In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is, and we were young.
“Time is stopped, clear forms and finished meanings rise up,” The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir
The man we call an adventurer, on the contrary, is one who remains indifferent to the content, that is, to the human meaning of his action, who thinks he can assert his own existence without taking into account that of others. The fate of Italy mattered very little to the Italian condottiere; the massacres of the Indians meant nothing to Pizarro; Don Juan was unaffected by Elvira’s tears. Indifferent to the ends they set up for themselves, they were still more indifferent to the means of attaining them; they cared only for their pleasure or their glory. This implies that the adventurer shares the nihilist’s contempt for men. And it is by this very contempt that he believes he breaks away from the contemptible condition in which those who do not imitate his pride are stagnating. Thus, nothing prevents him from sacrificing these insignificant beings to his own will for power. He will treat them like instruments; he will destroy them if they get in his way. But meanwhile he appears as an enemy in the eyes of others. His undertaking is not only an individual wager; it is a combat. He can not win the game without making himself a tyrant or a hangman. And as he can not impose this tyranny without help, he is obliged to serve the regime which will allow him to exercise it. He needs money, arms, soldiers, or the support of the police and the laws. It is not a matter of chance, but a dialectical necessity which leads the adventurer to be complacent regarding all regimes which defend the privilege of a class or a party, and more particularly authoritarian regimes and fascism. He needs fortune, leisure, and enjoyment, and he will take these goods as supreme ends in order to be prepared to remain free in regard to any end. Thus, confusing a quite external availability with real freedom, he falls, with a pretext of independence, into the servitude of the object. He will range himself on the side of the regimes which guarantee him his privileges, and he will prefer those which confirm him in his contempt regarding the common herd. He will make himself its accomplice, its servant, or even its valet, alienating a freedom which, in reality, can not confirm itself as such if it does not wear its own face. In order to have wanted to limit it to itself, in order to have emptied it of all concrete content, he realizes it only as an abstract independence which turns into servitude. He must submit to masters unless he makes himself the supreme master. Favorable circumstances are enough to transform the adventurer into a dictator. He carries the seed of one within him, since he regards mankind as indifferent matter destined to support the game of his existence. But what he then knows is the supreme servitude of tyranny
. . .
Thus, the adventurer devises a sort of moral behavior because he assumes his subjectivity positively. But if he dishonestly refuses to recognize that this subjectivity necessarily transcends itself toward others, he will enclose himself in a false independence which will indeed be servitude. To the free man he will be only a chance ally in whom one can have no confidence; he will easily become an enemy. His fault is believing that one can do something for oneself without others and even against them.
The passionate man is, in a way, the antithesis of the adventurer. In him too there is a sketch of the synthesis of freedom and its content. But in the adventurer it is the content which does not succeed in being genuinely fulfilled. Whereas in the passionate man it is subjectivity which fails to fulfill itself genuinely.
. . .
The passionate man seeks possession; he seeks to attain being. The failure and the hell which he creates for himself have been described often enough. He causes certain rare treasures to appear in the world, but he also depopulates it. Nothing exists outside of his stubborn project; therefore nothing can induce him to modify his choices. And having involved his whole life with an external object which can continually escape him, he tragically feels his dependence. Even if it does not definitely disappear, the object never gives itself. The passionate man makes himself a lack of being not that there might be being, but in order to be. And he remains at a distance; he is never fulfilled.
. . .
The artist and the writer force themselves to surmount existence in another way. They attempt to realize it as an absolute. What makes their effort genuine is that they do not propose to attain being. They distinguish themselves thereby from an engineer or a maniac. It is existence which they are trying to pin down and make eternal. The word, the stroke, the very marble indicate the object insofar as it is an absence. Only, in the work of art the lack of being returns to the positive. Time is stopped, clear forms and finished meanings rise up. In this return, existence is confirmed and establishes its own justification. This is what Kant said when he defined art as “a finality without end.” By virtue of the fact that he has thus set up an absolute object, the creator is then tempted to consider himself as absolute. He justifies the world and therefore thinks he has no need of anyone to justify himself. If the work becomes an idol whereby the artist thinks that he is fulfilling himself as being, he is closing himself up in the universe of the serious; he is falling into the illusion which Hegel exposed when he described the race of “intellectual animals.”
There is no way for a man to escape from this world. It is in this world that – avoiding the pitfalls we have just pointed out – he must realize himself morally. Freedom must project itself toward its own reality through a content whose value it establishes. An end is valid only by a return to the freedom which established it and which willed itself through this end. But this will implies that freedom is not to be engulfed in any goal; neither is it to dissipate itself vainly without aiming at a goal. It is not necessary for the subject to seek to be, but it must desire that there be being. To will oneself free and to will that there be being are one and the same choice, the choice that man makes of himself as a presence in the world. We can neither say that the free man wants freedom in order to desire being, nor that he wants the disclosure of being by freedom. These are two aspects of a single reality. And whichever be the one under consideration, they both imply the bond of each man with all others.
by Robinson Jeffers
I built her a tower when I was young—
Sometime she will die—
I built it with my hands, I hung
Stones in the sky.
Old but still strong I climb the stone—
Sometime she will die—
Climb the steep rough steps alone,
And weep in the sky.
Never weep, never weep.
Never be astonished, dear.
Nothing is strange.
We have seen the human race
Capture all its dreams,
All except peace.
We have watched mankind like Christ
Toil up and up,
To be hanged at the top.
No longer envying the birds,
That ancient prayer for
Wings granted: therefore
The heavy sky over London
Falls on the roofs.
These are the falling years,
They will go deep,
Never weep, never weep.
With clear eyes explore the pit.
Watch the great fall
With religious awe.
It is not Europe alone that is falling
Into blood and fire.
Decline and fall have been dancing in all men’s souls
For a long while.
Sometime at the last gasp comes peace
To every soul.
Never to mine until I find out and speak
The things that I know.
To-morrow I will take up that heavy poem again
About Ferguson, deceived and jealous man
Who bawled for the truth, the truth, and failed to endure
Its first least gleam. That poem bores me, and I hope will bore
Any sweet soul that reads it, being some ways
My very self but mostly my antipodes;
But having waved the heavy artillery to fire
I must hammer on to an end.
Let’s forget all that, that and the war,
And enisle ourselves a little beyond time,
You with this Irish whiskey, I with red wine
While the stars go over the sleepless ocean,
And sometime after midnight I’ll pluck you a wreath
Of chosen ones; we’ll talk about love and death,
Rock-solid themes, old and deep as the sea,
Admit nothing more timely, nothing less real
While the stars go over the timeless ocean,
And when they vanish we’ll have spent the night well.
Here are two excerpts from articles that look from different vantages at the collapse of traditional media. One snip is from an article in last month’s Atlantic Monthly that considers the possibility of a New York Times-less future. The other, by Wells Tower in the Washington Post Magazine, is a look behind the editorial curtain of that favorite of faux news purveyors, The Onion.
I don’t know which article is bleaker: one about a possible debt-triggered collapse of a great news institution; or the other, a glimpse of the concurrent rise of a merry-yet-neurotic band of smartasses.
Robert Niles of the Online Journalism Review claims that a growing demographic is seeking refuge in satirical news because of “the ability of satirists to penetrate the hypocrisies of the news cycle that the straight press is compelled to dance around.”
Maybe. That is if you, like Robert Niles, consider the News to be the news.
While I enjoy The Onion as much as the next guy disenchanted with the ineffectual pieties of the traditional press, to think that people are substituting snark for facts and looking on the collapse of newspapers with a shrug doesn’t bode well for a future fraught with very real – and, well, very big – problems.
It also doesn’t bode well for The Onion. The relationship between The Onion and The New York Times is a symbiotic one. (Parasitic might be more apt.) As traditional media goes, so go Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and others of their ilk. Without the bumbling of the “real” press, there would be no Onion to playfully subvert it.
It also makes me wonder what these comic wunderkind might accomplish if they could bring their off-kilter sensibilities to bear on “real” investigative news, or “real” editorials. Could that be the “real” future of journalism?
The answer to that question might be the man holding the pen: Wells Tower.
From “End Times,” by Michael Hirschorn, The Atlantic:
The paper’s credit crisis comes against a backdrop of ongoing and accelerating drops in circulation, massive cutbacks in advertising revenue, and the worst economic climate in almost 80 years. As of December, its stock had fallen so far that the entire company could theoretically be had for about $1 billion. The former Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal often said he couldn’t imagine a world without The Times. Perhaps we should start.
Granted, the odds that The Times will cease to exist entirely come May are relatively slim. Many steps could be taken to prolong its existence. The Times Company has already slashed its dividend, a major source of income for the paper’s owners, the Sulzberger family, but one that starved the company at precisely the moment it needed significant investments in new media. The company could sell its share of the brilliant Renzo Piano–designed headquarters—which cost the company about $600million to build and was completed in 2007, years after the digital threat to The Times’ core business had become clear. (It’s already borrowing money against the building’s value.) It could sell The Boston Globe—or shutter it entirely, given what the company itself has acknowledged is a challenging time for the sale of media properties. It could sell its share in the Boston Red Sox, close or sell various smaller properties, or off-load About.com, the resolutely unglamorous Web purchase that has been virtually the only source of earnings growth in the Times Company’s portfolio. With these steps, or after them, would come mass staffing cuts, no matter that the executive editor, Bill Keller, promised otherwise.
It’s possible that a David Geffen, Michael Bloomberg, or Carlos Slim would purchase The Times as a trophy property and spare the company some of this pain. Even Rupert Murdoch, after overpaying wildly for The Wall Street Journal, seems to be tempted by the prospect of adding The Times to his portfolio. But the experiences of Sam Zell, who must be ruing the day he waded into the waking nightmare that is the now-bankrupt Tribune Company, would surely temper the enthusiasm of all but the most arrogant of plutocrats. (And as global economies tumble around them, the plutocrats aren’t as plutocratic as they used to be.) Alternatively, Google or Microsoft or even CBS could purchase The Times on the cheap, strip it for parts, and turn it into a content mill to goose its own page views.
Regardless of what happens over the next few months, The Times is destined for significant and traumatic change. At some point soon—sooner than most of us think—the print edition, and with it The Times as we know it, will no longer exist. And it will likely have plenty of company. In December, the Fitch Ratings service, which monitors the health of media companies, predicted a widespread newspaper die-off: “Fitch believes more newspapers and newspaper groups will default, be shut down and be liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010.”
The collapse of daily print journalism will mean many things. For those of us old enough to still care about going out on a Sunday morning for our doorstop edition of The Times, it will mean the end of a certain kind of civilized ritual that has defined most of our adult lives. It will also mean the end of a certain kind of quasi-bohemian urban existence for the thousands of smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who have, until now, lived semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind. And it will seriously damage the press’s ability to serve as a bulwark of democracy. Internet purists may maintain that the Web will throw up a new pro-am class of citizen journalists to fill the void, but for now, at least, there’s no online substitute for institutions that can marshal years of well-developed sourcing and reporting experience—not to mention the resources to, say, send journalists leapfrogging between Mumbai and Islamabad to decode the complexities of the India-Pakistan conflict.
From “Onion Nation,” by Wells Tower, Washington Post Magazine:
. . . As its strait-laced cousins in the traditional print media suffer withering cutbacks, the Onion is in comparatively robust shape. In the past three years, the Onion’s New York staff doubled in size, to 50 full-time employees, as the print edition of the paper, which is free, added markets in Austin, Los Angeles and Washington (The Washington Post prints the paper’s D.C. edition and sells local ads for it), and holds strong at a circulation of 630,000 nationwide, management says. Meanwhile, according to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, free papers that subsist on ad sales, as the Onion does, have been faring poorly. Creative Loafing, which owns free newsweeklies throughout the South, mid-Atlantic and the Midwest (among them Washington’s City Paper) filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September because of debt and declining ad sales. The Onion’s ad sales have seen no appreciable decline.
The Onion’s success in a down market reflects Americans’ surging appetite for satiric news as a regular part of their media diet. A March 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center placed Jon Stewart fourth among the nation’s “most admired news figures,” ahead of Ted Koppel, Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer. In early October, “The Daily Show’s” election campaign coverage broke its own ratings records at that time with an audience of 2.4 million, outstripping “Hardball With Chris Matthews” by nearly 1 million viewers. Or, compare the 6 million or so who watched Katie Couric’s momentous CBS interview with Sarah Palin to the audience of 14 million who tuned in to watch the Alaska governor’s appearance on “Saturday Night Live” and its fake news segment.
According to Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review, the success of the Onion and its ilk lies in part in the ability of satirists to penetrate the hypocrisies of the news cycle that the straight press is compelled to dance around. For instance, just weeks after 9/11, when the likes of Dan Rather were pledging their support for President Bush on network TV (“Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where,” he told David Letterman), the Onion was already presaging, from the safe bunker of satire, the leaps of credulity America would soon be asked to make in obeisance to the War on Terror. “If I Don’t Get My Medium-Rare Shell Steak With Roasted Vegetables In The Next 10 Minutes, The Terrorists Have Already Won,” read an Onion op-ed published in November 2001.
“The public’s frankly gotten frustrated with the convention of objectivity, the idea that you have to present both sides of the story, even if one side is completely bogus,” said Niles, citing as an example news reports on global warming in which the views of politicians and lay-skeptics get consideration equal to studies by climate science PhDs. Niles went on to argue that satirists gained additional traction in the post-9/11 news climate, when mainstream media outlets didn’t push back as hard as they might have against perceived intimidation of the press by the Bush administration.
“Take for example, [Ari Fleischer's] chilling quote that all Americans ‘need to watch what they say,’” an admonition Bush’s former press secretary made about TV talk show host Bill Maher at a White House news briefing shortly after 9/11. “That should have been the moment that all the journalists woke up and said, ‘Screw that!’ But it was generally the satirists who felt emboldened enough to say the things that the mainstream news wouldn’t for fear of seeming too partisan.”
But culture war considerations aside, Niles attributes the boom of the faux news corps to a plainer cause. “Quite simply, people like the Onion are creating more engaging content than the daily papers are.”
The rise of the parodic industry poses new riddles for media observers: In years to come, will America’s faux news prove a more enduring enterprise than the news itself? What might it mean for our nation that joke news could outlast the institutions it ridicules? “Speaking as a citizen of America, it’s a little terrifying that real news is crashing while fake news is growing,” said Chet Clem, the Onion’s editorial manager. “It’s scary. You wonder where people are going to get their facts.”
By: Jeremy Miller
It’s fun to look back at the writings of our esteemed critical lions and find the canards – the proverbial burrs in the paws – that have hobbled otherwise reasoned and carefully wrought bodies of work.
Helen Vendler, Harvard professor and one of this country’s most esteemed poetry critics, harbors such a thorn.
Few contemporary critics have enjoyed the influence and celebrity that Helen Vendler has. Rachel Donadio writing in the New York Times hailed her as “a powerful arbiter of the contemporary poetry scene” and “an impassioned aesthete who pays minute attention to the structures and words that are a poet’s genetic code.” Budding poets and others huddled outside the gates of literary eminence (i.e., The New Yorker) have shouted her down as an unrepentant snob who often confuses stature of publication with height of poetic vision.
At times, Vendler’s singular approach to her vocation has fueled such stereotypes. “I do not give the honorific name of ‘poetry’ to the primitive and the unaccomplished,” she told the New York Times in 1995. “The word ‘poetry’ is something we reserve for accomplishment.”
Yet, Vendler’s occasional Brahmin outbursts detract little from her contributions to contemporary criticism. Her critical insight and prose is often honed to surgical precision. Her writing demonstrates breadth, subtlety and, on occasion, grit. And when she turns her energy to defending poets within her personal pantheon – as she has done often in service of Hartford poet/insurance salesman Wallace Stevens – she can marshal evidence and rhetoric to devastating effect. Here’s an excerpt from a 1997 New York Review of Books essay “Ice and Fire and Solitude.”
It is maddening for the sick man to hear these two musics, to know that there somehow must exist an American libretto that will unify these instruments and these voices, and to feel that he is called to compose that libretto if he is to survive. Stevens did not live to invent such a text: but that he urgently wanted, at seventy, to conceive it, and felt he would remain a sick man if he could not write it, says a great deal about the Americanness of his imagination, and about the moral responsibility—not sufficiently credited—underlying his work (“Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right”).
Not sufficiently credited. A small clause, indeed, but one that speaks loudly to Vendler’s zeal when she finds the cause worthy of a crusade for literary justice.
But something about the California poet Robinson Jeffers made her lose her edge, dulled her faculties, garbled her sense of proportion and objectivity – turned her into little more than a despot raging from the safety of her New Yorker perch. It wasn’t, as Vendler wrote in The New Yorker in 1988, “his opinions I would quarrel with.” A little more and we find it wasn’t his writing, either, per se, she insists, as she stuffs up straw man Jeffers for one last sentence:
His descriptions of nature are made with an intent eye; his sensibility declares itself with apparent sincerity; his lexical range is enviable.
Like a critical lion at her literary prey, she moves stealthily at first. “And yet I resist grouping him not only with his greater contemporaries – Eliot and Frost – but even with such lesser contemporaries as Moore and Williams.”
In the next paragraph, we find out what Helen Vendler is really up to. In the guise of a review of two Jeffers anthologies, she launches into a full-blown, literary post mortem that veers as much into tabloid journalism as it does psychoanalysis. She mucks in the minutiae of the poet’s past, scrounging for clues as to why she finds Jeffers’ bleak worldview and his railings against “the degenerate mob” so personally offensive, so un-Wallace-Stevensian.
Vendler, it becomes apparent, didn’t care much for Jeffers, the man. What results is a study in ad hominem criticism.
She presents factoids like this: “After severe paternal instruction . . . the young Jeffers was apparently too unusual to fit in with other Pittsburg schoolchildren.” And this: “Jeffers’ graduate work was undertaken in science, and was perhaps undertaken in an attempt to find a comprehensive world view different from that of his father.”
She offers up secondhand anecdotes like this one:
A friend who was present at the reading Jeffers gave at Harvard in 1941 recalls that at the reception Jeffers turned to the wall, face averted from the crowd. The poets attitude at the time was interpreted as hauteur; it could equally well be interpreted as the panicky ill-ease of a friendless, freakish boy (even though Jeffers was over fifty).
Forget for a moment that Jeffers may simply have been avoiding small talk with Harvard’s lit-crit pit bulls, Vendler’s predecessors. Let’s just look at the language that she employs. Freakish. Friendless. Father. All textual clues point to psychobabble, gratuitous ridicule, a critical hatchet job.
She continues on with her listless, speculative biography, jumbling chronology with personal observation, all paving the way for her critical thesis. “Once Jeffers had found his free-verse style and his topics,” she writes, “the sublimity of nature, sexual violence, and the pettiness or degeneracy of mankind – nothing further seems to have happened fundamentally to his mind or his writing.”
She continues to hammer away until arriving at her damning conclusion:
A ceaselessly curious investigation of a chosen medium is the quality that above all distinguishes artists from the mass of other people (preachers, teachers, journalists) who spend time communicating thoughts, messages and personal responses in prose and verse . . . In short, from thirty-five to seventy-five, Jeffers did not change his writing in any artistically important way . . . By the time he was thirty-five both his parents had died and he had acquired his lifelong wife, his lifelong house, his two children. Perhaps he was through with seeking, and was preoccupied with recording.
By Vendler’s estimation, Jeffers did not exhibit the “ceaselessly curious” trait required of all “real” artists; therefore, Jeffers was not an artist. Hell hath no fury like a critic drunk on power with an aesthetic score to settle. (Well, no fury except, perhaps, that of narcissistic actors on a rampage.)
At the time of the publication, 25 years after Jeffers’ death, one can only speculate that Vendler was looking to exorcise the specter of Jeffers’ “inhuman” philosophy that was resurfacing powerfully in the work of environmental writers such as Barry Lopez, Bill McKibben and Edward Abbey.
That Jeffers was not alive to respond to the criticism, however, is only a small problem that emerges in Vendler’s highly charged, highly personal critique. (It is, after all, easy to rail with critical impunity at the dead. And perhaps it’s even easier to impugn Jeffers, who famously called civilization “a transient sickness” and longed openly in his poetry to reconvene with the hawks soaring above the sea cliffs around Carmel.)
Indeed, the bigger problem resides with Vendler’s critical vision. Her search for psychological and biographical explanations for her personal distaste, I think, says more about Vendler’s own blindspots, phobias, prejudices – and methods – than it illuminates the flaws of the poet.
The formula for fair criticism is simple: an honest engagement with a text and its primary sources. Is it beautiful? Is it timeless? Is it true? These are the questions that critics are enlisted to answer. Many other answers are offered in Vendler’s assessment – but these are gathered from shreds, snippets and tatters left behind.
Shadows all. They add up to little more than a portrait of the critic’s bad faith.
-Jeremy Miller is a writer in Denver, Colorado. He divides his time between scribbling, chasing his kids and hiking. His work has appeared in several newspapers and national publications including the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, Gotham Gazette, and Harper’s .
. . . Sometimes the things one rejects are just as revealing as the things that one keeps, but not always. When sixties radical A. J. Weberman sorted through Bob Dylan’s garbage, which he’d snatched from outside Dylan’s Greenwich Village brownstone, he found nothing that helped him interpret his hero’s cryptic lyrics. Unhappy about this invasion of privacy, Dylan chased Weberman through Village streets, smushed his head to the pavement, and eventually sued him. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that the Constitution gives individuals no privacy rights over their garbage, though some state constitutions offer more stringent protection.
Weberman went on to found the National Institute of Garbology, or NIG, and to defend trash trolling as a tool of psychological investigation and character delineation. When he tired of Dylan’s garbage, he dove into Neil Simon’s (he found bagel scraps, lox, whitefish, and an infestation of ants), Gloria Vanderbilt’s (a Valium bottle), Tony Perkins’s (a tiny amount of marijuana), Norman Mailer’s (betting slips), and antiwar activist Bella Abzug’s (proof of investments in companies that made weapons).
Looking through trash often says more about the detective than the discarder. When city officials in Portland, Oregon, decided in 2002 that it was legal to swipe trash in an investigation of a police officer, reporters from the Willamette Week decided to dive through the refuse of local officials. What the reporters found most remarkable, after poring through soggy receipts and burnt toast, was how bad the investigation made them feel. “There is something about poking through someone else’s garbage that makes you feel dirty, and it’s not just the stench and the flies,” wrote Chris Lydgate and Nick Budnick. “Scrap by scrap, we are reverse-engineering a grimy portrait of another human being, reconstituting an identity from his discards, probing into stuff that is absolutely, positively none of our damn business.”
On volatility, selling short, and the joy of snatching profit from the “sickening maw” of financial collapse
. . . Unlike the big traders, Milman, a Russian immigrant who grew up in Queens, is trading his own money, managing roughly $2.5 million, much of which he’s accumulated over the past two years. He followed his brother Serge into day-trading just after graduating from New York University’s Stern School of Business. “I graduated in December of 1998, and in February 1999, my trading account was open,” says Milman. “I borrowed 50 g’s from my brother, and three months later, he was paid back in full. I never looked back.”
To manage risk, Milman practices what is known as technical analysis, a controversial method of prediction based on studying buying and selling patterns. In other words, he analyzes not the underlying value of companies but the movement of crowds. On any given day, Milman is trying to make an informed bet about how mutual-fund managers, hedge-fund traders, and assorted individuals like him are going to behave. To figure that out, he turns to charts of stocks or indexes like the S&P 500 to see if he can recognize shapes in their zigzag formations, like the “cup-and-handle” or the “head-and-shoulders,” virtual pictographs that signal that the market could break in a predictable way, up or down.
“By learning technical analysis,” says Redler, “you become a psychologist of the stock market and trading off the mood.” It sounds absurd, like divining astrological meaning from the Big Dipper or Orion in the night sky. But it’s not far removed from the age-old practice of “reading the tape.” . . .
This kind of trading is not for the weak of stomach. Milman readily admits his system typically gives him only a slightly better than 50-50 chance at making the right choice, and several of Milman’s colleagues had vaporized their accounts on a few bad bets. The fact is, few traders are successful at this game. Don’t try it at home.
When I first watch Milman trade, it doesn’t seem like his system is working at all. The market has been open for an hour, and he looks deflated, unshaven and rumpled in a lavender-and-white-striped western shirt, his cell phone, wallet, half-eaten bagel, and cold coffee a gloomy still life on his desk. Asian markets and futures are down, and a number of poor earnings reports have Milman struggling in choppy markets. Having made an aggressive bet on Goldman Sachs at the opening bell—betting it would go up instead of falling further down—he has already lost $12,000. “It wasn’t as tight of a formation as I would have liked it to have been,” he says, beating himself up for not reading the signs correctly. “There are plenty of fake-outs. I wasn’t nimble enough to get out in time.”
Milman sits in the corner of a large open-air office owned by a company called Lightspeed Trading, which rents out trading terminals to independent operators and collects a commission for every trade. In exchange, each trader gets a bank of monitors and some special software that lets him (or her, although there is only one woman present) buy and sell quickly. Milman is loosely affiliated with a small trading group with the illustrious name Ronin Asset Management. In truth, it’s just his brother Serge and four other guys—Chad, Stevie, Mikey, and Perry—trading the money of one investor while Peter and another friend trade their own money at adjacent terminals. Together, they form an informal knitting circle in which they tip each other to whatever they’re seeing in the market or hearing from friends on their instant-message boxes. While they sometimes encourage each other to check out specific stocks or index movements, Milman admits that when they pile into a trade together, they also tend to lose together. “Usually, the more people that are in a position,” he says, “the less likely it is to work.” . . .
Within a few minutes, a pattern begins to emerge on his screen. Milman thinks he sees a cup-and-handle in the S&P 500, a U-shape on the chart with the leading edge forming the handle. Milman believes this could portend a jump up. Not that he knows what’s driving the buyers and sellers to form this shape, only that it appears to work more often than not—if in fact he’s actually looking at a cup-and-handle and not just some random pattern (and many technical analysts believe this pattern is only observable in three-to-six-month stock charts, not ones lasting mere minutes or seconds). “If it could break above this,” he says, pointing to where the handle is forming, “it could be a technical buy point.”
Or not: “There’s no pure science to it, you know,” Milman hastens to add. He ruefully recalls a day in October when he lost “a hundred, comma,” meaning $100,000. “I was convinced that the bottom was in and just got way too aggressive, and it decided to go against me. It was a disaster. I made it all back in the next two days. But it was definitely a rough day. I hit the bar after that.”
. . . In fiction, imaginary people become realer to us than any named celebrity glimpsed in a series of rumored events, whose causes and subtler ramifications must remain in the dark. An invented figure like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary emerges fully into the light of understanding, which brings with it identification, sympathy and pity. I find in my own writing that only fiction — and rarely, a poem — fully tests me to the kind of limits of what I know and what I feel. In composing even such a frank and simple account as this profession of belief, I must fight against the sensation that I am simplifying and exploiting my own voice.
I also believe, instinctively, if not very cogently, in the American political experiment, which I take to be, at bottom, a matter of trusting the citizens to know their own minds and best interests. “To govern with the consent of the governed”: this spells the ideal. And though the implementation will inevitably be approximate and debatable, and though totalitarianism or technocratic government can obtain some swift successes, in the end, only a democracy can enlist a people’s energies on a sustained and renewable basis. To guarantee the individual maximum freedom within a social frame of minimal laws ensures — if not happiness — its hopeful pursuit.
Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything — from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their sub-microscopic components — seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and — may we even say — illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me.
For Ivanov, a real writer, a real artist and creator, was basically a responsible person with a certain level of maturity. A real writer had to know when to listen and when to act. He had to be reasonably enterprising and reasonably learned. Excessive learning aroused jealousy and resentment. Excessive enterprise aroused suspicion. A real writer had to be someone relatively cool-headed, a man with common sense. Someone who didn’t talk too loud or start polemics. He had to be reasonably pleasant and he had to know how not to make gratuitous enemies. Above all, he had to keep his voice down, unless everyone else was raising his. A real writer had to be aware that behind him he had the Writers Association, the Confederation of Literary Workers, Poets House. What’s the first thing a man does when he comes into a church? Efraim Ivanov asked himself. He takes off his hat. Maybe he doesn’t cross himself. All right, that’s allowed. We’re modern. But the least he can do is bare his head! Adolescent writers, meanwhile, come into a church and don’t take off their hats even when they’re beaten with sticks, which is, regrettably, what happens in the end. And not only do they not take off their hats: they laugh, yawn, play the fool, pass gas. Some even applaud.