Fickle fortune

Stephen Metcalf is a writer whose work has appeared in Slate, the New Republic and the New York Observer.

For some 20 years now, Jackson Lears, myriad-minded professor of cultural history at Rutgers, has been hammering out the details to a single story about the hidden costs of modern life. The first installment, "No Place of Grace," traced out a pervasive sense of dread and unreality among America's fin de siecle elites, out of which arose the consumerist ethos that now dominates much of our imaginative landscape. In "Fables of Abundance," his luminous history of advertising, Lears pinpointed a contradiction at the heart of this landscape: We decry advertising as hopelessly materialistic, he argued, but it is in fact "less as an agent of materialism than ... one of the cultural forces working to disconnect human beings from the material world." The result is an even darker paradox lying at the heart of American plenty: the dreamlike images aimed at stimulating our purchases have only made us ravenous. As a result, Lears concluded, we have doomed ourselves to "feelings of scarcity even amid a cornucopia of goods."

Lears has now produced a third volume in this story. Put most dryly, "Something for Nothing: Luck in America" is a cultural history of American attitudes toward gambling. But it is also a Lears book through and through, a fevered dream encyclopedia filled with sharpers, grifters, conjurers, diviners and a kind of shadow companion to Nicholas Lemann's "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy," tracing out lines of resistance -- what Lears calls "animistic countertendencies" -- to the high Protestant myth that would yoke grace to social status. Our world of commercial self-interest, Lears tells us, with its emphasis on self-mastery, on self-reliance and the self-made man, has left no proper place for dumb luck. This "culture of control," as Lears labels it, tosses games of chance in with masturbation as a particularly filthy brand of self-squandering. But to truly understand gambling, Lears insists, we mustn't consider it a vice so much as a remnant of a wholly different worldview. In a universe where luck still mattered, we would be forced to admit that "net worth may have nothing to do with moral worth."

We assume, of course, that success is the fruit of a long process of careful self-cultivation, or so at least the magazine profiles tell us. But in fact, this is just one possible idea of good fortune, one whose origins lie, not surprisingly, in the Reformation. ("There is no such thing as fortune or chance," John Calvin declared in 1561.) By the early 19th century, this Puritan ideal had taken root throughout the West but with an ingenious twist in America. Here we melded together "Enlightenment ideals of rationality and liberal ideals of individual autonomy with an increasingly evangelical rhetoric of Providence." Lears calls this "evangelical rationality," and it eventually quashed a more sporting aristocratic bonhomie, which in its time had led, at racetracks and gambling dens, to a promiscuous mingling of social classes. With the rise of middle-class industry, however, the party had to end, and promiscuity gave way to the prim and thoroughly unmysterious workings of American grace. Here "earthly rewards match ethical merits," and "providence has ordered this world as well as the next."

Lears is a disciplined thinker; he doesn't romanticize the gambler, and he never depicts the emergence of the culture of control as a conspiracy hatched by scheming elites. Nonetheless, the gambler is a kind of holdout. "In a society officially dedicated to success through self-control," he writes, "the gambler became an anti-self." Here Lears once again has pinned down a glorious chaos in the American heart. By saying no to the culture of systematic self-improvement, the gambler seems to capture some more primitive grace, one uncorrupted by the delusion that we can woo God by cultivating our worldly self. (Americans may lend a due reverence to such homely virtues as prudence and husbandry, but in our deepest heart, we love risk and tales of a good grifting.) In gambling, the culture of chance lives on as an "ever-present possibility," capable of "springing the trap that keeps us shackled to routine." It is one last portal of insight into a discarded weltanschauung, "into a hidden order of things in which rich and poor alike were subject to the whims of fortune."

I have perhaps made Lears sound forbidding. He is not. He is a very fine writer, devoted equally to clarity and fluency. But a book by Lears is a bit like a carnival with a Calvinist taskmaster as its barker. He pitches his tent very, very big; and into "Something for Nothing" come gypsies, toffs, fortunetellers, cowry-shell diviners, runaway slaves. At points, Lears' breathtaking eclecticism becomes unrelenting, and his facility with primary sources almost overwhelms his thesis. And what a thesis it is, one so centripetally powerful, it threatens to pull everything into itself. In one two-page span near the end of "Something for Nothing," we get George Orwell, Rachel Carson, Holden Caulfield, Talcott Parsons and Werner Heisenberg -- a dream dinner party, it's true, but murder to narrative clarity.

At the core of "Something for Nothing," however, lie a pointed criticism and a utopian glimmer. Our world, with its elaborate systems of organized social energies, is now more orderly, and certainly vastly more productive, than it once was. It strives toward predictability: A corporation's profits, to please Wall Street, rise on a gently sloping gradient; standardized tests predict achievement, thus assuring (so the argument goes) that our life opportunities will fairly match our abilities. But this predictability comes with a price. We are vastly less generous for never admitting the universe is sometimes ruled by blind caprice. Hence Lears' modestly utopian glimmer: "A culture less intent on the individual's responsibility to master destiny might be more capacious, more generous, more gracious." Modestly put, but we should appreciate how seismic it would be to loosen, if not undo, our ideology of success. It might unleash some dangerous questions: What if America turns out to be just another of history's random accidents, unsponsored by Providence? What if the just desert is often just dumb luck? Them's the breaks, I guess.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°