Winning a Bundle, Losing It All

February 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Gambler.

Dostoyevsky had a serious gambling problem.  This is not news.  Still, it’s incredible that a mind like his could seriously think that he would get rich playing roulette.  It’s so incredible, in fact, that Edward Wasiolek, in his introduction to this edition, makes a pretty convincing counter-argument: Dostoyevsky was a serious masochist, happy in life and in love only when miserable, and always played until he lost everything or nearly everything because, deep down, he wanted to lose.  What good is faith if it actually gets you something?  Fyodor’s soul probably wandered up to the Pearly Gates and then “accidentally” took the path back to purgatory.

All of which makes for great psychodrama in the novel’s climax.  Alexsei decides to gamble his meager savings to try to save his beloved Polina from the suave Frenchman, de Grieux, who has loaned Polina’s father 50,000 francs.  This swing for the fences is presented in startlingly romantic terms by Dostoyevsky:

Yes, sometimes the wildest idea, an idea which should seem utterly impossible, will become fixed in one’s mind so firmly that one finally begins to take it for something practicable… Even more than that: once such an idea is connected with a powerful, passionate desire, one may eventually take it for something fated, inevitable, predestined, for something that simply must be and is bound to happen!

And so Alexsei begins an “utterly impossible” run of luck.  This gambling to win the freedom of the beloved is reprised in Tom Tykwer’s 1998 film Run Lola Run; the pertinent scene is below:

There is a massive amount of tension and satisfaction built into scenes like this — the clear-cut conflict of man vs. fate, a bounce of the ball meaning the difference between love and misery, life and death.  The major difference between the two strokes of luck is that Alexsei’s run is much longer, and much more plausible (even though still highly implausible) than Lola’s: while she wins her entire necessary amount (100,000 marks) on two spins at 37:1 odds, he builds his stake surely, but incrementally, with losses and gains, until he rides red for a remarkable streak of 14 consecutive plays.  For Lola, roulette’s simply the quickest means to her end: she is desperate and needs money quickly, so she picks the number foremost in her mind and guides the ball to it through sheer will and intimidation.  On the other hand, Alexsei — and through him, Dostoyevsky — recounts his streak with loving detail, with a fond memory for how the plays developed and how the piles of money grew, recounting with a frenzied passion the euphoria of winning with massive amounts of money on the line.  It’s obvious, as he tells the story, that it’s not about Polina anymore: he’s in love with gambling.  He’s in love with the chase.  He’s an addict.

Interestingly, both Run Lola Run and The Gambler arguably undercut their romantic notions of the power of love and the intervention of fate or God into the casino’s operations.  Lola only gets to her trip to the casino after we’ve seen her quest fail and be restarted twice, leaving us to choose whether to believe in the “reality” of this version or to think of it all as a fantasy or delusion.  And Alexsei’s triumphant offering to Polina is rejected after their night together, leaving him to throw it all away with money-grubbing Blanche in Paris (a move which makes sense only if you believe he is consciously trying to get rid of his money) and become a sordid casino-haunter, working for gambling money when he must.  (But couldn’t that be construed as classically romantic in its own way?  The fallen man, rejected by his love, slumming around Europe, gambling just so he can feel something, either hope or despair?)

The Appearance of Freedom

October 16, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

How could I neglect for so long the great discussion of the death of broadcast TV and advertising (p. 410-16)?  It’s great, obviously, for the way it deals with advertising’s weird codependent, parasitic relationship with TV entertainment: how everyone claims to hate TV ads, and they can be so grating and omnipresent and obviously horrible that they even hurt the ratings of the TV shows on and around which they appear (strange: do ads appear “on” or “in” a TV show? why not “among,” or “through”?), but nonetheless they work no matter how much we claim to hate them.  Exhibit A: the political attack ads everyone in the free world claims to hate, but which recur like clockwork in any remotely competitive well-funded race, because they work so much better than the positive ads we all claim to prefer.  (I’m estimating 3/4 of all TV advertising I’ve seen for the past three months has been political — and I watch Simpsons reruns, football, and that’s about it — and just about the only positive ads I’ve seen have been Obama’s, and that’s only a quarter to a half of his ads.  Here in NC, Kay Hagan and Elizabeth Dole are basically just flinging monkey feces at each other by now. )

So this is much like drug addiction (and, while I’m thinking mostly of the recipients of attack ads here, I can imagine McCain furiously rationalizing to himself about one last bender before he goes cold turkey and throws out all the attack-ad and character-assassination-consultant paraphernalia).  But the really stunning phrase occurs in a footnote, in which the narrator pulls us out of Hal’s account to provide a more considered, wider perspective:

164.  Granted that this stuff is all grossly simplified in Hal’s ephebic account; Lace-Forche and Veals are in fact transcendent geniuses of a particularly complex right-time-and-place sort, and their appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom almost unanalyzably compelling.

Of course DFW (and that’s as close to straight-up DFW as we get in this book) would consider masters of marketing and advertising “transcendent geniuses.”  He was often a rhetorical writer and they, as a group, are our rhetoricians, however we (or he) may feel about their motives or means.

“Almost unanalyzably compelling” “appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom.”  Well, yes.  That’s a very large part of this book.  The AA paradox — the way it works even when you don’t believe in it, and the way it seems to just replace one master with another — is part of that.  This is the darkest aspect of that thread of the narrative: the thought that recovery is just a way of making it appear that you’re free, when you’re really just burying the old urges under layers of habit and repetition and willful recitation of how bad you’d once gotten. (But it works.  And there’s the complication of the Higher Power, which Gately acknowledges that acknowledging this HP even if you don’t believe in it seems to work, and make you feel better.  And the whole AA thing is immensely complicated.)

So there’s our cultural tendency to tell ourselves (in both ads and entertainments) that we have choice, are autonomous, can make that great life-changing moment or relationship or epiphany happen.  But, behind that: the appearance of freedom, not freedom itself.  Our ideology is not freedom itself — freedom is scary, and I’d agree with DFW here that we’ve more or less rejected it by this time in our history, if we ever actually embraced it — but its image.  We have admitted that we do not know what’s best for us and will gladly accept a life of wildly proscribed activity, provided we’re kept safe and entertained.  We’ll watch the TV so long as we appear to be watching what we want.  We’ll pick from two candidates so long as they strenuously insist that they have major differences which we need to take seriously.  We’ll ignore our piles of waste and our overcrowded prisons so long as they’re not in our neighborhood.

And there’s the appearance of freedom from the self: the desire to look like you never think about what you look like, or how you appear to people.  (The U.H.I.D. is a fascinating hall of mirrors, in this respect: appearance of freedom by freedom from appearance.)  Tennis plays into this, too: Schtitt’s philosophical lectures on battling the self, on the freedom available within the constraint of the lines of the court.  Almost Oulipian, those speeches of Schtitt’s.

I Am in Here

September 17, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.

Hard to believe: it’s been ten years since I read this. It’s a trite but true thing about a masterpiece: you’re not really ready for it the first time you read it (you haven’t read enough, lived enough, thought enough), but somehow you get enough out of it to love it anyway, and in fact have a visceral reaction to it that you’ll never have again, exactly, but which brings you back to read it again, when you’re older, and it’ll feel brand-new again, and you’ll think to yourself, why haven’t I read this again, again?

I don’t know that I’ll ever be ready for this book any more than King Lear or Basho or Tolstoy or Joyce. But I feel more ready, now, anyway. I remember reading the first section, of Hal in the university office, took me like three days of rereading, and I was feeling kind of simultaneously baffled and dazzled. It’s a little easier going, now. Quite a bit more enjoyable, as much as anything seems enjoyable in this terrible week. (Seriously, when’s this going to start feeling better?)

Anyway, I noticed this time through that of course there’s the Hal-as-Hamlet allusion going on here, but there’s something else, too, I think: there’s a bit of the Elephant Man. “‘I am not what you see and hear,'” says Hal. He is not an animal. He is a human being. And I love this description of what they hear, from the mouth of one of the Deans (I think, maybe Admissions?): “‘Like a stick of butter being hit with a mallet.'” What a perfectly horrifying sentence!

Also, I’ve never walked into an old-fashioned men’s room without thinking of this section.

A couple other notes: “I believe Dennis Gabor may very well have been the Antichrist.” Dennis Gabor is, apparently, best known for inventing holography, and this may refer to that invention. The earlier mention of Hal’s paper on “The Implications of Post-Fourier Transformations for a Holographically Mimetic Cinema” could possibly back that up, since a lot of Gabor’s work apparently dealt with the Fourier analysis in mathematics. What I think all of this might mean: I suspect calling Gabor the Antichrist is Hal’s high-level way of suggesting that simulacra have overtaken our world, that we are busy virtualizing and recreating and dicing experience in so many ways that we’ve lost track of the gestalt, the whole, and the real. And this might perhaps also be a clue to what’s wrong with Hal: could it be that his brain is experiencing a world of frames and granules while everyone else is experiencing a flow?

Anyway, the Erdedy chapter after this is one of my favorites. Erdedy, waiting in agony for a woman to deliver him a giant load of weed, watches an insect crawling around his shelves. Then we get this doozy:

Once the woman who said she’d come had come, he would shut the whole system down. It occurred to him that he would disappear into a hole in a girder inside him that supported something else inside him. He was unsure what the thing inside him was and was unprepared to commit himself to the course of action that would be required to explore the question.

I don’t know about you, but to me that seems like an awfully brave passage. It risks symbol, for one thing, which is tricky in an experimental fiction written in 1996. But it’s such a touching passage, such an awful moment of sick clarity in a person who’s not ready not to be an addict. It also reminds me very much of Murakami, only the exact opposite: his recurring wells and caves and isolated quiet places are like holes in the self, but they’re holes that people crawl into to find or recover something — they’re holes in the shelf, I guess, not the girder. What’s horrible about the hole in the girder is that Erdedy knows he keeps doing this for some reason he doesn’t understand, knows that the hole isn’t in the right place for him to actually learn anything, but can’t imagine giving up this routine he’s locked into. So, yeah, he’s an addict, if a high-functioning one, more or less.

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