The Traffic in Trauma: Reading Hopkins in Las Vegas

This post is one in an ongoing series to which I will add posts from time to time, sometimes in flurries, sometimes with varying intervals between, under the general title of “The Traffic in Trauma.”  Each post in the series—or, in some cases, sub-series of interconnected posts under that general series title–is designed to be read independently from the others, yet all are meant to resonate together with one another, in an ongoing deepening of meaning.  All the posts in the series 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 a number of the posts in the overall occasional series make use of my winnings from that trip.

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At the very start of my wife’s and my recent trip to Las Vegas, I downloaded and began reading an electronic edition of a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great 19th century English poet, by Robert Bernard Martin (London:  Faber and Faber, 1991).  During his short life—he died in 1889 at only 44—Hopkins converted from the Anglicanism into which he had been born, to become a Roman Catholic.  After his conversion, he went on to join the Jesuit Order and become a priest.  Throughout his adult life, beginning even before he became a Jesuit, Hopkins practiced various regular aesthetic disciplines designed to “mortify” his appetites.

The conjunction of Hopkins with Las Vegas may seem eccentric to the point of schizophrenia.  On the one hand, Hopkins’ whole life was lived in the spirit of asceticism and the disciplined practice of denying ones’ appetites.  On the other hand, Las Vegas, with its wide- open, no-holds-barred self advertisement as ‘The City of Sin,” is the place where visitors are not only permitted, but even encouraged, to indulge to excess their every appetite.  The two would not be expected to blend their very diverse voices at all harmoniously.

Yet for me, that’s exactly what they did.  Those two so different voices, the interplay of which by all reasonable expectations would produce nothing but a cacophony, ended up in my own experience resounding with one another to produce a remarkably deep and rich harmony.  To try to put some of their joint song in words, one of the themes they were sounding with one another was this:

Whether it is gambling or prayer, drinking or tee-totaling, sex or self-abnegation there’s nothing either right or wrong with any given game as such; what makes it either right or wrong is all a matter of how the game, whatever it may be, is played.  In just that same way, whether an institution in general traumatizes those whom it affects, or guides them into and through recovery, is a matter, not of the nature and structure of the institution itself as such, but of how it is incorporated and reiterated in the living of human life itself—a matter, as it were, not of different institutions, but of different ways of institutionalizing whatever institutions get instituted.

As thoughts will do, that one came to me unbidden.  Appropriate to thought’s own traumatic structure, it struck me by surprise while I was reading Hopkins in Las Vegas, and came packaged in a different form than I’ve just given it—a form suited to what provided it occasion to enter.

Since my first serious engagement with them in the summer of 1987, some of Hopkins’ poems have carried lasting importance for me, and I long intended to read a good biography of him.   I finally got around to it, and I began reading Martin’s excellent biography on the plane on our way to Las Vegas.

The thought at issue came to me a day or two after that, as I was continuing my reading in our room at the hotel-casino on the Vegas Strip where we were staying.  That thought came to surprise me while I was reading, well along in Martin’s biography, about a period in Hopkins’ novitiate as a Jesuit when he was placed under orders not to follow one very common ascetic practice frequently mandated by the Jesuit Order and, indeed, recommended by the whole Roman Catholic church.  It is a practice, in fact, that is widely recommended across a large number of spiritual traditions, not only within Christianity but also beyond it, to Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and more.  Even emphatically self-styled secular atheists have often practiced it.  That is the discipline—“discipline” being the original meaning of the Greek term from which we get the English term ascetic—of fasting.

As Martin’s biography shows through quotations, Hopkins himself fully agreed with the proscription, in his own case at the time at issue, of that common discipline of fasting.  Such ascetic practices were originally designed and instituted to humble their practitioners by ingraining into them the deep awareness of their interdependence with others and with creation as a whole.  Fasting and other such bodily disciplines of self-denial, properly practiced, serve as highly effective regular reminders of just how generally dependent the practitioners of those same disciplines are, and how interdependent they are with their fellows and, indeed, with all the rest of creation.  They show those who practice them—show them at the most concrete, bodily level, that of their most basic bodily appetites, drives, and affects themselves–how dependent they really always are on “outside factors” to sustain themselves at all, moment by moment, in all regards, mental, emotional, spiritual, and bodily.  In short, when practiced in such a way as to accord with the underlying proposed and intended goal or purpose for which they were instituted in the first place—which is to say, to be genuinely ascetic in their actual practice or implementation in any given case—ascetic practices needed to be ego-de-flating, rather than ego-in-flating .

Why Hopkins himself was so cautious towards his own inclination to engage in such ascetic practices as fasting, and why he agreed with his superiors’ decision when they ordered him not to engage in some such practices, was that he saw clearly the ease with which his own mind—his own way of thinking and being—could pervert those very practices.  Hopkins understood completely that genuinely ascetic practices were designed to serve the goal of his own “self-mortification,” by humbling him and driving the awareness of his complete interdependence with others ever more deeply into his soul.  He saw with full self-reflective clarity how adept he was himself at turning such humbling practices into yet more fodder for his own pride in himself, in the negative sense of that term, where it goes together with feeling and holding oneself to be someone special, not at all like all those “other” people, almost all of whom appear to lack the “strength of character” and “pride in themselves” to practice the sort of remarkable “self-control” that one demonstrates so clearly in one’s own case—at least in one’s own eyes.  That is, Hopkins realized how deeply ingrained in himself was the tendency toward what is often called “spiritual pride”:  vanity masquerading as spirituality—a matter, to use the terms of the nicely oxymoronic title of a book by Chögyam Trungpa, Tibetan Buddhist  guru and founder of Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, of “spiritual materialism.”  Thus, the lesson my reading Hopkins in Las Vegas occasioned me learning–worded as it first came to me, to fit what occasioned it in that setting–was this:

Any practice or other institution is to be abandoned as soon as it becomes overall ego-boosting rather than ego-busting.

Reading Hopkins in Las Vegas taught me that lesson–and a rich stock of others, as it turned out–altogether free of charge.  That in itself made the lesson remarkable.

It was remarkable insofar as its cost-free availability to me in Las Vegas, of all places, defied all the ordinary expectations one would usually have in making a trip there, and that I had myself as we went there.  That is because Las Vegas is a glittering, glitzy place where, as I remarked to my wife at one point during our stay, “they would charge us for breathing, if they could just figure out a way to package the air, without killing off all their potential customers in the process, before they could even pick their pockets.”  Indeed, looking back now, after our trip and our receiving all the great, genuine gifts that were readily available to us there altogether gratis, I’m actually surprised that no one tried to con us into thinking we did have to pay them, if we wanted to keep our air supply going.  Any lesson one learns for free in a place where they would charge you for the air you breath, if only they could figure out how, is remarkable simply on the count of coming for free in Las Vegas, of all places, in the first place.

In the second place, the lesson at issue was also remarkable by virtue of its unusual sort of “back-reference,” so to speak.  I immediately saw that it applied to the very same institutional setting in which it was transmitted to me, as it were.  That is, it applied to Las Vegas itself, or, more specifically to two very different ways one could experience that city.  On the one hand, one could experience Las Vegas, that “City of Sin” itself, as a wonderful place to go to practice grossly hedonistic self-indulgence–a place, that is, to get one’s ego boosted.  On the other hand, however, one could alternatively experience Las Vegas, same city (that one of “Sin” itself), as a wonderful place to go to practice austerely ascetic self-denial—that is, to get one’s ego busted.

Las Vegas, the City of Sin, as it quite accurately advertises itself as being, is “Sin,” which in that context means precisely selfindulgence.  Las Vegas is Sin in the very same sense that Uncle Sam is America, or that John Bull is England.  True to its name and to what it names, the City of Sin is indeed the place to go, if what you want is to indulge your taste for self-indulgence, that is, to get your ego boosted, as I already said.  If you want to get your ego boosted, by all means you should go to Las Vegas, where, once there, whatever you may end up doing, it will indeed boost your ego.

If that’s why you want to go there, taking a trip to Las Vegas is guaranteed to boost your ego one way or another.  It may, if you get lucky, at least by ordinary standards, boost your ego by letting you hit that big jackpot you’ve always dreamed of one day hitting on the slots, or at craps or poker or roulette or whatever equivalent, letting you glory in your new-found—yet so richly deserved, for all you’ve had to put up with to get there—riches.

That does happen in Las Vegas from time to time, of course.  However, as everyone really knows, if one lets oneself know it, it does not happen very often.  It happens only very, very rarely, in fact, given all the millions of tourists annually who gamble by going to Las Vegas.  Far, far more likely is that, if you go to Las Vegas for some ego-boosting, you will indeed find your ego boosted, but not in that way.  It will be boosted, rather, in the same way that a pickpocket might boost your wallet.  That sort of ego-boosting is, after all, what Las Vegas, where all the odds that can be rigged always are rigged to be on the side of the House, is all about.

Las Vegas is the place to go, to get your ego boosted, one way or another, whether you like it or not.

Unless, that is, the flipped coin of your luck lands differently, as flipped coins can do, even in Las Vegas.  Despite how hard they try to rig everything in favor of the House, the forces of order that order Las Vegas can never manage entirely to rig that, at least:  Sometimes the coin really does come down against the house.  What’s more—and to Vegas’s lasting chagrin—in terms of the coins that really count, when those coins come down, the coin always comes down against the House.

Poor Las Vegas!  It just can’t win!

My own experience in Las Vegas is proof of that.  It was there, after all, in Las Vegas itself, that the coin I flipped in going there came down–by sheer good luck of reading Hopkins, by hap, in that place—in my own favor, and broke the House itself, by showing me that the House, poor thing, and despite all its rigging of everything it can rig, and also despite what it may think itself, never wins.

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Coming soon!  “The Traffic in Trauma:  Reading Hopkins in Las Vegas II–The Sequel”!  Look for it in my next post!

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