I should sit down and ponder sometime why it is that I’ll occasionally respond to grocery-store cashiers’ casual questions as if I believe in their pretense of interest. When the bearded youth asked me last week what I’d been doing with my day, it might have been his earnest look– someone so obviously as-yet unjaded by life couldn’t be totally insincere, after all– that prompted me to admit, “Finance,” followed by the qualification (I have to protect my liberal-arts cred, after all) that I never in the most implausible scenarios I’d imagined for my life ever thought I’d be saying that. Turns out (surprise, surprise) we were both frustrated writers, and I went on my way as the wordsmith of Trader Joe’s asked the next customer the same question.
But enough with the evidence of failed human connection; let’s talk this crazy numbers stuff I confessed to have been dabbling in. Much as I’ve learned about– and enjoyed– budgeting and non-profit financial management over the past few months, my eyes still assume they should glaze over when faced with a new quantitative concept or piece of loosely-defined jargon (“best practices,” anyone?) that could almost mean anything you’d like it to mean. I’m not an entirely stupid person, but even with all my fancy education and newfound fascination, this stuff can be simultaneously tricky and tedious. Hence, based solely on the technical ideas involved, I’m unsurprised that history has been filled with banking scandals, spectacular economic crashes, and difficulty in regulating the whole mess– and that’s without taking into consideration a lamentable human baseline of greed and childish competition.
Currently, I’m making my mostly comfortable way through a standard on institutional investment– and I’ve been pretty pleased with how straightforwardly written and clearheaded it’s been. But then I came across this gem: “Combining the tendency of a high risk premium to mean revert with the observation that the equity risk premium seems to decline secularly, justifies an assumption of U.S. equity returns of 6 percent real with standard deviation of 20 percent.”* Say what? Right: it sounds like something that came right out of the artificially constructed language in Václav Havel’s The Memorandum, and we could all get in a few chuckles about this clumsy chunk in general. But here’s what I zeroed in on: “the equity risk premium declin[ing] secularly.” Yeah, yeah, Investopedia‘s keyed me in to the fact that “secular” here just indicates “a long-term time frame,” so my snarky grin had to disappear in the face of legitimate word usage.** But student of culture and religion that I am, this phrase is loaded with rich and telling possibilities – as in, when dealing with wily securities, the best form of hedging might be prayer– or a reconsideration of just what sorts of benefits the transcendent could offer, especially upon realizing that the systems we’ve created and kid ourselves are “natural” are just as prone to error and irrationality as are the humans who crafted them.
In short, I’m having all sorts of dorkily speculative fun in moving this specialized terminology across disciplinary boundaries– and I haven’t even gotten around yet to toying with Adam Smith’s oft-cited and ofter-misunderstood concept of the “invisible hand.” You can be certain, though, that that appendage will be just as eager to wreak ill-informed havoc in my imaginary economic universe as some of its extreme fans are still doing in our current one. To asset allocation, then! Who knew it could be so creatively philosophical?
* David F. Swensen, Pioneering Portfolio Management: An Unconventional Approach to Institutional Investment (New York: Free Press, 2009), 111. In case you’re wondering, the chapter in which this gets thrown down deals with asset allocation.
** Massive props to this website, which has allowed me to understand a whole welter of concepts without driving my mentor to check himself into an asylum. I’m still going to do some etymological investigation of how this particular usage came about; why use “secular” to deal with longer terms, instead of “sacred” or “immortal”? You’d think something of a secular nature would have to do with the very non-eternal– and hence, shorter-term– reality of buying and selling and borrowing.
After the one guy with an unidentified hardback propped against his knees got swallowed up in the flood of rain-fleeing humanity entering the train this morning, I noticed something curious: an unusual number of people with old-fashioned reading material in their bags or purses– cheap paperbacks crushed in between laptops and absurdly tiny umbrellas, more cared-for volumes and long-read magazines neatly filed in multi-compartment attachés. The carriage was crowded; I had to hold my own book uncomfortably close to my face to read it. But in addition to wondering why so many people’s bags were gaping open, I also wanted to ask all these book-stashers, “If not now, when?” Maybe they were all lunch-break readers, or were only carrying around an extra paper-bearing pound or two as a last resort against boredom.
For a cause I’m unable to identify, that peek into so many people’s toted-along interior lives made me sad; for some unknown reason, the scene constituted something less than an active network of signals from one book lover to another that a compatriot was in his or her presence– something not quite on par with the literary version of a secret handshake. Maybe having possible dystopian scenarios much more in my mind of late, I’m also seeing closed, carried-not-read books as little flashes of samizdat-to-come. I can only hope if that situation does arise– if the groundswell we’ve seen of late of outrage at and purposeful self-quarantine from unfamiliar ideas and people does turn into active persecution of, say, those who openly welcome dialogue with and education about things and groups deemed officially unacceptable– that a solid network of resistance will also emerge. It could simply be because I’ve always loved books and the possibilities they offer that I also believe in their power to take us beyond, and connect us in order to overpower, countless forms of ugliness, and to teach us how to stand firm in the face of difficult and frightening situations. But my mind could also be swerving off into possibly overblown fearscapes at the sight of bagged books because frightening regimes’ first targets are so often words and the people who love the truths they contain.*
So when I urge people to read, usually, I’m really just expressing a hope that they’ll find a new source of enjoyment and meaning in their lives. I know that books won’t solve even half the problems on this planet, even if we read the good ones with open hearts. But whether histrionic or not, that faith in the written word also houses the kernel of a plea that extends beyond the strength and imagination the best of our literature can offer and encourage: take what you learn, and respect your teachers, yourself, and the strangers you’ve never even seen, enough to uphold those lessons in your actions. Don’t give in, and don’t hide the books.
* In the last few years, J.K. Rowling has provided incredible models both of courage vis-à-vis tyranny, and of how that tyranny works. Want to see some of the best delineation since Václav Havel of how ideology functions? Check out volume five in her Harry Potter series, The Order of the Phoenix, with Dolores Umbridge schooling us all in evil’s comfortable relationship with treacly cuteness. And for a reminder we all need to hear, there’s also The Goblet of Fire, with Dumbledore’s admonition that a time will likely “come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy” (differently phrased, I think, in the movie version). (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, New York: Scholastic Press, 2000: 724.)
Yeah, I started a new book, just because trying to hold together the three I’ve got going already wasn’t filling up enough of my life. So here I am, following Pablo Neruda as he sleeps his way around the world in his Memoirs. Were I to leave it at that, said summary would be grossly unfair; so far, we’ve gotten loving descriptions of the places he’s been and lived, from small-town Chile to the backwoods of Southeast Asia, as well as thoughts on and glimpses into colonialism, different nations’ literary scenes and personalities, and some childhood magic thrown in to boot.
But what’s really hitting home, as such things didn’t when I was a teenager, is how much of a boys’ club bubble this autobiography describes. So far, women really haven’t come into the text unless they’ve fallen into and out of Pablo’s bed, sometimes by choice, sometimes, as in a notorious tryst the author admits was reprehensible, because power dynamics removed choice from the woman’s horizon entirely. (1) That’s understandable (if not excusable), given the early-twentieth-century setting, and the fact that the literary life, and even profession, as well as the freedom and ability to travel on one’s own, were largely things taken up by men at that time. Hence, Neruda’s doing nothing more than going along with the way things were; I’m not going to call him out as some sort of woman-hating reactionary.
But what comes along with distance spanned by change and a more complex understanding of humanity is some dulling of the shine in Neruda’s brand of romanticism. Take his description, for example, of Valparaíso’s slums: “The wash hanging out to dry decks each house with flags and the swarm of bare feet constantly multiplying betrays unquenchable love.” (2) Maybe– but to this reader, those constantly multiplying feet speak of poverty, limited options, lack of access to birth control, and the fact that yes, people have sex (frequently not by choice, and not always meaning it’s a sign of “love”), and children often follow in its wake. To equate that all with “unquenchable love” makes adorable simpletons out of the happy poor, and we can then go on our way and not worry about them or the conditions in which they live, because, hey, it’s one big love-fest up there. (3)
Again, I don’t mean for this post to be a tirade against an amazing poet, who in addition to writing verses, was committed to The People and sometimes paid the price for his involvement in communist and socialist politics. Maybe, though, these thoughts constitute a late-blooming awareness that even especially gifted and well-meaning human beings, even those who wield powerfully critical minds, have very little chance of escaping the dominant attitudes and conventions of their day. Or in other words, true-blue heroes are rare, and looking to them as god-like exemplars will only lead to disappointment. (4) The best we can do, then? Maybe appreciate the gifts they are able to give us and, without failing to hold anyone, including ourselves, accountable to any number of foibles or crimes, let that be enough.
(1) The encounter in question was between Neruda and the low-caste servant who carried out the human waste from the house every morning in Colombo. After ignoring the presents he puts in her path, as well as his attempts to communicate with her, here’s what happens:
One morning, I decided to go all the way. I got a strong grip on her wrist and stared into her eyes. There was no language I could talk with her. Unsmiling, she let herself be led away and was soon naked in my bed. Her waist, so very slim, her full hips, the brimming cups of her breasts made her like one of the thousand-year-old sculptures from the south of India. It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me. The experience was never repeated.
Pablo Neruda, Memoirs, transl. Hardie St. Martin (New York: Penguin), 1978: 100.
(2) Ibid., 58.
(3) For a cinematic adaptation of this sort of thing, and among other romanticizations of Brazilian favela life in particular, check out the original version of Black Orpheus.
(4) One of the secondary sources I used for an exam on Václav Havel seems to have been written by a guy who, thanks to his extensive study of his hero, suffered a crashing blow when he realized the freedom fighter had been such a womanizer. The tone of the book that resulted seemed to be saying, “If I can’t have my hero intact, neither can you”– which for a variety of reasons, made for a sad read.
Admittedly, since I was out of town on Halloween weekend, I missed the first technical snowfall in the city this year, and so I’m not justified in announcing the definitive arrival today of the winter season, via a very light, yet continual drift of frozen precipitation. But from thirty-nine floors up, I can at least allege with some justification that the experience of watching wandering flakes go by the window is a bit different than having those dazed little powder puffs drop shyly onto your shoulders at ground level. Caught in the complicated conglomeration of currents at such altitudes, sometimes, the snow doesn’t even seem to be falling– but just wandering around, checking things out, meandering in between buildings like a peerless space cadet just high on life and wearing a puzzling smile.
As I entered my own near-trance watching it all, I came across a thought in my head of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. It was the first book I read by him, and it remains my favorite of his: a somewhat back-country love story filled with such delicate and determined ache, I’m afraid to go back and read it again, lest it burst the bubble of wonder I created in reading it the first time. That fear is especially strong after having read The Museum of Innocence a few years ago; what had felt in Snow like art crafted out of a unique, far-seeing passion had somehow degenerated into formulaic sentimentality and the jealously of a boy trapped in the body of a middle-aged man. Maybe that’s exactly what Pamuk was trying to get at: the sappy, possessive desire to control and fix people and situations into which unchecked infatuations can lead us. But the book didn’t feel that reasoned, if that’s the term I’m looking for; it seemed as if the author were sympathizing with the narrator, taking his side, even as he gave a glimmer of the heroine’s fatalistic feelings about it all.
Reading The Museum of Innocence was a stark reminder not to get trapped in a pantheon of self-created idols, a painful lesson I’d learned a few years before, when, after reading almost everything Václav Havel had written, and taken to heart his brave stances and noble calls to service, I found out what a womanizer the guy had been. And although his writing and his actions still inspire me, somehow, that personal foible brought out other less-than-stellar aspects of his thought, such as his almost credulous trust in the capitalist system. Maybe I would have come to see this weakness in his philosophizing sooner or later; maybe, too, it was a good thing I was more open to critique of his work thanks to an unrelated character flaw. But it still felt– still feels– just plain sad to realize your hero is only human.
And to think I was trashing cinematic heroes the other day! What a confused whirlwind the mind can be: like all those aimless flurries. Like humanity itself.
|Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.|
Ludvík Vaculík, people. If you haven’t read The Guinea Pigs, go grab it and prepare for an amazing and low-key analysis of quiet horror. It’s no surprise that its author was involved in the Czech dissidence movement, along with Václav Havel and so many others. And so we shouldn’t ignore his non-fiction, whether it’s the 2000 Words manifesto, his current journalistic work, or the fantastic (so far, at least) little collection of his samizdat feuilletons that I picked up in the bargain bin the other day, A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator.
Some understanding of late-20th-century Czech history is helpful, but not necessary, to appreciating Vaculík’s insights into the sad and dangerous absurdities going on around him– as well as the sense of humor he often has when addressing them. His observations about his country’s accepted forms of discourse, for example, might as well be applied to the contemporary US political and social spheres. Remarking on France’s then-recent (1976) efforts to guard against the corruption of French by English, he notes that Czech requires no such wariness about other languages coming in and mucking it up:
“The difference in our case lies in that our language is being rotted from within, it is all due to rotten Czechs, if you like. They have a very limited vocabulary and almost unlimited scope for using it in public, a puny theme and a vast amount of patience in sticking to it, lean ideas and fat powers. These people have established something like a Basic Czech containing 850 words.” (1)
Analyzing in a later essay a tourist’s comment that he liked Czechoslovakia better than Greece because it was “freer,” Vaculík partially overcomes his amazement at the assertion by speculating that human freedom is something “wider” and other than political freedom. (2) Not that he isn’t all for the latter– but I’m guessing he would agree with his friend Havel’s conviction that no (broadly defined) technical measures will save anyone, if their spiritual states are empty and useless.
Ancient history to be committed to the dust (or bargain) bin, then? Not in the least. If you’re able to read these short essays and so many others that came out of this movement without seeing warning signs all over the place, please go back for a second round. Once I’m finished with this collection, I might do just that– both for a kick in the pants, and out of sheer admiration at what a person can pull together in three pages.
(1) Ludvík Vaculík, “Free to Use a Typewriter,” in A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator (Columbia, LA: Readers International, 1987), 1.
(2) Vaculík, “The Genie,” in A Cup of Coffee, 16.