Enron and the dung heap…

January 20, 2010

After finishing Zola’s novel, Money (L’Argent), one name comes to mind – Enron.  It’s the same story!  Saccard, the infatuated market manipulator is Ken Lay, or maybe his more intelligent cronys who did the real work.  The hysterical run up of the market to fantastic stock prices, the fraud, the cooked books, the government winking and looking the other way, the grand infrastructure projects, and the inevitable crash that brings the house of cards to a pile of paper, and reduces thousands of people, many of them ordinary workers, to penniless, shell-shocked victims.

The book contains a few scenes in which Sigisimond, a fanatical Marxist, dying of consumption, and racing to commit to paper his world-saving vision for the New Society, converses with Saccard, the rapcious capitalist, and other characters.  He is clearly delusional and religious in his socialist faith – Zola was a liberal, but no revolutionary utopian – a sort of cockeyed, would-be Christ besotted with the Enlightenment.  Saccard just can’t get a purchase on his ideas – they seem to be speaking in different tongues.  The book ends, however, with this Sigisimond dying after relating his celestial vision to a more sympathetic figure, Madame Caroline.

Caroline’s brother was Saccard’s chief engineer, and truly believed in the mission of his Universal Bank.  Brother and sister deplored the financial chicanery, but eventually went along.  They sold early, before the crash, but gave away their profits out of guilt.  The brother is convicted along with Saccard in the post-crash scandal, although he was actually not culpable. 

Caroline is a voice of conscience throughout the novel, but she loves Saccard!  Their affair is broken off when he moves onto more glamorous and richer women, but he retains feelings for her.  Why does she love this shark, this brigand, this fraud, this man who will ruin so many?  Because…he is passionate, he does truly believe in his schemes, he is a life force. 

At the end, Caroline meditates on money, that filthy stuff that corrupts and destroys, and which drives Saccard and others to do prodigious things.  Saccard understands her misgivings, but he has an answer:  money is like the dung heap, and from that manure springs…LIFE.  It’s like sex, you see, it may be dirty, but without it, there is no love, and no life.  What an interesting combination of ideas!

Et Mme Caroline était gaie malgré tout avec son visage toujours jeune, sous sa couronne de cheveux blancs, comme si elle se fût rajeunie à chaque avril, dans la vieillesse de la terre. Et, au souvenir de honte que lui causait sa liaison avec Saccard, elle songeait à l’effroyable ordure dont on a également sali l’amour. Pourquoi donc faire porter à l’argent la peine des saletés et des crimes dont il est la cause? L’amour est-il moins souillé, lui qui crée la vie?  [conclusion of L'Argent]

My very inexpert translation:

Madame Caroline was gay despite herself, her face was looking young beneath her crown of white hair, and she was rejevenated as each April brings life to the old earth.  And, recalling the shame she felt about her affair with Scaccard, she thought of the awful dung heap that is like the soiled elements of love.  Why should one put all the blame and dark crimes on money?  Love, is it any less sullied? Love, that creates life?


Money!

January 12, 2010

L’argent (Money), the 18th in Zola’s massive chronicle of France under the Second  Empire, finds Saccard scrambling to get back in the game, trying to put behind him the disasters that came after The Kill.  His is a world of financial chicanery – let’s say outright fraud – practiced on a colosal scale, pretty much in the open and with the benevolent neglect of Napoleon III’s ministers, of which Saccard’s brother is one.  As with Sebastian Melmotte and Bernard Madoff, the intent is to generate enthusiasm for a stock issue, hysteria if possible, rake in the cash, and put it away before the great crash comes.  Sound familiar..?

Saccard waxes grandiloquent as he allays the moral scruples of the adorable sister of the engineer whose great plans for the East he wishes to employ as the basis for his giant house of cards.  She is upset that he isn’t following the financial code to the letter.  She fears for the “little people” who will be crushed by his scheme, but after all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, right?  In the passage below – no English version on the web – he gives vent to his empassioned devotion to the cause of money, as opposed to the Old Economy of landed wealth. 

«Mais, madame, personne ne vit plus de la terre…. L’ancienne fortune domaniale est une forme caduque de la richesse, qui a cessé d’avoir sa raison d’être. Elle était la stagnation même de l’argent, dont nous avons décuplé la valeur, en le jetant dans la circulation, et par le papier-monnaie, et par les titres de toutes sortes, commerciaux et financiers. C’est ainsi que le monde va être renouvelé, car rien n’était possible sans l’argent, l’argent liquide qui coule, qui pénètre partout, ni les applications de la science, ni la paix finale, universelle…. Oh! la fortune domaniale! elle est allée rejoindre les pataches. On meurt avec un million de terres, on vit avec le quart de ce capital placé dans de bonnes affaires, à quinze, vingt et même trente pour cent.»  L’argent

My inexpert translation here:

But, Madame, nobody lives on land anymore!…The ancient estates are an obsolete form of wealth that have lost their reason for being.  They just let wealth stagnate, the weath which we throw into circulation with paper money and with all those commercial bits of paper that financiers create.  This is how the world will be renewed, but it isn’t possible without money, liquid money that flows about and penetrates everywhere – not the application of science nor universal peace!  Oh, those old landed estates!  They’ve gone the way of stagecoaches.  A person dies with a million in land, but with just a quarter of that, placed to good use, at fifteen or twenty-five percent, he lives!

Saccard is also a jew-hater.  Zola treats us to an internal monologue in which he retails all the usual negative stereotypes of Jewish money-men that rattle around Saccard’s brain.  It’s an amusing irony because those qualities are precisely the ones that define Saccard himself, while the successful Jews he meets, and resents, are portrayed, at least in the beginning, as gentle and reasonable people.


Downriver

November 30, 2009

Classed as a film noir, yet not quite that, but something sui generis, I think, The Night of the Hunter is so fraught with meaning and allusion, that I will just let Magaret Atwood describe it - she can do so much better than I can.

Those are the hands of faux preacher, Harry Powell, who tells the story of mankind with his two tattooed hands.  He is a sociopath serial killer who gets close to widows with money by using his piety, his deep voice, and his very heavy eyelids to disarm them.  Then he slits their throats.  Oh for the days when preachers of the Lord were cast as figures of satire and disrepute!

The film is weird and expressionistic, dark and foreboding (as befits a noir), filled with intense, dream-like passages.  In the images below, Harry reaches toward the light with his switchblade while his new wife, realizing he married her for money, opines that it doesn’t matter, because these events led her to her salvation.  Then he stabs her – it’s almost a ballet.  He tells folks that she ran off, no good strumpet that she is, and he drives her body to the bottom of the nearby lake.  Then he plans on how to throttle the secret of her stash out of her two children.

The two children escape downriver on a skiff.  When Harry wades into the water and fails to capture them, he lets out a blood curdling scream of anguish.  The travel on the river evokes the American wilderness, Huck Finn, and, for me, a TV serial I saw as a boy about some young boys who stumble on a river to the beginning of time after gazing at the dinosaurs in the New York Museum of Natural History.

The frequent shots of reptiles, frogs, birds…going about their business in timeless indifference to the predicament of the children gives the journey the quality of myth, reinforced by the narrative allusions to Moses and Herod.  (Not quite what you expect of a noir, right?)

In the end, the children find refuge with a truly pious old woman who takes in stray kids – it’s the depths of The Depression.  Talking God-talk doesn’t prevent her from knowing a pious fraud, and facing him down with a shotgun until the law can come and take him away for a hangin’.

A happy ending?  The boy tries to prevent the cops from handcuffing him because it recalls to his mind the image of his dead father being arrested after robbing a bank.  Later, he refuses to speak against Powell in court.  Odds are, the entire ordeal has messed him up for life and his respite is only temporary.  Meanwhile, Powell is almost lynched before he can be spirited away for a proper judicial death by the the same narrow minded, credulous and pious folks who invited him into the bosom of their community at the beginning.


Madoff Prequel

January 13, 2009

madoff_trollope1

Regarding a certain Augustus Melmotte, a fictional character:

… And yet these leaders of the fashion know,–at any rate they believe,–that he is what he is because he has been a swindler greater than other swindlers. What follows as a natural consequence? Men reconcile themselves to swindling. Though they themselves mean to be honest, dishonesty of itself is no longer odious to them. Then there comes the jealousy that others should be growing rich with the approval of all the world,–and the natural aptitude to do what all the world approves. It seems to me that the existence of a Melmotte is not compatible with a wholesome state of things in general.’

Roger dined with the Bishop of Elmham that evening, and the same hero was discussed under a different heading. ‘He has given £200,’ said the Bishop, ‘to the Curates’ Aid Society. I don’t know that a man could spend his money much better than that.’

‘Clap-trap!’ said Roger, who in his present mood was very bitter.

from Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Chapter 55 – “Clerical Charities,” 1875


Hey, Bernie!

December 20, 2008

madoff625dec16

Am I alone if finding the Madoff  affair a bit, well…humorous?  C’mon, lots of rich people who still don’t have enough and are seduced by something too good to be true.  A modern retelling of the Goose & the Golden Egg fairy tale?  There’s a reason they’re called fairy tales!

What a character!  So low-key.  As one friend said, he’d rather spend time on the Riviera than going to society parties.  Well, so would I!  Just a nice Jewish boy who did well by doing good.  Did really well.  The New York Times has so many references to the “clubby world of Jewish philanthrophy” it might make even a Jew-hater feel sorry for those rich Hebrews who were taken!

Let’s revisit some old stereotypes:  the smart Jew – he’s smart.  What about those rich Jews he fleeced – weren’t they smart too?  And is everyone else so dumb?  Those French investigators from a major bank spent three days with Bernie’s crew and concluded that something was rotten in Madoff land – they didn’t bite!  The greedy Jew – guess he was greedy too, but who isn’t on Wall Street?  Isn’t that the biggest lie of all, that Wall Street “wizards” are smart, not just plain avaricious?  The smart, virtuous Jewish immigrant who works his way up the American ladder to fame and fortune?  Well, he was raised on Long Island, but still…

And reverberating through all the stories in the press is the unspoken refrain, “Hey Bernie, we hardly knew ya!”  How long was he doing this?  He must have started off legit or he’d never have gotten his foot in the door of those country clubs.  I guess part of the appeal of this is the story of a regular guy who made good, but was an impostor!  Don’t we all dream of faking our way to riches and fame, at least once in a while?  He did it!  A bizarre and dark twist on the old assimilation-outsider-immigrant American dream too.

And the humor?  Well, to me, a Ponzi scheme has its own intrinisic comedy.  Shovel out the money as the new money comes in, but the pile grows bigger.  It’s like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, can’t you see it?  Marx Brothers finance!  And then it tumbles down and everyone asks, “How could it happen?”  It’s classic.

Well, maybe it’s just schadenfreude, but I can’t suppress a chuckle.  That Bernie!  What a character, oy!


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