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Jan 6, 2004 3:07 pm

Venice in Vegas

Reading Henry Farrell's entry at Crooked Timber on his trip to Venice made me think a bit about my own holiday travels to Las Vegas, specifically, to the replica of St. Marks Square found somewhere in the interior of The Venetian Hotel.

It was the first time I've been to Vegas, and many of my reactions were predictable, echoing a generation of writing about it, from my discomfort with the pathos of seeing parents pulling slots at midnight with small children sleeping in strollers a legally mandated distance behind them to a kind of awe at certain kinds of breathtakingly huge and spectacular vulgarities. There were also more ordinary kinds of mini-experiences--I couldn't help but think that the vaguely pathetic, run-down feeling of the Star Trek-themed restaurant in the Hilton (with a kitchen that appeared to be run by sadistic Romulans) mirrored the sorry state of its source franchise, while seeing Cirque de Soleil's show at the Bellagio was an unambiguous delight, one of the most remarkable performances I've ever experienced.

But sitting in"outdoor" seating at a restaurant inside the simulated St. Marks Square, with its roof painted as if it were a pleasant summer dusk, listening to fairly good opera and watching an Italianate clown saunter through the area entertaining passers-by, I couldn't help but think two things: first, that the experience was extraordinarily pleasant, and second, in some ways, that the experience was as (if differently) pleasant than being in the real St. Marks.

Confessing that feeling might get me a bemused, condescending wink from a knowingly postmodern thinker about simulacra--ah-hah! you are meant to feel that way--but it might also earn me a horrified frown from a more conventional preservationist or historical viewpoint: the Venetian is created, artificial, an imitation, inferior; the real Venice an organic, authentic product of centuries of history.

Authenticity is something scholars talk about a lot now, and most have learned to regard claims for it skeptically, perhaps too much so. Because even someone who might enjoy the Venetian's recreation of Venice knows there is a meaningful difference between the two, whether or not they're a trained historian.

Its just that the difference is not quite as simple as it appears. So many of the urban spaces and sights that we commonly regard as historical, and that preservationists rise ardently to defend, are that way because of accident and neglect, not because they were preserved through the generations as an inheritance for the future. Neighborhoods in Philadelphia and many other American cities that we now regard as attractively historical got that way in many cases because they turned into slums in between their construction and the present day, and they were too much trouble to pull down in between. The places in European cities that have survived centuries of war and growth have often done so for similar reasons, because no one troubled to build something new on top of them, or because no one burned or bombed them down.

And more than a few of the places that we now venerate as monuments or invocations of the authentic past were in some past moment built as gaudy, excessive, vulgar monuments to the wealth and power of their current inhabitants. Florence, for example, was Las Vegas once, in a way, and that we should now view it as tasteful and elegant is partially an artifact of the distance between its vainglorious making and its present state. It survives as it does in no small measure because travellers continue to find it a worthy destination, because it has been knowingly shaped into being a pleasurable experience for visitors, no less than the Venetian's simulated Italian afternoon.

Even Las Vegas now has an accidental history visible to any who care to see it. Venture beyond the Venetian and Treasure Island towards Circus Circus and the Stardust, and you see an older Strip, one that is in its own way a deeply authentic invocation of a time now gone. I am not the first to wonder when the statute of limitation on vulgarity expires and something becomes elegant merely by fact of its extended chronological survival.

Preservation is a good thing, on the whole, because however the physical reminders of the past come to us, through whatever accident, they carry immense meaning and power, a revealed truth that we could encounter no other way. But I wouldn't want the fact that the Venetian and Venice are very different to blind me to the fact that having a good dinner under the easy light of a recreated Italian sky, serenaded by dinner-theater opera, is as pleasant a thing as one might ask for in this world.

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Alan Kellogg - 1/11/2004

Yeah, right

Simplify our lives and remove that feature. It's annoying.

Alan Kellogg - 1/11/2004

A collector of historical memorabilia is walking down an Illinois road when he happens to run across a fellow chopping wood. The two get to talking, and eventually the local reveals that he's using Abe Lincolns own axe to do the chopping.

The collector, sensing a possible find here, asks, "Is that really President Lincoln's axe."

"Sure is." the fellow replies, "'Course we've had to replace the handle seven times and the head six, but it's his axe."

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/6/2004

1. I bet the drink prices were cheaper in Vegas.

2. A bit more seriously, the difference between the real and faux Venice is less the beauty of Saint Mark's square than the unexpected encouters down any side street. In my one trip to Venice, many of the joyful moments were in finding things that I did not know were there.

3. (Sometimes the unexpected was due to my atrocious tourst Italian. When my wife and I checked in to our hotel, I thought I asked the clerk for the location of photo developer; what I got back was a recommendation for a wonderful restaurant off the beaten track.)

4. Still, as a man who can enjoy a drink in the peculiar ambience of the Mall of America, I probably could have a good time in America's desert Venice.