegas is a suicide novel with a gambling on the side. I'm not even sure the book under review  is actually about gambling.What I suspect is that the author, a highly regarded Spanish woman, wanted to write a book about the folly of male sexuality and used gambling as a metaphor--a vain man trying to seduce Lady Luck. What is gambling after all but a flirtation with the erotic--with intense pleasure or, more likely, with exquisite pain willingly submitted to--a fundamentally masochistic pastime. As with sex or love, you never beat the house.

Reading "The Gambler," or reading Joseph Frank on Dostoevsky's obsession with games of chance, one immediately makes the connection between desire and gambling. Rossi has paraphrased, to good effect, many of the most evocative sections of Dostoevsky's short novel. Here's the Master:

“I wanted to fathom her secrets; I wanted her to come to me and say: "I love you," and if not that, if that was senseless insanity, then...well, what was there to care about? Did I know what I wanted? I was like one demented: all I wanted was to be near her, in the halo of her glory, in her radiance, always, for ever, all my life. I knew nothing more!”

And Rossi:

"There are other days, however, when I wake up feeling a terrible anxiety and can't wait for time when I can be alone with a slot machine (as if it were a lover), when I can caress it, seduce it, listen to it sing, plug it with coins like bullets, strip it, humiliate it, rape it."

Dostoevsky's Last Night abounds in such passages (to an embarrassing extent). Jorge, the journalist- gambler at the novel's center, casts his addiction in erotic terms: he seduces, yearns for, rapes--never lusting after money--he has no interest in money, nor does he care if he wins or loses--all of his desire is directed at conquest, of Luck or of every woman he encounters.  He tries to seduce his psychoanalyst in precisely the way one asks for another card when one knows to stand pat--there's no chance of winning, it's absurd to try, but there's that momentary pleasure that comes of thinking for a fleeting second that the woman or the cards might turn your way.

I can't help but think that Cristina Peri Rossi dislikes men--who can blame her? She imagines at one point that all men "speak daily to their sex" but that women never do so. Her journalist is a pathetic creature, led about by his twin obsessions--to bet and to bed. Rossi generously allows him to seduce every woman he meets, but the couplings are not only passionless, they're routine in the way betting on roulette is routine--an activity that is simply boring.

But I liked the book in spite of its mawkishness. The pointlessness of Jorge's existence was refreshing: surely, living in Barcelona, one could live exactly in this fashion and still be happy. The novel, despite the loose framework (a cheap trick) of character revelation through psychoanalysis, lacks psychological complexity. Jorge gambles and seduces for the pleasure each affords him. A charming motivation in a world where every action appears to be reducible to a utilitarian or pragmatic calculation. Unadulterated narcissism--taking a gamble on the sheer inexhaustibly of pleasure. Freud wouldn't have condoned such a life, but he would have understood it.

"Dostoevsky took the train to Hombourg on May 4, filled more with trepidation and remorse than excitement as he left Anna in tears at the station. He wrote her a day later: 'I'm acting stupidly, stupidly, even more, badly, and out of weakness, and there is just a minuscule chance hell with it, that's enough.'" Frank reports dryly that after four days of "winning and losing," Dostoevsky was "wiped out completely." He would return to Russia--escaping debtors prison--and write three of the greatest masterpieces of world literature.

"Nothing could be more absurd than moral lessons at such a moment." ("The Gambler")

Vera Coking beat Trump in an eminent domain lawsuit in 1995. Trump wanted to bulldoze Ms. Coking house, adjacent to his Plaza, for limousine parking. Needless to say, I never returned to the Taj Mahjal, though my father did, many times. He always enjoyed himself.  


Dostoevsky's Last Night is available from Picador Press; it was published in 1992.

George Ovitt (2/18/16)

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