Those who know me well know that I’m strongly drawn to systems, randomness, and the interaction between systems and randomness. Little private systems govern many of the decisions I make, and many others are made on some random basis, or perhaps some combination of the two. For instance, I don’t pick out what I’m going to wear each day, because I don’t want to devote mental energy to that. Instead, my clothes get randomized in the laundry process (though that process does clump them into groups according to darkness and lightness.) Then I stack or hang them in the order they come out of the dryer, and rotate through them in that order. Because I’m aware of (though not very bothered by) the concept of color clash, I make a token effort to purchase only black, white, grey, and blue clothes, but there are a lot of exceptions. Regardless of those, I don’t think I’ve ever rejected a random set of clothes out of some concern about clashing.
That’s just one example of many. Randomness is important enough to me that I try to always have a random number generator available. I keep dice in my house, in my car, in my office, and on my person. I even wrote a random number engine for the Palm Pilot that allows me to get an arbitrary number of random digits between an arbitrary set of bounds, with the upper bound either staying fixed or descending by one at each iteration (to represent a set which decreases by one every time an element of it is selected.) I use these numbers (along with some fixed systems) to determine what music I’ll listen to, what food I’ll eat, what movie I’ll see, what task I’ll complete, and so on.
Why do I behave this way? That’s a question with many answers, some of which could probably only be unearthed by a crack psychologist. One answer is that it is my coping mechanism to deal with a world of too much choice. Confronted with a menu, I am usually without preferences — everything appeals to me about equally. Faced with a list of tasks whose priority is roughly equal, I find myself completely at a loss for which one I should begin. Randomizing and systematizing these choices takes them out of my hands, which is a huge relief. This method also carries the side benefit of forcing me to be more adventurous that I might otherwise be, leading me to new tastes and experiences that I wouldn’t choose on my own.
With all this in mind, you’d think that I would love The Dice Man, a novel about living a randomized life. I didn’t, but before I go into that, a little explanation about the book itself. The ad copy on its jacket proclaims it to be a novel, but its text and its author attribution stake out a more autobiographical space — the main character and the author are both called “Luke Rhinehart.” In fact, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The Dice Man is a fictional novel, and Luke Rhinehart is a nom de plume for author George Cockcroft, but Cockcroft himself, like Rhinehart, is a psychology PhD who advocates the use of dice to efface the self and expand the boundaries of life. The book was apparently somewhat of a cult hit in the early ’70s, and has remained on the underground radar since then, at least enough to stay in print.
The story goes like this: Luke Rhinehart, successful New York psychiatrist with a wife and two kids, was bored. Drifting in an ocean of ennui, he briefly clung to different philosophies, like Zen or Freudianism, but found no satisfaction. Then one night, following a whim, he decided to let a diceroll determine whether he’d initiate a drastic, formerly unthinkable action. The die said yes, and from that point forward he began to use random numbers to determine more and more pieces of his life, down to what persona he would adopt in a given moment and what short-range and long-range directions he would allow his life to take. He even developed a kind of psychotherapy based on these tenets, and opened “dice centers” to bring his philosophy to the public. The book ends with him as the ultimate embodiment of chaos, in heroic flight from the oppressive forces of order, i.e. The Man.
The problem with all this is that Rhinehart is a despicable human being, a full-time narcissist and part-time sociopath. The action that he lets the die prompt? Raping his downstairs neighbor. (Those are his words, and though the act isn’t as violent you might imagine, complicated by his victim’s listless attraction to him and her lack of clear boundaries, it is still essentially nonconsensual sex, in my opinion.) Throughout the book, he remains resolutely unwilling to respect or even recognize the effects his behavior has on others, treating them instead as objects or stimuli. His quest is to relieve his boredom, and he executes it as if he were the only human in a world full of automata, or perhaps a world full of NPCs. He allows the dice to take him in reprehensible directions, up to and including murder. He also deploys the random method in ways that would make him so annoying as to be intolerable. For instance, at a party, he elects to adopt a new, dice-chosen personality every ten minutes, with those personalities ranging from “mute moron” to “uninhibited sex maniac.”
The Dice Man reminds me that the random method is a tool, and it’s only as good as the person using it. What makes it work or not work are the choices you give it. It’s one thing to roll the dice in order to decide whether to listen to the radio or play a CD. It’s quite another thing to roll the dice in order to decide whether to listen to the radio or strangle your cat. The inclusion of an insane choice does not implicate the random method itself, but rather its user. The idea of using dice as therapeutic tools for people who are stuck in repetitive, obsessive thought patterns and behaviors is a very interesting one, but invariably Rhinehart would urge that some of the options given to the die be harmful to others, simply for the transgressive nature of such inclusions. This wrinkle more than outweighs any possible benefit that the method might contain.
This is right about the time I should point out that this novel is a satire, and that much of its amorality is seemingly intended as black comedy. I’m a fan of dark humor in general, but I’m not a fan of cruel humor, and I would argue that much of The Dice Man falls into the latter category. The absurd and extreme nature of Rhinehart’s behavior often struck me as horrifying rather than funny; the emotional and physical damage he inflicts on his family and friends isn’t a joke unless we see these targets as ludicrous or deserving in themselves. The book doesn’t successfully portray them that way. There are some very witty sentences and some clever turns of phrase, but the story as a whole just isn’t that funny to me. It also may be that the intended satirical target is the self-help and psychoanalysis culture of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and that I’m just too distanced from that culture to appreciate the lampooning.
The cover copy of The Dice Man boasts that the novel will change my life. It didn’t, but it helped ground me in the life I’m already living. I embrace randomness as a way to help me make decisions and to prod me out of my comfort zone, but I reject Rhinehart’s notion of becoming The Random Man, ostensibly abandoning all concept of self to random options. (I say ostensibly because there is still a self that creates those options, and to consistently value, say, a wide moral variety in the options created is to retain the very self that Rhinehart purports to have dissolved.) We both create options for the dice to choose, but I have no use for options that do violence to myself or others — the dice can select my lunch and my music, but I like my marriage just fine as it is, thanks.