Amid the sand and haze of Nevada wavers the last mirage of Europe. In Las Vegas, history truly is “open for business.” The Strip’s most popular luxury hotels mock and exploit European civilization. Caesar’s Palace resurrects the glory that was Rome so that polo-shirted Trimalchios can flaunt their cash. The Monte Carlo, inspired by the Principality of Monaco’s Place du Casino, recreates the Belle Époque. Retirees send their children iPhone photos of chandelier domes, marble floors, neoclassical arches, ornate fountains, and gas-lit promenades.
European intellectuals journey to Las Vegas to study this spectacle. More often than not, they are seduced by it. Like Professor Rath in The Blue Angel, Jean Baudrillard utterly succumbed to “the great whore on the other side of the desert.” Wearing a gold lamé suit with mirrored lapels, the French philosopher and sociologist read his avant-garde poetry to the boozy regulars at Whiskey Pete’s, a second-rate casino near the state line. When Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History plays the slot machines, the house always wins.
Postmodernism has replaced the European city, with its parliaments and cathedrals framing the plaza, with the American shopping mall. “In the historical era,” notes the social philosopher William Irwin Thompson in The American Replacement of Nature: The Everyday Acts and Outrageous Evolution of Economic Life (1991), “monumental art, with its great buildings and heroes on horseback impressed the citizen with civilization; but now in our post-historic condition, history is not a text, but a quote from old movies in a theme-park ride.”
This catastrophic transformation harbingers an emerging global culture. Like a catalytic enzyme, Thompson predicts, America will dissolve and synthesize “all the traditional cultures of the world, be they Asiatic, Islamic, or European.” As an Old World humanist, I am not optimistic about the outcome, but Thompson makes a good point: “The classical stage set of the old European ruling class had to be seen from one angle only to maintain the illusion of depth.” Impossible in a post-Western world of multiple perspectives, but I still crave trompe-l'œil. So do most Italians.
An addiction to spectacle and illusion, claimed Luigi Barzini, is our defining vice. It might even be genetic, judging from my family on both sides of the Atlantic. When life overwhelms me in Rome, I seek asylum in the Musei Vaticani or the Teatro dell’ Opera. My cousin Tony, a harried police dispatcher from Syracuse, New York, books a suite at the Venetian Las Vegas. The Venetian replicates the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Campanile and includes an artificial lagoon. Lolling in gondolas, call girls in taffeta pretend to be courtesans.
“Better than the real thing,” Tony says and winks.