We arrived at Las Vegas after a journey that took in Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Panglitch & Zion. Zion was a different kind of place from Monument Valley or Bryce Canyon. The river, Virgin, was only at the start of its task to cut into the sandstone, gouging a canyon of the stature of Grand Canyon. The rocks were more rounded and domed rather than worked into amazing figures. There was no hidden, symbolic meaning here, no mysterious, lost language waiting to be deciphered. These were merely rocks.
The river here was gentle, like an ambling walk, cliff to one side, river to the other. Fast flowing and tumbling down shallow rock steps. It rained and was a cold day. But everybody simply ignored the wet and damp atmosphere despite shivering and cold extremities.
Vegas was brash, appealing to everything excessive and vulgar in Man: gambling, pleasures of the flesh, greed, covetous desires, and gluttony. The people were fat in the extreme, as in Lowell’s ‘fat beyond the call of duty’. Large arms, legs that were immense in girth and abdomens that pushed through loose shirts and blouses, urgently, trying to escape belt or cord string. And the arms paddled as if every effort was against a stream that flowed upwards, against the whole corpulent edifice, perspiring, breathing heavily, waddling uphill or even on the flat! Some people seemed to move their legs in a semicircular swing to bring each thigh forward, swinging to avoid the tackle of the other.
And the coupling was a gift to curiosity: obese men paired with slim women that one wondered how she could ever manage to endure the weight. Every conceivable pairing – far eastern, hispanic, black, Native American, white, South Indian, and many more species yet to be catalogued, sized for shape and origin, bewildering in the variegation of physiognomy.
The casinos were the most boring places on the planet. Men and women sat by slot machines, cigarette dangling at the lip, a drink in one hand, eyes glazed over as in a trance, and a businesslike studiousness that was indifferent at the same time as empty and demoralized: elderly Chinese women, obese Black women, young men with lank hair that glistened unwashed against perspiring foreheads. There was no excited, expectant face, no look of triumph nor was there any joy or laughter. This was sheer indifference, boredom, stagnation, death even. It was the most morbid and unproductive environment that poverty of the spirit engenders. Was this the antechamber of hell? Dispiriting.
At the restaurants the meals were oversized! Tasteless and without fragrance, every item on the menu was intended to exaggerate what any reasonable person could manage, burgers that were so outlandish they would not, never ever, fit into any mouth no matter its gigantic dimensions. These were symbols of the wealth of America not meals for eating and savouring. More a hieroglyphic of excess speaking to the downtrodden and the unthinking about success and promise, about hope and dreams. Less about food and nutrition.
Vegas was the concrete poetical image of excess, the 21st century Jazz Age. This put me in mind of F Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940). Not his body of work but his breakdown or as he put it, his “crack-up”.
Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work- the big sudden blows that come, or even seem come, from outside- the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends, don’t show their effect all at once. There’s another sort of blow that comes from within-that you don’t feel until its too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again
Now a man can crack in many ways- can crack in the head…or in the nerves
And his judgment as to the origin of his malady was
An overextension of the flank, a burning of the candle at both ends; a call upon resources that I did not command, like man over-drawing at his bank…a feeling that I was standing at twilight on a deserted range, with an empty rifle in my hands and the targets down. No problem set- simply a silence with only the sound of my own breathing.
Excess in the individual or in society has a cost as F Scott Fitzgerald says, an over-extension of the flank, flabby, wobbly, vulnerable to mortal afflictions. Beneath the lights, the colors, the vitality and vibrancy of Vegas, perhaps lurks the insidious crack-up.
Photos by Jan Oyebode