RARA-AVIS: Gambling for Grace

From: Bill Hagen ( billha@ionet.net)
Date: 31 May 2000

There's a very nice review-essay on gambling in the 5/29 New Republic that might be of interest to some readers and writers: access through the search feature at the website <www.tnr.com>; Jackson Lears, "Gambling for Grace."

Professor Lears is himself writing a book on chance and luck in American culture, and so is especially attuned to these features in the four books he reviews. Two of them seem of special interest: _Double Down_ by Frederick and Steven Barthelme, both established writers (espec. Frederick), a thoughtful account of their obsession, and _In Nevada_ by David Thomson, possibly the film critic.

I was struck by some lines in the review, which connect gambling to what seems to be a basic noir or HB attitude, particularly in challenging the
"Protestant work ethic," the faith that thrift and hard work will bring rewards. Gamblers are related to any character who looks for the "big break--which means 'break,' not just as opportunity or stroke of fortune, nor even as 'breakout,' as in the sense of making an escape, but 'to break,' as in severing the previously known laws of continuity, logic, physics, and evidence." Further Lears sums up the critical view of society in this "religion of chance": "An emphasis on the precariousness of wealth, the impermanence of life, and the arbitrariness of money as a measure of worth."

Recently, we've been talking about existentialism as a congenial philosophy for the HB or noir area. I agree, up to a point-- the point, when we start considering certain key features of existentialism, such as the absurdity of life (Myth of Sisyphus), suicide as the only serious question to ask
(Camus), or the notion that existence precedes essence (Sartre). At that point, it doesn't seem to jibe with much of the fiction we read, which assumes (usually) a system, however malevolent, procedures (however violated), and codes of behavior (even when they are negative). In that sense, the lines about gambling, the activation of chance within an arbitrary system--stopping short of a universal Absurd--, seem to "fit" better.

Certainly the elements of arbitrary or unjust power and chance mark a major difference between the "classical" or "English" mystery and hard-boiled fiction.

Bill Hagen
< billha@ionet.net>

# To unsubscribe, say "unsubscribe rara-avis" to majordomo@icomm.ca.
# The web pages for the list are at http://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/ .

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 31 May 2000 EDT