Vanity plates, I once heard—vehicle registration numbers, in other words, that are believed to hold meanings or to pose riddles, in the pedestrian minds of idle onlookers and fellow motorists stuck in traffic—often cost many times more than the cars to which they are attached.  This is good news of sorts.  For, however pitiful it is for an aging toothpaste manufacturer to take pride in screwing the numberplate MAD4LOV to his new cabriolet, from the point of view of the West’s survival as a culture, it is far less alarming than seeing that pride of his stimulated directly by a mass-market product of the automotive industry.  Gross as it may seem, MAD4LOV is still an insubstantial fancy—not unlike a poem, a prophecy, or an heraldic device—and paying good money to acquire it is an act of sublimation, more Medici than Marx, more Charles the Foolish than Warren Buffett, more Gothic apse than valet parking in rear.

Last August, the Duke of Buccleuch had a hundred-million-dollar Leonardo stolen from his home in Scotland.  “It is no consolation to the Duke, or to the unfortunate insurers,” commented the writer A.N. Wilson (prone, like most Londoners, to real-estate similes), “but isn’t it rather wonderful that our lumpen, boring society sets such a price on art that it values one painting by a genius 80 times higher than a big London house?”  Indeed, some paintings still cost more than each and every one of the walls on which they hang.  The most expensive house in modern history, sold in Tokyo for $600 million (“It was a one-bedroom,” I hear you jest), belonged to the father of a friend of mine, a Syrian immigrant to Japan.  But surely the contents of a single Sotheby’s “Impressionist and Modern” sale can match that in a couple of rainy Mayfair afternoons.

The historical sense of these intimations of qualified optimism is that the Good Lord appears to have conceived the human ego—a man’s soul, if you like—as a creature with many mouths, wherein lies both our problematic salvation and our almost certain perdition.  Because, according to His complex, life-giving design, man is obliged to feed all of this potential monster’s mouths (as a mother is bound by nature to suckle her whole brood and becomes monstrous when she does otherwise), despite the psychological fact that it can easily survive if only one of them is given nourishment (as the mother’s genes can survive even if all but one of her offspring should starve to death).  Rationalism, which is the temptation to keep the ego alive by means that are necessary and sufficient—by feeding it, ergonomically and economically, through a single orifice—is central to the demise of Christian civilization.  The monster ego peculiar to our epoch is not obese because it is overfed but because it is swollen from malnutrition.  It is made to subsist on a diet of carbonated drinks, rum-raisin ice cream, and chocolate-covered doughnuts.

Heroin addicts—who, quite literally, obtain satisfaction by nourishing their egos through a single opening in the skin—are an extreme terminus of this progressive rationalization of means and methods, but of course there are others.  Prostitutes find it difficult to resume a less perilous life not because their egos have been crushed but because they too have grown addicted to the gratifications of extreme simplification.  And, as one or the other of these social outcasts leans on the peeling windowsill to look down through the rusting tracery of fire escapes at the world without, he or she has very good reason to claim that what lies below is every inch as artless, mass-produced, and apparently godforsaken as the fetid mattress and the bleating television within.

“From pop stars and royal princes to crack whores and street kids, from the Groucho Club toilets to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, we are all partners in crime,” trumpets the jacket blurb of a current bestseller.  “High Society is a story about Britain today, a criminal nation in which everybody is either breaking the law or knows people who do.”  And an FBI spokesman tells the Sunday Times that “teenage girls from wealthy middle-class homes” are turning to prostitution “for affirmation.”  Apparently, in the past three years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, “we’ve seen a 70% increase in kids from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds who become prostitutes” without having “suffered mental, sexual, or physical abuse.”  Of what value, then, is any present-day attempt at moral or social differentiation?

Even a generation ago, a social outcast’s claim to being no worse “than the rest of you hypocrites out there” would have rung more hollow.  I am told that, in the late 1940’s, when Isaac Stern bought himself a Stradivarius for $5,000, an average orchestra player could easily acquire a fine violin, say a Guadagnini, for a third of that amount.  Some 50 years of wholesale social homogenization later, a reasonable instrument costs more than ten years’ worth of an orchestra violinist’s gross annual salary, and a Stradivarius will make five million dollars at auction.  In other words, musical instruments can now make more than the people who play them, because violins, paintings, houses, cars, and lace doilies have been swept up in a lopsided whirl of material consumption—in this case, of an antiquarian cast—that mercilessly rationalizes and drastically abbreviates the full scale of ethical values that, until recently, could provide the human ego with endlessly diversified nutrients.

Accordingly, though one must take it as given that drugs and prostitution are extremes at least in theory, one fails to detect a qualitative, substantive difference between them and the social mainstream of the present epoch.  Consider, if you like, the most common form of ministration to the ego—so unlike playing a once-affordable Guadagnini—which goes by the houseproud name of work, but is in reality just as monotonous, self-abusive, and ultimately deadening as the scoring of hits or the turning of tricks.  Deprived of work, an upstanding denizen of the civilized world is, if anything, more helpless than a desperately strung-out drug user.  “You see,” Isabel, the heroine of Somerset Maugham’s once-famous novel, The Razor’s Edge, says of her husband, a stockbroker ruined in the crash who is still unemployed three years later, “he feels it’s a man’s business to work and if he can’t work he may just as well be dead.”

Yet not by bread alone must a man live, it has been clearly written, not only by working and certainly not solely for the sake of money.  When the chance reversal of fortune came, Isabel tells the narrator,

I simply couldn’t believe it.  It seemed inconceivable to me that we should be ruined.  I could understand that other people should be ruined, but that we should be—well, it just seemed impossible.  I went on thinking that something would happen to save us at the last moment.  And then, when the final blow came, I felt that life wasn’t worth living anymore.  I didn’t think I could face the future; it was too black.  For a fortnight I was absolutely miserable.  God, it was awful, having to part with everything, knowing there wouldn’t be any fun any more, having to do without everything I liked—and then at the end of a fortnight I said: “Oh, to hell with it, I’m not going to give it another thought,” and I promise you I never have.

At least to my own obsessive and tendentious ear, Maugham’s heroine is venting the textbook anxieties of the novice gambler.  For roulette is spiritual training in the reversal of fortune, and the poet player knows better than to walk through the world thinking that everything he may have to part with—all the fun to be had that he will never have again and all the things he has had that he will have to get along without—depends on the outcome of a single spin of the wheel.  He knows that the human ego has many mouths, even as his father’s house has many mansions, and so, whatever the circumstances of the crash peculiar to his destiny, he can never feel that he’s been ruined and nothing’s worth anything any longer.  He plays not for money, but against it.

And if, in the end, money wins, he shrugs.  He has a whole life to live.