Dice, Cards, Wheels

Dice, Cards, Wheels: A Different History of French Culture

Thomas M. Kavanagh
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Dice, Cards, Wheels
    Book Description:

    Gambling has been a practice central to many cultures throughout history. In Dice, Cards, Wheels, Thomas M. Kavanagh scrutinizes the changing face of the gambler in France over a period of eight centuries, using gambling and its representations in literature as a lens through which to observe French culture. Kavanagh argues that the way people gamble tells us something otherwise unrecognized about the values, conflicts, and cultures that define a period or class. To gamble is to enter a world traced out by the rules and protocols of the game the gambler plays. That world may be an alternative to the established order, but the shape and structure of the game reveal indirectly hidden tensions, fears, and prohibitions. Drawing on literature from the Middle Ages to the present, Kavanagh reconstructs the figure of the gambler and his evolving personae. He examines, among other examples, Bodel's dicing in a twelfth-century tavern for the conversion of the Muslim world; Pascal's post-Reformation redefinition of salvation as the gambler's prize; the aristocratic libertine's celebration of the bluff; and Balzac's, Barbey d'Aurevilly's, and Bourget's nineteenth-century revisions of the gambler. Dice, Cards, Wheels embraces the tremendous breadth of French history and emerges as a broad-ranging study of the different forms of gambling, from the dice games of the Middle Ages to the digital slot machines of the twenty-first century, and what those games tell us about French culture and history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0245-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    Gambling, in terms of cultural significance, is as invisible as it is ubiquitous. Most often dismissed as one of the little things of life, it is assumed to be unimportant and unchanging. The studies that do address it tend to fly in wildly divergent directions: moral diatribes against a perceived social evil, biographies of famous gamblers, and histories of particular games. My intention in this study is instead to look at something else: at what gambling tells us about the larger culture of which it is a part, about a different history inscribed in gambling as a constant confrontation with...

  5. 1 Toward a Cultural History of Gambling
    (pp. 7-30)

    Why, the question must be asked, is there no cultural history of gambling? At the level of fact, of the actual social practices through which men and women interact with one another, gambling has existed and continues to exist in all societies from the primitive to the most advanced, from the most temporally distant to the most contemporary. Be it the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, Greek mythology, or the Judeo-Christian Bible, all foundational narratives include moments when a conflict, a dispute over domains, possessions, or privileges is resolved or transformed by recourse to the impartiality of a chance event upon which stakes...

  6. 2 Dicing with the Saints: Jehan Bodel’s Jeu de saint Nicolas
    (pp. 31-48)

    Why should dicing and drinking, all the boisterous vitality of tavern life, provide the setting for a conversion to the Christian faith not only of the King of Africa but of the entire Muslim world? This is one of the questions posed by Jehan Bodel’s Le Jeu de saint Nicolas. As a cultural document, this play stands as France’s oldest dramatic work which, rather than illustrating biblical scenes, speaks directly of the tensions and aspirations of the early thirteenth-century French society for which it was first performed. An example of the jeu, a genre whose name derives from the Latin...

  7. 3 Getting God’s Edge: Pascal’s Gambler as Paraclete
    (pp. 49-67)

    The gambling scenes in Bodel’s Jeu de saint Nicolas are part of that work’s broad canvas of medieval society. Its tavern scenes may underline a tension between sacrificial religiosity and vibrant carnality, but the play’s explicit conflict is that between Crusaders and pagans. Bodel’s dice games point to a popular underside of Christian France, but they refrain from issuing any direct challenge to religion’s hegemony. By the end of the play, Saint Nicolas has prevailed and even inebriated gamblers find a role to play in God’s plan.

    For France, the sixteenth century would bring an end to a unified national...

  8. 4 The Libertine’s Bluff
    (pp. 68-84)

    If any one period stands as the heyday of gambling in France, it is the century and a third separating the rise to power of Louis XIV from the storming of the Bastille and the coming of the Revolution. The years between 1660 and 1789 represent an interlude, a proliferation of new ideas that involved a systematic rethinking of the notions of social identity, of happiness, and of individual freedom. That period was also marked by what was nothing less than a national obsession with chance and gambling in all its forms. That century and a third saw the elaboration...

  9. 5 Gambling High and Low: Casanova’s Story of My Life
    (pp. 85-109)

    It sometimes happens that a single life, recreated as autobiography and allowing its vicarious reliving by reader as well as author, brings together within its variegated fabric the full range of the diverse and conflicting characteristics defining an age. As concerns gambling and its role within the culture of the Enlightenment, no one is more representative and no one tells us more about what really was at stake in those wagers than does Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, the Venetian son of an itinerant actor and a shoemaker’s daughter who was born in 1725 and lived until two years before the close...

  10. 6 Staging the Gambler: Sex, Sentiment, and Family Values
    (pp. 110-131)

    Plays, more than any other literary or historical genre, reveal a society’s changing attitudes toward an activity like gambling. For a comedy or tragedy to work, it must express both the playwright’s individual vision and the audience’s more widespread assumptions and prejudices. When the specificity of an author’s vision is missing, the play lacks novelty and originality. When the culture shared with the audience is ignored, a play devolves toward the idiosyncratic and the irrelevant. Novels, poetry, and philosophical essays come alive within an individual act of reading that need extend no further than writer and reader. The theater, on...

  11. 7 Gambling on the Anvil of History: Balzac’s The Wild Ass’s Skin
    (pp. 132-149)

    France’s experience of the Revolution and its aftermath, a culmination of the values emerging in Saurin’s play, but also a lesson in the unpredictability of an ideal’s consequences, set the stage for a new vision of the gambler both as real figure and as metaphor. The nineteenth century’s understanding of the gambler began with his projection onto a metaphysical plane far removed from the culture wars of a past pitting bourgeois restraint against aristocratic profligacy. In light of all that had happened across the face of Europe, the conflict between Béverlei’s somber agony and Valère’s delightful whirl could only be...

  12. 8 Whist, or the Aristocracy of Mystery: Barbey d’Aurevilly’s “Beneath the Cards in a Game of Whist”
    (pp. 150-167)

    When Barbey d’Aurevilly began writing “Beneath the Cards in a Game of Whist” in 1849, several questions may have occurred to him involving that game. Was it true, as many claimed, that Charles X had spent the entire three days of the Paris uprising that forced him into exile so engrossed in whist that he refused to leave the table as his regime fell to pieces around him? In a more personal vein, was it true, as Barbey’s family legend had it, that a game of whist had almost been responsible for his death on the day he was born...

  13. 9 Betting Against Your Self: Paul Bourget’s “A Gambler”
    (pp. 168-186)

    In 1889, the thirty-seven-year-old Paul Bourget, very much influenced by Barbey d’Aurevilly’s esthetics of mystery, published what remains his best-known work, The Disciple. That indictment of positivism made him one of the leading voices in the reaction against the reigning literary orthodoxy of Naturalism. A champion of what he called “the psychological,” Bourget rejected writers like Zola for what he saw as their truncated vision of human motivation, a truculent materialism that reduced the individual to permutations of heredity and class. For Bourget, the contour of the mind, the conflicting eddies of what and how one thought, defined the human...

  14. 10 Dreaming the Casino: Demy’s Baie des anges and Melville’s Bob le flambeur
    (pp. 187-214)

    With Balzac and Bourget, we have seen two of the three different locales associated with gambling in nineteenth- and twentieth-century France. Balzac’s Palais Royal, in addition to its restaurants and brothels, offered a variety of gambling dens or tripots. Minimally furnished, open to all but catering especially to the new urban masses, they offered nothing more than a place to bet. Lugubrious and sordid, they reeked of the compulsive and the self-destructive—especially, as Balzac pointed out, in the early hours of the day. With Bourget, we entered the different space of the private club, the cercle, where gambling was...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 215-222)

    This study has scrutinized the changing face of the gambler in French culture over the last eight centuries. I have argued that the ways people gambled tell us something otherwise unrecognized about the values, fears, and conviviality that defined a period or a group. Juxtaposing specific games with cultural documents that highlight their larger stakes, I isolated a series of flash points, of intersections between a game and its representation, that show how the gambler’s dialectic of the random and the determined, of chaos and order, brings into play the ethical, economic, and cultural conflicts of a given period.


  16. Appendix: “A Gambler”
    (pp. 223-232)
    Paul Bourget
  17. Notes
    (pp. 233-246)
  18. Index
    (pp. 247-251)