This is the first in a planned ongoing series of occasional posts made from time to time—sometimes perhaps in flurries, sometimes with varying intervals between–under the general title of “The Traffic in Trauma.” Each post in the series will be designed to be read independently from the others, yet all will resonate with one another, deepening in meaning. All the posts in the series will explore, from various perspectives, the unifying theme of what we might call “the institutionalization of trauma.” The idea for the entire series came to me on a recent short visit I made with my wife to Las Vegas, to join our daughter and son-in-law as they also visited there. The trip proved to be very profitable to us all, and, as the subtitle to this first post of the intended occasional series suggests, some of the posts in the series will make use of my winnings from that trip.
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“What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.”
Now that my wife and I have just returned from a brief trip to Las Vegas—in effect, the first time there for either of us–I have gained a deeper, richer understanding of that line. It is a line, of course, that has by now been so long used for commercial purposes to promote tourism to the city, and all that goes with it, that it has already lost much of its currency. Yet by my own visit to Las Vegas I have come to realize that, however profitable the line may have proven itself to be for the financial interests that have used it for their commercial purposes, in the simplicity of what it actually says, and how it says it, that line escapes all of its commercial uses and abuses. Indeed, properly understood that line even makes ironic commentary on its own commercial use and abuse, and even subtly turns the tables on the very interests that so employ it—turns the tables on the very “House” that, as everyone knows, owns and controls all the “tables” in Las Vegas, that City of Sin, where the House always wins. During my own visit to Las Vegas I suddenly came to understand the hidden yet crucial, deliciously ironic way in which that already old line, once properly understood, turns the tables on Las Vegas itself, that place where, in the end, nobody ever beats the House. When the simple truth of that line at last strikes, it flashes out a light that illuminates the whole landscape not only of Las Vegas but also of everything that “Las Vegas” represents: The House of all Houses, as it were, the very synecdoche of all Houses as a whole.
What suddenly flashed on me in Las Vegas was, to use one way of putting it, that the reason it is so true—tautologically true in fact—that whatever happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas is this: Nothing ever happens in Las Vegas.
Put just a bit differently: Going to Las Vegas is going to a place where nothing ever takes place. So of course what happens there stays there. Whatever happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas, then, precisely because nothing ever happens in Las Vegas.
Robert Frost somewhere defines “home” as “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.” Well, to adapt along such lines yet another line, this time from a Steven King novel—I forget which one, but I’ve read enough of them to know that once you’ve read one, you’ve read them all, which is exactly why you keep on reading them when the new ones keep coming out—Las Vegas is the place where, when you go there, there’s no ‘there’ there.
Las Vegas leaves no room for any “there” to be there in Las Vegas, such that anything at all might happen there, in that limitless nowhere. In Las Vegas, in whatever direction even the sharpest, more clear-sighted eyes may look, there is no room left anywhere. Every nook and cranny, every fold folded into any nook or cranny, every gap between all the folds, is always already full. As there was no room at the inn in Bethlehem on the eve of Christ’s birth, according to the old Christian story, so is there no room at the inn in Las Vegas—the inn that is Las Vegas, where every room is already filled, filled by the very House that stacks all the odds in Las Vegas in its own favor.
Whatever happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas, because nothing ever happens in Las Vegas. In turn, nothing ever happens in Las Vegas because Las Vegas is a place where all the room is always already taken, leaving no room for anything else to take a place there.
If one asks what Las Vegas fills every available space, down to the tiniest nook and tightest cranny, with the answer comes as soon as one arrives in Las Vegas itself, or at least after one has had enough time to adjust to one’s new surroundings enough to know that one is there, which typically comes for most visitors to Las Vegas as soon as they have arrived from the airport or parked their car at where the vast majority of visitors stay when they visit. That is, the answer to the question of what Las Vegas fills all possible spaces with comes for most visitors as soon as they enter one of the massive casino-hotels concentrated on or around Las Vegas Blvd.—the famous/infamous Las Vegas Strip. What Las Vegas fills all spaces with is: glitter and glitz, come-on and strip-show, sham, scam, and con. In short, to use the crude vernacular, what all the spaces in Las Vegas are always already filled with is just this: all sorts of shit!
Which is all it is, everywhere, wherever you turn—as I’m far from the first to point out, and will be far from the last to notice. As I put it less crudely after I returned from Las Vegas, when the administrative assistant to the department where I work asked me what I thought of Las Vegas, now that I’d been there. I replied that Las Vegas feels just like New York, but with one crucial difference: Las Vegas has the same feel of fast-paced frenzy as New York, but without any substance to the frenzy.
Nietzsche contrasts two abysmally different sorts of depth or profundity: There is the profundity of a deep, still pond; and then there is the profundity of the mirror. The latter, of course, is all surface—the sheer illusion of depth, with no real depth at all. Las Vegas is just such a profound mirror. It’s depths are unplumbable, not because they go so deep, but because there are no depths there at all! There’s nothing but surface. As I said before, ripping off Steven King (a very Las Vegas thing to do, come to think of it), Las Vegas is the place where, when you go there, you find there’s no “there” there.
If you’re visiting Las Vegas and are staying in the Excalibur hotel and casino, where my wife and I stayed on our recent visit, then when you get tired of trying to skim something off the scam always running in Las Vegas at the Excalibur, you might decide to take some time out for a quick visit to New York. No problem! All you have to do is find your way through the maze of the Excalibur casino to find the right door to walk across the pedestrian walkway over Tropicana Ave. and you’re there—New York, New York! Tired of the States? Want to take a break from feeding the machine/s there? Piece of cake! Just a short distance away as the crow flies—though a rather long walk, since you must go through many other mazes along the way to traverse that distance by foot rather than on the wing—you can go to Paris, France! New York and Paris are both right there waiting for you! Right there in Las Vegas itself! Who would ever have thought the place would be so large?
From the moment one enters Las Vegas till the moment one leaves, one is being hustled, non-stop, everywhere one goes. Walk into the lobby of the casino-hotel where you are staying, to try to check in, and before you can even make your way through the labyrinth of slot machines and other come-ons to get to the registration desk you will be greeted by what look like hotel hosts and hostesses and taken aside to be offered one great deal or another. Want to get two free tickets to the hotel’s dinner-show, plus two more free tickets to eat at the buffet (breakfast, lunch, or dinner, as you choose), plus even two more free tickets, this time to one of the famous Las Vegas “attractions” (like the ironically aptly named “Shark Reef” housed at Mandalay Bay, just down The Strip over another pedestrian walkway or two through some other casinos, all ready and happy to help you divest yourself of some of that heavy money you’re carrying around)? Well, have we got a deal for you! You may have all that for free, if you’ll just sit through a 2-3 hour spiel for a time-share we’re helping provide our guests the opportunity to get in on.
The same sorts of hosts and hostesses await you to shill for time-shares or the equivalent at every single entrance into, or exit from, the casino, offering you the same amazing opportunities for freebies, at no cost but your soul. Exhausted by all that hustle, you finally manage to find your way through the casino’s maze to get outside—actually out in the open air, under real skies lit up with real sunlight or the glitter of real stars in the real heaven, rather than the fake suns and fake painted skies you can find in Las Vegas in New York, Paris, or other spots up and down The Strip, if you find yourself cooped up in one of those gigantic closed-in, windowless “places.” What do you find when you finally, really walk outside? The same thing you only thought you could leave behind you by finding at last a way to get outside: more hustlers hustling more hustles, from shows and other entertainments, to time-shares (ubiquitous), to jewelers and haberdashers, to mom-and-pop shops specializing in B & D paraphernalia. Whatever you want, however you want it. After all, you’re in Las Vegas!
What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas because nothing ever happens in Las Vegas. In turn, nothing ever happens in Las Vegas because every space in Las Vegas is already filled beyond full, with no room left over anywhere for anything else, anything new, any real event, to happen, to occur, to take place. That leads, then, to yet one more twist in what it means to say that what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas: What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas because nothing ever happens in Las Vegas, but then in turn, paradoxically, the reason nothing ever happens in Las Vegas is precisely because “nothing” never happens there. That is, no emptiness waiting to be filled, no openness open to being entered, no spaciousness accommodating many places—no room for anything to happen is made available—is there, in Las Vegas, where all the rooms are always full of one thing or another, it makes no difference what especially, just all sorts of stuff.
Trauma hollows out. It hollows out whomever it touches.
But not Las Vegas! Las Vegas allows no hollowing out, but instead always already fills in everything, even before any hollows are allowed to form. Therefore, no traumas welcome there! Not in Las Vegas!
That’s also why nothing is hallowed in Las Vegas. We can hallow something only by setting it up and apart in its own special place, where it commands our respect and reverence, whereby we hold it up or hallow it–so that, to use a Biblical metaphor, we must take our sandals off our feet when we enter its precincts. That is, we must leave behind all the hustle and bustle of our everyday daily lives and step aside a while, into what a later Biblical language calls a “desolate place”—an empty place, a hollow.
My dictionary tells me that the word hollow is related to the German Hohl, which means “cave.” Both the English and the German words derive in turn from the same root whence also comes the Old English hal. From that Old English root comes hail, in the double verbal sense of “call out to, attract attention,” as when one hails a cab, and in that of “acclaim,” as in hailing the conquering hero. From the same root also comes hale meaning “sound, healthy, whole.” That last word, whole, also derives from Old English hal, with the ‘w’ added from a dialect pronunciation. At one point in tracing all these connections between hallow, hollow, whole, holy, my dictionary remarks on the “obscurity” of some of them, especially between the holy, the whole, and the English hole. However, the connection is really not all that obscure, at least from the perspective one can acquire with a quick trip to Las Vegas. What is holy is what requires that a hole or hollow be carved out of the fullness somewhere, so that it, the holy, can be set apart to have a place to take there for its own. Only hollows make either haleness or holiness possible, by being held or holding themselves open to hold whatever may suddenly take place in that hollow when the hale or the holy seizes it, to set itself apart from the customary, so that the extra-ordinary might take its place there, out of the customary course of the circulation of everyday, ordinary things or “goods”—the traffic of customary commerce or exchange—and be hallowed there.
By hollowing out whomever it touches, trauma sets the hollowed-out aside, marking it and granting it a special place, hallowing it, making it holy. That process can be not only awe-inspiring but also terrifying. Either way, it is definitely never “business as usual,” never just more of “the same old same old.” It is always something new under the sun, something unexpected and un-expectable, something that “brakes the mold.” By hollowing out whatever it touches, trauma hallows it, setting it out and up and marking it as holy.
But not Las Vegas! Las Vegas doesn’t hollow out anything by its touch. Rather, whatever it touches, whatever comes within its precincts, it fills to overflowing by its touch. It fills-in whatever hollows it encounters, filling them all overfull with—shit. That is, what it fills and overfills all hollows with is nothing of any substance, such that it might be able to take any “purchase” on any place. Rather, it is pure semblance—all glitter, glitz, dazzle, and fizz, with nothing further to it, pure illusion.
Las Vegas is a mirror, filled only with images, no realities. There’s nothing there, really. It’s all just for show. Like the Eifel Tower in Paris in Las Vegas, or Times Square in New York, New York, just down the street a bit from Paris.
As such, Las Vegas is, as it were, the anti-trauma as such. It is the pure institutionalization of the avoidance of trauma, the full-throttle flight from it. Las Vegas is the fixation of trauma in a pure image, the freezing of all traumatic processing, the securing of all borders against all trauma, against any irruptive, disruptive taking place of any event whatever. It is the filling overfull of everything so that no emptiness can ever hollow itself out there, making room for anything at all to happen, rather than just the endless circulation and recirculation of phantoms without substance—a constant, ceaseless flowing back and forth along its circuits of the current of the only currency that counts in Las Vegas, the currency the House rakes in as profits.
What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas because nothing ever happens there, most especially any nothing itself, any empty place, where something might take place. What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas because nothing is never allowed to happen there.
Las Vegas is a mirror into which whatever otherwise might happen vanishes, before it can even first appear. It is not even a mirage in the desert. It is only the mirage of a mirage, the avoidance of avoidance—the place where nobody ever is able to find a home, because it’s the place where, when you go there, there’s no there there. As even light itself cannot escape from a black hole, so nothing at all can ever leave Las Vegas, once it happens there. Whatever happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas, trapped in the mirror forever more.