I know my idea of hell: eternity in Las Vegas. Heck, even a weekend.
Now, I am aware that many people love Vegas, and I’m not here to quarrel with them: De gustibus non est disputandum, as they say. You can’t argue about tastes.
However, I have been to Vegas once too often and my skin shrivels at the thought of the place.
There once was a certain Sodom-and-Gomorrah charm to it when it seemed to be run by the Mob, back when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. turned the city into a glamorous, empty metaphor of high-hat cymbals, scotch on the rocks and gleaming silk tuxedos. Back then, gambling wasn’t something that retirees wearing plaid pants with white belts and matching brogans did on organized bus tours. It actually had the edge of transgression. It was bookies, hookers, cigarette smoke and more incandescent light and neon than in all of France.
However, the city no longer has the Mob feel. It’s much worse: Now it’s run by corporations.
This isn’t just a question of good and bad taste. Bad taste has its appeal, and the old Vegas was a monument to bad taste. Bad taste can be fun.
Certainly, there is a great deal of bad taste in Tijuana, for instance. But it is a wonderful place to visit. In Tijuana, the bad taste is — excuse the term — life affirming. The bad taste comes from poverty and its attempt to enrich life with gaudy colors and garish extravagance.
In Vegas, the bad taste comes not from poverty, but from excess of money, which is deadening. Its spectacle does not enrich life, but gluts our senses so we no longer see, no longer hear. Vegas makes zombies.
On the hotel-room TV, there is a channel that promotes the hotel’s attractions. It features pictures of bubbly families enjoying themselves with the reckless grins of a chewing gum commercial. But when I go down to the casinos, I don’t see those people.
Instead, I see aging women in teardrop eyeglasses and stretched-to-the-limit polyester sitting in front of the electronic slot machines with not a muscle flexed in their flaccid faces and their eyes turned to pig iron, hypnotized by the whirring of the dials.
A constant, mechanical drop of coin, pull of lever, spin of wheel, clang of bells, drop of coin, pull of lever, etc., for hours on end. No expression on the faces and an ash-tipped cigarette hanging on their dry, creased lips. It is just such scenes that make me think of Dante.
Children, of course, are not permitted in the casinos. They have their own computer screens to stare into in the video-game arcades that are hardly more than training wheels for the real thing downstairs.
Adult or offspring, they have put their lives on hold in order to partake of a droning synthetic reality that has no meaningful connection to them.
Everything in that town is synthetic, from the phony castles in Excalibur, to the “hologram” of Celine Dion, singing a duet with herself, to the surgically enhanced hood ornaments of the chorus girls. There is not a genuine experience to be had, with the possible exception of the pleasure one gets at seeing just how seedy and run-down the old parts of town have become. In their dusty storefronts and cheesy wedding chapels, there is a patina of reality that invades the fantasy.
The new Vegas of phony pyramids, skyscrapers and medieval castles has no reality. It lets you kill time without enriching your life. It is to life what Twinkies are to fresh, homemade bread.
In that, it is a concentrated dose of what America is becoming.
And that is why I hate Las Vegas all the more: The real experiences of life are being supplanted by the plastic-fruit version — the difference between going fishing and playing computer fishing games — and we aren’t complaining about it loudly enough. Quite the contrary, we are flocking to this city in the desert to experience ersatz New York and theme-park reality, simplified, repeatable, soulless — dulled down and tarted up at the same time.
You can see the same thing happening in our political campaigns, our publishing industry, our corporate-slogan clothes.
We are presented with a kind of corporate parallel universe, where everything has a brand name and a price. We are seduced into forgetting the messier, chaotic and infinitely more rewarding world we were born into.
It’s the modern version of the Faustian bargain, and we’re losing more than our money.