Like the flea-market buyer of an atomic clock that is supposed to keep perfect time until the year 8021 but breaks the next day, the poet player straddles the gnostic frontier between infinite skepticism and absolute faith. On the one hand, it appears that the buyer’s skepticism is justified, because he’s been swindled. Look here, the stupid thing isn’t working! On the other hand, it appears that his faith is well placed, because the clock did work for a while and would’ve kept working if it hadn’t been broken. Like any machine—which is to say, a product of lofty intellect that has found its way down into the context of lowly human striving—the world is indeed a hybrid, inviting of such dualism.
Thus, the poet player trusts in a woman’s love but not the love of any woman he knows. He believes in the law but is instinctively sympathetic to the plight of just about every convicted criminal. He esteems the material luxuries that money can buy but scorns those who enjoy and consume them as much as he despises the society that produces and prices them. He is cognizant of the irreconcilable contradiction between individual liberty and social equality, which, however papered over with newsprint, makes a travesty of the modern political ideal labeled democracy. He knows, even as he greets the liveried lackey swinging open the massive Georgian doors to his purgatory of choice, that the exercise he is about to engage in is best described as “killing money,” but he goes in all the same and relishes defeat on a par with victory.
My hero is a pure type, conjured up from a decade of playing roulette alongside him in London’s gambling clubs, but it should not be supposed that, to embody this type (or, at any rate, many of its constituent characteristics), a man need play roulette or indeed ever enter a casino. I recently read a spectacularly honest account of a year in New York, published under the frivolous title How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, in which a young English journalist, Toby Young, anatomizes his brief stint at Vanity Fair and the snap rejection of his Fleet Street tissue by the social organism of this Hollywoodian megalopolis. “My total inability to maintain good relations with those in a position to help me had to be a factor,” Young muses.
I mean, I had hired a strippergram on Take Our Daughters to Work Day. You couldn’t take that away from me. Unfortunately, even though I was aware of how self-destructive my behaviour was, I wasn’t sure I could modify it in any way.
This is the poet player speaking, albeit in the newspaper hack’s idiom, complete with the alienation, the fatalism, and the black humor born of the two. Young goes on to summon the ghosts of “penniless writers” of another era in American letters, as he quotes from Ben Hecht’s memoir, A Child of the Century:
Despite their wit and even talent, unsuccess was in their eyes. The need to be underdogs and rail against existence was as strong in them as their lust for fame and money. You could see it not only in their faces but hear it in the gloat with which they detailed their misfortunes.
“Was that my problem?” Young asks. “That I actually preferred being a loser?”
A similar glimpse of the poet player at large, without the condemned playground that is his idealized habitation, is found in The Temptation to Exist, the deservedly famous book by the Francophone Rumanian philosopher E.M. Cioran, where the author discusses the dilemma of the exiled litterateur, in large part his own dilemma. Torn from his roots and his language, thrust into a society that, to him, is as mute as it is hostile, Cioran’s autobiographical subject begins to relish worldly failure—provided that it is total, inescapable, apocalyptic—far above worldly success, which is of necessity small or, rather, incremental and which he regards as episodic, ambiguous, and inadequate. In the context that is overtly worldly, corrupt, and possibly evil, phenomenal failure is purifying, calming, and oddly liberating, whereas success is hardly ever convincing enough to desire for its own sake.
What need, or indeed likelihood, of success, for instance, would there be for the European visitor to this, one of the nightmare worlds in Voltaire’s Candide:
Morocco was swimming in blood when we arrived. The fifty sons of the emperor Mulei-Ismael each had their faction, and there were fifty civil wars of blacks against blacks, blacks against tans, tans against tans, mulattoes against mulattoes. There was a continuous carnage throughout the empire.
European aristocracy, wrote the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev in The Philosophy of Inequality centuries later, is unlike modern democracy in that
democracy is easily transformed into a formal tool for the organization of special interests, as the search for the best becomes the search for those who best serve these interests. Democracy is devoid of deeper, ontological content, and can therefore lend itself to any number of contradictory aims.
In other words, replace Voltaire’s Morocco with New York, London, or Paris and the emperor’s 50 sons with an equal number of global corporate chieftains—from the New York Times to Coca-Cola, from Mobil Oil to the CIA, from Yale to Hollywood—and you can easily understand why noli me tangere is the only commentary that anybody who truly loves the world can think of directing at the world he sees before him.
Thus, when my woebegone hero leaves the casino, $10,000 to the worse and without the cab fare, walking home at five o’clock in the morning by the garden squares of springtime Chelsea where, as if through an airport chapel’s public-address system, astonishingly electric birds herald the advent of still another sunless dawn, his underlying sense of achievement is greater than even his secret nausea, his hopelessness, and his fatigue. He presses his forehead against a wrought-iron lamppost with its double C’s raised in gilt, and, as he coughs, he notes that there is blood on the handkerchief. He is cleaned out, and, hence, he is now clean, just as the good Lord made ’im. He is a total wastrel and therefore not part of the human herd—petty scrapers and repugnant philistines the lot of them—an individual at a soul’s remove, a maverick deserving of notice even if it be solely in his own maddened eyes. Doubtless, he is a failure, yet, doubtless also, he is himself.
If my hero had won, had won big, had won convincingly, he would have felt just the same, for a nobleman is a nobleman irrespective of whether he happens to be grandiosely rich or dirt poor. He, too, aspires to perfect equanimity in the face of crushing defeat, which is companion to perfect selflessness in victory. His winnings would not have been earned, any more than his losses are now deserved, and it is this, his life’s first piercing revelation of the immanent wisdom of the compact between God and man, that is the poet player’s defining moment. Is physical beauty ever deserved? Can genius be earned? Can any gift, talent, or virtue?
Perhaps that illumination is the first in a series of many. On cloudy mornings yet to come, as spring turns to summer, the poet player will press on with his dangerous travels within himself, striving to deepen his understanding of his own character against the dynamic backdrop of constant, yet perilously unexpected, numbers and their recurrent, yet always unprecedented, combinations. Thus he acquires nobility, paying for it as a man should, with his blood, his nerves, and his bile. Thus he acquires liberty, paying for it as a Christian, with ceaseless torment. Thus he acquires wisdom, paying for it as a gambler, with his own and other people’s worthless money.
It is the wisdom that he eventually acquires that will prove his undoing.