Tuesday, December 13, 2011

living by violating the core principles of stillness and tranquility

Now that the subject of Vikings and of people being trees and flowers and the beams of the sun has been handled very adequately and well I will get back to the thing I was going to do before I climbed into the shower full of ants, which was ask my friend the security supervisor if Proust would have made a good officer in a Las Vegas Strip casino. I think, decided the supervisor at the end of our conversation, that he would be better than Ruskin.

I mentioned Proust's asthma and the supervisor said, yes, we have officers with severe asthma, and they're able to take time off when they need to because they're covered by the FMLA, the Family Medical Leave Act. All they have to do is let us know that they have an ongoing medical condition. So we wouldn't penalise him for that. And anyway, I said: medication has improved since the 1920s and so let's guess that he could do something more decisive today than lie in bed limp as a footless sock, with the windows shut, burning pastilles; possibly he could lead an active life, so take the asthma out of the equation, but we'll say he can't work at the Bellagio, because they have that conservatory, and flowers made him choke.

Then, I said, there was that one time he had a job (he took it to satisfy his father, who was worried about his dilettante son) and never turned up for work but just took sick leave for several years -- That sounds exactly like FMLA says the supervisor -- For years? I said -- Psh he says, you have no idea --

Strip casino security work is customer-oriented, and this is where Proust would shine. He was friendly. That would be his strength. He wasn't repelled by people, as Ruskin often was, and he could find value in small talk, as Ruskin couldn't, and he was attentive and complimentary. He cultivated friendships with society people and sometimes his acquaintances called him a snob and a climber but he was not the kind of person Charles Lamb criticises in Modern Gallantry, the one who is only polite to people who will benefit him and then rude to servants and anyone poor or ugly.* Proust was friendly to waiters and butlers, he gave away a couch to a brothel-keeper, and you can see in his book that he thought seriously about the lives of cooks. (All of this is asserted by his biographers, and Walter Benjamin makes it a part of his essay, The Image of Proust. He quotes the memoirs of Proust's friend the princesse de Clermont-Tonnerre: "And finally we cannot suppress the fact that Proust became enraptured with the study of domestic servants [...] domestic servants in their various embodiments and types were his passion.") The social strata of Lost Time dissolve into one another, tailor's daughter marries aristocrat, and the author doesn't sound censorious, he isn't frightened by this liquid mingling (in translation he isn't anyway); it's part of a natural movement.

Here his mind is nothing like the mind of Ruskin, who thought that nature was the opposite of this -- everyone in their place, the world solid not liquid, that was Ruskin's idea of a natural society. Proust's Narrator misses the past, but he decides that movement is inevitable -- the dissolving experience doesn't panic him -- he is fascinated by the telephone, dissolver of distances --

Proust's cook-character Françoise speaks with the kind of subliterate speech quirk that Dickens would have been happy to borrow, but the literate author never despises her for that quirk any more than Dickens despises Mr Dick for his constant reversion to the subject of King Charles' Head or despises his Cockneys for saying w when somebody else would say v, or the other way around. "It's sealed vith a vafer ..." explains Mr Weller in Pickwick. "The wery thing." And Dickens is pleased and loves him.

And Françoise's quirk interests Proust, and if a couple from Iowa came to his casino with speech quirks of their own then they would interest him too, and he would be genial and curious, as security officers are supposed to be; he would say Hello folks, good to have you with us, where are you visiting from? and then Iowa? I have a cousin in Sioux City! How's the snow over there? but only if he actually had a cousin in Sioux City, and if not then he would just express a fascination with Iowa in general, etc, or with the professions of the Iowans, one of which might be turbine engines, and then, Really? he'd say, one of the people who used to live in our apartment worked in turbine engines. Last week the American Society of Mechanical Engineers sent us an invitation to Turbo Expo 2012 in Copenhagen.

The Narrator in Lost Time tries to correct Francoise's vocabulary at least once but this assumed superiority is shallow, it's done unthinkingly, easily, it isn't fruitful, it doesn't lead him into the deep trains of thought that he finds when he starts to consider her seriously, holistically, connecting her back into myth and history or running off into ideas about the human mind. The humane thing to do (which is not to sneer at people who don't know cultured French) becomes the intellectual thing as well; Francoise's quirks are valuable and he has convinced himself of their value, the Narrator has reached a virtuous frame of mind not through moral precepts but through his own intelligence.

What else? Ruskin was disgusted by gambling but it's not likely that Proust would have that Ruskin-disgust. He lived in a different atmosphere. His temperament wasn't built to be disgusted by gambling. He had too much respect for Baudelaire. He was a gambler himself, on the stock market, tempted into buying certain shares by the foreign charm of their names: S. A. Chemin de Fer de Rosario à Puerto Belgrano, Banco Espanol del Rio de la Plata, United Railways of Havana. So say that he wouldn't have been opposed to casinos.

The short time he spent in the military might be a point in his favour. A number of Las Vegas security officers are ex-military. He could tell the interviewer that he had enjoyed the uniform and the camaraderie. His biographers would back him up. As a security officer he could have some of that camaraderie back again, everybody meeting, uniformed, for the day's preliminary briefing, a gathering of collaborators in the secret area of the casino known as Back of House, all of them coming together in that behind-the-scenes room with the metal lockers and the laminated floor, under the plumbing that runs across the ceiling like endless pan pipes, with several tubes lined up together all going in the same mysterious direction, everything nude and industrial and undecorated, greyish-white, and easy to clean -- and then, after briefing, he would step through the door marked Staff Only and onto the casino floor where everything is carpeted, coloured, full of noise, distracting, and the constraining arrow of the backstage corridor becomes a tundra.

By now he is an employee, he knows the secrets of the building, he can navigate the confusing plain of the Floor (and the ordinary word floor in the casinos is pronounced with the same stress of capitalisation that culture takes on when you are talking about Aboriginal Australians; in this context it has a history that sprang off some time back from the common meaning of floor and wound away on its own), and the difference between this environment and Back of House sparks him, inspires him -- why not? -- his Narrator keeps returning to the subject of theatrical artifice and where is there a bigger theatre then the casinos? Every interior is a stage -- Caesars Palace with its massive Ancient Roman set dressing, and the New York New York, which boxes you into imaginary city streets between scale-model tenement buildings, and those uncanny blackish metal trees in the Aria's Crystal shopping arcade, the sinister trees that drip blue light as you walk under them; also the Venetian, where Venice has been streamlined down to a set dresser's symbols, one Lion of St Mark on his pillar, one Bridge of Sighs, one primal song for the gondoliers, "O Solo Mio." (They sing others, but "O Solo Mio" is the default.)

And the Chandelier in the Cosmopolitan which I will never stop admiring because the person who designed it went against the prevailing Las Vegas ethos that says, Build Upwards, and instead created a spectacle that plunges down.** It takes independence to go against the simple orthodoxies.

And he would enjoy the tourists who, walking into this theatrical space, begin shouting out lines as if they've been prompted, usually, "I'm here!" and "Aow!" or "Woo!" and the place name. The script is there, they walk in, they pick it up, over and over again, the same words. I never saw a gaijin in Tokyo screaming Hey, Tokyo! or I'm here! although they probably felt as excited as the people in Las Vegas, and just as thrilled to be here, here, in, my god, look, look, in Tokyo! in Harujuku itself! in legendary Shinjuku! where you go down one of the sets of stairs from the station, turning left into an alleyway, and the pachinko parlours make the evenings more vivid than the middle of the day, a variation on the same suspended timelessness that you find when you walk into the shopping arcade at Caesars with its painted sky always calm and lit, even at midnight and even when the air above the casino is screaming with thunderstorms, a pretty pale blue thoughtful sky with little clouds, the kind of well-fed innocent oil-paint puffs that should attract the fatty putti but never do; the putti are kept out as serenely as the storms. That sky is weirdly silent.

I'm here! says the tourist on the Strip and they try to concentrate and gather themselves in one spot, this is their focus, they are a focus for themselves, they want themselves to be absolutely present, and it's impossible perhaps not to inhabit multiple places at once, in memory, in thought, in body, but they wish it, they're made aware of that wish, they call out, they summon themselves, oh, myself, where are you?

Little soul little stray
little drifter
now where will you stay
all pale and all alone

(from Hadrian: Little Soul, translated by W.S. Merwin)

and the answer for once is a decisive shout, Here! Las Vegas!, although I think it sounds less spontaneous than they want. It's an I-wish rather than an I-am.

Proust would have something to work with. And the past is a constant theme in this town, because the city is young, and it has changed so quickly, and parts of it keep being thrown out, imploded, and replaced. "In Vegas, when things get old, we tear them down," begins an article in the Las Vegas Weekly. "When a show on the Strip runs its course, it closes. Businesses, restaurants, even people come and go, sometimes with little-to-no fanfare. Here, history is fleeting, and what's seen as dated is often demolished instead of saved." Save your ephemera, the writer says, "your theater programs, your menus, scrapbooks, business files and notes -- save this magazine -- because you never know what kind of clues they might one day hold to the past." So little history and yet we demolish it, the journalists reiterate, over and over again in different articles: let's talk to the woman who runs the Neon Graveyard, let's walk through the oldest cemetery in the city, let's go to an exhibition of historical photographs at the Boulevard Mall on Maryland Parkway -- it was built in the 1950s and it's the state's most senior large-scale shopping experience.

If you walk around Liberace's house, which is a suburban ruin, you can see how the large back garden has been segregated into plots of land for smaller houses, and those houses have kept sections of his garden wall in place for their fences. The signature L built into the ironwork has been adopted by people who might not have any other relationship to L, they might be called Jamie or Claire, but they've inherited the dead man's initial. Proust the security officer would have an opportunity to think about Time; in fact Time would be pushed in his face; the magazines fret about Time. "This town makes its living by violating the core principles of stillness and tranquility," writes another journalist, gathering up his resources for a push into the subject of Buddhism. Anything here is connected to transience.

His theme is the theme of this city and that theme is forgetting.

* Lamb is thinking of men being rude to women specifically, but if you replaced "gallantry" with nongendered "civility" the indignation would still make sense. Think of "I shall see the same attentions paid to age as to youth" as "I shall see the same attentions paid to the bus driver as to the politician."

** The light from the Luxor shines upwards, the huge statues at Caesars stand upwards, the Eiffel Tower at the Paris goes upwards, the waterfall at the Wynn comes off a cliff that towers above a lake, the dancing fountains roar upwards, the billboards shoot as high as they can etc, etc.

I'm basing my back-of-house description on only two casinos. The rest might be different. Even those two are different. The flooring in one of them is the colour of the grey skin around a hard boiled egg yolk, and in the other one it isn't.

The Benjamin essay was translated by Harry Zohn.


  1. You are a hoot DKS ... as for time, I think there's a paradoxical nature to it in LV that maybe Proust would like? There's the point your journalist makes that the "town makes its living by violating the core principles of stillness and tranquility" but there is also a sense when you are there - particularly when you are locked away in a casino building - that time stands still. The rest of the world is almost non existent, you never know whether it is day or night, you eat breakfast at 3pm if you like, and so on. (And I don't even gamble but still it felt that way each time we overnighted there!). Time is a fascinating topic to discuss in relation to Las Vegas ... are you sure Proust didn't go there?!

  2. He wouldn't have had the deep historical time that he likes to use -- the dead French kings and queens, the old stone of the churches, etc -- but I think the contrast between the exteriors of the casinos and the interiors -- never knowing if "it is day or night" -- would have given him something to work with. There's the artificial timelessness of the casinos, and then there's the natural timelessness of the mountains, which is a sort of stillness (Francis Ponge points out that mountains do move, they just do it at a pace that bewilders humans, it's so slow: such an alien life).

    On that idea of the twenty-four-hour city: I was walking home once at one in the morning when I remembered that there was a Toys R Us nearby, and I thought, "I feel like diverting off somewhere, I'll go to Toys R Us." Was actually mildly insulted when I realised that it was shut. "But it's only one in the morning! That's not the time for things to be shut."

  3. I like that, the artificial timelessness of the casinos counteracted by the natural timelessness of the mountains. The pace of the latter certainly bewilders me - geologic time is beyond my ken - but I'm probably bewildered by the pace of the casinos as well so I'm no arbiter of timeness or timelessness.

  4. I don't know if it's a counteraction, or an extension in a different direction, two kinds of the same thing, that feeling of being suspended, as if the world is explicitly not under your control -- you can't make a mountain grow or die any faster than it does, and you can't find your way out of the casino with any kind of ease because the people who designed it didn't want you to.