Suppose you are tired of hearing about roulette. Suppose the very thought of gambling, despite the metaphorist’s efforts to depict it as the great commonwealth of epochal disillusionment and hence universalize the experience, strikes you as tedious. Suppose you are the sort of man who insists that the only thing duller than watching people take unnecessary risks at the gaming table is reading about them, and it just doesn’t matter one whit whether the chronicler at the scene happens to be Ian Fleming, Pushkin, or Navrozov. Suppose you express your annoyance by claiming that children, job, career—or, alternatively, unrequited love, or keeping a motor yacht in the Mediterranean in reasonably good nick, or getting hold of that second bottle of Southern Comfort when you are too drunk to find the car keys—are problematic enough, and that it is they, not roulette, that are the universal yardsticks of risk and its concomitant aims or emotions.
A couple of years ago, here in London, I took the exiled financier Berezovsky to Aspinalls, where he had never been. “How very tedious,” pronounced the former Soviet mathematician as we strolled through the Arabian opulence. “Do you know what I always say? The only way to make money in a casino is to own one.” (This summer, doubtless with the same prudent sentiments in mind, one of his erstwhile Russian associates bought the Chelsea football club for $250 million, which was front-page fodder for weeks on end in the English papers.) I smiled a languid smile, having heard words to that effect a hundred times before. And when, at the end of the evening, my guest decided that he wanted to join the club, it was with the same languid smile that I signed his application for membership. Now he comes often. He has a system, I hear.
I’m not telling the story to gloat, as a member of a society for the popularization of the paranormal might when boasting about the miraculous conversion of a particularly difficult unbeliever. I’m telling the story for another reason. This is a man who is reputed to be a multibillionaire, after all. This is a man who fell afoul of the ruling junta in Russia, to which he had belonged, and was condemned to the role of Trotsky in a criminal universe that is only superficially less ruthless than Stalin’s. This is a man who now faces extradition from Britain on transparently absurd charges, whose only real purpose is once again to bend the West, compelling it to sacrifice due process to diplomatic expediency. And yet here he is, in the midst of all his global troubles, sitting at the table with a pile of plastic chips in his trembling hand. More than that, he has a system.
What sort of system? “Well,” as he told a friend of mine the other day, “basically, I come in there with, say, ten or twenty thousand pounds. Once I’ve doubled it, I put my winnings away and don’t touch that, no matter what. No matter what, you understand. Then I can go on playing with my original stake, and I don’t have to worry about anything.” Anything? What about extradition? The freezing of assets? A show trial in Moscow? Infamy? Life imprisonment? Wives, children?
Berezovsky has hardly anything in common with the tragic hero of my narrative, of course, for the poet player has no system. Moreover, what he seeks in roulette is an escape from all systems, starting with those of Thales and Anaximander, and what he finds there, in the end, is anguish, not tranquillity. The case of the tycoon’s conversion, however, is nonetheless significant because it demonstrates that, even in the minds of those who have no conscious wish to transcend the material world, the spiritual reality of gambling may be far more concrete than much of that tottering Babel of wisdom or sensibility that many of us pride or pity ourselves for having erected in the course of an earthly existence that seems audacious and hazardous but is, in truth, only arduous and haphazard.
“And yet the salient characteristic of life must be daring, tólma,” argued the Russian writer Lev Shestov in The Scales of Job.
All life is creative tólma, and hence an eternal mystery irreducible to the ready and the easy. A philosophy seduced by the example of the natural sciences, a philosophy which aims to differentiate into an infinity of minutiae all that is problematic or unexpected, not only does not lead us closer, but actually takes us farther away from the truth. The seduction began already with Thales and Anaximander. All is one, held Thales, while Anaximander saw in plurality—that is, in what is eternally problematic—impurity and even impiety. Philosophers who followed them aimed to banish plurality and promote unity in their systems, so that the understandable unified became a synonym of the immanent good. The individual, the autonomous, the exceptional was daringly different and hence unreal.
Noting the tendency, which later exploded into Descartes and Spinoza and eventually broke all banks, flooding Western culture from the 18th century to our own day with totalitarian rationalism, Shestov acknowledged that philosophy was never completely to lose the ancient fascination with the extraordinary:
Both Plato and Plotinus were keenly conscious of mystery, they knew what it meant to be initiated and were themselves initiates. They honored the memory of ancient sages. But they also sought power over the thoughts of men. Thus, when Aristotle decisively turned his back on the esoteric, it made him one of history’s winners. Even the Middle Ages, so greedy in their search for mystery, whose presence they felt in all things, ended by choosing him as their guide.
Roulette, I say, is one of the few remaining windows onto mystery not yet boarded up by Western thinking.
For the mossy canals of Venice—John Ruskin, do you hear me?—can be easily filled, as the Ponte della Libertà already connects the city to the mainland, the Moses project to shut off the lagoon has been approved, and, in all likelihood, our children will be taking the subway to St. Mark’s Square. The Gothic cathedrals of France—those dust motes on the beam of sunlight that slants through stained glass, remember?—can accommodate
guitar-strumming pilgrims from the bathhouses of San Francisco, for no church in Christian Europe has been able to stem the tide of social progress or even to proclaim from the pulpit that God is greater than political slogans. The unwritten British constitution, to say nothing of the overtly irrational House of Lords—George Gordon Byron, you could have been a nobody all your life!—can be razed, since no modern institution is permitted even a whiff of the extraordinary, the arbitrary, or the hermetic.
What is left, I ask you? Art? The music of lyric poetry? But like all art, poetry is wholly reliant on the artist’s experience of the world’s present beauty and his faith in its future vitality. What to do, then, given that the last of the quotidian of life-sustaining beauty in our civilization—and, even more significant, practically all of our civilization’s potential vitality—has been leveled, and is being beaten into the ground, by the slushy frozen rain of rationalist ratiocination?
But Oh, in roulette! There chance—proud Chance!—is unfelled, not by Aristotle, not by Marx, not by Darwin, not by Adam Smith, not even by the theory of probability. There it stands, rampant like the great lion of what was once the most serene Venice, unharmed by the talk of reason and justice and fairness. It makes a mockery of the 21st century. It reigns supreme over tomorrow’s rich and yesterday’s poor, the Pushkins, the Navrozovs, and the Flemings, drawing the poet player ever onward, ever deeper into its unmathematical, incalculable, lyric mystery. Will a man like Berezovsky ever understand this?