A Chronic Loser’s Investment Advice

I started socking away money in an IRA a long time ago, when I was still single and had little need of cash. These accounts grew steadily—for I soon had more than one. About ten years ago, I began to be concerned over our out-of-control debt. (Little did I know that Obama’s administration would make Bush’s look like the Ebenezer Scrooge School of Economics.) I shifted one retirement account to gold. The organization that I patronized was Lear Capital. Still later, a Lear representative—some aging California supermodel type with accounting skills, a keen interest in meditation, and the silkiest voice you ever heard—convinced me to shift again, this time from gold to silver. Probably not a bad move in itself. The problems started to come when Lear sold or transferred or otherwise handed off my account to some banking operation called Equity Trust. This outfit began to ring me up for whopping yearly maintenance fees. I also, by this time (just a couple of years ago), began to fret deeply about the physical presence of my metal in other hands. If things got really bad, as per a half a dozen scenarios (Cyprus-style haircut, an EMP, etc.), I might end up with absolutely nothing. I had already been stupid enough to allow the maintenance fees to be assessed from my account assets—meaning that Equity was able to pocket some of my silver, purchased by me precisely because it was currently very undervalued, and leave my hoard a little leaner. Stupid, yes… but I was preoccupied with a million other things, like most ordinary people.

Having reached an age that allowed me to cash in my chips with impunity, I demanded that my silver be sent to me. Done. No problem. I was delighted with myself… until I received a tax document the other day informing me that the account’s closing value was being added on to my 2016 taxable income. No one had alerted me that this would happen. Again, as a naïve Ordinary Joe, I had supposed that the “age without penalty” allowed me access to my holdings free and clear. I’m happy to have my silver, for nothing short of an IRS SWAT team invoking Civil Assets Forfeiture is going to rip it off now (hmm… something else to keep me awake at nights); but I find that I understand the “charity” of the Investment Retirement Account less than ever. So I avoided paying tax on the money several decades ago, when I could best have afforded to… and now that I’m on the verge of retirement, I have to pay as if I’d been given a handsome commission just last year to film a Geico commercial. Or I could have simply kept the account where it was and drawn a few monthly pennies from it, leaving my money in constant jeopardy of the banking industry’s mysterious whimsy and the political system’s machinations.

I’m still exploring a couple of cards in my hand. However this all turns out, I stand more convinced than ever that we can trust no one in public life—and by that I mean the private sector as well as the government. We’re supposed to tear up at the raising of the Flag… but I no longer know what it represents. I can’t think of a single thing that any level of government does for me. Our garbage pick-up is irregular, our mail arrives in peculiar weekly spates rather than at daily intervals, our power grid sits almost entirely unsecured (unlike China’s and Russia’s), an officer might reach my house in about an hour if I dial 911 (I’ve had that experience), and a pandillero who has strayed into our country won’t even be sent home if he blows my head off. (I won’t mention the IRS’s SWAT team again.) It’s all pretty medieval. You try to raise a few potatoes and turnips, you cough up some chickens and a hog when the overload demands rent, and you march on the front line with your pitchfork when “recruited” to defend the realm.

Screw that. I’m glad I have my silver, though not much of it is left and I’m having to pay again to keep it in a safe place. It wouldn’t buy a new car… maybe a really nice TV. It probably wouldn’t cover my funeral, as the law requires funerals to be arranged (thanks to generous campaign contributions from the Undertaking Industry). Stumbling onto such realizations as you grow old is such a Big Empty… a whole life passed in being a pawn, a chump, a mark. That’s how I feel.

Except that I also believe in a higher justice. That’s why I wouldn’t trade places with Lear’s or Goldline’s operatives, or with our elected scammers, or with the IRS’s goons. One day all of us will have to answer for everything we ever did, and they who showed no mercy will receive none.

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What Has Math to Do With Poetry? Maybe a Lot!

Some day before I die, I hope to publish my notes about Virgil’s Aeneid. I’m pretty sure that I have uncovered the map to a “subterranean allegory” that runs against the grain of the epic’s superficial, dully propagandistic objectives (the pursuit of which was the basis of the poet’s being commissioned to write the work, in the first place). I am even more sure, however, that the academic establishment will never accept my ideas and that no university press would ever publish them. In academe, “scholars” in the humanities prop each other up endlessly, without much regard for the unconditioned truth (whose very existence most deny in any form). All I have going for me is that my interpretations actually explain dark tinges in the Aeneid that otherwise make no sense, or that must be ascribed to authorial incompetence. The “scholars” will allow Virgil to say nothing that one of his contemporaries would not have said or that one of his predecessors had not already said. They’ve built their entire method on history—and no outsider would be as steeped as they in the historical minutiae of ancient literature, so the game is essentially “members only”. In contrast, my method is to found interpretation upon intratextual coherence. If a symbol with a certain twist gives greater meaning to the entire narrative when traced from start to finish, then the high probability is that the author intended it to have that meaning. A monkey might type “The Old Man and the Sea” once in a blue moon; but a rational person will have to admit that a perspective repeatedly successful at resolving controversial points in a literary text is probably the author’s intended perspective for his or her deepest readers.

“Scholars”, however, are rational only in the space left over after the performance of their tribal duties. The important thing for literary scholars is to insulate their practice from profane intrusion and, indeed, to make that practice so arcane that only the elite can publish and advance their careers. Devotion to the literary art lies cut and bleeding in the ruins of professional egotism.

Here’s an example of a passage in the Aeneid that struck me just last night as readily clarified by the analysis of recurrent, coherent motifs. Aeneas receives a prophecy from the virtuous Arcadians in Book 8 that promises more fighting and bloodshed. All around him are dismayed at the prospect, and he himself is briefly bemused; but then a trumpet-like thunder sounds that all interpret as a propitious omen. In fact, Aeneas recognizes in the supernatural heavenly peal a confirmation from his ever-protective mother Venus: a very odd reading on his part, since the thunderbolt belongs to Zeus throughout Homer. Yet Virgil’s Jupiter is a far cry from the supreme god who manages mortal destinies. His Olympian father seems, rather, an abstracted bungler who amuses himself with grandiose schemes but never bothers about the details. When Venus protests to him at the epic’s opening that his vengeful spouse Juno has almost sunk the Trojan fleet (and would have done, but for the intercession of Neptune, himself roused only because his wet turf has been invaded), Jupiter responds with promises and more promises about a gilded future—about an “empire without end”. Venus knows just what to make of that: she immediately hastens to Carthage in order to weave her own impromptu safety net for Aeneas (which involves, unfortunately, the sacrifice of the unhappy Dido).

At the epic’s end, Jupiter goes so far as to give away most of the transplanted Trojans’ culture—their gods, their language, the preservation of their race from inter-marriage—by conceding one point after another to the ever implacable Juno. His initial forecasts and solemn promises to the wandering tribe lie in smithereens.

Hence the confirming thunderclap in Book 8 that reassures Aeneas, having issued from Venus’s rather than Jupiter’s hand, is correctly read by the hero as a guarantee that he will survive the impending war and overcome the aggressors; yet it is no more than a short-term assurance, not a road to heaven paved in Jovian fool’s gold. Jupiter, who should have been the author of the thundering (as the astute in Virgil’s audience would realize), doesn’t mingle his feckless guarantees in this scene. Instead, he is invoked by old Evander in the ensuing one. About to send his beloved only son away to fight alongside the prophetically celebrated stranger, the trembling king beseeches Jupiter either that young Pallas may return safely or that he himself may die before hearing of his boy’s loss. Neither of these humble requests is granted. Jupiter isn’t grudging or invidious: here, as throughout the Aeneid, he just isn’t taking calls. He’s busy playing in the blueprints with which he strews his Olympian tables.

There is a kind of mathematical precision involved in interpreting texts by indexing their motions to hidden clues within their own narration. Like an equation, the correctly interpreted story balances itself out using values that can be derived from the initially given quantities. Is it pure accident that our collective ability to handle literature with taste and subtlety has declined hand in hand with our mathematical skills? Whether the stuffy classicist with his suffocating layers of history or the cutting-edge neo-feminist with her suffocating layers of ideology, the contemporary “scholar” of literature imports criteria from outside the created text and proceeds, like the mythic Procrustes, to make the prisoner fit the bed by hacking away long limbs or racking and stretching short ones. The art work must be made to validate the ideology, the party line: the latter never gives ground to the former. This is like the arithmetic of the barbarian who, when asked to divide plunder equally among an awkward number of fellow pirates, throws overboard the one who buggers up his counting every time. It’s not the way to balance a checking account… and it’s also not the way to handle a literary classic ingeniously composed under oppressive political conditions.

More About Words: Why Can’t I Say “Jackass”?

The flip side of toxifying perfectly useful words through willful, imbecilic misinterpretation (about which I wrote last time) is surrendering words to the trash bin because they have acquired “naughty” meanings.  The former happens when certain groups desperately trying to keep all their wounds and sore festering for political advantage seize upon anything that has even the echo of a possible slur.  The latter happens when people priding themselves upon their home-cooked, family-values decency rush to blackball (excuse me… how about “banball”?) anything with a faintly scurrilous echo in order to advertise their devotion to the true faith.

“Ass” can no longer be used among them, for instance.  In the Christmas carol, “The Little Drummer Boy”, the line, “The ox and ass kept time,” had to be rewritten, “The ox and lamb kept time.”  How inane!  The Latin word asellus refers to an equid similar to a donkey.  The Old English word “arse”, which appears in Ancient Greek as ouros (e.g., the star Arcturus or arktou ouros, “the Bear’s tail”), has no Latin cognate that I know of.  An ass is an ass–you know, a jackass.  Now, if you choose to associate the word in you dirty-clean little mind of would-be Puritan censorship, you can certainly strike it from your lexicon in a show of superior virtue… but where does your show end?  Any Middle School teacher knows that we would soon be reduced to speechlessness if we nobly abstained from every syllable that has a whiff of scatology or lewdness.  Girls named “Regina” must change their names.  Football players may no longer be said to “punt” the ball.  A threaded nail may no longer be called a screw–and, for that matter, I believe the word “nail” used to have a sordid underbelly in certain company.

Lately the word “pussy” is showing up on the virtue-radar as a seek-and-destroy target.  So the old James Bond movie Octopussy must be re-christened Octokitty; and, as a Bond-aficionado friend of mine points out, Pussy Galore of Goldfinger must also have a name change–not to mention the possibly tawdry suggestion in the use of “finger”.  Better ban that one categorically, just to be safe.  In our revised world, then, the lovely Honor Duskyperson will star as Meow-meow Galore in Golddigit.. but, no, Meow-meow sounds like Mau Mau, and we might be heading into racist territory.

What do such people imagine themselves to be safeguarding?  To me, they’re revealing that they know a lot more smut-talk than any legitimate saint should ever have heard.  Of course, the real point is that being aware of nasty double-entendres has nothing whatever to do with virtue.  It’s not the use of any certain word that defiles you: it’s the thoughts with which you accompany that word.  The same applies for “good” words associated perversely with base thoughts.  Some of my generation have employed (and continue to employ) the word “love” in such dubious circumstances that I now try to save it for very special occasions, just to avoid all possible misunderstanding.  This doesn’t amount to giving up on “love”.  It’s just recognizing that a variety of other options like “concupiscence” also occupy the dictionary.

On the other hand, letting someone deprive you of a perfectly functional word because that person has decided to confer a squalid sense upon it is essentially surrendering the mastery of your thoughts to parties who do very little thinking.  It’s servile, and it disgusts me.  What kind of virtue-lite exhibitionist engages in such jack**s antics?

The Stupid: America’s Most Privileged Class

I’m not a fan of tennis, but I gather that a long-time broadcaster of the sport for ESPN bit the professional dust a few days ago for a “horribly insensitive racist” utterance. He referred to Serena Williams as a practitioner of “guerilla tennis”. The writer of the explanatory piece I read was easily able to trace the offensive phrase back five or six years in the parlance of broadcasters, sportswriters, and players themselves. I infer that “guerilla tactics”, in tennis as elsewhere, involve ambushing your opponent by aggressively appearing where you were not anticipated. The problem, of course, is that “guerilla” is a homophone with “gorilla”, or… well, not really; but people who can’t speak very clearly also tend to have trouble with spelling, and indeed may not know how to read, or at least don’t read anything but the telegraphic gibberish on their Twitter accounts. And if they suffer from all of these problems together, we’re looking at a collection of symptoms that indicates terminal stupidity. So the real problem is that our hapless broadcaster was taken down by the pandemic of crippling, infectious imbecility which has swept across our society.

Something very similar happened several years ago when David Howard, an aide to D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, employed the word “niggardly” to describe stingy behavior. There is no etymological connection whatever between this and the notorious “n” word; and, let’s face it, they are clearly not pronounced the same way, so anyone whose hearing was not as impaired as his brain should have been able to figure out that a routine slur wasn’t at issue. No matter. They’re in the same ballpark. You should have reflected that idiots of my group are too dull to distinguish between the two words, and hence you should have abstained even from coming near the suggestion of an analogy of a relationship. Except… wait: wouldn’t that mean that you really were a racist if you took for granted that everyone in my group is an idiot?

I used the word “aide” above. If I were to say something dismissive about aides in any context, would that imply that I wasn’t concerned about gays dying of AIDS?

A lot of towns and geographical features have names drawn from Native American culture. How many high school football teams are called the Apaches or the Cherokees? Shouldn’t this be stopped—aren’t we demeaning our noble predecessor in North American by reducing him to a mascot or a cartoon character? And what about truly native names, like the Monongahela and Oostanaula Rivers? Shouldn’t we at least be paying royalties to someone for those? Did the tribes in question give us the rights to them?

How many of our fearless leaders and celebrated mouthpieces have maintained that referring to foreign nationals as “aliens” stigmatizes them as if they were little green men from Mars? Never mind that this science-fictional use of the word is itself a tiny backwater in its flow of possible meanings: once again, we’re dealing with people who watch TV and movies rather than read, so we must assume that their exposure to any idea whatever is limited to the experience of it they’re likely to have had through those media. Otherwise, we’re insensitive.

The Stupid would surely be our most privileged minority if they were not (I’m afraid) a growing majority. They enjoy so much special treatment that we are in fact required to anticipate how they will mutilate communications framed in functional-adult language. We must imaginatively squeeze our brains into their tiny skulls or risk losing our jobs—and maybe even, in the near future, going to prison.

Why, then, do we waste so much time promoting education and so much money sending our kids to college? It’s plain that the real key to a bright future in Dumerica is to fry those little gray cells as fast as you can.

The God of Change Is a Very Old Idol

At some point when I have more space and time, I want to write more amply about French author Guy de Maupassant’s view of the bourgeoisie. A latter nineteenth-century man of letters who particularly excelled in the genre of the short story, Maupassant projects through his condescending disgust the value system that survives and thrives in twenty-first century academe. Many have labeled this mindset “progressivism”, and not without just cause: its essential component does indeed appear to be a quasi-religious (or, better yet, a cultic) faith in the transformative power of trampling down traditional institutions (without much regard for that which must replace them). The God of Change turns out to be a very, very old idol.

The specific short story which has started me down this path is titled “Adieu”. I could add other of the same author’s works to my witness list; but for now, I don’t have time to do much more than encapsulate the plot, throw in a few translated passages, and offer some disjointed comments at the end.

Two men who have reached the mid-century mark in age are wiling away a Parisian afternoon in a sidewalk café. One of them is lamenting the deterioration of his body. The other, rather better preserved, offers a different complaint. He is dismayed that age can hurl her thunderbolt with such suddenness even upon the healthy—a danger especially observable in his relationships with women. He explains.

In his prime, he had always enjoyed the public beaches because of the advantages they afforded to observing feminine curves. The best vantage (he details) is one that allows the ladies to be studied just as they emerge from the waves on their way back to dry land.

Very little can withstand the trial of the dip. That’s where a final verdict is reached on everything from the calf to the bosom. The exit leaves the thin exposed, especially, although seawater can provide vital assistance to figures that have been allowed to slide.

The first time that I saw this young women in such a setting, I was ravished and seduced. She held up good and firm. There are certain figures whose charm suddenly transfixes us, invading us all of a sudden… and then it seems that we have found the woman that we were meant to love. I had that sensation and that shock just then.

An introduction is not difficult to secure, and one thing quickly leads to another. The lady is married, but her husband travels down from Paris only over weekends. A three-month affair ensues, at the end of which our narrator is called to parts far away. He journeys to America and spends years there, yet he never forgets the woman of his dreams. Always, she is as fresh in his memory as if he had seen her just yesterday.

Twelve years are of such little account in the life of a man! They follow one upon another, the years, gently but swiftly, slow yet hurried, each of them long but so soon finished1 And they add up so abruptly, they leave so few traces behind—they evaporate so completely that, in turning around to contemplate times past, you no longer find anything, and you cannot understand how you happen to have grown old.

Of course, the specific occasion of these gloomy thoughts was a return to France. Our narrator did not seek out his favorite and most cherished conquest: fate, rather, intervened to re-introduce them.

At the moment when the train was departing, a fat matron climbed into my wagon, escorted by four young girls. I hardly spared a glance to this mother hen, overgrown and rotund, with a face like the full moon framed by a ribboned hat.

She was breathing heavily, winded by having to walk so fast. Her children began to babble. I opened my newspaper and started reading.

We had just passed Asnières when my neighbor said all of a sudden, “Excuse me, Monsieur. Aren’t you Mr. Carnier?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

She thereupon began to laugh—the hearty laugh of a spirited woman, yet a little sad.

“You don’t recognize me, do you?”

I hesitated. It struck me that I had in fact seen this face somewhere…. but where? When? I answered, “Well… yes and no. I do recognize you, but I don’t recall your name.”

She blushed slightly.

“Mme. Julie Lefèvre.”

Never have I received such a blow. It seemed to me at this instant that all was over with me. I felt that a veil had been snatched from before my eyes, and that I was going to make all kinds of horrible, nauseating discoveries.

It was she! This fat, common woman… this, then, was she? And she had hatched these four daughters since I had last seen her—they astonished me as much as their mother. They had come out of her. They were already big, had already claimed part of the living world’s space. As for her as she had been… that marvel of exquisite, coquettish grace no longer figured in reality. It seemed to me that I had seen her just yesterday… and now I found her like this! Was it possible?

A keen mournfulness seized my heart, as well as a revulsion at nature herself—an irrational indignation at this brutal, outrageous act of destruction.

What have I to say about the egotistical, repellently superior, implicitly hedonistic turn of this fictional character’s mentality (a very close approximation to his author’s, by all accounts)? More than I have space to say it. The “shopping the meat market” approach to beachcombing, the equation of an easy three-month adulterous fling with the romance of a lifetime, the instant reduction of the lover-turned-mother to a dumb beast (with beastly little fledglings surrounding her), the stupefaction at the female physique’s ability to bear children, the combination of all this into an indictment of nature’s horrid brutality… even, for that matter, the intermediate reflection on how quickly twelve years pass, as if tomorrow should always replicate today and the supply of tomorrows should be inexhaustible… how many times have I seen and heard it all among the people who came of age with me in the Seventies! Especially in the Ivory Tower: there to this day, and now deeply embedded in ideology. What childishness! And what an arrogant, spoiled-brat child!

God and Science: A Delicate Balance

I’ve been trying to shuffle around some vague ideas in the context of a class where we read a lot of ancient literature. Cultures that don’t have reading and writing are called oral-traditional by the scholars (and sometimes tribal by me): they have a certain way of looking at the gods, who are generally associated with powerful natural forces that only make sense to a pre-scientific mind as projections of human-like thinking and feeling into a super-human setting (a.k.a. anthropomorphism). Everything in this world is instantly “god”. The wind is an angry or restless god. The midday stillness is the sun god’s touching earth briefly with such imminent presence that you tremble under his golden breath. A huge, oddly shaped stone is not a representation of an earth god, as by a symbol: there are no symbols here, only nearer and farther brushes with the divine. The stone therefore is the god… and so is the mountain upon which it sits, and so is the broad world running down to the ocean.

In science, things are likewise not representative or symbolic of higher realities: they are mere things embodying the operation of unseen yet wholly natural, impersonal forces. They have no higher meaning because nothing has higher meaning, in a sense that would convey plan or purpose. The laws of nature run as they do because… because that’s how nature is set up. Out of chaos came an order which seems random to us since it has no affective content—no beautiful or noble objective. The intricate wheels of that order turn because all is enlisted into the turning, and what does not turn cannot exist.

Of course, the evolution of science was highly dependent upon literacy, since accurate records of previous observations and wide dissemination of those observations were essential to the new method. (The printing press, in fact, was needed to disseminate ideas with sufficient breadth, speed, and cost-effectiveness.) Yet literates are not necessarily devotees of the cult of science. Letters teach us to distinguish between sound and its representation; and, with a little further reflection, we realize that the sound itself represents an idea rather broader and vaguer than any one word. We slow down and ponder more deeply when we read and write, too. We understand that the stone is not the god. We start looking into ourselves for the source of that admiration, that reverence, that finds a crude symbolic expression in physical vastness and grand stillness. We begin to appreciate the separation of the ideal from the imagined, created, or fancifully interpreted objects with whose help we chase after that ideal. The world grows allegorical. A little thing may stand for an immeasurable and very sketchy truth. A sunset is not “the god” in person, but neither is it just a refraction of light through a thicker cross-section of the atmosphere’s prism. To both the tribesman and the scientist, the sunset is “thingness”; but to the former it is the greatest of things, and to the latter the merest of things. One has indiscriminately deified everything, and the other has systematically demystified everything. Neither offers a “yes and no” option where an alternative reality—not entirely captured by material but working through the material—may exist.

The ultimate challenge to the modern mind has been to proceed with the scientific analysis of material reality while not dismissing the possibility of another—a higher—reality to which litmus tests are unresponsive. One may in fact believe in one kind of knowledge and simultaneously believe in the other kind; but in practice, this proves to be a position commonly despised by the most advanced scientific minds.

The reason, I must suppose, is human arrogance: hubris. Once we create a system, we’re not content to let anything escape it. We like being in control. Upon our Mt. Olympus of scientific method, we reign like so many Zeuses. We adore our own intelligence in having been able to produce explanations that account for so much—we will not accept that the “so much” is not eventually “everything”. In this respect, science may indeed become a cult, a kind of religion unto itself. It takes on faith that nothing exists which it cannot understand and explain.

I think I prefer the tribesman, in all his ignorance. He at least clings to a natural kind of humility. He puts gods where they shouldn’t be—in stones, in winds, in sunlight; but he abstains from elevating to godly status his own capacity for imposing order.

The Neurosis of E-Life: An Addendum

What happens when messages can be conveyed easily from one party to another? Messages proliferate. What happens when messages proliferate? Everyone becomes saturated in “information” of widely varying quality. What happens when the good stuff and the bad is all stirred together in the same dumptruck-load of malodorous “communication”? The good stuff gets neglected with the bad. What happens when negligence becomes epidemic? People start feeling isolated and depressed, or even getting chippy and rude. What happens when depression and rudeness suddenly spike? People grow plangent—they want more attention, and they want everyone to apologize to them. What happens to a society of hurt, whining children and sullen, smarting victims? It fragments. You have the children who continue to whine and form groups of whiners; you have withdrawn clams who tune everything out, including the desperate sufferers who are in anguishing need; and you have the whackos who decide to blow themselves and everyone around them to hell since they can’t find an audience.

Welcome to our world.

In a professional context, you also see the multiplication of petty tasks to virtual infinity. Since it’s now so easy to demand that minions and underlings do thus and so, demands grow more numerous. The manufacture of demands, indeed, becomes itself an arduous chore: the tinpot dictators snuggled behind their keyboards actually manage to overwork themselves. They need more supporting staff, so more funds must be allocated to more hiring. At the other end, the minions grow more stressed-out because the day’s hours have not been multiplied to keep up with the rising volume of minute tasks to perform. They cut corners on the work they were intended to do in order to complete absurd surveys, questionnaires, and tutorials. The threat of harsh consequences if they do not accede to every latest demand wears upon their health, as well; for the demands are entirely impersonal and often, therefore, imperious. When you can order someone about remotely, never seeing the person’s face or hearing the person’s voice, you tend to order a little more often and a little more peremptorily. One thinks of the subjects of the Milgram Experiment, turning up the “pain” button on their tortured victims (who, unknown to them, were just acting), because they nestled behind the anonymity of a command chain and a two-way mirror.

Give a man a hammer, it is said, and everything looks like a nail. Give people the capacity to send messages simply and quickly… and you have a society of people who do nothing but “message”, to the extent that they haven’t enough time to live something worthy of report. As a society, the model is pretty crappy, really. I could almost wish for an EMP to wipe it all away; but then, most of us would die in the process.

Then again, are we alive right now?