The reason I am loath ever to set foot in the casino of Venice is that, in mournful contrast to just about everything else that fast moors me to her flooding shores, the Casinò di Venezia at Palazzo Vendramin is not an anachronism.  The Italian state, which runs the place along with several other, still more pathetic establishments, such those at San Remo and Campione, sells gambling to the Italians as if it were Heinz beans, or football tickets, or airport novels.  As in the United States, the hypocrisy of the state restricting the profitable activity to a few clip joints, like Atlantic City, induces in the player the nauseated sensation of being cornered by modernity.  It is as though, instead of being parted from his money in the natural way, he is made to undergo the proverbial back-alley abortion.

In London, where almost everything that once kept me happy has now been uprooted and plowed under, casinos are among the last anachronisms going.  Privately owned and codified in law as membership clubs, they range from the Chinese-populated, cigarette-burns-in-the-carpet, 50-people-to-a-table emporia such as the Victoria in Marble Arch to the inwardly tense, yet outwardly Olympian, temples to the divinity of chance such as the Clermont in Berkeley Square.  The truth that all of them, high and low, with the blessed exception of the late John Aspinall’s tabernacle in Curzon Street, are owned by casino chains, vast corporate bureaucracies with ties to Las Vegas, is not to be dwelled on, so long as their residually Edwardian-minded managers remain unanimous on the value of concealing it from the public.  Thus, a stretch limousine will still carry the melancholy loser home through the blackness of May-fair night from even the shabbiest of playgrounds, without his having to present a vehicle-request form in triplicate with two forms of personal identification to some bright-eyed vixen in an ill-fitting trouser suit of lime green.

Apart from the free ride, what is it that the loser wins?  I have been pondering this question for the better part of a de-cade, with financial consequences that some of my friends here might describe as unwelcome.  And it is becoming increasingly clear to me that I simply cannot not write about playing roulette in London, for exactly the same reasons that I cannot not write about the roast suckling pig with myrtle leaves that I had in Sardinia ten years ago, or the grace of the Syrian woman whom chance had placed on my right at a friend’s dinner party in Beirut last week, or the voice of Laura Giordano in Cimarosa’s Matrimonio Segreto, here at the Barbican last April, even though Alfredo, the young soprano’s own devoted father, ran off to Aspinalls with me in the interval.  These too are anachronisms, after all—the ebbing life of an island village, the outmoded, harem femininity of an Eastern dancer, and the Europe just beginning to die of consumption in Cimarosa’s duets, “among the most beautiful,” wrote Stendhal, “that the human spirit has ever conceived.”

But chief among these is the anachronism of individual liberty.  And what the loser wins, I say to confound my tight-fisted critics, is his liberty, in particular his freedom from the dominion of universal reason—meaning science, accounting, insurance, actuarial tables, received wisdom, tin-pot democracy, and paper money.  By wagering a part of his life that is in real time—by tradition, casinos do not allow clocks on the premises—he gains admittance to the realm of dreams that Shakespeare, having catalogued but a handful of the “thousand natural shocks” to which the flesh of a disinherited nobleman is heir, makes his Hamlet ponder.

I have always held that, in the epochal storm that has been gathering over our civilization since 1789, the wise man should think like a pessimist and live like an optimist.  In social terms, this means seeing yourself as an impoverished nobleman while suffering others to see you as a rich bourgeois.  In the casino, you are finally alone with your thoughts and your freedoms; and the percentage of your material losses, if there be losses, is but the peppercorn rent for the temporary accommodation of a lacerated and destitute dignity.

In ages long past, noblemen from Charlemagne to Tolstoy went to church—among other reasons—to feel mortal, ordinary, part of the human herd.  In the epoch that began in Europe with the rise of the bourgeoisie under the banner of universal reason—and is now nearing its ineluctable denouement in universal slavery—noblemen went to the casino to feel noble, uncommon, above the herd.  Not surprisingly, it was in the 18th century, when the authority of chance (that is, of birth) was first challenged by that of reason (that is, of money), that gambling in its modern form, and the game of roulette in particular, first arrived in France and England.

Before that, casinos had existed only in Venice, that autarchic microcosm where the notion of a sovereign aristocracy had been under threat from the mercantile classes already by Shakespeare’s day.  “In sooth I know not why I am so sad,” Antonio sets the tone of that epoch in the opening line of The Merchant of Venice, presaging the all-be-crushing melancholy to which the lone individual—who now begins to see himself as a dispossessed aristocrat of the spirit—has well and truly succumbed by the 19th century, as in Heine’s famous “Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeauten, / Dass ich so traurig bin.”

It is significant that gambling is not written about in the West today, any more than it was in Russia when Dostoevsky was first smitten by roulette at Bad Homburg and proceeded to reform his whole creative existence to accommodate the experience.  In part, this is because of the fact that only in London do casinos still give the player the sense of having found a refuge from the sadness, and the conformity, and the plain risklessness of our common totalitarian era that, unbeknown to any of us, has long begun the countdown to spiritual zero.  The gross, modern, and crooked casinos of Venice, Monte Carlo, or Las Vegas—collectively far better known throughout the world than their presumed London cousins—actually bear almost no relation to the anachronism I am trying to describe here as the source of the kind of liberating experience that Dostoevsky craved in his day.

The other, still more important cause of the silence that envelops gamblers and gambling is that the West’s writers and journalists are themselves children of reason, bourgeois Sid Sawyers unable to perceive that without hunting, shooting, wenching, drinking, spitting, fighting, and cursing—in short, without some risk of actual harm to life, or limb, or at least reputation—their own bovinely revered literature would have had no 20th century, and not much of a 19th, either.  Sure, a New York Times scribbler may go undercover to explore the secret world of massage parlors, while an Ivy League professor may sleep with as many coeds as there are in his English class, or else follow in the footsteps of Castaneda and gather dangerous herbs by moonlight on the town common.  But where, I ask you, is the risk in that?

By contrast, a man embarking on the path of the casino gambler must be ready to become a liar, a thief, an embezzler, and a forger for the sake of his emancipating passion.  Like Dostoevsky, he must be prepared to swindle his publisher to have more ready cash to hand and to marry his stenographer so as not to have to give some of it to her.  Like Herman in Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, he must feign passion without scruple when it is time to seduce a virgin.  Like Julien Sorrel in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, he must be unmoved by death, especially his own.  What professor of English, what New York hack, what American writer is nowadays prepared to regard such a vista with disinterest, to say nothing of sympathy?

We need only to recall how the Vietnam War protester Norman Mailer whined in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Armies of the Night that the canned orange juice he had been given in jail for breakfast burned his throat.  For the trouble with such notable exponents of the cultural mainstream of the West, and of the United States in particular, is not—as their right-wing detractors often claim—their moral depravity and subversive daring but their absolute cowardice and cushy conformism.  The unfortunate Theodore Kaczynski, whose Industrial Society and Its Future was the only attempt at original thinking ever permitted in the feature pages of the New York Times, has more writer in him—more bomber, more gambler, and certainly more nobleman—than all the departments of literature in America.

God, look at the time.  I must dress for Aspinalls.