The skilled art of chance, cubed

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art and writes an opinion column for Creators Syndicate.


Deception, Fate, and Rotten Luck

Ricky Jay

Photography by Rosamond Purcell

Quantuck Lane Press/W.W. Norton: 64 pp., $12.95


In some cases, the richness of an object is inversely proportional to its complexity. This is certainly true with regard to the tiny minimalist sculptures known as dice. Sometimes complexity of interpretation reflects complexity of the object that's being interpreted: People have devoted lifetimes to understanding Georg Hegel's "Phenomenology of the Spirit" or James Joyce's "Ulysses," for example. Dice are tiny cubes with spotted sides, but lifetimes have been spent in reading them too.

According to Tacitus (according to Ricky Jay), among the hordes of Germanic barbarians threatening Rome in the 1st century, one's status as slave or free was determined by a roll of the dice. And those who have studied dice in the context of mathematics and probability theory include Galileo, Blaise Pascal and mathematician Pierre de Fermat (he of the Last Theorem).

The book originated when Jay, the great conjurer, scholar of questionable entertainments and actor, asked photographer Rosamond Purcell (perhaps best known for her collaborations with Stephen Jay Gould) to document his collection of antique dice. According to Jay, celluloid -- the stuff of which most dice have been made for the last century or so -- is a material that remains stable for decades, then suddenly starts to disintegrate into its components. So the dice are pictured in various stages of decomposition as Jay narrates a delightful collection of stories from the history and mythology of gaming.

Unexpectedly, at least to me, dice turn out to be rich subjects for Purcell's photography. She presents them as, in a way, monumental ruins on a Stonehenge-type scale relative to the size of the book. Their forms are enriched by their disintegration and are bathed in light that their varying translucence seems to contain for a moment before releasing it to the lens. Age and the wear of human hands have made them beautiful.

But the book itself is, like a die, a modest object, small for a book of photography and, with a short text, casually organized. Jay's writing is exactly what one would expect from the extraordinarily erudite, witty and decent author of "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women" and "Jay's Journal of Anomalies." There is an exploration of the etymology of "craps," and there are various tales of armless dicers, ingenious hustlers and Scandinavian kings of the Middle Ages who diced for islands.

But perhaps the loveliest surprise in the book is a brief afterword by Purcell. Whereas Jay approaches the history of dice as a study of human perversity and delight, her sensibility is essentially aesthetic. Purcell, who has been known to work in junkyards on the subject of rust, says of the disintegrating dice: "No longer significant as numerological devices in a game of chance, the dice are still subject to the laws of chance, which drive their individual dramas of volatile decay. Each die, in its inexorable course to extinction, might at any moment go up in smoke or fall apart in the afternoon sun."

It is precisely the simplicity of dice and the complexity of their effects (encapsulating that lovely oxymoron "the laws of chance") that bring home both the system and the uncontrollability of the world. That's what fascinated Pascal about dice, and that's what fascinates us about "Dice."

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