It is all very well, strolling arm in arm through the hothouse of gloriously midsummer fiction, snatching a vermouth and bitters in the shadow by Fouquet’s, hailing a taxi some gilded moments later; it is all very well when you have the money to get yourself to Paris, to pay for the perfumed drinks, to hire the purring motor. Ever tender, then, is the night of yours, with not a care in the world save how to pluck the petals off the daisy, odd, even, odd, until you just know she is crazy for the love of you.
But surely poverty isn’t the only thing. What of renal insufficiency, of facial eczema, of chronic indigestion? What of bad luck, which starts as the barely audible drip of isolated episodes of misfortune and then redounds on itself time and again, swelling like some gelid, bone-chilling phantasm until it becomes the flooding river of insuperable and irreversible error? What of old age, which is itself a streak of bad luck, though with the added disadvantage of its being calculable, like the force of gravity operating on objects positioned upon a sharply inclined plane?
And yet the affliction of stagnant destitution, when it is borne by one who has known rolling plenitude, is unique: more physical than acute disfigurement, more irresistible than advancing decrepitude, more paralyzing than most misfortune. Because, when all’s said and done, every single one of the good things in life—health, beauty, luck—is a habit, or perhaps more accurately an addiction, and the forced and unexpected withdrawal from it cannot but strike one with all the disorienting power of hospital confinement. In an avowedly commercial civilization such as ours, money is akin to methadone. It is a universal substitute for nearly every object of life’s addictions. It alone can restore to the sufferer the clustered illusions of mobility, virility, dignity, and all the other constituent elements of the amour propre that he had taken for granted, or perhaps cherished, but now has lost. To one who suddenly finds himself locked up in a padded cell, it alone can simulate the weightlessness of richly remembered liberty.
And, of course, life itself is an addiction, as any gambling man knows when he knows he is losing. Hooked on youth, which they represent in assorted colors of the rainbow, he strokes the last of the ritual stacks of gaming chips that remain to him on the baize as though seeking some testimonial reassurance from these plastic markers, some tacit truce, some equivocal absolution. How manhood ebbs, like an account balance. How love slips away, like Solomon’s agile bride from the grip of the palace guards. He fingers that last hard stack, rubbing it up and down as though it were a magic lamp whose subservient genius can arrest or reverse the passing of time, anxiously hedging his bets, staving off the inevitable, procrastinating and dissembling, telling porkies to himself and his conscience, until there arrives, as in the end it must, the moment of truth called impotence. How he clutches at those green chips! They are his last fix of springtime. How his lips move, unbeknownst to him, mouthing words that are numbers! Like as not, they are an ancient prayer for deliverance. Then harsh is the night beyond the casino doors, with not even a crumpled fiver for that telltale taxi home. Though what is home to him now, anyway? An urn for his ego’s beloved remains, an empty violin case, a rotten walnut.
Solemnly, impoverishment is likened in the Kabbalah to the draining of blood through the severed arteries of a slaughtered animal, but then the Jews are an avowedly subjectivist, literal-minded people. Here, one need not speak from self-pity, nor hanker for the pity of others, because it is clear that the injustice of poverty, even of leprous, verminous poverty, is more than matched by that of obscene and profligate wealth. Besides, what does a man down on his luck, prevented by a movement of the markets from paying for two ridiculously overpriced cocktails, have to complain about to a survivor of the blockade of Leningrad? How much sympathy can he really muster, by telling of his sudden fall from manhood, in the hearts of the millions that populate whole continents, to say nothing of isolated regions, races and tribes? Severed arteries, indeed! Only a selfish, narrow-minded toff, insensible of any reality less concrete than the concrete of the city’s pavements, can feel eviscerated by events when what is at stake is a few drops of pigeon blood.
And yet a person as unselfish and broad-minded as George Orwell confessed, in The Road to Wigan Pier, that, in the socially shabby-genteel though materially warm-and-cosy stratum he had been born into, there was incomparably more consciousness of poverty than among the lower classes. “A shabby-genteel family is in much the same position as a family of ‘poor whites’ living in a street where everyone else is a negro,” he wrote. “In such circumstances you have got to cling to your gentility because it is the only thing you have.” Not by bread-and-dripping alone does man live, perhaps unfortunately, but by his whims, his caprices, and his fantasies. And so, by and by, as one follows the logic of the argument, is the city toff rehabilitated, if only slightly, in our eyes: His misfortune, though objectively less catastrophic than the Lisbon earthquake or the genocide of Armenians at the hands of the Turks, and which at first seems nothing but the surreal coupling of a crow’s selfishness with a peacock’s vanity, begins to acquire an objectivity and a poignancy whose anomalous issue, shabby-genteel and whimsical and capricious and fantasist yet only the more gloriously immanent for all that, is man.
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