Frederick Zackel
PROSE
 

Life on Earth Deserves to be Lived in Las Vegas



             I was sinning in the shower this morning, thinking about the six Tony nominations for Arthur Miller's revival of The Crucible on Broadway. What is there about America that craves witch-hunts? Damned if I know.
             I was thinking sad thoughts about the Last Election, when John Kerry won the Blue Cities in the Red States, and George W. Bush won the Red Farms in the Blue States. I'm a City Guy, and My Guy lost to the Rubes.
             And I was wishing I was in Las Vegas, "the city that has re-discovered Sin," according to all the Eastern prudes who so gleefully point out that Sin City has stopped pandering to families and brought back the female nude under neon.
             I started thinking about Stephen King, when my epiphany told me that Stephen King is an all-American, born-again Puritan from Maine who would probably feel righteously warm if he were burning witches outside the A-bombed Venetian Hotel and Casino. In print, anyway.
             Here's a guy, the gaudiest writer of Gothic anxiety alive, whose novels made up one-fourth of all the books published in the 1980s, who is the embodiment of all those hatreds from those who find city life and the devil partners in sin.
             And the devil is always a merchant of Sin.
             Consider Needful Things. You can get everything you want at a store that the Devil himself owns and operates. Consider Salem's Lot, a town taken over by vampires. Salem, of course, is a corruption of Jerusalem. A Holy City taken over by bloodsuckers?
             Consider The Stand, where the Apocalypse takes place in Las Vegas, the Devil's henchmen get nuclear-fried at their headquarters -- in a casino penthouse.
             Now, I love Las Vegas. Vegas is noisy and brash. Over the clanging of the bells of the slot machines, the babble of languages in the restaurants, the twelve lanes of vicious traffic outside on the Strip, now and again I can hear the screams of the lunatics on the rooftop roller coaster at New York New York.
             Slot machine cups are everywhere, but good luck trying to find a clock or a drinking fountain anywhere. Everyone in the world knows that there are no clocks in casinos. But nobody can find a water fountain, either. Water is precious in the desert. That's why, when it rains in Las Vegas, drivers forget how to drive and smash into each other.
             Not that we should sweat rain in Vegas, either. Last week a three month dry spell was ended when McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas received one-five hundredth of an inch of rain overnight.
             Remember that silly ol' bumpersticker: Everybody Smokes In Hell?
             If you smoke, puff away in Las Vegas. Unlike most of America, ashtrays are everywhere in Las Vegas. You can take them with you when you go, too. Every souvenir shop has personalized ashtrays for sale. You can buy a silly one that says "Butch's Butts." There are the ashtrays in stalls in public restrooms. At the Luxor Hotel, you can hunker down in the public euphemism, smoke a ten dollar cigar and listen to Cher reverberating "I Believe!" on the hotel's in-house music system.
             Life doesn't get any better than this.
             Thirty-five million visitors agree every year.
             Welcome to Sin City!
             And if you remember a couple of years ago the United States and the FBI was warned by an Arab-American businessman that he overheard unknown terrorists speaking in Arabic on his cell phone that they were going to attack and destroy Las Vegas on the Fourth of July.
             After all, Las Vegas was Sin City, USA.
             Las Vegas deserved to die.
             We all know the story. The city is the center of corruption, of alienation, of sorrow and sin. City life means the loss of freedom and innocence. The individual is corrupted. The city itself, to some "puritans" is the cause of human decadence.
             The Puritans who came to America almost four centuries ago wanted to Purify the Church of England. Before they came here, they went to Holland, but left because the Dutch were too much tolerant of all religions.
             The Puritans jumped onto the Mayflower and tried to create a Utopia in the New World. They wanted "the city on the hill," a religious utopia where "church and town" were one.
             This theocracy (i.e., "the right and perfect way") led to the "visible saints," who were those city selectmen who owned the most and the best land. City taxes paid for the churches. The "free men" of the community were adult males who attended church; they choose not only the ministers and the ministers' salaries, but elected all the city officers. Meanwhile non-Puritans made up 80% of the settlements. By the way, Puritan ministers could buy slaves; slaves were a sign of the church's prosperity. All utopias are not created equal.
             The bad rap about sinful cities by puritanical religious fanatics began over three thousand years ago as a revolt against "urban" civilization. Remember Joshua and the city of Jericho. The walls came down on that first city of 2500 people in 1200 BC. The trouble should have been seen. After a half-million years of hunting and gathering, the new concept of City life had to meet some kind of cultural resistance.
             The Old Testament is rife with anti-city feelings. Look what happened to Sodom and Gomorra. You have to travel up to King David's time before you see the city being portrayed as royal and priestly and urban.
             To the ancient Egyptians the god Osiris was the King of all Egypt and all the pharaohs ruled in his name. Ancient Egypt was the first nation-state and thus Osiris was ruler-god of that nation-state and all its peoples. He is generally depicted carried a shepherd's crook and a farmer's thresher. He ruled over the farmer and the shepherd.
             Cain was Adam's eldest son. He was "the tiller of ground," while his kid brother Abel was "the keeper of sheep." Cain killed Abel. Think of that: the farmer killed the shepherd.
             The Israelites were semi-nomadic tribes. Even the capital Jerusalem was not founded by the Israelites. The Canaanites were the original inhabitants of Jerusalem. King David drove them out, and then the Hebrews took it over.
             In any semi-nomadic society, the shepherd is always the underdog. After all, the farmer has already settled near the best watering holes, and his needs for irrigation are in conflict with the needs of the wandering herdsman.
             Even more interesting is that after Yahweh punishes Cain by branding him and sending forth into the wilderness, Cain is credited with creating the first city, Enoch. In essence, Cain becomes the prototype of the sedentary city-dweller, and with that is born the Judeo-Christian-Islamic distaste for urban life and its materialism.
             Farmers found cities; nomads just pass them by.
             Cain killed Abel. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a nomad.
             The city is always a threat to the nomad. The entire story of the Tower of Babel is a snide Hebrew comment about the fate of those who choose to live in a multi-ethnic, multicultural urban center apart from God. The Babylonians were famous as the earliest city-builders, and their ziggurats stood out as skyscrapers on the flat flood plains. (Jacob's imagery of a "stairway to heaven" in Genesis 28 is derived from the brick stairs that lead one up a ziggurat.)
             There is more here, too: The Hebrew word for "Babylon" is "Babel," the native name "Bab-ili" means "the gates of the gods" and refers to the area as one approaches the gates to the temple, and the Hebrew word "balil" translates as "he who is confused." If you worship here (and not where I do), then you must be confused.
             Aristotle called the city "a unity of unlike people who come together to live the good life." The Hebrews disagreed, and because of their perspective we (as a culture) tend to view cities as the City of Dis, or the Waste Land, or the Unreal City, or Dens of Iniquity, or whatever slur we can fashion.
             As early as Genesis 10:8, the Hebrews mention the Babylonian city of Nineveh, and immediately tack on the epithet "Rehoboth-Ir," which translates literally as "the wide-streets city." Three millennium later, that description may not seem like much of a derisive epithet, but coming from the semi-nomadic perspective, wide streets just can't compare with the desert's expanse. (On a similar bend, there is an old Greek fable found in Longus' Daphnis and Chloe about the wolf watching the household dogs running loose; for all their proclaimed freedom, the wolf still sees the collar around the dogs' necks.)
             The Hebrew word "'ir" for "city" is also translated as "a fortified place," which is probably the first view of the city any semi-nomadic tribe would have. But a fortified wall is the first form of self-defense any city thinks about. The locals want to keep what they have from those wanderers who don't have it.
             Those ancient cities had walls that were eight feet thick in places.
             To any semi-nomadic tribe, cities are dens of iniquity. They are materialistic, hedonistic, pluralistic, clear and definite threats to semi-nomadic values and priorities. Cities (and all their earthy pleasures) are a direct threat to the existence and well-being of the tribe.
             Part of the Hebrew attitude toward women in general can be seen to stem from these earliest experiences with urban oases. The earliest brothels appear to have been created three thousand years before Christ in the city of Ur.
             Rahab, the prostitute who aids Joshua's assault on Jericho, lived inside the walls of Jericho; her brothel was inside the walls of Jericho. Not only does this explain her marginal status in Jericho's society, but also demonstrates how Jericho as a mercantile community viewed the Semite rabble that came to town.
             One wonders if the earliest Semitic tribesmen whooped and hollered through those ancient cities the way our American cowboys whooped and hollered through cattletowns when they came to town. One wonders about the earliest forms of police or deputy sheriffs entrusted to keep the peace.
             The Hebrews never did gain a favorable perspective on city life. This can be deduced by the general fate of the cities mentioned in the Jewish Bible. Those cities include Cain's city of Enoch, Babel, Babylon, Ninevah, and of course Sodom and Gomorra.
             Ah, Sodom! The archetypal city that all the prudes fear and loathe.
             But Biblical texts, while universally condemning Sodom, do offer a variety of reasons for its wickedness. Sodom in Genesis 19:4 is wicked only for its homosexuality and sodomy. In Isaiah 1: 9-16, however, we hear Sodom is wicked because it lacks social justice: "Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow." Ezekiel 16:45-51 said the city had a disregard for the poor, that "she and her daughters were proud, sated with food, complacent with their prosperity, and they gave no help to the poor and needy," while Jeremiah 23:14 simply blankets it with immorality: "But among Jerusalem's prophets I saw deeds still more shocking; adultery, living in lies, siding with the wicked, so that no one turns from evil; to me they are all like Sodom, its citizens like Gomorra."
             Ah, yes, the City of Dis, the classic name for Pluto and Hades. Dante said rust-red Dis was the home of Lucifer. Imagine that. The devil lives in the city.
             Yet, in Sanskrit, "devanagari," or the alphabet with which Sanskrit and most other northern Indic languages are written, translates both as "writing" and "the city of god." In short, writing itself is "the city of God."
             My favorite city name is Istanbul. The name "Istanbul" is Modern Greek altered from the old Greek "eis ten polin," which literally means "in the city." You can be a thousand miles away from Istanbul, and it has no competition.
             "Where am I going? Istanbul."
             "I'm going downtown."
             Istanbul is of course the modern name for ancient Constantinople, which for eleven centuries was the greatest city in the world. The Crusaders gawked like yokels when they saw it.
             The English word "civilization" is derived from the Latin word for "city," while "environment" comes from the Latin "environs," which is a description of the twisted narrow roadways of Rome.
             Early Greece seems to have coalesced about 800 BC, when various tribes evolved into city-states. The modern word 'political' derives from the Greek word "politikos," which translates as "of, or pertaining to, the polis." That Greek term "polis" will be translated here as "city-state." It is also translated as "city " or "polis," or simply anglicized as "polis." Greek city-states like Athens and Sparta were relatively small and cohesive units, in which political, religious, and cultural concerns were intertwined.
             Aristotle said man is a political animal, a "zoon politikan."
             The Greeks had a word for those members of the "polis" who didn't get passionate about civic affairs. The word was "idiot." Really.
             Alexander the Great established a city at the mouth of the Nile in 331 B. C., primarily because two natural harbors were there. A library was established there, in the greatest trading capital in the ancient world. It was here three centuries before Christ that Hellenic scholars established after long and careful debate the definitive versions of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. By the time of Christ the library was estimated to hold perhaps three-quarters of a million texts.
             After Alexander's death, the city became known as the greatest of Greek cities. Egypt had become Hellenized. And there were almost as many Jews as Greeks.
             Rome was a city that built an Empire. The ancient Latin word "urbs" which means "the City" has enriched our English language with such words as "urban," and "urbane," and even "suburban." To the Romans, the Mediterranean Sea itself was "Mare Nostrum," or "Our Sea."
             The Romans created "res publica," that "republic thing."
             The Romans came to view the entire world as a city much like Rome itself, where every man (as they defined the term) might enjoy privileges of a Roman citizenship. Cities had water and sewage systems, theaters, and public baths. The wealthy 2% of the population had villas with central heating systems.
             As many as a million people lived in Rome during the time of Christ. The city had as many as 45,000 apartment buildings. But the elite were truly elite. There were less than 1800 private homes at that same time.
             The Romans were practical people. They created truly "public" buildings for the "polis," that is, specific buildings to handle the practical aspects of public service. Many cities in America have civic centers. That is, special areas within the city where all or almost all of the governmental functions are concentrated for easier accessibility. The federal building, the state building, the county courthouse, and the municipal buildings might all be within walking distance of each other. This geographical sensibility was a gift from the Ancient Romans.
             In the Koran Mecca is called the Mother of Cities, and the Ka'Ba is the highest point of earth. That Mecca lies in a valley, a hollow or wadi, is obvious and does not diminish the power of the story. No place is nearer Heaven than Mecca, and it has always been viewed as consecrated ground. Feuding and weapons both were outlawed, and here he who accidentally kills another could find sanctuary. For this reason the religious authorities said Mohammed's grave is in Mecca, although he was buried in Medina.
             Western Civilization's vector has been to follow the sun from dawn in the east toward the sunset in the west. But around the 11th Century the Western push faltered, and there was a reversal to the east. The notion of the pilgrimage was born. Go to the Holy Land and walk in Jesus' footsteps. But then in 1017 Sultan Alp Arslan and his Persian armies took over the Holy Land while creating his own empire.
             In 1095 Pope Urban II called upon his followers in the west to free the Holy Land. Jerusalem was the center of the world. It needed to be saved from infidels. In return, the papacy promised to cut the time spent in Purgatory for sins committed and delay any debts owed to the Church.
             With that impetus, who could refuse?
             Orthodox Christianity defined the issue. Since the City of Jerusalem was the center of its maps, that alone justified the Crusades. The Holy Land must be liberated from the infidels. Killing Saracens was righteous.
             The Crusades were fighting pilgrimages to take the Cross back into Jerusalem. Those who died on the way there or in battle received total remission of their sins. If you retreated, you were excommunicated. Those who won were allowed to take all the infidels' possessions.
             The First Crusade did conquer Jerusalem. The First Crusade entered Jerusalem in triumph in July 1099. The Crusaders who took Jerusalem in 1099 burned Jews alive in the Great Synagogue and looted the Temple of the Rock. They thought to cleanse the Holy Land with human sacrifice. Any wonder why the Arabs called the Crusaders "the pagan race?"
             The Crusaders not only took property, but also pillaged all within sword's radius. Naturally the Muslims struck back. The jihads, or holy wars, began. The mujahadins are those who would die in a holy war.
             The French Crusaders cried, "Deus le volt!" God wills it!
             The Muslims fought back. "Allah Ackbar!" God is Great!
             "Lex talionis" is Latin for the law of tit for tat.
             The infidels circumcised the Christians.
             The religious, being closer to God, always want to the ones who dictate what "proper" city life ought to be. In medieval England a city was not considered truly "a city" unless it had a cathedral. In fact, most European cities still brag about the cathedrals they have. These were in most cases public buildings (i.e., public funds were used) constructed for religious reasons. Each also represents the highest technology of its day. That's why the smart shopper shops here.
             A cathedral was more than a church. It represented the only available schooling. It provided the only social services. Its courts settled disputes between neighbors or with town officials. The bells of the church didn't just call people to pray; they were the way that the day itself was divvied up.
             Cathedrals were town buildings. The town square was the area in front of the church. Your ancestors were your legacy. Individuals' lives revolved around it. You were baptized here, married here, and buried here.
             The economic impact of a cathedral was enormous. Chartres, for instance, was famous throughout Catholic Europe for its holy relics, already a famous destination for pilgrims. Thanks to its new cathedral, the town began hosting four major feasts of the Virgin yearly. Concurrently, Chartres also hosted four trade fairs yearly at the same time.
             The rise of towns and cities across Europe created a new breed of individuals known as "burghers." The term "burgher" is of Dutch origin, and dates back to the thirteenth century, when the first great cities appeared in Europe. Generally it refers to free citizens who enjoyed certain civic (i.e., legal) rights and privileges. During the Renaissance townspeople emerged as a strong political force. The term gradually included mayors, aldermen and other civic officials.
             Medieval towns were devastatingly depressing places, but much of what we call democracy was born during the Gothic Age. After all, cities stimulate people who were impatient with the old ways.
             Eleventh century German serfs knew "Stadtluft makt frei", that is, "city air makes one free." Once cut from the land, a serf could find a sort of freedom in the large urban centers. If a serf managed to flee to a city and stay uncaught for a year and a day, he was considered freed from his serfdom. (This is the reverse of ancient China. There, freedom was in the vast countryside, not in the teeming cities.) The secular authorities in cities were proud that they had won this right through legal decisions. "Stadluft makt frei" marks a long series of legal victories.
             Not that city fathers are usually viewed as defenders of individual freedoms. In 1867 the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) created a life-size bronze sculpture entitled "The Burghers of Calais" after he learned how in the Hundred Years War between the English and the French six of Calais's elder businessmen surrendered their city to the English, led by King Edward III. Rodin does not depict these burghers as heroic warriors, trained to give their lives on the battlefield.
             Instead, as Rodin explains it:
             "I have not shown them grouped in a triumphant apotheosis, such glorification of their heroism would not have corresponded to anything real. On the contrary, I have, as it were, threaded them one behind the other, because in the indecision of the last inner combat which ensues between their cause and their fear of dying, each of them is isolated in front of their conscience."
             Dante Alighieri was known in his lifetime as Italy's greatest poet, its "sommo poeta." He is still one of the greatest poets 700 years later. In fact, he is at times described as Shakespeare's only equal.
             Dante Alighieri was a city official and a diplomatic negotiator for the city of Florence, Italy. Florence at this time had a population of 80,000, which made it second only to Paris.
             The poet was a hardheaded Florentine, what Plato called the "zoon politikan." His political party was ousted from office and then exiled. Dante was sentenced to death in exile. He never went home. In Canto XIX of Paradise, Dante remembers that he was "driven from the place I love the most."
             Dante Alighieri was an angry, bitter man. Dante was a victim of a papal land grab in Tuscany by Boniface, a man who even contemporary historians say conned his way onto the Papal Throne. The poet was forced into voluntary exile and could never have returned to his native Florence because his return would have meant he would be burned alive at the stake by the pope's minions.
             That's why Dante wrote his Divine Comedy. He took the city-state that he knew and more importantly the rich, famous and infamous people of that city-state and teleported them into a narrative where he could posit each one of those people into a framework of Divine Judgment. The people he liked went to Heaven, while his enemies and the truly wicked received their just rewards in the darkest, iciest bowels of Hell.
             We all would want that power, right?
             I want you to go to the hell I imagine in my worst nightmare.
             Stephen King speaks for us all, right?
             Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy is a vernacular representation of the theology of the cathedral. It was a road map between hell and heaven for the illiterate faithful. It is also Ptolemaic; that is, the earth is the center of the theological universe. The universe exists for Humanity. And Man is next to God.
             The city of Florence, Italy, with a population of 400,000, is visited by five million tourists each year. They come to visit the birthplace of the Renaissance.
             In 1282 Florence became the center of the world of money, a position the city still held through most of the Fifteenth Century. The gold Florin minted in Florence was the standard currency of the times. Said to contain exactly 24 carats of pure gold, it was accepted from North Africa to the North Sea, from Great Britain to Constantinople. The gold florin was first minted in 1252, the same year the Inquisition began to use instruments of torture.
             Italian bankers followed the coins; they knew the trade secrets that were compound interest and double-entry bookkeeping. The Italian word "banco" means "table" and most early banking took place over small tables in urban marketplaces. Curiously, counterfeiting was closely tied to witchcraft; remember, the alchemists who could turn lead into gold are no different than counterfeiters turning lead into imitation florins. Those caught counterfeiting the florin were burned at the stake, like any heretic.
             With money comes greed, and the Renaissance was no different that any other time in history. Dante, by the way, called the gold florin, "that cursed flower" that changed Pope Boniface VIII "from the Shepherd to the wolf."
             Florence was the most progressive city in Italy, too, primarily because of its governing body. Theoretically, a representative body ran the city of Florence. In truth, Florence, like the other city-states of Italy, were run by ruling families. An oligarchy is a small group of businessmen. The most famous (perhaps infamous) family of Florence was the Medicis, closely followed by the Pazzis.
             The history of the Corleones pales next to that of the Medicis.
             These Italian city-states were secular, not religious.
             Renaissance Humanism was the guiding principal. The humanists believed that the classical learning placed great value on the basic human dignity. They also believed in the Christian notion that Mankind is God's greatest creation. Lastly, they believed these two dialectics could converge, be reconciled and be synthesized. That all human learning can be synthesized. And they repudiated the medieval notion that the material world offered only temptations and evil. The world, they believed, was from God and nature was both orderly and beautiful.
             City-dwellers created "studia humanitatis," the study of humanity, or the study of what makes us all human beings. It was about the dignity of man. Renaissance Humanism believed that Mankind itself is God's greatest miracle. It exalted human freedom. It recognized the risks but insisted upon the opportunities such freedom spawned.
             After Lorenzo il Magnifico's death in 1492, the sinful city of Florence began to fall under the sway of the firebrand Dominican preacher Fra Girolamo Savonarola. Other Florentines called Savonarola's followers "piagnoni," or snivelers, as they were given to loud and weepy repentance for their sins. For four years, the snivelers threw their most luxurious possessions into bonfires of the vanities -- that is, huge bonfires in the square in front of the great cathedral -- until Savonarola himself became the vanity that the Florentines chose to do without, and they burned him at the stake for heresy in 1498. The great Florentine artist Botticelli is said to have joined with the piagnoni, tossing his mythological paintings into Savonarola's bonfires in woeful chagrin at their pagan content.
             In 1497 Girolamo Savonarola was excommunicated for trying to depose Pope Alexander VI. He died at the age of forty-five on May 23, 1498, in Florence. Savonarola was certainly one of the most hated men of his times. When the Inquisition turned around and nailed him, he was simultaneously both hung from the gallows and burned at the stake in the square in front of the cathedral. The Florentines wanted him dead.
             The motto of the great city of Florence is "La vita terrena merita d'esser vissula" which translates from the Italian as "Life on earth deserves to be lived."
             If you can't visit Florence, visit Vegas.
             Throw yourself under the (Roulette) Wheels of Life.
             Why is Las Vegas needed?
             It pisses off the Puritans. And the Taliban.

   
   
   

TOP