“I often wondered whether God ruled over numbers”
—Jeanne Moreau, Bay of Angels
1. At a decisive moment of Jacques Demy’s 1963 film, Bay of Angels, a young bureaucrat and first time gambler, Claude Mann, is overcome by an inexplicable understanding of the roulette wheel. He knows exactly what numbers will come up. He bets his year’s wages and sees his money multiplied by five, then ten.
This once-in-a-lifetime lucky streak catches the eye of Jeanne Moreau, a devout gambler, and the ups-and-downs of their shared fortunes are the irresistible force of the film. Moreau is brilliant in her role as an unrepentant gambler. And as Demy captures the strange exhilaration of a “lucky streak,” he hits on a classic literary trope. Novels as wish fulfillment can happily revel in the “lucky streaks” of characters, allowing readers classic escapism.
In a recurring montage, Mann puts his chips on a number, and the jazzy score by Michel Legrand swells in a glissando as the ball lands on his selection, and the croupier announces his winning. For some strange reason, it’s compelling every single time.
2. In The Gambler (1876), Dostoevsky imagines a scenario where a young tutor saves the fortune of a family through a single lucky streak at the roulette wheel.
Yet some whim or other led me, on remarking that the red had come up consecutively for seven times, to attach myself to that colour. Probably this was mostly due to self-conceit, for I wanted to astonish the bystanders with the riskiness of my play. Also, I remember that–oh, strange sensation!–I suddenly, and without any challenge from my own presumption, became obsessed with a DESIRE to take risks. If the spirit has passed through a great many sensations, possibly it can no longer be sated with them, but grows more excited, and demands more sensations, and stronger and stronger ones, until at length it falls exhausted. Certainly, if the rules of the game had permitted even of my
staking fifty thousand florins at a time, I should have staked them. All of a sudden I heard exclamations arising that the whole thing was a marvel, since the red was turning up for the
“Monsieur a gagne cent mille florins,” a voice exclaimed beside
The vicarious pleasure of gambling in literature is always sweet. And the image of a spinning roulette wheel has classic elements of suspense. But The Gambler, just like Bay of Angels, subverts the euphoria of these winnings, calling up the inevitable cycle of boom and bust that happens minute to minute for compulsive gamblers. This novel reflected Dostoyevsky’s own compulsive gambling. He spent years in the casino, developing a “system,” very similar to the one outlined in The Gambler.
3. Bolaño finds euphoria in numbers in a side-plot of his sprawling Savage Detectives. A Spanish restaurant worker stumbles into a kind of revelation.
“To give you an idea: I would be walking along the Ramblas, day, happy as can be, thinking the normal thoughts of a normal man and all of a sudden numbers would start to dance in my head. First 1, for example, then 0, then 1, then 1 again, then 0, then another, then back to 1, and so on…as I was heading home along the half-deserted Ramblas, the numbers started to come, and right off the bat, I connexted them with the ticket. I went into a bar on the Rambla Santa Monica and asked for a coffee and a pencil… The next day I turned in my ticket, and three days later I was one of nine people who had a match for all fourteen.”
Instead of subjecting this lottery winner to his just desserts, or to moralizing, or anevening of fortune, Bolaño repeats the act, and winning the lottery a second time is just as much fun as winning it for the first time in literature.
4. In Hotel Europa by Dumitru Tsepeneag (English translation published in 2010 by Dalkey Archive), a young Romanian student, Ion, unwittingly finds fortune and intrigue in a Vienna casino.
“Place your bets!”…It’ll land on 17, Ion thought. The man with the mustache and red tie nodded and quickly took a little piece of board from his breast pocket; a huge number 17 sprawled across it. Ion’s arm was shaking as he pushed a humble chip toward the square with the number 17…It landed on 17.
Tsepeneag skewers the notion of numbers mystically appearing to the gambler as a moustachioed man across the room holds up numbers on a cardboard sheet, thereby “mystically” inputting them into Ion’s consciousness. But the thrill of the roulette wheel remains. Gamblers may be miserable, but they make for compelling literature.
5. In some instances, the thrill of the “lucky streak” presents a vicarious pleasure. It’s triggering a simple pleasure response. The Gambler reflects something of this aspirational fantasy, as the tutor takes fate into his own hand. But in so many of these cases, the lucky streak is subverted and that too is pleasurable. Jeanne Moreau savors the debasement of losing everything just as much as the fruits of winning. There might be an aspect of wish fulfillment in the “lucky streak” but, like most pleasurable things, gambling goes beyond the pleasure principle. In Men, Women and Chainsaws, film critic Carol Clover famously suggested that ’80s slasher films provided a space for teenage boys to empathize with the young heroines, and thereby experience a sort of imagined gender bending. The “lucky streak” in literature accounts for movement towards annihilation in the same way. It creates an understandable death.
That an individual might compulsively return to suffering, debasement, and annihilation runs counter to the notion of wish fulfillment and the traditional interpretation of the pleasure principle. And yet Freud identifies tendencies towards compulsive recreation of experiences of pain and death that produce pleasure. We suffer along with the worst gambling addicts and find a kernel of ecstasy in the suffering. Freud cornered the question of compulsive reenactments of pain by identifying the way these reenactments serve to add logic and narrative to incomprehensibility.
The odds of winning at roulette never change, and humans will never comprehend mortality. Yet the persistent return to “systems’ and “narratives” around these phenomena, outside the limits of control, reflect the death drive.
Freud tells the story of a guilt-induced “Burning Child Dream.” After a child’s random death, a father repeatedly imagines the child accosting him in a fever state; he repeats, “I’m burning, why didn’t you save me?” Freud was perplexed by this dream, and returns to the paradox it presents in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. One explanation has to do with the inconceivable nature of mortality. In his “Thoughts on War and Death,” Freud argues that humans essentially cannot grasp the significance of death. It is simply outside our purview; when an individual contemplates his own mortality, he defers by envisioning himself as spectator to an event, thereby reestablishing immortality. It is just as impossible to fundamentally understand the death of another. But when a father assumes the blame for another’s death (“Why didn’t you save me?”), it unconsciously establishes a comprehensible narrative and thereby relieves the dreamer. Instead of irrationality and the apophatic, the dreamer finds motive and fault. Death is translated from the Real into the Symbolic. We possess erotic drives towards annihilation, but annihilation itself is inconceivable.
The “lucky streak” in literature allows the imagining of fate, or a divine hand, at play in the random world of chance. It shows that winning and losing are not random, but preordained, and therefore our imminent deaths are not random, but preordained. And all of this reconciles the fears that keep us awake. In the end, it’s the losing, just as much as the winning, that shows us God in the numbers.