I was sinning in the shower this morning, thinking about the six Tony
nominations this past season for Arthur Miller's revival of The Crucible
on Broadway. What is there about America that craves witch-hunts? Damned
if I know.
And I was wishing I was in Las Vegas, "the city that has re-discovered
according to all the Eastern prudes who so gleefully point out that Sin
stopped pandering to families and brought back the female nude under neon.
I started thinking about Stephen King, when my epiphany told me that
King is an all-American, born-again Puritan from Maine who would probably
righteously warm if he were burning witches outside the A-bombed Venetian
Hotel and Casino.
In print, anyway.
Here's a guy, the gaudiest writer of Gothic anxiety alive, whose novels
one-fourth of all the books published in the 1980s, who is the embodiment
those hatreds from those who find city life and the devil partners in
And the devil is always a merchant of Sin.
Consider Needful Things. You can get everything you want at a
store that the Devil himself owns and operates. Consider Salem's Lot,
a town taken over by vampires. Salem, of course, is a corruption of Jerusalem.
A Holy City taken over by bloodsuckers?
Consider The Stand, where the Apocalypse takes place in Las Vegas,
the Devil's henchmen get nuclear-fried at their headquarters -- in a casino
Now, I love Las Vegas. Vegas is noisy and brash. Over the clanging of
bells of the slot machines, the babble of languages in the restaurants,
lanes of vicious traffic outside on the Strip, now and again I can hear
screams of the lunatics on the rooftop roller coaster at New York New
Slot machine cups are everywhere, but good luck trying to find a clock
drinking fountain anywhere. Everyone in the world knows that there are
clocks in casinos. But nobody can find a water fountain, either. Water
precious in the desert. That's why, when it rains in Las Vegas, drivers
how to drive and smash into each other.
Not that we should sweat rain in Vegas, either. Last week a three month
spell was ended when McClaren International Airport in Las Vegas received
one-five hundredth of an inch of rain overnight.
Remember that silly ol' bumpersticker: Everybody Smokes In Hell?
If you smoke, puff away in Las Vegas. Unlike most of America, ashtrays
are everywhere in Las Vegas. You can take them with you when you go, too.
Every souvenir shop has personalized ashtrays for sale. You can buy a
silly one that says "Butch's Butts." There are the ashtrays
in stalls in public restrooms. At the Luxor Hotel, you can hunker down
in the public euphemism, smoke a ten-dollar cigar and listen to Cher reverberating
"I Believe!" on the hotel's in-house music system.
Life doesn't get any better than this.
Thirty-five million visitors agree every year.
Welcome to Sin City!
And if you remember earlier this year, the United States and the FBI
was warned by an Arab-American businessman that he overheard unknown terrorists
speaking in Arabic on his cellphone that they were going to attack and
destroy Las Vegas on the Fourth of July.
After all, Las Vegas was Sin City, USA.
Las Vegas deserved to die!
We all know the story. The city is the center of corruption, of alienation,
of sorrow and sin. City life means the loss of freedom and innocence.
The individual is corrupted. The city itself, to some "puritans,"
is the cause of human decadence.
The Puritans who came to America almost four centuries ago wanted to
the Church of England. Before they came here, they went to Holland, but
because the Dutch were too much tolerant of all religions.
The Puritans jumped onto the Mayflower and tried to create a Utopia in
World. They wanted "the city on the hill," a religious utopia
town" were one.
This theocracy (i.e., "the right and perfect way") led to the
were those city selectmen who owned the most and the best land. City taxes
paid for the churches. The "free men" of the community were
adult males who
attended church; they choose not only the ministers and the ministers'
but elected all the city officers. Meanwhile non-Puritans made up 80%
settlements. By the way, Puritan ministers could buy slaves; slaves were
of the church's prosperity. All utopias are not created equal.
The bad rap about sinful cities by puritanical religious fanatics began
thousand years ago as a revolt against "urban" civilization.
and the city of Jericho. The walls came down on that first city of 2500
1200 BC. The trouble should have been seen. After a half-million years
hunting and gathering, the new concept of City life had to meet some kind
The Old Testament is rife with anti-city feelings. Look what happened
and Gomorra. You have to travel up to King David's time before you see
being portrayed as royal and priestly and urban.
To the ancient Egyptians the god Osiris was the King of all Egypt and
pharaohs ruled in his name. Ancient Egypt was the first nation-state and
Osiris was ruler-god of that nation-state and all its peoples. He is
depicted carried a shepherd's crook and a farmer's thresher. He ruled
farmer and the shepherd.
Cain was Adam's eldest son. He was "the tiller of ground,"
while his kid
Abel was "the keeper of sheep." Cain killed Abel. Think of that:
The Israelites were semi-nomadic tribes. Even the capital Jerusalem was
founded by the Israelites. The Canaanites were the original inhabitants
Jerusalem. King David drove them out, and then the Hebrews took it over.
In any semi-nomadic society, the shepherd is always the underdog. After
farmer has already settled near the best watering holes, and his needs
irrigation are in conflict with the needs of the wandering herdsman.
Even more interesting is that after Yahweh punishes Cain by branding
sending forth into the wilderness, Cain is credited with creating the
Enoch. In essence, Cain becomes the prototype of the sedentary
and with that is born the Judeo-Christian-Islamic distaste for urban life
Farmers found cities; nomads just pass them by.
Cain killed Abel. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a nomad.
The city is always a threat to the nomad. The entire story of the Tower
is a snide Hebrew comment about the fate of those who choose to live in
multi-ethnic, multicultural urban center apart from God. The Babylonians
famous as the earliest city-builders, and their ziggurats stood out as
on the flat flood plains. (Jacob's imagery of a "stairway to heaven"
28 is derived from the brick stairs that lead one up a ziggurat.)
There is more here, too: The Hebrew word for "Babylon" is "Babel,"
name "Bab-ili" means "the gates of the gods" and refers
to the area as one
approaches the gates to the temple, and the Hebrew word "balil"
"he who is confused." If you worship here (and not where I do),
Aristotle called the city "a unity of unlike people who come together
good life." The Hebrews disagreed, and because of their perspective
culture) tend to view cities as the City of Dis, or the Waste Land, or
City, or Dens of Iniquity, or whatever slur we can fashion.
As early as Genesis 10:8, the Hebrews mention the Babylonian city of
and immediately tack on the epithet "Rehoboth-Ir," which translates
"the wide-streets city." Three millennium later, that description
like much of a derisive epithet, but coming from the semi-nomadic
wide streets just can't compare with the desert's expanse. (On a similar
there is an old Greek fable found in Longus' Daphnis and Chloe about the
watching the household dogs running loose; for all their proclaimed freedom,
wolf still sees the collar around the dogs' necks.)
The Hebrew word "'ir" for "city" is also translated
as "a fortified place,"
probably the first view of the city any semi-nomadic tribe would have.
fortified wall is the first form of self-defense any city thinks about.
want to keep what they have from those wanderers who don't have it.
Those ancient cities had walls that were eight feet thick in places.
To any semi-nomadic tribe, cities are dens of iniquity. They are
hedonistic, pluralistic, clear and definite threats to semi-nomadic values
priorities. Cities (and all their earthy pleasures) are a direct threat
existence and well-being of the tribe.
Part of the Hebrew attitude toward women in general can be seen to stem
these earliest experiences with urban oases. The earliest brothels appear
have been created three thousand years before Christ in the city of Ur.
Rahab, the prostitute who aids Joshua's assault on Jericho, lived inside
walls of Jericho; her brothel was inside the walls of Jericho. Not only
explain her marginal status in Jericho's society, but also demonstrates
Jericho as a mercantile community viewed the Semite rabble that came to
One wonders if the earliest Semitic tribesmen whooped and hollered through
those ancient cities the way our American cowboys whooped and hollered
through cattletowns when they came to town. One wonders about the earliest
forms of police or deputy sheriffs entrusted to keep the peace.
The Hebrews never did gain a favorable perspective on city life. This
deduced by the general fate of the cities mentioned in the Jewish Bible.
cities include Cain's city of Enoch, Babel, Babylon, Ninevah, and of course
Sodom and Gomorra.
Ah, Sodom! The archetypal city that all the prudes fear and loathe.
But Biblical texts, while universally condemning Sodom, do offer a variety
reasons for its wickedness. Sodom in Genesis 19:4 is wicked only for its
homosexuality and sodomy. In Isaiah 1: 9-16, however, we hear Sodom is
wicked because it lacks social justice: "Make justice your aim: redress
wronged, hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow." Ezekiel 16:45-51
city had a disregard for the poor, that "she and her daughters were
with food, complacent with their prosperity, and they gave no help to
and needy," while Jeremiah 23:14 simply blankets it with immorality:
Jerusalem's prophets I saw deeds still more shocking; adultery, living
siding with the wicked, so that no one turns from evil; to me they are
Sodom, its citizens like Gomorra."
Ah, yes, the City of Dis, the classic name for Pluto and Hades. Dante
rust-red Dis was the home of Lucifer. Imagine that. The devil lives in
Yet, in Sanskrit, "devanagari," or the alphabet with which
Sanskrit and most
other northern Indic languages are written, translates both as "writing"
city of god." In short, writing itself is "the city of God."
My favorite city name is Istanbul. The name "Istanbul" is Modern
from the old Greek "eis ten polin," which literally means "in
You can be
a thousand miles away from Istanbul, and it has no competition.
"Where am I going? Istanbul."
"I'm going downtown."
Istanbul is of course the modern name for ancient Constantinople, which
eleven centuries was the greatest city in the world. The Crusaders gawked
yokels when they saw it.
The English word "civilization" is derived from the Latin word
"environment" comes from the Latin "environs," which
is a description of the
twisted narrow roadways of Rome.
Early Greece seems to have coalesced about 800 BC, when various tribes
evolved into cities-states. The modern word 'political' derives from the
word "politikos," which translates as "of, or pertaining
to, the polis."
term "polis" will be translated here as "city-state."
It is also translated
as "city "
or "polis," or simply anglicized as "polis." Greek
city-states like Athens
Sparta were relatively small and cohesive units, in which political,
cultural concerns were intertwined.
Aristotle said man is a political animal, a "zoon politikan."
The Greeks had a word for those members of the "polis" who
passionate about civic affairs. The word was "idiot." Really.
Alexander the Great established a city at the mouth of the Nile in 331
primarily because two natural harbors were there. A library was established
there, in the greatest trading capital in the ancient world. It was here
centuries before Christ that Hellenic scholars established after long
debate the definitive versions of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. By the time
Christ the library was estimated to hold perhaps three-quarters of a million
After Alexander's death, the city became known as the greatest of Greek
Egypt had become Hellenized. And there were almost as many Jews as Greeks.
Rome was a city that built an Empire. The ancient Latin word "urbs"
means "the City" has enriched our English language with such
and "urbane," and even "suburban." To the Romans,
the Mediterranean Sea
itself was "Mare Nostrum," or "Our Sea."
The Romans created "res publica," that "republic thing."
The Romans came to view the entire world as a city much like Rome itself,
where every man (as they defined the term) might enjoy privileges of a
citizenship. Cities had water and sewage systems, theaters, and public
The wealthy 2% of the population had villas with central heating systems.
As many as a million people lived in Roman during the time of Christ.
had as many as 45,000 apartment buildings. But the elite were truly elite.
were less than 1800 private homes at that same time.
The Romans were practical people. They created truly "public"
"polis," that is, specific buildings to handle the practical
service. Many cities in America have civic centers. That is, special areas
the city where all or almost all of the governmental functions are
for easier accessibility. The federal building, the state building, the
courthouse, and the municipal buildings might all be within walking distance
each other. This geographical sensibility was a gift from the Ancient
In the Koran Mecca is called the Mother of Cities, and the Ka'Ba is the
point of earth. That it lies in a valley, a hollow or wadi, is obvious
diminish the power of the story. No place is nearer Heaven than Mecca,
has always been viewed as consecrated ground. Feuding and weapons both
were outlawed, and here he who accidentally kills another could find
For this reason the religious authorities said Mohammed's grave is in
although he was buried in Medina.
Western Civilization's vector has been to follow the sun from dawn in
toward the sunset in the west. But around the 11th Century the Western
faltered, and there was a reversal to the east. The notion of the
born. Go to the Holy Land and walk in Jesus' footsteps. But then in 1017
Alp Arslan and his Persian armies took over the Holy Land while creating
In 1095 Pope Urban II called upon his followers in the west to free the
Land. Jerusalem was the center of the world. It needed to be saved from
infidels. In return, the papacy promised to cut the time spent in Purgatory
sins committed and delay any debts owed to the Church.
With that impetus, who could refuse?
Orthodox Christianity defined the issue. Since the City of Jerusalem
center of its maps, that alone justified the Crusades. The Holy Land must
liberated from the infidels. Killing Saracens was righteous.
The Crusades were fighting pilgrimages to take the Cross back into
Those who died on the way there or in battle received total remission
sins. If you retreated, you were excommunicated. Those who won were
to take all the infidels' possessions.
The First Crusade did conquer Jerusalem. The First Crusade entered
Jerusalem in triumph in July 1099. The Crusaders who took Jerusalem in
burned Jews alive in the Great Synagogue and looted the Temple of the
They thought to cleanse the Holy Land with human sacrifice. Any wonder
the Arabs called the Crusaders "the pagan race?"
The Crusaders not only took property, but also pillaged all within sword's
Naturally the Muslims struck back. The jihads, or holy wars, began. The
mujahadins are those who would die in a holy war.
The French Crusaders cried, "Deus le volt!" God wills it!
The Muslims fought back. "Allah Ackbar!" God is Great!
"Lex talionis" is Latin for the law of tit for tat.
The infidels circumcised the Christians.
The religious, being closer to God, always want to the ones who dictate
"proper" city life ought to be. In medieval England a city was
truly "a city" unless it had a cathedral. In fact, most European
about the cathedrals they have. These were in most cases public buildings
public funds were used) constructed for religious reasons. Each also
the highest technology of its day.
A cathedral was more than a church. It represented the only available
schooling. It provided the only social services. Its courts settled
between neighbors or with town officials. The bells of the church didn't
people to pray; they were the way that the day itself was divvied up.
Cathedrals were town buildings. The town square was the area in front
church. Your ancestors were your legacy. Individuals' lives revolved
You were baptized here, married here, and buried here.
The economic impact of a cathedral was enormous. Chartres, for instance,
famous throughout Catholic Europe for its holy relics, already a famous
destination for pilgrims. Thanks to its new cathedral, the town began
four major feasts of the Virgin yearly. Concurrently, Chartres also hosted
trade fairs yearly at the same time.
The rise of towns and cities across Europe created a new breed of
known as "burghers." The term "burgher" is of Dutch
origin, and dates back
the thirteenth century, when the first great cities appeared in Europe.
it refers to free citizens who enjoyed certain civic (i.e., legal) rights
privileges. During the Renaissance townspeople emerged as a strong
force. The term gradually included mayors, aldermen and other civic
Medieval towns were devastatingly depressing places, but much of what
democracy was born during the Gothic Age. After all, cities stimulates
who were impatient with the old ways.
Eleventh century German serfs knew "Stadtluft makt frei", that
is, "city air
one free". Once cut from the land, a serf could find a sort of freedom
urban centers. If a serf managed to flee to a city and stay uncaught for
and a day, he was considered freed from his serfdom. (This is the reverse
ancient China. There, freedom was in the vast countryside, not in the
cities.) The secular authorities in cities were proud that they had won
through legal decisions. "Stadluft makt frei" marks a long series
Not that city fathers are usually viewed as defenders of individual
1867 the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) created a life-size bronze
sculpture entitled "The Burghers of Calais" after he learned
how in the
Years War between the English and the French six of Calais's elder
businessmen surrendered their city to the English, led by King Edward
does not depict these burghers as heroic warriors, trained to give their
Instead, as Rodin explains it:
"I have not shown them grouped in a triumphant apotheosis, such
glorification of their heroism would not have corresponded to anything
the contrary, I have, as it were, threaded them one behind the other,
the indecision of the last inner combat which ensues between their cause
their fear of dying, each of them is isolated in front of their conscience."
Dante Alighieri was known in his lifetime as Italy's greatest poet, its
"sommo poeta." He is still one of the greatest poets 700 years
is at times described as Shakespeare's only equal.
Dante Alighieri was a city official and a diplomatic negotiator for the
Florence, Italy. Florence at this time had a population of 80,000, which
second only to Paris.
The poet was a hardheaded Florentine, what Plato called the "zoon
His political party was ousted from office and then exiled. Dante was
to death in exile. He never went home. In Canto XIX of Paradise, Dante
remembers that he was "driven from the place I love the most."
Dante Alighieri was an angry, bitter man. Dante was a victim of a papal
grab in Tuscany by Boniface, a man who even contemporary historians say
conned his way onto the Papal Throne. The poet was forced into voluntary
and could never returned to his native Florence because his return would
meant he would be burned alive at the stake by the pope's minions.
That's why Dante wrote his Divine Comedy. He took the city-state
that he knew and more importantly the rich, famous and infamous people
of that city-state and teleported them into a narrative where he could
posit each one of those people into a framework of Divine Judgment. The
people he liked went to Heaven, while his enemies and the truly wicked
received their just rewards in the darkest, iciest bowels of Hell.
We all would want that power, right?
I want you to go to the hell I imagine in my worst nightmare.
Stephen King speaks for us all, right?
Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy is a vernacular representation
of the theology of the cathedral. It was a road map between hell and heaven
for the illiterate faithful. It is also Ptolemaic; that is, the earth
is the center of the theological universe. The universe exists for Humanity.
And Man is next to God.
The city of Florence, Italy, with a population of 400,000, is visited
tourists each year. They come to visit the birthplace of the Renaissance.
In 1282 Florence, Italy, became the center of the world of money, a position
city still held through most of the Fifteenth Century. The gold Florin
Florence was the standard currency of the times. Said to contain exactly
carats of pure gold, it was accepted from North Africa to the North Sea,
Great Britain to Constantinople. The gold florin was first minted in 1252,
same year the Inquisition began to use instruments of torture.
Italian bankers followed the coins; they knew the trade secrets that
compound interest and double-entry bookkeeping. The Italian word "banco"
means "table" and most early banking took place over small tables
marketplaces. Curiously, counterfeiting was closely tied to witchcraft;
the alchemists who could turn lead into gold are no different than
turning lead into imitation florins. Those caught counterfeiting the florin
burned at the stake, like any heretic.
With money comes greed, and the Renaissance was no different that any
time in history. Dante, by the way, called the gold florin, "that
changed Pope Boniface VIII "from the Shepherd to the wolf."
Florence was the most progressive city in Italy, too, primarily because
governing body. Theoretically, a representative body ran the city of
truth, Florence, like the other city-states of Italy, were run by ruling
oligarchy is a small group of businessmen. The most famous (perhaps
infamous) family of Florence was the Medicis, closely followed by the
The history of the Corleones pales next to that of the Medicis.
These Italian city-states were secular, not religious.
Renaissance Humanism was the guiding principal. The humanists believed
the classical learning placed great value on the basic human dignity.
believed in the Christian notion that Mankind is God's greatest creation.
they believed these two dialectics could converge, be reconciled and be
synthesized. That all human learning can be synthesized. And they
the medieval notion that the material world offered only temptations and
The world, they believed, was from God and nature was both orderly and
City-dwellers created "studia humanitatis," the study of humanity,
what makes us all human beings. It was about the dignity of man.
Humanism believed that Mankind itself is God's greatest miracle. It exalted
human freedom. It recognized the risks but insisted upon the opportunities
After Lorenzo il Magnifico's death in 1492, the sinful city of Florence
fall under the sway of the firebrand Dominican preacher Fra Girolamo
Savonarola. Other Florentines called Savonarola's followers "piagnoni,"
snivelers, as they were given to loud and weepy repentance for their sins.
four years, the snivelers threw their most luxurious possessions into
the vanities -- that is, huge bonfires in the square in front of the great
-- until Savonarola himself became the vanity that the Florentines chose
without, and they burned him at the stake for heresy in 1498. The great
Florentine artist Botticelli is said to have joined with the piagnoni,
mythological paintings into Savonarola's bonfires in woeful chagrin at
In 1497 Girolamo Savonarola was excommunicated for trying to depose Pope
Alexander VI. He died at the age of forty-five on May 23, 1498, in
Savonarola was certainly one of the most hated men of his times. When
Inquisition turned around and nailed him, he was simultaneously both hung
the gallows and burned at the stake in the square in front of the cathedral.
Florentines wanted him dead.
The motto of the great city of Florence is "La vita terrena merita
which translates from the Italian as "Life on earth deserves to be
If you can't visit Florence, visit Vegas.
Throw yourself under the (Roulette) Wheels of Life.
Why is Las Vegas needed?
It pisses off the Puritans. And the Taliban.