A splendid Traviata at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo the other night—with its colorful gambling scene at the close of the Second Act, when a jealous Alfredo wins an armful of banknotes only to throw them in Violetta’s face—made me think of nothing.  Nothing as an end in itself, nothing as the animating spirit of all sublunar existence—nothing, if you like, as a way of life.

I neither speak nor think as a nihilist, and ever since I resigned from the world to become a writer the most disinterested tag to characterize me would be a sybarite fallen on hard times.  Unlike Violetta, I am not troubled by conspicuous consumption.  Yet one cannot help seeing things, at least when they are something other than glaringly obvious; whoever has glimpsed the irrationality of love can scarcely go on pretending that the world is flat; whilst memories of past dissolution make for an effective eyewash.  Thus one perceives, for instance, that poverty is a kind of wealth, a fabulous hereditament of the indigent.

Language itself seems to militate against such a proposition.  We call objects of love dear precisely to spare ourselves the trouble of drawing the line between the metaphysical and the physical, between the heart’s desire and the frightful expense.  Yet the writer bets against language, dissociating its received ideas like most other generalities that come his way, such as the view that the house always wins.  He plays with words as though they were chips, and then it occurs to him that wealth may be construed as a liberating absence, not merely of money, but of beauty, of talent, of intelligence, of wit—in short, of just about every vaunted trait whose presence comes to dominate and enslave its vain possessors.  For only a man without qualities is truly open to chance; he alone is absolutely free to make his fortune; his way in the world is not the world’s way of getting from A to B.  Thus, while seeking indeterminacy, he arrives at a philosophy.

The soprano in the part of Violetta had a marvelously rich voice, and no sooner did she exclaim “Follie!” than I reflected upon her glittering misfortune.  Folly indeed, for had she not been cursed with that endowment, she might have been free to lead an indeterminate existence; free to marry the Italian boy next door, to look at the stars at dusk, to eat lasagna on Sundays—in short, free to find what happiness may now be destined to be denied her.  As it is, “our lives are no longer our own,”as the original Traviata by Dumas fils laments, in La Dame aux Camélias.  “We aren’t human beings, but things.”

Like money and rank, beauty and grace are a treacherous grease, which, instead of lubricating the axle of life’s locomotive, oils its wheels, whereas the want of such widely envied hereditaments is the grit on which chance relies to ensure traction.  Thus Lord Byron, blessed with the impediment of a club foot, famously lacked the grace necessary for dancing.  This handicap determined his whole attitude to English society, and it is quite certain that, had the poet been more agile, the stroke of luck that had raised him to wealth and peerage would not have brought Don Juan to life, to say nothing of independence to Greece or the Byronic to temperament.  Society, whose approbation he would have won in place of immortality, would have come to possess him just as fatally as it possessed Dumas fils and the cocottes of the Parisian demimonde whom the incorrigible socialite regarded with understandable sympathy.

Stalin and Satan, Napoleon and Faust, Hitler and Humpty Dumpty, all sought to use whatever material was at their disposal to construct, to achieve, and to cause to endure.  How swiftly did God’s agent, fate, wreak havoc on their ant-heap Babels!  What, then, of the lesser actors, who, with the determination the world sanctions and the capability it applauds, pursue ordinary, formulaic aims, such as making a pile of money or dating a Playboy centerfold?  Alas, chance is the scourge of calculation.  Determination may determine many an outcome, but joie de vivre is not among them.

“I dwell in possibility,” said Emily Dickinson.  Ambiguity, potentiality, randomness are miserably undervalued in Western culture.  Like it or not, both Faust and Hitler are part of this tradition.  The mysterious and the miraculous, fragrances of the Orient whose occult exhalations once refreshed a West parched with rationality, are taboo among those who would make ingenuity or industry, to say nothing of the golden calf, an object of fervent worship.  It is a barbarously determinist age we live in, characterized by what Renan called the mass mania for certainty.

“The philosopher’s phrase, ‘I live out of curiosity,’ is applicable to all our lives,” wrote Remy de Gourmont in his Epilogues.  “Certainty is a state of annihilation.”  Like the opera heroine in a richly gilded moment of adulation, we must seek to deviate from the straight path now before us.

We must do less and dream more; we must stop trying to achieve, remarking instead on the enchantments of fatalism, of indolence, of ineptitude, if necessary even of indigence.  We must gamble like men used to gamble in the good old days, with eyes closed for stakes to make women faint, and who knows?  If we lose enough, those days may return.  Quality, rather than qualities, will once more be the measure of character, and life will again be lived for life’s sake.