Thursday, September 26, 2013

Las Vegas: Witness to the Great American Soul Sickness

Bright lights and not much more
I had no idea of what awaited me in Las Vegas. My image of Vegas has always been an oasis of neon in the desert, a place to get married in a style that promises a good story, probably better than the reality. I had heard of the pervasion of gambling addictions to be seen in the casinos, but most of all, I had heard Las Vegas was fun. I had not anticipated the level to which Las Vegas would be a magnet for the great American soul sickness. This is a city — if you can call this strange Boulevard of excess and anxiety, a “strip” filled with crowds walking like zombies from one hideous casino to the next, a city — without glamour, without depth, culture or character. There is nothing to do here in Las Vegas other than gamble, eat, drink, shop and have sex. All of which, it is hoped, will be done to excess.

Empty life in Las Vegas
Walking along Las Vegas Boulevard, commonly known as “the strip”, my only reference point comes from science fiction film. I am reminded of a city built on a colonized planet, in space, removed from the rest of the world, where life is lived artificially, in a closed environment. The sprawling hotels-cum-casinos-cum-shopping malls have the appearance of being fabricated in minutes, made for show not for function. And as the faithful consumers trudge along elevated walkways between casino complexes, pulled into the belly of the beast, involuntarily, by pathways that demand traversing one casino floor to get to the shopping mall, or the restaurant, or even to cross to the other side of the street, I have visions of the workers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, pulled by the machine that ultimately eats them. To make the long transitions easier, consumers carry litres of beer in the hand not holding the shopping bags.  
Paul winning at the slot machines
For all of its fast pace, its freneticism, richness and cultural overload, New York City is more relaxing, more contemplative than Las Vegas. Because in Las Vegas, there is nowhere to sit, unless of course you sit at the slot machine or the gambling table, at the buffet or the musical show, having waited anywhere up to an hour for entry along with your voracious fellow consumers. In Las Vegas, everything is designed to keep gamblers moving to spend the next dollar: time to relax would not be good for revenue. The emptiness of a life spent walking, gambling, eating, drinking, is tiring, even exhausting. Without intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual stimulation to give energy and meaning, to provide pause, the eyes and the feet get tired. Paul and I took to travelling up and down the strip on the bus; it was afterall, the only opportunity to sit.

Sex on Sale
 The contradictions are, unsurprisingly, everywhere. In New York City there is a bank of distributors on every other corner containing free magazines such as: Gothic Writers Workshop, Metro New York, New York Press, The Village Voice. In Las Vegas, there are perhaps more such distributors, and their magazines are all about sex. Prostitutes abound, selling their goods, in casinos, on the street, approaching any and every man, regardless of age, ethnicity, marital status or sexual orientation. Sex, apparently always heterosexual, is easier to find than a seat to sit down and drink your coffee. I don’t fully understand why, but hand in hand with the apparent liberation of sex on sale, comes an obsession, or perhaps it is a necessity, to be married.

Home away from Home
As though walking through the Sultanahmet in Istanbul, hawkers don’t allow you to take two steps without attempting to sell. With the promise of “free tickets” to the best show in town, they want you to “come look at our hotel, we only take two hours of your time, and give you lunch.” I would prefer to pay them the price of the ticket not to have them waste my precious two hours, or better still, not see their “best show in town” at all. Before we realized the scam, Paul and I listened to their rap: they always asked us “are you married?” We began saying no, until we realized, unmarried, there were no tickets. So we said yes, and the questions began: “are you legally married”? “to each other?” “have you got proof of that?” I asked one woman what an illegal marriage might be, and she looked at me as though I had asked her if she was human. It wasn’t the point, what mattered was that she could only offer us the two hours in her hotel, lunch and free tickets if we were legally married, to each other. The criteria are unfathomable for a world in which sex is for sale in abundance on street corners, elevated walkways, and casino floors.

Las Vegas is the ultimate distraction. It is a place to escape, to engage in activities that distract and detract from the dangers of thinking, of feeling, of being in the world, of experiencing an inner life. If ever America needed convincing of the tragedy that is its soul sickness, the evidence is writ large along Las Vegas Boulevard. 


Pôle Innovant Lycéen said...

Great commentary, Frances. I've never understood the fascination with Las Vegas either, except as a place of the most abject emptiness. It is everything that is wrong with America concentrated in one sprawling, ugly, ecologically disastrous city. The mere fact that it is a city of over a million people planted in the middle of one of the hottest and driest sections of North American desert is testimony to the level of denial that exists there. You'd have to pity a culture that could create such a monstrosity if it weren't for the fact that that culture is insatiable in its hegemonic, megalomaniac desire to spread its gospel of vapidity to all four corners of the globe. God help Las Vegas, and help us!

Pôle Innovant Lycéen said...

Jb wrote the above

MrO said...

haha - - you nailed it, frances! turns out homosex also is on offer; you just have to ask. when i was in vegas a few months ago (for a convention, let me hasten to add), the taxi driver taking me to town (the long route, i later realized) kept pointing out "the best" topless/go-go places as we drove by and asking if i wanted to meet a girl: "i can send one up right up to me, here's my card, tell them i sent you." he handed me a binder full of pix, a catalog of women in bikinis. thought i'd shut him up when i said i was more interested in guys. "no problem!" he said. no binder, either, but i figured he really could make it happen should i want. most taxi drivers seem to double as pimps. every time i walked alone on the strip at night, a taxi driver would stop, offer me a ride, and when i'd say no to a ride, offer me a lady. crazytown!