Commentary Magazine


From Plato to Las Vegas

~(3x) x=x

I wrote the above formula while I was a student of philosophy in Munich. My enthusiasm for my subject, which had at one time stirred in me a wish to distill and define the universe, was almost exhausted, and I was becoming, due to a spreading positivistic infection, a morbid enemy of speculative thought, determined that if I could not slip past my own refutations into glory, no one else would.

~(3x) x=x, however, filled me with a demented sense of possibility. The formula seemed at the moment of its conception to be a legitimate way of describing Nothing, Nullity, Nothingness, or any of the other theatrical concepts of total absence of matter and spirit, human or divine. For translated into English, the symbols mean that there is no thing identical with itself, or, more bluntly, there are no things. I had therefore found a way to state, in the wry form of a logical proposition, an alternative to the ragged cluster of entities on which philosophy had wasted so much time.

This achievement was of consequence to me because, as betrayed as I felt I’d been by every philosopher who’d promised me proof that I and the world were more than dreams or accidents, I did not want to see philosophy demoted to the status of a historical curio, to be studied, like alchemy, only as an example of the mind’s capacity for meticulous folly. Indeed, I’d come to Germany in the hope that I might salvage something usable from the old traditions of thought, that I might learn to trust again in sentences that offered more to the spirit than tidy syntax and humble verifications. Day after day, in seminars on aesthetics, phenomenology, epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics, I’d force myself to listen sympathetically to philosophy performed in high, idealistic German style, to nouns and verbs compounding themselves into monstrosities of language as they strained to become definitions that would unify thought and matter, time and space, beauty and truth, and dozens more of those old dualities that once gave philosophy its best moments of intellectual tension. As generous as I tried to be toward these attempts to speak majestically about the world, I heard nothing that made me believe that there were truths larger than those expressed in sentences like “At a certain time and place it is probable that I perceived green.” After a few months I gave up attending classes and began a private purge of those philosophers whose errors I considered the most dangerous to an honest state of mind.

I did not begin cautiously. The first to be banished was the aristocrat Plato, the philosopher who’d created the noblest vision of mind, matter, and soul of any thinker with a private income and a taste for worldly pleasure. However, he had founded this sublime view of things on a terrible error, namely, the belief that tautologies are evidence of the mind’s endowment with natural inspiration. For anyone who’s been fascinated by his own thoughts, this is indeed a seductive notion, for it offers leisurely enjoyment of one’s own logic, of peaceful apprehension of truths that have no need of commerce with the low-bred disorders of the external world. However, in its isolation from the rough ambiguities of life’s surfaces, all Plato’s nous can do is make up new geometries or games for itself, and all it can commune with are minds born to share its premises. Faced with the question whether a man ought to be crucified for disturbing the peace or whether sex three times a day is morally good or bad, such minds are helpless, for they must find answers consistent with the axioms they have made up for the sake of a coherent world, but in those very axioms are the questions they wish to answer. Thus Plato’s dialectic, so exalted in its Socratic personification, was nothing more than intelligence discovering over and over again its own hypothesis and then exalting in the impossible task of turning the hypothetical into reality. It had all made for marvelous talk, for exquisite demonstrations that a heaven of pure passion and ideal proportions is self-evident to those with a knack for philosophy. But it had all been done with tricks, with arithmetic gimmicks and logical mirrors that had dazzled me for a time, but that now seemed shoddy devices to make the world thinkable.

But it was not easy to exile Plato, especially in Munich, during the last days of October, since this is when the city celebrates, with unashamed grossness, the existence of beer. My window looked out on the meadow where each of the local breweries had erected a mammoth tent in which, to the accompaniment of a brass band, the Münchener could drink the local product from foot-high steins decorated with slightly obscene Sprichwörter on the pleasures and problems of drink. The celebrants, groaning and muttering as they stumbled home, often converted the rich Bavarian brews into urine or vomit beneath my window, and I would watch them sadly, without any alternative to fall back on, my gaze gradually rising to the dark October sky from which I had chased all the exquisite absolutes that Plato had put there. I longed to glimpse, through sense or intuition, something finer than a Bavarian beer festival, and like Parmenides, I would have accepted mud, air, and excretion as readily as tree, star, and hummingbird. Anything that indicated purpose or progression beyond a life of Oktoberfest would have been acceptable if it improved the view from my window. But of course nothing appeared, and Plato gave way before a lederhosen’ed Hans Wurst who, in his human grossness, did not require a subtle logic to prove his existence.

Aristotle, with his categories, followed his mentor into exile, for he had been no less guilty of trimming the world to suit his philosophy. Some Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans I allowed to linger, since they had generally not presumed to tell the truth about life, merely to state a few useful hints for getting through it. Church fathers and theologians who had played with ontological, causal, or teleological proofs of divinity received lay notices of eviction; those who had urged humility and faith, I kept in reserve in case it ever came to pass that the only course left open to me was that of exhausted conversion.

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A few days after the New Year came the hardest parting of all. I had truly admired Descartes: the range of his thought was impressively contained, the method of his inquiry a magnificently expanding spiral of taut induction. Even if he had fallen back on the idea of an undeceitful god in order to verify the world’s reality, it was a small indulgence that one allowed him in gratitude for his establishing the indubitableness of the ego, of the thinking subject that may doubt everything except the fact that it is indeed doubting. His cogito ergo sum had been much more to me than a philosophical catchword: it was, if one examined it with care. and understanding, an exquisite monstrance in which a radiant human Self was revealed. However, I had learned from the history of logic that what is not needed need not be. From Occham’s Razor to Sheffer’s Stroke, the principle of refinement and reduction had been the duty of thought, and with sadness I admitted that “I think therefore I am,” was just a dramatic way of saying that “There are thoughts.” Ergo, there is no logical reason to believe that one’s thoughts are one’s own, any more than there is reason to believe that one’s perceptions are glimpses of reality. Descartes’s attempt to prove his existence had been gallant, but even in a world of clear and distinct ideas, he was, by his own logic, a superfluity.

Kant, the celebrant of synthetic a priori space and time, had given me a moment of hope that there might be some bit of noble immanence in the human mind. But I should have guessed from the beginning that anyone who resurrects the bureaucratic notion of categories, or who posits a Ding-an-sich whenever the phenomenal world gets out of hand, was not to be trusted. I realized that unlearned awareness of space and time was not a proof of intuitive knowledge but simply a primitive criterion for being alive. To say that one must be breathing in order to learn mathematics is to say enough to be severely condemned.

Just before Lent, after a mass trial of British empiricists, I renounced my last connection with formal philosophy. Mathematics, not as a science of information but as an exquisite form of intellectual play, had become my refuge from the traducements of the senses. From the work of Cantor, Boole, Peano, Frege, and Russell, I had drawn the conclusion that there could at least be imagined constructions of thought that pretended to nothing except their own consistency and completeness. Worn out with looking for a workable nexus between mind and matter, I’d thought of counting myself among those about whom Poincaré said, “La matière ne leur importe pas, la forme seule les intéresse.” The forms in question were not those of Plato, a ne plus ultra chair or trapezoid floating in celestial ether and waiting patiently to be contemplated by the right philosopher. Rather, they were strategies of mind, elaborately postulated edifices that needed no earth-bound models or appeals to intuition for their proofs. They were complete, finished mosaics of intelligence that could not even be described by ordinary language, so magnificently useless was their aesthetic appeal. I became, therefore, metalingual, thinking and speaking inside inverted commas, and for a time, confident that this new source of delight was infinite in its resources, I had been a contented abstract thinker.

Then came Gödel’s Proof, an infamous and arcane piece of brilliance that demonstrated that all axiomatic systems are incomplete, that they must be submitted to rules of inference whose consistency must always be in doubt. For a long time I resisted the grim truth contained among Gödel’s definitions and lemmata, willfully refusing to understand the conclusions I knew they led to. All I now had left were a few algebraic geometries, and I had no intention of parting with them easily, of admitting that there was no worthwhile mental enterprise that was above suspicion.

However, determined to end the purge without sentiment, I reluctantly sentenced the mathematicians to return, as they seemed ready to do, to Platonic Realism and there to waste infinite time in the search for ideal numbers. This last judgment came as the pre-Lenten holiday in Munich was ending, when the streets were filled with costumed revelers swaying and singing through the night. Secure in the anonymity of carnival motley, they kissed and fondled each other roughly, laughed, belched, and copulated in celebration of their mortality and the belief that, no matter what their excesses, they would be pardoned and redeemed. Dressed as a French matelot, I goosed and howled with the others through the last days of Fasching, and on the morning before Ash Wednesday, stripped of all moral responsibilities, I awoke in Munich’s English Gardens, with dozens of others who had passed out the night before, and accepted, in spite of the demonstrative proof of a hangover, my unverifiable self as the fragile arbiter of all inconstant things in a slightly probable world.

I should say almost accepted. Old habits were hard to put away, and flashes of thought kept returning to entice me back into quests for a systematic life. ~(3x) x=x was one of these last throbs of speculation, and for several weeks I actually thought that by starting with a logic whose model would be nothing, a logic whose first theorem implied its uniqueness, I might come to the truth about the world through its negation. I nurtured my formula through the spring, taking it with me on trips to the mountains, weighing its logical force against the Bavarian scenery, its decree of emptiness against the Alps’ inconclusive beauty.

With summer, however, sanity returned, and I saw that what I’d considered unique about my proposition rendered it a useless contradiction. For if ~(3x) x=x itself was a singular instance, then of course it must be considered to exist, whether as a logical concept or as a sensible, expressive phenomenon. This time, as I stared into paradox, I vowed never again to think formally about anything that mattered, or worry that I hadn’t earned the right to express anger at, and snatch relative pleasure from, a universe that tolerates no human predicate.

_____________

 

I have recounted this breakdown of belief because what follows is a narrative of despair and temptation in Las Vegas, and I want it to be understood that I was supported by no body of principles that I felt transcended my own uncertain character. When I went out into the wilderness to be tested, I went, to be sure, with a tempter far inferior to him who could offer whole kingdoms for a soul. But then, unlike him who had been tempted, I was already certain that all my fathers, from Thales to Wittgenstein, had deserted me.

Las Vegas was the first stop on a trip that was supposed to take me to gambling centers all over the world. But my luck had suddenly turned bad, and within a very short time of my arrival, I had lost more than a third of all the money I possessed. For days I courageously fought back all doubts about my being unfit for such a voyage and continued to return to the tables. I wandered from casino to casino, betting small amounts now and then at craps or blackjack, waiting for a sign of encouragement, a brief run of luck that would justify doubling or tripling my betting units until I was in a position to recover in an instant everything I’d lost. And, indeed, there were flurries here and there of good fortune, but they never lasted long enough for me to feel the confidence needed for increased commitment, and I would wait until the dice or cards turned against me and then wander off feeling that my reluctance had been justified. I thought I was displaying admirable self-control, but I was really simply afraid to face the risk of a large gamble, to submit again to the full force of chance and to feel my entire being at stake in the encounter. Sleeping in snatches, always restless, unable to sit still long enough to eat anything that took longer than a hamburger to prepare, I traversed miles of gambling space, stopping only now and then to make a furtive bet or to peer sheepishly over the shoulders of other players.

I was, of course, paying a high price for vacillation. By betting amounts that could not quickly win a happy ending, I subjected myself to steady erosion by the house percentage. In a few days of caution, I had frittered away nearly a thousand dollars, and the time came when I could no longer pretend that I was acting with professional restraint, that I was not stultified by panic.

I decided therefore to economize, to move downtown to a cheaper hotel, to play in less plush casinos. I did not think of this change of surroundings as a discipline or a penance. Indeed, I felt that I would be more at ease in surroundings that made no attempt to soften the facts of gambling, to pretend that waiting for a wheel to stop or a card to be drawn was a holiday diversion. On the Strip, an appearance of fun and triviality is kept up by player and management, but downtown, along Fremont Avenue, where the casinos spill out into the streets, and where, waiting for a bus or while buying the week’s groceries, one’s luck can be tested on slot machines and chuck-a-luck wheels, there is no effort made to keep gambling from becoming the only pattern of life. Here a player need not be ashamed to reveal that he is serious and fearful, for it is as though everyone in downtown Las Vegas understands that his survival in a world of accidents is not assured, and the woman who works the handle of a slot machine in eight-hour shifts, the dollar dice player who times his appearance at the tables so that it coincides with the bar’s free-drink hour, the clerks and taxi drivers who reduce their lives’ adventure to a standing lunch spent at the roulette wheels—all accept that they are in a sauvequi-peut situation and tolerate any behavior that does not directly threaten their hope for sudden rescue.

I chose a hotel whose lobby was filled with sleeping cowboys and a few dazed women who read comic books or fed babies while their men were off at the tables trying to win the fare back home, or at least enough to pay the rent for a few more days. I was shown to my room by a thin, pale, weary-looking young man, who was as uninterested in the process of my checking-in as I was. He delivered a quick speech on the virtues of the women he could procure, and then left, leaving the door open behind him, as if he knew I would be following in a few seconds. And in just that amount of time I was out in the streets, heading for casinos with sawdust floors, faro tables, and wheels of chance that had been spinning since this part of America was settled. Indeed, as you walk off the street through swinging doors and enter these rough, informal rooms, you return to a time when there was little else to do except gamble, when wages might as well be spent on cards and whiskey since there was nothing to buy, either for pleasure or out of need, that would make the coming year easier than the last. And if you do not actually find, clustered at the tables and bars, besotted miners, garrulous drummers, half-wild hunters, and cowboys cutting cards for an Indian whore, you do meet their descendants: wispy, less vivid specimens, perhaps, but all wearing the blank, fugitive expressions of the frontier.

_____________

 

“Can I buy you a drink, young fellow?”

It had been so long since anyone except a casino dealer had talked to me that I didn’t answer, certain that the man was addressing someone else. I kept staring at my reflection in the giant mirror behind the Lucky Horseshoe’s bar, marveling how, in slightly over a week, I had become a study in genteel decline. Expensive suit, but unpressed and spotted, rumpled shirt with collar open and twisted over the jacket’s lapels; face washed but unshaven; hair neat in appearance but really made rigid by sweat; expression, that of dignified hysteria, with eyes reflecting exhaustion and a willingness to try anything.

“You don’t look that good that you should pass up a drink.”

This time I knew I was being spoken to. I looked at the man and said I agreed with him.

“Blake’s the name,” he said. “Boris Blake, the last of a breed. Take a good look at me, young man, for I’m vanishing quickly.”

I did and saw a comically malevolent face whose most impressive feature was a widow’s peak that dropped across the width of his forehead almost to the bridge of the nose. The rest of his ink-black hair was slicked down on either side of a gleaming part that seemed made with a ruler. His eyes were slightly slanted, as were the brows above them. A thin mustache formed a neat triangle with his upper lip, and needed only a curl at each end to complete the perfect portrait of a melodrama villain.

“So, are you taking out any money?” he asked when the drinks arrived. “You look like you’ve been working hard.”

Even his voice had a twang of theatrical evil to it, a mixture of sinister cackles and unctuous whines. His hands, however, were not those of a heartless landlord or riverboat sharper, not tapered and diabolically delicate. They were gruesomely large, with giant spatulate fingers into which the nails were crushed and embedded. They seemed deformed, yet they manipulated the drink and cigarette they held with unusual grace.

“This town is rough, I’m telling you. You don’t get an inch from anyone here,” Boris complained when I told him that things had not been going too well. “You look like a nice gentlemanly person, if you know what I’m saying. And there’s nothing around here but a bunch of thieves.”

“All the thieves are on the house side of the table,” I said, hoping that Boris was off on a loser’s lament. To coax someone else who has lost into a display of chagrin is one of the lowest forms of comfort available to a losing gambler, but I was not above making use of it.

“You understand me,” Boris said, a bit of amazement in his voice, as if he’d said something terribly complex. “You come here for a little honest gambling and you have to make yourself a sucker, turn yourself into a mark before they let you play. You gotta walk around carrying their vig on your back like some sort of coolie. Everyone’s supposed to be equal in this country, so how come the house gets a 5 per cent edge at blackjack and only pays thirty-to-one on double sixes?”

“That’s the entertainment tax,” I answered.

Boris reared back, his features arched in shock.

“And you’re being entertained?” he asked.

At this point we suddenly were joined by the chief of the casino guards, a huge man who wore a gun and a serious expression.

“You’re not thinking of doing any gambling here, are you, Boris?” he said softly. Boris put his glass down and asked why he was always being picked on every time he came into the. Lucky Horseshoe, especially since he had lost thousands over the years at its tables.

When the guard answered with a blank expression, Boris demanded once and for all that it be explained to him why he should be hounded and harassed when he had the urge to make a five-dollar bet or just sniff around the games a little. Had he ever been offensive or slowed down the play at the tables? Was his money counterfeit, his breath bad, his racial origins not suited to the clientele’s tastes? Was he, and he used this word with obvious pride in having learned it, a pariah ? It seemed Boris could have continued his offended performance forever, but then he had to pause for breath and the hiatus in his complaint was filled by a drawled order to finish his drink and leave. Then the guardian of the casino patted him heavily on the back, stared at me for several seconds, and wandered off.

“I am not going to fool with crazy Texans,” Boris said and drained his glass. “They’re worse than the Wops up on the Strip. Up there they don’t want to hurt anybody because of their image. Around here, they don’t have any image that doesn’t go with shooting people. It’s their goddamn tradition, so I’m leaving.”

_____________

 

During the next few days, as I waited for my luck to change, I kept glimpsing Boris prowling about the gambling rooms. Although he never bet or even mixed with the other players, he invariably was invited to leave by someone of menacing dimensions and, after a brief argument, he would quickly vanish.

I vaguely wondered why he was an outcast in a world usually open to anyone disposed to make a one-dollar bet, but I was too concerned with my own persecution to make any inquiries about him. The move to downtown Las Vegas was proving ineffective. In between bursts of luck, I still suffered long series of losses, and each morning I returned to my room three- or four-hundred dollars poorer than I’d been when the day began. With a brain filled with sour memories and sad financial calculations, it was impossible to sleep deeply, and I often simply forced myself to stay in bed until enough time had passed for me to believe that I must have rested. Then I’d jump up, splash water on my face, make a half-hearted effort to dry-shave—I was too impatient to be out of the room to bother with lathering—pick out my most presentable shirt, and head for the streets and another day at the tables.

I was eating lunch at a chili stand when I spoke to Boris the second time. For a day or so I had been unable to keep my hands from trembling whenever they held something, and I was now trying to get a huge, dripping taco into my mouth.

“Appearance is man’s greatest asset, so said my uncle the tailor.”

Boris was looking at a rivulet of rust-colored sauce oozing down my sleeve. I dabbed at it with a paper napkin and sent more of the taco splattering on the floor.

“They still grinding you out, young man?” he asked, taking a small but pointed step back from my droppings.

“Why do you keep calling me ‘young fellow’ and ‘young man’?” I asked, trying to rise above my run-down condition.

“Just a manner of speaking,” Boris protested. “Just a little friendly patter.”

He paused and looked around him, his head throbbing forward and back like a lizard’s.

“One of the few joints they don’t throw me out of,” he said approvingly. “Because it’s one of the few joints that don’t even have a slot machine on the premises.”

I gave him a moment to savor his bitterness and then asked why he was so coolly received everywhere he went.

“Because I’m not a sucker,” he answered proudly. Then ruefully, “and because I’ve got too much heat. That’s what I want to talk to you about, before they suck so much out of you that you start turning into a lush or shooting a little consolation up into your veins.”

“I’m not so simple,” I answered, and threw what remained of my Mexican lunch into a trashcan.

“I know you’re not,” Boris said, moving a little closer to me now that there was no danger of his being spattered. “I’ve got a good eye for class, and you look like you could move in any circles you wanted to. But let’s face it, it don’t look like you’re doing too great at the moment.”

“What if I’m not? Why should it interest you?”

“So you can tell I’m not an eccentric millionaire looking for people to help,” Boris laughed. “The fact is, I’ve got a proposition for you if you can spare a little time. And in a way I am going to give you something for nothing. I am going to make you my heir.”

We walked a block or so together and then got into a large station wagon. In a few minutes we were driving outside of Las Vegas, along a highway, through the desert.

“I mean this is bleak land, isn’t it?” Boris sighed as we drove through a landscape of scrub cactus, dried clay, dust-covered rocks and tumble-weeds. “I was driving along a highway through country like this in New Mexico once, and I kept seeing signs that read ‘Beware of Gusts.’ I’ve no idea what the hell a gust’s supposed to be, so I figure you’ve got to have pretty hard luck to run into one. So don’t you know one of those goddamn gusts comes up behind me when I’m doing seventy-an-hour, and flips my car right off the road. One lousy gust cost me three months in a hospital. I tell you, nature can be a mean son-of-a-bitch. Don’t fool with it.”

“Where are we going?” I asked, as Las Vegas began to recede behind us.

“Somewhere where I can show you my offer in private,” Boris said, and after chuckling and muttering to himself for a few miles, he suddenly answered the questions I’d put to him at the lunch counter.

“So you want to know why they don’t let me play in the gambling capital of the world? It’s because they know I’m gonna rob them. Walk right out with their money, and they gotta just stand there and watch me.”

“You do that with a gun, Boris?”

“With these,” Boris said, lifting his hands from the wheel for inspection. “With these broken and ugly extremities I make cards and dice defy the laws of the universe. Do you understand what I’m tellin’ you? I make Einstein write a whole new book on physical matter.”

“So you cheat.”

“My friend,” Boris answered, after weighing my statement with a few nods of meditation, “there was a time when I would have objected to that word. I would have put in a claim that I was an artist, or a Robin Hood who only stole from those who wanted to steal from me. But now I accept the word ‘cheat.’ Boris Blake at your service, the best dice and card mechanic in the world. No more, certainly no less.”

“How good can you be if everyone knows your profession?” I asked. It was a question that made Boris wince.

“I’ve been at this for twenty years,” he said in his best injured tone. “All over the world I’ve busted out games that no one thought could be taken. I’ve spotted cards with cream cheese in poker sessions in the Catskills and switched in shapes right under the nose of the toughest Mafia greaseballs in Brooklyn. I mean I took their money, Friend. Right out of their goddamn pocket. I . . . took . . . their . . . money! Hell, once when I was in jail I threw in a dynamite package against four murderers in one game. I had no fear, that’s why I was the best.”

_____________

 

Suddenly Boris turned off the highway and headed up a side road that seemed to lead nowhere.

“But now, I’ve just been around too much. Even though no one’s caught me in the act, there’s just too much suspicion, too much heavy heat. I can’t even do a little light work now and then without someone starting a beef. Fame has been thrust upon me, and I can’t do anything about it.”

“Why don’t you retire?” I asked. “You must have made enough by now.”

“Young man—after that remark I get to call you ‘young man’—what the hell is enough? Come on, you’re a gambler, you tell me what’s your limit.”

It was a good question, one which I had always known I would have to answer, but which I had no reply to then.

Suddenly Boris stopped. There was nothing around for miles, which is exactly what he seemed to want as he scanned the area. When we got out of the car, we were almost knocked down by the desert heat, and for a minute both of us were afraid to breathe or speak. Slowly, I began to slide back into the air-conditioned wagon.

“No!” Boris finally gasped. “You’ve got to get out. I can’t show you anything in there.”

“We’ll get a stroke if we stand out in the sun,” I said, and tried to close the door past the wedge Boris had made with his body against it.

“Just ten minutes. I’ll show you my whole life’s work in ten minutes. Everything that I can teach, but enough for you to walk away with that whole goddamn town over there.”

I looked at where Boris was pointing and saw, shimmering in the heat, a Las Vegas of vague, liquid colors and undulant forms. From the distance of the desert, it looked like a mirage, but I knew its reality; knew that I was being offered more than a cheap trinket of the imagination, and this was enough to coax me out of the car a second time.

Boris opened the rear door, took out a folding table, and set it on the hard, baked ground. Then he brought forth a small trunk which he placed under the table, and two folding chairs. He motioned me to sit in one, then took a deck of cards from the trunk and began shuffling them.

“You can understand,” he said while performing neat, tight riffles with the deck, “why I wouldn’t want to display all this in a hotel room. One nosy bellboy who tells a few stories and all those crazy cowboys who think they’ve gotta kill somebody once a week got me with the goods. Then they just don’t ask me to leave, they do a little job on my body while I’m going.”

Boris set the cards down on the table and motioned to me to cut them. Then he began his performance, speaking only to explain the precise nature of each manipulation or to exhort me to look closely at his large, mangled hands. After a few minutes, in that cooked wasteland, I began to feel that we were in some alien world, for what he forced the cards to do made good his boast that he could change our planet’s natural laws. Bottoms, seconds, annulment cuts, deck switches, hold-outs, palmings, waving—all were displayed in swirls of easy movement that mocked the senses. The demonstration ended with my dealing him hands of blackjack which he converted each time into the jack of clubs and ace of diamonds.

“Well, what do you think?” Boris asked, sweeping the cards from the table in a quick, single-handed movement.

“An impressive display,” I said.

“Only part of my repertoire,” he beamed. He then returned to the car and, from under a tarpaulin, removed what looked like a small, topless coffin and placed it on the table. When I peered into it, I saw that it was a scaled-down craps table, correct in every detail, even to its sides being covered with tiny rubber spikes to insure that dice would carom in a manner that couldn’t be predetermined. Boris knelt down at one end of the long box, rolled a pair of ruby-colored dice along the length of the shooting surface, and asked me to examine them. I counted the number of spots on each side, made sure they were cubes, and let the sun flash through them to reveal any impurities.

“All right, toss them back, if you think they’re legitimate.”

I did. Boris picked them up, rattled them for several seconds, and then sent them crashing against my end of the table. When they came to rest, I saw that their color was now a deep emerald, and on closer inspection I discovered that the dotted cubes contained only three numbers instead of six, that there was no possibility of their forming a combination that totaled seven. They could therefore be rolled forever and always make the shooter’s point.

“How’s that for a switch?” Boris asked.

“Magical,” I answered.

“No, just work motivated by a love of larceny. Of course I don’t switch in a pair of shapes like that except when I’m playing with some retards.”

He then produced the red dice from a hollow in his hand that had been covered by a lump of muscle at the base of the thumb.

“All right,” he said, “now I’m going to hold up a six, five times in a row. Keep your eyes on the little red squares.”

Dizzy from the sun, I struggled to focus on the dice as they careened and bounced about the table. As Boris predicted, one of them always came to rest with a six-spotted side upward. Boris said nothing after the rolls were over, as if he divined my thoughts and had no wish to interrupt speculation on what it would mean to master such an art.

_____________

 

As we drove back to Las Vegas, Boris still avoided the subject of my becoming his pupil. Instead he told me about the event that had started his decline as a mechanic.

“I mean I had done real well for over fifteen years, movin’ from Miami to Vegas, from San Juan to London—anywhere there was action. And I never had no heat. I mean any time I wanted to I could drop into a joint and pick up five or ten large and slip away like a thief, like I’m Boris the Invisible. Then I go to Greece ’cause I hear they’ve opened up some new casinos there, and it figures that the joints oughtta be pretty soft, with dealers who don’t even know how to count chips yet. Well, I walk into this place outside of Athens, a beautiful plush layout with a view of the ruins up on a hill, and it looks just like a piece of cake. The dealers can’t even peek at a hand without flashing their hole card and the guys at the dice table, half the time, forget to pick up a losing bet. I mean I could have played on the upsky and beaten that joint all the money. But I gotta do what I’ve taught myself to do, right? Which meant a little holding out at the blackjack table. Nothing too strong. Maybe three times an hour I come in with a twenty-one from my pocket, and nobody even thinks of blinking when I do. I’m not lookin’ to make an impression, so after I’ve won about two thou I tip the dealer real nice and head for the cash-in window, thinking it’s all been sweet and easy, and that maybe I’ll drop back in a few days and hit for the same number. Then, just as I’m being paid off, this guy in a uniform walks up to me. He tells me he’s Captain something-or-other and points to a name plate and a badge he’s got pinned on his uniform. Right away I know there’s gonna be a beef and that the best way to handle that is to come on strong, start shouting about how much money you’ve dropped in their joint, how they’ve got some nerve to get nasty when you finally have a little run of luck, and in general make them want to get you out of there before you start scaring away all their customers. But for some reason I don’t want to get this guy angry. It was hard to figure what he was gonna do. I mean, for Chrissake, how do you take a reading on a guy with triangles in his name. So schmuck that I am, I let him take me back into his office, where we are joined by two sullen gorillas, also wearing badges and a lot of geometry on their chests, and I resign myself to getting bruised or giving back the money. However, the Captain offers me a chair and starts chatting with me real nice, asking if I’m enjoying my stay in Athens and why I’d chosen Greece for a vacation. I answer him soft and polite, and for a minute I think maybe he’s just some guy from the tourist bureau assigned to find out what kind of clientele the casino’s attracting. Then he goes and opens the windows and he stares at whatever you call those ruins at the top of the hill and very softly he asks me, ‘Mr. Blake, why do you cheat?’ Just like that. Like he was asking what hotel I was stayin’ at. Well, I say, ‘I beg your pardon? and he, with his back still to me, he sort of sighs and says again, ‘Mr. Blake I would like to know very much why you cheat.’

“Well, I’m forced to make a little protest at this, you understand, so I give him my offended act and start to get up from the chair. This stirs up the gorillas, however, and so I sit down, and very calmly demand an apology. But he just turns around, smiles, and asks me the same question again. Did he see me cheat, I ask? Did anybody see me do anything wrong? He shrugs and wags his head like it didn’t matter if anyone actually saw me making a move or two, like all he had to do was stare at my ears to tell that I’m a swindler. Then he starts a spiel about how cheating is really no more than robbery, and when you rob you make society a little worse than it was, and since you’re part of society you’ve made yourself also a little worse. Now, I’m listening to this—with two grand of the joint’s money in my pocket, I feel I can afford to listen even if the guy is coming on like a mental case—and nodding like it’s makin’ sense. So he goes on and on, tellin’ me that by palming an ace in his joint I’m really holding out on myself since I’m swindling from what I’m a part of and no sane man is gonna do that, right? Right, but I say to him that I, Boris Blake, was robbing nobody. Only passing a little time. He shakes his head at this, like he’s more disappointed than steamed up over the way I stick to my story.

“Then he picks up this little broken statue that’s on his desk, you know one of those goddesses with drapery on them that you find in every junk shop in Athens. He gives it to me and asks me to look at it. It’s about a foot high and real heavy, and as I’m running it down, thinking the lady’s shoulders are a little broad for my taste, the Captain tells me who the goddess was and what she was supposed to have done and all sorts of things like he was a museum guide. Then suddenly right out he asks me if I think she’s beautiful. Of course, I give him what I think he wants to hear, and tell him yes. He takes the statue back, nods at it—I’m getting an uneasy feeling that the guy is pure crazy by now—and then he asks me what I would think if I saw somebody relievin’ himself on this beautiful statue. I start to laugh, but I gulp it right down when I see how serious the Captain’s face is. I tell him it would be terrible, and he says, yes, it would be terrible because it would show ignorance. A person who understands beauty would never do such a thing. I go along with that, and then he makes a quick mental move back to me robbin’ the joint. I’m ignorant of what I’m really doin’, because I don’t understand it. How can I understand what I didn’t do, I shoot back at him. But if I had done it, would I understand it? And if I didn’t do it, would it matter, if I didn’t understand what I didn’t do? I mean that was his ploy. Every time I answer a question, he’s got another one, and I feel like a job’s being done on me, but I can’t figure where the con. is. I just keep answerin’ yes and no, no and yes, until I don’t know what I’m talking about. I mean all I can get is that this guy is trying to prove that I’m some kind of moron or a thief, and I’m not buyin’ either one of them. But it’s like I’m standing on two chairs that are being pulled further and further apart.

“Finally I say no when I should have said yes or vice versa, and to some crazy question like could I enjoy a sunset if I’m not watching it. He gives me a nice big smile and says ‘So, you did cheat us Mr. Blake.’ I give it one more shot at sayin’ no, but he goes over everything we’ve said, all the questions and answers which to him, and to the two gorillas, prove that not only am I a bandit, but I’m a dumb bandit as well. Then he sort of pats my shoulder and says that you can’t blame ignorance too much, so if I’ll just return the money there’ll be no official action taken. I figure okay, it’s a stand-off, so let’s be civilized about it. I take out the cash and put it on the desk. This guy looks at it for a while and then gives me a real sad expression and asks me again why someone would urinate on a statue. I remember that answer, so I tell him, ignorance. At this he shoots a look at the gorillas and suddenly each one grabs onto an arm so that my hands are stretched out flat on the deck. And then this Greek bastard says to me, ‘No, Mr. Blake, it might also be that the statue is ugly and the man is doing an act of criticism. You are too certain about things, even when you’re supposed to be gambling. That is how we knew you were cheating.’ With this he picks up the goddess, waves her under my nose and asks me if I could change my mind about her being beautiful to look at. I know what’s coming by the way he’s eyeing me, but I just stare at him and the statue for a second and say, in a real even voice so he knows I’m telling him to go to hell, that I’m going to stick to my opinion that she’s a beautiful piece of work. He sort of shrugs, and brings that square-shouldered lady down on my left hand, then on my right, and then twice more on each of them.

“I won’t even try to tell you what the pain was like. I mean I just kept whimpering all the time they dragged me off to some doctor, who doesn’t do nothing but wrap some bandages around them so the bleeding doesn’t show, and then to the airport where my bags are waiting for me along with a ticket out of the country. Then the Captain has my picture taken just in case, even with the banged-up hands he’s given me, I come up with some way to beat the gambling joints, because, as he says, still talking soft and reasonable, it’s hard to learn to be an honest man, even when you’ve really had a good teacher. Every casino in the world is gonna get a copy of my picture just in case I get confused about things again. Then he puts the statue next to me on the waiting bench and walks off.”

_____________

 

I assumed with this story that Boris was making an honest effort to warn me that there was some danger in accepting his teaching. But as I looked at his hands resting on the wheel of the car, I felt confident that I would never suffer such punishment if I became a swindler with cards and dice. At least I would be beyond being duped into a confession by any Athenian logic.

When we stopped in front of my hotel, Boris told me that I didn’t have to make my mind up right away. Then he held his hands out in front of me.

“In one year I had them working again. But the pictures ruined me. And to tell the truth, I never could’ve really made it in class joints. I got a bad face. I mean it’s pretty easy to read me for larceny. But you, no one could ever take you for an outright weasel. You could bring what I know into places that don’t let me through the door, even if I never touch a deck of cards in my life.”

I told Boris that I would let him know my decision, but I really considered his proposal to teach me his craft no more than a fairy-tale boon, like a cloak of invisibility or a golden touch. It had its fantastic appeal, but I was still confident that I needed no wiles in order to gamble successfully, that I would naturally find my way to good fortune.

However, during the next few days, this idea of myself grew harder to sustain. As my money dwindled, anxious swells passed over me, cold intimations of failure and permanent dishevelment, of a lifetime spent in a casino mob that scurries pointlessly from promise to promise. I kept demanding to win, but could still not find the daring needed to make winning possible, and so I went on changing games and tables, betting five or ten dollars at a time, waiting for an impossible run of luck that would, in an unbroken string of right choices, retrieve all the thousands I’d lost.

During this time, Boris did not talk to me again, but everywhere I gambled, he made a brief, pointed appearance. As a defense against immediate ejection, he had taken to wearing ridiculous disguises—beards, wigs, and glasses, behind which it was absurdly easy to recognize his condemned features and detect his soul’s devotion to chicanery. We of course didn’t acknowledge each other, and I would continue gambling as though I’d never considered making a pact between us.

One morning, at about five o’clock, I thought my luck had finally changed. All night I had been losing, and I now had nothing left of the money I’d brought to Las Vegas except two $1,000 travelers’ checks. The evening’s long series of defeats had left me too exhausted to go through the procedure of cashing one, a process that had naturally become more difficult as my appearance deteriorated. As I retreated from the casino’s center tables, I stopped for a second at each of the slot machines along the way, hoping to find one that had been left primed by an absent-minded player. This was indeed a low ritual, indulged in by the most debased victims of bad luck who milled about the downtown casinos, and had I caught myself doing it a week before, I would have stopped in disgust. But for the last few nights, I had tried the handles without shame, unembarrassed even when I knew I was being contemptuously observed by employees and players alike.

Somewhere in the middle of a row of dollar machines, I drew down on a handle and felt it slip past the locking gears. I took a breath, continued to pull, and indeed the machine sprang to life, its strips of colored symbols humming into a single blur that, after three separate clicking stops, would resolve into a trio of bells, fruit, and golden bars.

However, when the whirring stopped, it was not these usual symbols I saw in front of me. Instead, one, then another, and then a third small red heart appeared behind the glass covering, and before I could check its diagram of winning combinations, the machine began to buzz, brighten, and pulsate with colored lights. I rushed to snatch a cup from a nearby table just as a long metallic retch was followed by the clanging eruption of silver dollars from the mouth of the machine. I filled the cup, my pockets, and my hands, and still the flood continued, coins dropping around me on the floor, adding their clatter to the noise the machine still made in advertisement of its sudden generosity. Other players stopped to help me retrieve them, and even those who had been uneasily entertained by the sight of my attempting to coax free chances from the slots, joined in the search and brought me, with honest congratulations, my silver dollars.

When all had been found, a guard escorted me to a change booth, where a smiling lady presented me with a large, round pin that had the casino’s name and “Jackpot Winner” stamped on it. Then she counted the coins and changed them into a form I could more conveniently carry—a single hundred dollar bill.

Naturally, it was not the amount, but the way of obtaining it, that made me feel certain I’d been given the sign I’d waited for during the weeks of slow, grinding descent. I sensed I was again part of a drama that was constructed from the beginning with a just resolution in view. Not to act decisively after such ex machina intercession would mean that one should forfeit the right to gamble forever, and so wearing my winner’s badge, with the vision of three tiny red hearts held in my mind for triple courage, I went to the craps table, and bet the hundred dollars when the dice were passed to me.

I lost on the first roll, which caused no stir among the stickmen and players at the table, but which took me several horrible minutes fully to comprehend. And even when I understood that an event had indeed just taken place that put an end to dramatics, I could not accept that I’d been used with such cruel indifference. I had not expected gambling to create for me a world of total coherence, but neither had I expected a malicious one. To have tricked me with a false sign, a sign that no one who wishes a human order in things would not trust in and follow, meant that gambling was as perverse as any of the old philosophies I’d abandoned; that it was no more than raw, impenetrable data on which human qualities had been crudely forced. I watched the dice bound upon the table, the chips and money pass back and forth between those who ran the game and those who played in it, and a rage swelled inside me that was greater than any I’d ever felt over the unkept promises of philosophy. Never had I been so toyed with, so beguiled by apparent meaning, and when I was calm enough to leave the table, I’d decided to accept everything Boris had offered me.

_____________

 

For the next hour I searched for him in the casinos and all-night bars along the streets and avenues of lower Las Vegas. By now it was well into morning, but there were no social signs around me of a day’s beginning. Instead, one felt all the activities of night perpetuating themselves, and the people caught up in them, whether just wakened or driven past sleep by fear or amusement, appeared unconcerned with ordinary notions of time. They were used to conducting life’s business according to schedules of private noons and midnights, and they filled bars at eight in the morning as comfortably as they did supermarkets at eleven at night.

Instead of the tingle of unease I usually felt when I found myself drifting from one day into another without the traditional pause for sleep and ablutions, I enjoyed the disordered morning. The mixture of di- and nocturnal attitudes helped strengthen my resolve to give up all desire for a design to life, and as I’d freed myself in Munich from an addiction to pure thought, so I now was ready, in lower Las Vegas, to abandon my aesthetic superstitions.

Since it was proving difficult to find a disguised Boris among the early morning rabble, I decided to let him seek me, certain that it would not take very long before he sensed my readiness to come to terms. To make his search easier, I entered a casino I played in often, and walked slowly and conspicuously about the tables, distinctly remembering how I’d lost at almost all of them. I could even discern my old auras at the chairs I’d sat in; sad, unkempt penumbras of energy that faded a little with each losing bet. All that expense of spirit, I thought, for nothing; all that care and calculation wasted.

As I strolled toward the room’s entrance, my way was suddenly blocked by a file of tourists behind a guide who announced he was leading them to one of Las Vegas’s most famous sights. I waited as they passed, and then watched them form an adoring crescent around the promised wonder—a large, rectangular, glass case that held, in cash, a total of one million dollars.

“Here, ladies and gentlemen,” the guard droned in a voice struggling with early morning phlegm, “is probably your first and last sight of one million United States dollars.”

The tourists made appreciative noises, and then quickly fell into mute reverence, transfixed by the sight of neat rows of thousand-dollar bills seemingly suspended in the air. Some moved their lips in silent counting; others blinked and wagged their heads in a manner that suggested a desire to disbelieve what they were seeing, as though they wished there were no reality to the number they so often invoked whenever they defined a perfect life. A boy, whose attention wandered for a moment to the pistol worn by the display’s guard, had his head firmly turned by his mother until he again directly faced the goal she was quietly setting for him. A young man and woman, who were dressed in a manner that revealed they’d come directly from one of the town’s twenty-four-hour wedding chapels, clasped each other around the waist, as if to reassure themselves that love doesn’t need so much common currency, and that the life they’d planned was still a wonderful ambition.

Finally the guide decided it was time to dissolve the solemn mood that had settled over his tour. Clearing his throat for attention, he began in a quiet, soothing voice to tell a joke about a Texas millionaire who kept rolls of hundred-dollar bills in his bathroom to be used as toilet paper. When asked why, the Texan had answered: “If somethin’ don’t cost a hundred dollars, it’s no fun doin’ it.” There were sputters of laughter, enough at least to break the million-dollar spell. Then after the guide further amused them by smothering the glass-covered money with passionate kisses, they went away content to have put another item on the tour behind them, one which, several were bold enough to say, had proved, after all, a little disappointing.

I, however, was impressed, for I knew if I accepted Boris’s tutelage, I would have a seven-figured answer to the question, “How much is enough?” If my goal was now nothing but a well ciphered figure, then one million would be a proper premium for my having learned that there was nothing more to life than the counting of its parts, the gathering of bits and pieces of experience which, in sufficient number, can deaden the mind’s passion for self-significance. The money before me meant an easeful passing of time. If it was not enough to blot out seizures of fright in the manner of the mad emperor, to divert myself with games, grottos, and executions, it was sufficient for a comfortable retirement. Looking deeply into the glass of the million-dollar display, I could even see the garden in which I could cultivate my resignation, a place of fountains and cypresses, of shade mixed with meridional sunlight, of bleached gravel paths and sloping terraces, a setting designed for wry thought and doleful memories. I looked again and saw the villa I would own, and, in its one unshuttered window, myself looking exactly as I did in reflected superimposition on the rows of thousand-dollar bills. I wore pajamas, a soft straw hat, and a look that expressed no interest in keeping up appearances.

_____________

 

But then this picture of genteel seclusion faded, and only the money remained. The cold thought struck me that in order to acquire the necessary real-estate for my retirement I was going to have to go to work. There would be no single moment of revenge in which, masked in innocence, I pillaged the halls of gambling. Rather, there would be long hours of modest thefts, days and days of pleasureless travel, months, perhaps years, of slow, disciplined cheating that would cause no suspicion. Work was the only description for the wage-earner’s time I saw stretched before me, for the long sessions of rudimentary exercises I’d have to master before my hands could perform the most simple devious maneuvers. After a life of dramatic reflection, I was accepting the fact that my salvation lay in the learning of a trade, that I must labor in order to achieve nothing more than a comfortable old age.

This, however, was the price to be paid. There would at least be no doubt to the outcome of the days ahead, no chance of pain or delusion. Once a few mechanical skills had been mastered, everything would be inevitable, and I would shape my fortune like a careful potter. Only an immature mind would balk at the boredom in this order of things or feel shame over the manual labor involved.

As I stood staring at the thousand facts that would make up my future, the display’s guard suddenly stiffened. His face flushed and twisted into a desperate grimace; his eyes, focussed directly on me, seemed to bubble in their sockets. He opened his mouth and produced a rush of fluid noises; then, like a broken machine, his arm jerked and twitched toward the handle of his holstered gun. In one ferocious spasm, he grasped the weapon, took a step toward me, and fell, as rigid as timber, at my feet.

I looked down at the large, uniformed body, and knew at once that there was no longer any life in it, that I had just seen a man die. By the time several members of the casino’s staff rushed over and gently rolled the guard on his back, the only human touch to his face was a small clot of blood beneath the nose, which had been broken by the fall. The formality of looking for some lingering vital signs was gone through, and then a coat was placed over the man’s face. When this was done, another guard stepped from the crowd and took over the watch of the million dollars.

I stared for what seemed a long while at the dead man’s replacement, then turned and went to a cashier’s window where a pair of clerks were straining to see what had caused the unscheduled crowd to form around the casino’s tourist attraction. I told them what had happened as I presented, along with my passport, one of my thousand-dollar checks to be cashed. They looked at me as though I might be using death to catch them off guard, and then carefully studied my signatures, my face, and my photograph. One questioned my resemblance to the official picture, and the other took my handwriting to be judged by his superior. While I waited to be verified, I watched two men carry the corpse away on a stretcher and the crowd slowly return to the tables. In a few minutes, by the time my money had been counted and delivered to me, the gambling in the room had started again.

I took a seat at the roulette table, made a small bet on the even numbers, and spun my mind with the wheel. The cycles of thought it contained whirled into a single argument against the small strategies of life that promise certain compensation—for that which is certain demonstrably ends life, and to refute certainty requires a philosophy that finally turns its negative sting upon itself, and dies gasping “There is no greatest number,” that “How much is enough?” is a meaningless question. To work, risk, count, or deduce are only methods, whimsical styles of getting through the arbitrary durations of days and nights. If a man does not wish to toil until death, then he first must exhaust all of his philosophical energy in justifying his idly waiting for a pleasant surprise or a graceful windfall. And when there’s nothing left of thought, then must there be silence? Is Wittgenstein’s Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber müss man schweigen1 the end of all tall tales? Not in the least. We simply return to the beginning, to the alternative that was always present in the lighter Platonic moments: ????î ?????? ??? ????? ?????? ?? ??? ?û??? ??î? ??????.2 And so, before the wheel stopped, I was again making life up as 1 went along and gambling in order to add some depth and suspense to the saga.

When I returned to my hotel, I found my luggage had been moved to the lobby. In my abstracted state, I’d not paid the rent for the last two days, an oversight that had caused my eviction. The dour young bellboy who had welcomed me was at the desk, and he told me as I paid him that my room was now occupied. Then in a tone that both offered advice and anticipated its refusal, he told me that a bus stopped at the hotel in a few minutes that went all the way to San Diego for less than twenty dollars. What he could see, I already knew; Las Vegas and I had worn each other out. The town had most of my money, but I’d won back my wit and enough courage to keep traveling west.

_____________

 

The bus, filled with tired Las Vegas refugees, was just about to leave when, from my window, I saw Boris waving at me frantically. He was in a thickly padded cowboy suit, and wore a henna-colored wig and a matching beard of rabbinical length. With an exaggerated fat man’s waddle, he moved alongside the bus until I shook my head several times in emphatic refusal. He stopped then and threw up his arms in a gesture of resigned bafflement. I waved to him and thought how simple it is to resist temptation when one can prove that giving in to it requires a much greater effort.


Footnotes

1 “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one be silent.”

2 “Well, then, I fancy the more agreeable way is for me to tell you a fable.”

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