Against All Odds

Eugene McCarraher

Before he married and became a father, my cousin was a gamblin’ man. A successful banker from Monday to Friday, he spent many a weekend in Atlantic City, where he cast his wealth like a votive offering to the glittering shrines of Fortuna. (Slot machines and roulette wheels were his favorite sites of devotion.) Though perennially broke, this Reaganaut champion of Wall Street and the Pentagon returned from the games as hopeful as ever. (He also invested and lost a pile in the euphoric “new economy.”)

When I asked him once why he blew all his money, he explained with a calm worthy of Lao-Tzu or St. Francis. “Nothing ever really belongs to you,” this Fortune subscriber mused. “When you try to hold on to it, it disappears anyway.”

You sound more like a mystic than a capitalist, I remarked. “What’s the difference?” he replied. Though his fondness for casinos has abated, he makes an occasional pilgrimage back to the one-armed bandits, and he plays the stock market even after the dot-com crash.

As Jackson Lears might observe, my cousin embodies the conflicted convictions about grace, luck and fortune that have pervaded American culture. In his wide-ranging, big-hearted and brilliant new book, Lears probes the ambivalence Americans have shown toward the masterless world of chance, from sacred bundles and faro banks to atonal music and abstract expressionism. But Something for Nothing is much more than a capacious piece of scholarship. Asking, like Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, “What if history was a gambler?” Lears beckons toward and occasionally enters an uncharted realm of cultural criticism. In every roll of the dice, he sees a question posed to the unknown—and maybe beneficent—forces of the universe. It’s a view we’d do well to consider as we face a future in which imperial violence is a cruel terrestrial certainty.

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As any of his readers and students (like myself) could tell you, Lears has spent his entire career addressing the moral and religious issues at the heart of our cultural history. His first book, No Place of Grace (1981), traced the emergence of “antimodernism” in late-Victorian America. Alluding to “signs of spiritual sterility” and “moral hollowness” in the contemporary West, Lears looked to an older WASP elite for the sources of both the malady and the cure. Among the prime beneficiaries of industrial capitalism, the more sensitive and articulate members of the Northeastern bourgeoisie feared the corrosive impact of rationalization, secularization and technological development—the trinity of “disenchantment” identified by Max Weber.

Unable to allay their distress by embracing Protestant verities, an array of Victorian malcontents—epitomized by William James, Vida Scudder and Henry Adams—embarked on quests for moral meaning that held a twofold historical significance. On the one hand, Lears argued, the arts and crafts revival, the resurgence of medievalist fantasy, and interest in Catholic religious culture voiced a powerful dissent from capitalist modernity. On the other hand, when severed from politics and religious tradition, they fostered therapeutic forms of cultural authority for an emerging elite of managers, professionals and other experts. When bereft of moral and spiritual ideals other than “release from inhibitions”—the Victorian precursor to the conquest of cool—Lears argued that antimodernism could be “more easily accommodated to newer, more permissive modes of cultural hegemony.”

Though indebted to the Marxist cultural theory of Antonio Gramsci and Raymond Williams, Lears’ sympathetic account of Anglo-Catholicism also marked respect for the critical power of religion. Indeed, from the book’s title (taken from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”) to its last line—“Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief,” from the Gospel of Mark—he suggested that the left could not dismiss religious faith as simply or ultimately reactionary. Even more than Christopher Lasch—then beginning his journey from Marxism and psychoanalysis to populism and Protestant theology—Lears saw religion as a treasury of hope, not part of a past that lay like nightmare.

In Fables of Abundance (1994), a cultural history of American advertising, Lears ventured further into religious matters. Far more than an instrument of hegemony, advertising, Lears contended, reflects a larger conflict between the “disembodiment of abundance”—processes of production that foster dualistic and aggressive human relations to nature—and an “animistic,” “magical,” “carnivalesque” sensibility that affords a more pleasurable and harmonious “way of being in the world.” By enlisting the magical in a commodified, utilitarian conception of the good life, advertising affirms utopian hopes while effectively disarming them.

Seeking a “sensuous place of grace,” a “reanimation of the world” that reunites work and play, Lears discovered portents in an “aesthetic of the outmoded” exemplifed in the assemblages of Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell. Out of the refuse of commodity civilization, these artists crafted what Cornell called a “clearing”—a realm of enchantment, a state of joy in which the ordinary things of everyday life resonate with extraordinary, perhaps spiritual significance.

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Lears enters that “clearing” in Something for Nothing. He finds in American history a persistent and evolving tension between a “culture of control”—belief in diligence, perseverance and the rational mastery of self and nature—and a “culture of chance,” exemplified most broadly in gambling, which respects the indeterminacy, randomness and prodigality of life. While conceding the need for security and achievement, Lears bristles at “the arrogance of the meritocratic myth” that justifies inequality, panders to dreams of human omnipotence, and lames any will to generosity. Without romanticizing the (often calamitous) play of chance, Lears affirms those who “treat it as a source of knowledge and a portal of possibility,” even, he writes, as a channel of grace, which “happens when openness to chance … yields spiritual insight.”

Lears opens with a Cook’s tour of pre-modern cultures of chance, from the Yoruba and the Senegambians of West Africa (who say that “evil travels in straight lines”) to medieval Catholics and renegade Protestants. Pervaded by what anthropologists call mana—a spiritual energy that dwells in matter—the peoples of these enchanted worlds used a host of objects to conjure good fortune or foretell the future: cowrie shells, palm nuts, diviner’s bags, altarcloths (or Godwebbe), the Eucharistic host. In whatever form, mana meant both material abundance (Fortuna often carried a cornucopia) and a fluid conception of personality that obscured the lines between self and world. Far from being “prisoners of fate,” cultures of chance were and remain more inclined to trust in the basic goodness of the universe.

Despite its notion of Providence, even Christianity, especially in its Catholic form, contained a culture of chance. While theologians dismissed luck (though here I think Lears exaggerates the dualism of ancient and medieval theology), sacramental ritual and popular religious culture converted pagan enchantment. But Calvinist Protestants rejected sacramental mediation, and their disenchanted insistence on immutable Providence—secularized, gradually, into the laws of nature and the market—inaugurated the modern culture of control. Still, most English Protestants who invaded America were not Puritan Calvinists, and so European vestiges of belief in mana, together with the conjuring and divinatory customs of Native Americans and African slaves, composed the earliest post-Columbian culture of chance.

Before the American Revolution, the two cultures formed an uneasy stalemate. Farmers and artisans, goodwives and slaves—“the people most exposed to fortune’s slings and arrows”—adhered to an “ethic of fortune” that violated Protestant orthodoxy. African and Caribbean slaves combined Christianity and voodoo; whites traded in coffin spoons, pored over dream books, said the Lord’s Prayer backward to ward off rain. Not a few rich folks, like the Virginia planter William Byrd, reflected on dreams and consulted fortune tellers. The colonial culture of chance was most visible and subversive in the “recreational conjuring” of gambling. Horse races, cockfights and rounds of loo in local taverns were occasions for “promiscuous mingling of men and women, blacks and whites, rich boys and ruffians.” As a result, colonial moralists denounced not only the persistence of paganism, but the carnivalesque erasure of class, race and gender boundaries.

Those boundaries were not and have not been entirely fluid, however. While women and non-whites have played central roles in conjuring and fortune-telling, gambling has remained largely, in Lears’ words, “a herrenvolk democracy, for white males only.” Lears makes clear that the cultures of control and chance have also been rival cultures of masculinity. Especially in the South, the willingness to wager enormous sums has marked one kind of male identity. Against manhood as extravagant risk, the culture of control began to pose, in the early 1800s, the “self-made” man, the diligent achiever, a species whose evolutionary tree runs from the Victorian entrepreneur to the workaholic professional.

This new and more aggressive culture of control had emerged by the 1820s and reigned supreme after the Civil War. The 19th-century culture of control fused the Enlightenment’s instrumental reason, liberal individualism and an evangelical Protestant rhetoric of Providence—“evangelical rationality,” as Lears dubs the disenchanted trinity. Denying accident and tracing success to rigorous self-discipline, evangelical reason legitimated capitalist enterprise and social inequality as results of providential order. Evangelical moralists such as Anthony Comstock identified “progress” with the will of God and denounced reliance on chance, especially gambling, as a loss of self-control.

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Meanwhile, the culture of chance deflected and absorbed the evangelical-entrepreneurial order. African-Americans retained belief in herbs and conjuring (Frederick Douglass hinted that a charmed root had stiffened his fighting spirit in his brawl with a master), and Roman Catholic immigrants, from Irish gamblers to Mexican devotees of Santeria, held on to sacraments, charms and holy cards. (Lears notes that black Protestants and Catholics exchanged elements of their cultures of chance well into the 1930s.) At the same time, the evangelical dispensation was also “the golden age of gambling.” Stung by moralists, gamblers tried to clean house by distinguishing between “true sportsmen” who respected Fortuna and “sharpers,” “con men” and other miscreants who rigged the games of chance.

Moreover, by the 1850s, gamblers had assimilated much of the commercial ethos of American society. Most of the vivid portraits Lears draws—of Robert Bailey, “Canada Bill” Jones, Doc Holliday, “Pittsburgh Phil” Smith, to name a few—illustrate this nexus of spirit, sport and brash commercialism. But Lears also contends that riverboat gambling in particular evoked “a timeless, parallel universe of play” in which “all men were equal in the eyes of Fortuna.”

As its theological framework eroded between the Civil War and World War I, evangelical rationality became “managerial rationality,” in which corporate elites and Progressive reformers espoused the mantras of efficiency and pragmatism. The devotees of managerial reason even found ways to mathematize and incorporate chance into reliable schemes of prediction and mastery, of which John von Neumann’s “game theory” was the most prominent. Through their firm commitment to the rhetoric of progress, contemporary celebrants of chaos and risk envision a world in which we are all “choosing to do what we had to do, anyway”—a command economy of choice.

Against managerial reason, Lears poses a 20th-century culture of chance that embraced a motley communion of saints. We meet Gypsies; Damon Runyon’s Sky Masterson, for whom “dollars may as well be doughnuts”; William James, “our greatest philosopher of chance,” who relished things, as he put it, “on which we have no effective claim”; Ralph Ellison, whose invisible man thwarts managerial reason through “the improvised life”; Paul Tillich, who affirmed redemption through the “holy waste” of self-giving without calculation; John Cage and his Zen-inspired “aesthetic of accident”; and a host of surrealists, expressionists and economic heretics like Harlem Pete, whose fine and careless wisdom—“if you want to be rich, Give! If you want abundance, Scatter!”—both recalled the Sermon on the Mount and inverted the logic of accumulation.

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In such an expansive study, there are bound to be lapses and disappointments. Lears paints so vast a canvas that he sometimes loses his focus on gambling. To my mind, this isn’t a problem, but it might be to more fastidious (not to say pedantic) readers. Surprisingly, though, his canvas doesn’t depict Las Vegas, which might have offered a case study in the postwar persistence of both commercialized and spiritual cultures of chance.

What might be the future of the culture of chance? In his epilogue, Lears dwells less on gambling and more on postmodern architecture—freedom “comes from somewhere else,” he quotes Frank Gehry, “and that somewhere else is the place I’m interested in”—and the decentering of humanity in ecological consciousness. He turns finally to the work of Emmanuel Levinas, and concludes that what he calls the philosopher’s “ethic of grace”—an acknowledgement of a powerless Other that constitutes a “gratuitous love”—is our strongest defense against the delusions of managerial rationality.

Yet while “gratuitous love” is a powerful form of moral imagination, one could argue that it’s just a frail human gesture without some ontological grounding. Lears himself realizes this—writing of Levinas, he notes a “theology of grace” as well as an ethic—but he leaves this insight undeveloped. Of course, Lears the historian isn’t required to write theology. Moreover, given the secular mindset of academia—one that’s much more managerialist than (even leftist) academics care to admit—it’s a safe bet that theologizing would elicit howls of derisive laughter. Still, while Lears is already pushing it by even mentioning grace, it’s precisely that display of intellectual courage that’s both provocative and frustrating. If, as Lears clearly implies, we need fresh forms of cultural criticism, then what new cards can he put on the table if grace is the object of the game?

On occasion, Lears shows his hand. The “accidentalist gestures” of modernism could, he asserts, become “a way of conjuring mana,” a way into “the flow of primal plenitude,” a “fleeting experience of grace.” Later, when writing of Joyce’s “epiphanies” and Proust’s moments bienheureux, Lears christens them “secular experiences of grace.” To put it squarely, does Lears believe in grace? And if so, from where does this bountiful stream originate? These are not just “religious” questions, for if, as he rightly says of environmentalism, “the preservation of a place of grace could be a profoundly political act,” then we need to know what sort of politics comes from a graceful view of the world.

As I write this review, the Iraqi people are about to be victims of a graceless and horrific act, a bloody convergence of evangelical and technocratic forms of the culture of control. While most opposition to this impending evil is voiced in a secular idiom, I grew more convinced while reading Lears’ book that only an “ethics and theology of grace” can counter our manic and lethal gospel of mastery. Given the power of what C. Wright Mills once called the managerial demiurge, such a hope would seem against all odds.

But if Lears is right, reliance on grace could be amazing.

Eugene McCarraher teaches humanities at Villanova University. He is working on The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.
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