The greatness of man, writes Pascal in his Pensees, is great so long as man is conscious of his own insignificance. “A tree, by contrast, is not conscious of its own insignificance.” In other words, man feels his insignificance; he is aware of it; and he is made great by his awareness of it. “But to consider one’s insignificance, one must be able to think in the first place; for a ruined house feels nothing of the kind; and only man is capable of experiencing his own insignificance. Ego vir videns.” To put it another way, the 17th-century savant goes on, the greatness of man lies solely in his capacity for thinking. “I can easily imagine a man without arms, or without feet; but never a man incapable of thought, for a such a man would differ but little from a stone.”
Last month, I perplexed the faithful with some autobiographical musings, the point of which was to show how a man who derides experience in his misty youth is likely to feast himself upon it in his life’s scorching summer. And the decisive moment, for me, came on the night I found myself at a roulette table in a seedy London casino.
I realized then, as I gazed into the spinning blackness before me, how little I knew myself. But hardly at all! I am not sure if anyone but a fellow gambler can fathom the horrible truth of what I am about to say, but it is much easier for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than it is for a poor man playing roulette at $5 a stake to put down $100 straight up on a number. (It is not important to know just how poor he is, for everyone at the tables is or will one day become poor, so long as it is understood that my apothegm revolves around the notion of disproportionate risk.)
The paradox is that the contemplative life that I had led and clung to until then gave me much knowledge of the world but precious little understanding of myself. And I submit that it is at least as important for a thinker to know that, say, the 1956 Hungarian uprising was masterminded by Andropov as it is to know whether he, the so-called thinker in question, is or is not a yellow-bellied coward. And one of the ways of ascertaining whether one is a yellow-bellied coward is to see if, while playing relatively small stakes, one can suddenly feel the winning number in one’s innards and immediately risk everything in one’s pockets on that miracle of intuition.
As a rule, one does nothing of the kind. One bobs and weaves, one dissembles. One prolongs the experience of risk, keeping the stakes low and thereby making a mockery of what that experience is all about. One feels the gnawing fear of losing all, of having to stop playing, of going home empty-handed. Of not being able to borrow more money. Of not being able to take a taxi. Of not having enough for the cup of coffee the following morning. Of not having enough change for the bus to get to the bank. Of inconvenience. Of embarrassment. Of ghosts, of thoughts, of friends. Of oneself.
Much later, I met a woman I fell in love with at first sight. If I had stayed with her from that day forward, if I had gambled everything blindly on the manifest chance of possessing her, if I had staked whatever it was that I vaingloriously thought I had achieved in my miserable life, I might have won big. She could have loved me back, and forever. What I did instead was madness in many people’s considered opinion (for, without doubt, there are many people in this world even more cowardly than myself), but, in my own eyes, it was more of the same vacillation, calculation, rationalization . . . Unaccountably, I sought to qualify the experience of risk, thereby reducing it to an empty gesture, and what could have been a miracle in the life of a poet became an episode in the life of a gambler.
Is writing any different, I ask you? Does not even a serious writer—I am speaking here of a man of overwhelming purpose, not just some New York Times highbrow timeserver or a glorified airport-novel hack—choose the word he is about to put down on paper, like that wilful $100 chip on the green-baize layout, with a thought to the audience, with a nod to the reader, with a wink to the editor? Is he not easily seduced by the phantom certainties, the clever simplifications, the convenient shortcuts that offer themselves and appear attractive or useful, along the way? Do the sparkling ornaments and the altogether delightful subterfuges of what is known as his “style” not lead him astray, to the continuing applause of those too dense to understand the substance of what he actually hopes to say? And can he, one life-wrecking day that comes but once in a man’s rotten life, risk it all on a single spin of the wheel, and to hell with the ever-rising mortgage of the anaphora, the mousy hair of the schoolgirl simile, and the small change of the well-placed comma?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all—conscience in the broad sense of ratiocination, deliberation, assessment. It is said that, when the game of roulette was first introduced in its present form in the 18th century, the risk factor of 37, or 36 numbers plus zero, had been intended to represent the mature age of the average adult, beyond which a person simply could not conceive of a number with any natural facility. This is quite true. The risk expressed by probabilists as 1000:1, or even of 100:1, is even now utterly beyond us. We still live in a world measured in the number of teeth in our mouths, of letters in our alphabets, of houses on our streets, of days in our calendars, of diamonds in our bracelets. The billions spent on national healthcare, distances between cities or planets, and the speeds of sound and light are abstractions, which nobody in his right mind can be expected to gamble on and win.
Thirty-seven to one is another story. Yet which of us can say, with any degree of conviction, that, when eternal bliss is proffered to him at these odds—oh, any man playing $5 a stake who wins $3,500 on a single number knows the meaning of the word bliss, believe me—he would take the chance? That he would not hesitate, ever mindful of the ugly fact that hesitation is to risk what thinking about the stock market is to kissing? That he would throw all caution to the wind, in other words, and follow the miracle?
All right, forget the example of the good writer. Were not the multitudes who had chosen to follow our Lord commanded to do the same in His day? Yet how few among them did what was asked. What, 12 disciples? Think about it.