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Suffering & Dominoes

April 29, 2008

For the last few days, I've been wearing a necklace fashioned from an antique dominoe. I picked the trinket up in a store in Sonoma a few months ago, but have hardly worn it until now. I'm wearing the necklace in response to an arresting article that appeared in last Wednesday's New York Times by Marc Lacey about how the game of dominoes has come to dominate the lives of many poor Haitians. What's striking are the strange and tragi-comic stakes for which the game is played. Tyler Hicks' image from the Times illustrates what the players put themselves through when on a losing streak. Writes Lacey:

The beauty of dominoes is that it requires not even a single gourde, Haiti's currency, to compete. That is not to say, however, that there is no price to pay. Dominoes are played in two-person teams or with each player competing individually. Clothespins are merely one of many techniques Haitians employ to punish those who lose four games in a row. Some approaches focus less on pain and more on ridicule, like forcing a losing player to wear an empty sugar sack over his head or a brightly colored oversized hat. Other losers might have powder wiped on their faces, turning their brown skin white, or be forced to wear a heavy coat so they suffer in the heat. The particular method of suffering depends on the rules at a particular table that day, which vary widely across the country. Losers are sometimes made to salute any person who approaches the table. Or to drink a glass of water every time they lose a game, with no bathroom breaks. Or to fetch any domino that another player tosses away from the table, even if it happens to land in a sewage ditch. On any given day, the players say, anyone can end up a loser.

The potent relationship between suffering and play embodied by the Haitian approach to dominoes has been explored in the work of many artists. It's there in the death-rattle antics of Hamm and Clov in Beckett's Endgame for instance. Watching Mike Leigh's 1993 film, Naked, yesterday returning to the Bay Area from New York on the plane also brought Lacey's article to mind through Leigh's constant blurring of the line between courtship rituals and violence.

In one of the most devastating scenes of the film, the main character, Johnny, flirts with an older woman but ultimately rejects her out of disgust at her dependence on drink to dull pain.

Like the dominoes players in Haiti inflicting physical forfeits on themsleves and each other in the pursuit of "leisure," so pain goes hand-in-hand with pleasure. Or, to be more accurate, both life and art suggest that feeling pain in life, though undesired, is better than feeling nothing at all.

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