“She was vicious,” commented the Paris Match journalist Dany Jucaud. “She reduced the entire world to rich men wanting sex and poor women wanting money.” Jucaud was speaking of a famous brothel keeper, Madame Claude, to whose life and times the sycophant’s bible, Vanity Fair, devotes hagiographic attention in its September issue. “Her client list,” avers world brownnosing champion Graydon Carter in his Editor’s Letter, “was a fusion of Burke’s Peerage, the Fortune 500, the Social Register, the Trilateral Commission, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.”

I don’t exactly know why, but something in those words of Jucaud’s about reducing the entire world to something or other made a clicking sound in the emptiness of my hung-over head. The morning after, for most people, is something like a garbage bin, with or without raccoon-resistant latches; for writers, however, at least of the old-fashioned kind they no longer use on magazines like Vanity Fair, it is a veritable Klondike. So here’s what I found there that morning.

It may be that reducing the entire world to one thing or another did not begin with Karl Marx and did not end with Madame Claude, but an imaginary line can connect these two reductionists as demonstrably as any historical cause and effect are ever connected.  Marx, who, in his personal life, was obsessed with material things, reduced the world to economics. “Everything he sees he wants to have,” complained his friend Arnold Ruge, “a carriage, smart clothes, a flower garden, new furniture from the Exhibition, in fact the moon.” To Marx, the haves had Das Kapital and the have-nots didn’t. That’s all that mattered. Yet the great guru of dialectical materialism took pains to have his visiting cards engraved with his wife’s maiden name because it was aristocratic, and to his dying day never saw the contradiction.

Sigmund Freud, who made his name reducing the entire world to sexuality, is another point on that imaginary line. Like Marx and Madame Claude, Freud was first and foremost a materialist, which ought to have been noted in his day for what it was, an absurdly unsuitable qualification for the student of the human psyche. As his private correspondence reveals, much of Freud’s time in the late 1880’s was spent chasing up a suite of furniture that had been included by his wife’s parents in her dowry, but then perfidiously withheld.  Had it been bedroom furniture, one might concede that the obsession was in keeping with his general theory of human behavior. Alas, it was only a dining table and chairs, and here, again, the contradiction escaped the theorist.

Much of the modern world, with Madame Claude for a mascot, finds itself somewhere in the vicinity of our imaginary line’s terminus.  Life tells this world’s denizens many things, all different and unexpected, which they set themselves to reduce, to rectify, and to rationalize until what remains of that kaleidoscopic panoply of truth is a single answer, conspicuous as a gob of spit on a freshly swept barroom floor.