Marcel Proust: How not to despair given the many rivers to cross on this ancient battlefield?

Another meditation on “In Search of Lost Time” and what it means to come to life in post-Gallia Belgica, post-Gallia Celtica and post-Germania Inferior

Il [mon père] me regarda un instant d’un air étonné et fâché puis dès que maman lui eut expliquée en quelques mots embarrassés ce qui était arrivé, il lui dit : « Mais va donc avec lui, puisque tu disais justement que tu n’as pas envie de dormir, reste un peu dans sa chambre, moi je n’ai besoin de rien. – Mais, mon ami, répondit timidement ma mère, que j’ai envie ou non de dormir, ne change rien à la chose, on ne peut pas habituer cet enfant…  – Mais il ne s’agit pas d’habituer, dit mon père en haussant les épaules, tu vois bien que ce petit a du chagrin, il a l’air désolé, cet enfant ;  (…)

Ainsi pour la première fois, ma tristesse n’était plus considérée comme une faute punissable mais comme un mal involontaire qu’on venait de reconnaître officiellement, comme un état nerveux dont je n’étais pas responsable ; …

Marcel Proust : Du côté du chez Swann, Librairie Générale Française, 1992,  p. 79 -81)

 

… depuis peu de temps, je recommence à très bien percevoir si je prête l’oreille, les sanglots que j’eus la force de contenir devant mon père et qui n’éclatèrent quand je me retrouvai seul avec maman. En réalité ils n’ont jamais cessé ; et c’est seulement parce que la vie se tait maintenant davantage autour de moi que je les entends de nouveau…

Marcel Proust, Du Côté de chez Swann, p. 80f

 

This is again your Captain speaking. We are still very much on the High Seas of Proustian Literature. We have just passed and taken in “Le Côté de Guermantes” (Éditions Gallimard, folio classique, 1988), the 3rd volume of Mr. Proust’s monumental 7-part series “Remembrance of Things Past”. “Contre Sainte-Beuve” still lies ahead of us and we are about to enter the territorial waters of “Sodome et Gomorrhe” (the 4th volume) now. We hope you have enjoyed the trip so far and we trust that you continue to confide in our ability to take you to where Mr. Proust himself ultimately wanted you to get once you embarked on this voyage through his universe.

In an earlier mapping attempt to get to the essence of “La Recherche” we had ventured to proffer the idea that his literary work is fundamentally an artistic effort to recreate, to re-articulate and to recapture the totality of the narrator’s life in more or less the same way, that he, the narrator, might have experienced subject totality on the occasion of a near-death-triggered review of it all. Noah denkt™ still stands by that interpretation although we have to admit that parts of the 3rd volume, in particular the parts pertaining to the Guermantes salon conversations and the ensuing Charlus interaction (i.e. the last quarter of the 2nd chapter of “Le Côte de Guermantes II”) appear to be a little more construed, crafted and conscientiously worked than this was the case in the earlier volumes. Perhaps this slight twist in “Le Côté “ is in part due to the critical success which the 2nd volume (“À l’ombre de jeunes filles en fleurs”) had enjoyed earlier (Prix Goncourt 1919). The author may have felt some unexpected pressure to keep the narration on the same level of poetic intensity as before.

Be that as it may, “Le Côté de Guermantes”, clearly helps us to understand that reviewing the totality of one’s life in a near-death situation not only refers to reliving the totality of events experienced during lifetime but includes also the reviewing of the interpretations and conclusions arrived at when processing subject events in a contemporary (Berger/Luckman) everyday reality. In other words, the near-death reliving of the totality of one’s life will probably unfold just as much on the immediate experience level as it does on the intellectual processing-level.

It seems, as if it is this meta-intellectual processing level which Mr. Proust is invoking ever more in this 3rd volume of his series. The narration is now turning more explicitly towards the larger historic, geopolitical and cultural context in which the narrator’s quest for uncovering his artistic calling is unfolding. And the author does this by making it even harder than before not to notice the extravagantly unusual names he tends to choose for his characters and his geographic settings. (see footnote*) Obviously, these names tell their own story of a past which is rife with memories of many, many military, ethnic, religious, political clashes that have left their marks on society to this day and which continue to affect the narrator’s coming of age just as much as his immediate personal circumstances do.

The mere symbolism of these names is hence important to understand that “le chagrin”, i.e. the anxiety which the narrator experiences very early on in his life in Combray (see quote above) isn’t a sign of an infantile, egocentric narcissism but a justified expression of the young mind’s early intuitive anticipation of the daunting task it will be to process and come to terms with the many serious traumas and wounds which future conflicts may well generate and which little resolved past conflicts still continue to germinate. Let us not forget that the narration of “La Recherche” takes place on the eve of the most devastating war known to mankind up until then which will eventually enter history under the “The Great War”- or “World War I”-label.  And let us equally not forget that the scars and wounds which past conflicts have left behind in the narrator’s home territory aren’t to be underestimated either. Continue reading

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Virginia Woolf 2.0: Mrs. Dalloway hosts the PM, Jacob Rees-Mogg, John Redwood and others

A Meditation inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway on Upper Class Snobbery and its influence on economic competitiveness

“The Prime Minister”, said Peter Walsh. (…) One couldn’t laugh at him. He looked so ordinary. You might have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits – poor chap, all rigged up in gold lace. And to be fair, as he went his rounds, first with Clarissa then with Richard escorting him, he did it very well. He tried to look somebody. It was amusing to watch. Nobody looked at him. They just went on talking, yet it was perfectly plain that they all knew, felt to the marrow of their bones, this majesty passing; this symbol of what they all stood for, English Society.    (…) Lord, lord, the snobbery of the English! thought Peter Walsh, standing in the corner. How they loved dressing up on gold lace and doing homage! 

Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway, Harcourt Publishing, 1953, p. 172

 

We swear to God, that it was neither Boris Johnson, nor Brexit, nor “The Crown” (a Netflix series) nor even the 100th anniversary of the Signing of Versailles Treaty that had us turn our attention to Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway.  It was the simple fact that the delivery (by regular mail) of the 3rd volume of Marcel Proust’s 7-part series “In Search of Lost Time” from one NAFTA-country to another took so ridiculously long (- 7 Weeks! Listen up Brexiteers! This is what you are in for once you have successfully pivoted your economy away from the EU towards the ominous, oh so fast growing Pacific-Rim countries! – ) that it felt like a good alternative to supplement our Proust study with a dash into the literary work of Mrs. Woolf. Little did we know that we would find in her yet another formidable, systemic risk researcher.  And, yes, little did we suspect that both, Mrs. Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway, would take us right back into the Brexit-/Boris Johnson- trap which we had originally planned to leave aside for a while.

But, alas, the topic of English snobbery and (male) portentousness is just as much at the heart of the novel as is the question of existential loneliness and despair as such.

Let us, however, advance our analysis step by step here.  Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1923, i.e. a mere 4 years after the signing of the Versailles Treaty.  So the novel naturally echoes the traumas which WWI left behind in brave war veterans like Septimus Warren Smith and in society at large as it proved painfully inapt in treating subject traumas adequately. (Supposedly our post-modern societies are better equipped to handle mental disorders and depressions now. One cannot help but wonder though whether the Sir Bradshaw’s of our time celebrate their expertise with a little less pomp and self-assuredness than they did in Mrs. Woolf’s days.) Mrs. Dalloway, nevertheless, does not contend itself with just denouncing the medical profession from back then. It also reflects on the growing emotional alienation, isolation and disconnect that people start to experience in the emerging modern society of the early 20s.  Clearly, this weird silence, this strange inability to have the brunt of one’s ruminations being echoed by others has always been an inevitable feature of social community. Just imagine what it would be like if this were otherwise. (Wouldn’t one then be eternally drowned in the incoherence of manifold human expressions that pop up here and there without any prior reflection whatsoever?)  Nevertheless, modernity with its globalization (Peter Walsh, for instance, is just coming back from Burma), its urbanization and its technological advances (airplanes, radio, telephone) is taking the disconnect between people to new heights. And if you add the decidedly decorum-oriented/stiff upper-lip culture of the post-Victorian age into the mix then you end up with a social reality that pretty much confirms Sally Seton’s observation according to which one “knows nothing (…) even of the people on lives with every day”. (Mrs. Dalloway, p. 192)

It is hence somewhat natural that the narrative stream-of-consciousness technique would have been pioneered in England and on the British Isles. After all, what else would there be to talk about other than what is not being talked about?         Continue reading

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Marcel Proust: The Poetry of Dozing, Waking and Awaking, and of Life and Death

An essay on the essence of Marcel Proust’s literary effort in “In Search of Lost Time”

Je me sentis parfaitement heureux, car par toutes les études qui étaient autour de moi, je sentais la possibilité de m’élever à une connaissance poétique, féconde en joies de maintes formes que je n’avais pas isolées jusque-là du spectacle total de la réalite.

Marcel Proust: À l’ombre des jeunes Filles en fleurs, Éditions Gallimards, 1987, p.398

 

When faced with the enormity of Marcel Proust’s seven volume masterpiece “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” the question clearly poses itself when the time can possibly be right to venture into a soon to be published comment about the essence of his work. Is it when all seven volumes of his masterpiece have been diligently processed by the attentive reader? Is it when one has taken equal note of his other writings, including his equally vast personal correspondence? Or is it when one has duly studied the considerable amount of academic publications written about Marcel Proust and his work?

Noah denkt™ has done only a fraction of this. We have with great pleasure and focus read the first two volumes of his masterpiece.  We have taken a cursory look at the Proust-related pronouncements that are readily available to the general public on the Internet. And we have run what we understood from our reading of the first two volumes against the general philosophical, poetic and cultural knowledge which we have acquired over the years. In other words, just like any good Skipper sailing the High Seas we have not waited until we have reached the final destination of our journey before trying to figure out where we are at a given point and where exactly we are heading to from here but we have felt obliged and justified to do so right from the early stages of our voyage.

It is hence with a sense of dedication and urgency that we have explored a series of hypothesis in the hope of uncovering what “À la Recherche du Temps perdu“ is first and foremost about. These possible theories which we have entertained for a while and then discarded later on are as follows (The reason why we have discarded a particular hypothesis is added on each count in brackets):

Is his Masterpiece best understood as:

  1. an effort to record the massive social changes which the advent of mass society brought about at the turn of the 20th century? (Clearly it is more than this)
  2. a “Magic Mountain”- like effort to explore the depths and limits of antagonistic civilisatory and sociocultural value-systems/mindsets? In the Proust-case it would obviously not be the Eastern Authoritarian Thought vs Western Liberalism- juxtaposition Thomas Mann wrote about but the contrasting of Aristocratic Identity and Refinement vs the less self-complacent, yet often times vulgar, can-do approach of the Bourgeoisie instead. (Michel Houellebecq in his latest book “Serotonine” (Flammarion 2019) kind of floats the idea of a certain degree of symmetry between the two masterpieces.  Proust’s focus is however less theoretical and cerebral than that of Thomas Mann, – at least in our mind )
  3. a Heidegger-like attempt to bring the ontological question of Being and Perception back into the center of enlightened debate which otherwise seems to be in danger of getting high-jacked entirely by the warranted- assertibility-logic of the empirical-scientific school of thought? Is Proust’s work consequently a sort of anti-anti-A-Priori-philosophy and campaign?  (Kind of, but he is not campaigning; in fact he does not seem too care all that much for contributing to an academic, philosophical or even epistemological debate; his laid-back, occasionally little structured style speaks against that)
  4. a Bergson-inspired effort (similar to B) to demonstrate the validity of a theory that views Memory and Mind as imbued with a faculty which enables us to transcend the confines of our material existence? (Yes, this hypothesis is probably the most adequate call so far. However the Bergsonian approach to Memory exploration is in essence a philosophic debate contribution; Proust’s narrative style, however, flows very naturally and cares precious little about what others might make of it).
  5. an effort to revive the earlier Etienne Bonnot de Condillac-approach which is decidedly empirical, sensual and pre-intelligent-driven and which aims at harvesting the powerful and intense sensitivities of  early infancy instead of venturing into difficult to prove transcendence legitimizing theories? (No, Proust’s pre-intelligence references are not geared towards early infancy; in fact they show quite an interest in pointing towards the mystical/mysterious sources and depths of our perceptions, see Prof. Cottard’s mysterious healing wisdom)
  6. an Ubermensch-style (Nietzsche) attempt to break the spell of human ambiguity and ambivalence by comprehensively and intensively recording its different manifestations? (Nietzsche’s decidedly non-metaphysical nihilism is probably  too harsh for the Bergotte/Anatole France in Proust)
  7. a Schopenhauer-inspired attempt that is on its way to advocating a Buddhist-like abstention from pursuing your earthly ambitions, since there is no other way to resolve the diabolical challenge which the inevitable ambiguity and ambivalence of any human will and desire generates for the individual and society at large? After all, it is probably quite legitimate to maintain that even a well-thought preference for a philosophical approach (i.e. the Big Bang Sheldon mathematical/empirical one versus the poetic Hegel Weltgeist one) is seriously influenced by the degree in which the thinker’s values and aspirations are being supercharged or thwarted by his/her subconscious fears of rejection. In other words, is he/her operating from an establishment position in the market, or has he /she as yet not been accepted and recognized by the Albertines, the markets and the peers of this world? (On page 407ff of “À l’Ombre des jeunes filles” Proust, however, argues that the wholehearted pursuit and living out of your dreams is the only sane way to go. So Schopenhauer: No)
  8. a launch of a new Impressionist, Anti-realism Poetic Manifesto? (Hard to believe, given the seven-volume- explanation which that supposed Manifesto would then have. Manifestos are usually concise and to the point.)
  9. an argument in favor of liberalization and freedom from mind- and value sets entrenched in the philosophies of materialism and realism which prevent the poet from developing its full creative potential? Such reasoning would at a later stage in the civilizational process lead to Aldous Huxley’s and Timothy Leary’s experiments with LSD and other mind enhancing drugs which all aimed at the physical improvement of cerebral activity and offering an alternative healing avenue. (Yes, but Proust is much softer and subtler than any can-do drug therapy approach can even fathom)
  10. an elaborate defense of individualism, and an implicit call for the respect of LGBTT rights and the need for a theoretically well-defined Psychology that understands the importance of the individual’s fear of rejection for that individual’s evolution? (Okay, but what about the elaborate reflections on art literature and poetry then?)
  11. a Bildungsroman (coming-of-age story) in the tradition of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and others, at the end of which the author not only discovers (or in the case of Wilhelm Meister abandons) his very own poetic calling but also acts on it? (Yes, but why then the extensive Swann-Odette-excursion, and why then the intense detailing of almost everything in the narrator’s life)

So there is quite a bit to be said in favor of almost each of the points mentioned above. But in the humble opinion of Noah denkt™ none of these hypothesis go straight to the heart of Marcel Proust’s literary effort and capture the essence of what his work it ultimately about.  Continue reading

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Charles Swann: The Kind of High Finance Player / Homme d’Esprit the World Desperately Needs!

A Meditation, perhaps un peu risquée, about Marcel Proust’s Charles Swann – character and Mr. Swann’s possible High Finance involvement

Mme Cottard: “Et à tout moment elle [Mlle Odette de Crécy] demandait: “Qu’est-ce qu’il [Charles Swann] peut faire en ce moment? Si seulement il travaillait un peu! C’est malheureux, un garçon si doué, qu’il soit si paresseux.” (Marcel Proust: Du Côté De Chez Swann, Librairie Générale Française, 1992, p. 423)

The Canon of Western literature has regaled us with a sizable collection of fictitious personalities who have either chosen the financial industry as their professional mainstay or who have supported their lavish life-style in large measure through the proceeds of (earlier or current) money market activities.  Balzac’s Baron de Nucingen is one of those characters, as is Flaubert’s M. Dambreuse, Zola’s Aristide Saccard, Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood, Dicken’s Mr. Merdle, Trollop’s Augustus Melmotte, DeLillo’s Eric Packer, Tom Wolfe’s Sherman McCoy, Musil’s Leo Fischel, Bernhard’s Georg Murau and Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman to name perhaps the most important of them.

Usually these fictitious bankers/traders/financiers are not portrayed as very likeable human beings. Authors mostly prefer them to be consumed with desires for wealth, splendor, debauchery and extravagance. Dishonesty and deceit therefore are often times part of the standard tool set of these characters. And sometimes they do not even shy away from crime and murder in order to pursue their goals.

Not always though are these financier-personalities presented as appalling individuals. Occasionally they even serve as positive, inspirational role models both to the author and the hero of the literary piece itself. Thomas Bernhard’s Uncle Georg in “Ausloeschung” (Extinction) is a case in point here. Not only does that Uncle Georg muster the courage to physically, emotionally and intellectually distance himself from the loaded, crypto-fascist provinciality of his Austrian family background, but his very different, sophisticated investor life-style also helps his nephew Franz-Josef to realize that an intelligent approach to money market speculation may well constitute a viable basis for a life devoted to philosophical reflection and erudition.

Such uplifting examples of financial market personalities in literature are, however, far and few in between. Clearly, the finance industry itself is quite a bit to blame for the negative press it has received in the upper echelons of Western art. The abuses, the digressions and the mistakes it is responsible for, not just in the 19th and early 20th century but to this day (see, for instance, the bloated and misguided current Trump bubble and/or the earlier subprime travesty), are substantial and considerable.

Despite all the distortions though which have been produced by the likes of Wall Street, the moral track record of the industry has a few more shades to it than high Western fiction generally has us believe.  And thankfully enough some literary giants, sometimes against their original intentions, acknowledge this. Marcel Proust is one of them. His famous Charles Swann Jr. – character which is elaborated most prominently in the first volume (“Du Côté de chez Swann”) of Proust’s seven-part series “In Search of Lost Time” (1913 – 1927), isn’t just an example of a superbly refined, high-class intellectual, but he is also the archetype of a charming and cherished, world-savvy interlocutor/counselor to the high and mighty, the sort of which you usually only find (or used to find) in the most hand-picked circles of Diplomacy and High Finance. (Members of the distinguished aristocracy would clearly also qualify as being charming and superbly refined. Their above-market status, however, is a constant inconvenience to the realism of their judgments, particularly in international matters. (see WWI, for instance) Continue reading

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English gives you confidence, Hochdeutsch or High German, on the other hand, does just the opposite

An observation inspired by the British Parliament’s soul searching after Theresa May’s historic Brexit-vote defeat on Jan 15, 2019

Nun hats Preußen den Leuten in der Provinz nicht leicht gemacht. Dieser berliner Überlegenheitston, der die andern wie verständlich so maßlos reizt, diese törichte Attitüde, die sich aus Herrschergelüste, Überlegenheitsfimmel und Postenjägerei zusammensetzt, hat unendlich geschadet. Die Vormachtstellung Preußens muß fallen ….

Ignaz Wrobel (aka Kurt Tucholsky) : Berlin, Berlin; Die Weltbühne, 29.03.1927, Nr. 13, S. 499, https://tucholsky-gesellschaft.de/1927/03/29/ignaz-wrobel-berlin-berlin/

 

My dear native English speakers, we are terribly sorry to yet again have to clumsily hijack your fabulously versatile language here. But the post-Brexit-vote deliberations in the lobby of the British Parliament (which we happened to see on Sky News the other day) reminded us too much of the self-esteem travails our own “mother tongue” imposes on to us not to take the opportunity  to express our expatriate feelings to that effect one more time.

Obviously, it is quite remarkable that even in the moment of unprecedented national uncertainty British MPs still manage to express their thoughts on live TV without showing signs of distress, anguish or even panic. Watching their stellar performance we couldn’t help but ask ourselves if German MPs had kept a similar calm in the presence of international cameras, had it not been Britain’s fate that would be at stake here but Germany’s destiny instead. No doubt the mere fact that such interviews with German MPs would have had to be hesitantly translated into English by a faraway interpreter to make them intelligible for an international audience would have given the entire spectacle the flavor of a broadcast from Mongolia. In the British case, however, the coverage unfolded in a smooth and collected first-world manner. In fact, even the Right Honorable MP from East Antrim who laboriously pronounced his views in a heavy, tongue-tied Northern Irish accent still oozed so much natural confidence while speaking that we were quite sure that similar thoughts could never have been expressed with the same aplomb even in the most carefully crafted, subtly vocalized  “Hochdeutsch” (High German).

Of course, we recognize that it may not be clear to your average native English speaker from Kent or Sussex that language can have an impact on the self-esteem of any culturally sensitive debate participant. The towering importance which Britannia used to exude over the High Seas may stand in the way of that. For citizens from Clackmannanshire or Dumfries, though, the complicated psychological side effects of language are already somewhat tangible. For people from Noah denkt™’s neck of the woods, however, linguistic soul-searching, if not even dialect-due deference have become a full-blown way of life. Continue reading

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Oh no, Michel Houellebecq dons a Yellow Vest too!

Dialogue with the Alter Ego on the French writer’s Trump defense

Trump is pursuing and amplifying the policy of disengagement initiated by Obama; this is very good news for the rest of the world. (…) The Americans are no longer prepared to die for the freedom of the press. Besides, what freedom of the press? Ever since I was twelve years old, I’ve watched the range of opinions permissible in the press steadily shrinking.(…) Unlike free-market liberals (who are, in their way, as fanatical as communists), President Trump doesn’t consider global free trade the be-all and end-all of human progress. When free trade favors American interests, President Trump is in favor of free trade; in the contrary case, he finds old-fashioned protectionist measures entirely appropriate. (…) President Trump doesn’t like the European Union; he thinks we don’t have a lot in common, especially not “values”; and I call this fortunate, because, what values? “Human rights”? Seriously? (…) It’s my belief that we in Europe have neither a common language, nor common values, nor common interests, that, in a word, Europe doesn’t exist, and that it will never constitute a people or support a possible democracy (see the etymology of the term), simply because it doesn’t want to constitute a people. In short, Europe is just a dumb idea that has gradually turned into a bad dream, from which we shall eventually wake up. “

Michel Houellebecq: Donald Trump Is a Good President. Harper’s Magazine, December 20, 2018

Question by Alter Ego of Noah denkt™ (AE): We are aware that Noah denkt™ is reluctant to come out of its self-imposed retirement from public debate and speak out again despite all the “macro garbage” and “manufactroversy” (see Salman Rushdie : The Golden House, 2017 ) that is engulfing us. But Michel Houellebecq’s Harper’s Magazine statements (“Trump is a good President”, December 20, 2018) forces us to confront you again. You probably read the pertaining article, didn’t you?

Answer by Noah denkt™ (Nd): Yes, we did.

AE: To summarize Houellebecq’s position both in the Harper’s Magazine essay as well as in his literary work, it is probably fair to say that he is wary of the mass-market ignorance and hyperbole the post-modern civilization generates, that in his mind the opportunist free trade regime has a lot to do with this increasing absence of decency and refinement, and that a return to protectionist, nation-state policies might not be too big a mistake. Would Noah denkt™ agree with this characterization of Houellebecq’s views?

Nd: We would. The latter part, pertaining to the preferable return to protectionist, nation-state policies was nevertheless somewhat new to us. His novels so far did not explicitly suggest an anti-EU stance, for instance.

AE: So what does Noah denkt™ make of this latest, let’s call it, yellow-vest-evolution in Houellebecq’s thinking?

Nd: Well, it needs to be taken seriously. And that is true despite the lack of depth his views may exhibit in terms of historical perspective and economic analysis. If a fine, poetic French soul like his comes to these kinds of protectionist conclusions this clearly deserves attention. Obviously, there is no denying that liberalism, democracy and capitalism are in very dire straits at this point. Financial markets everywhere would crash if they weren’t being propped up by extremely blown-up central bank balance sheets. Companies more often than not have to push the legal limits in order to satisfy their investors’ revenue expectations (VW, Facebook, fiscal engineering etc.). Entrepreneurial can-do confidence usually receives VC funding only for dating, storing and “cornerjob” search applications. And voters by now are so tired of the usual set phrases repeated over and over again by their political class that they meanwhile prefer to vote for outright nutcases instead endorsing the same old rhetoric yet again. It is hence no wonder that people like Houellebecq ponder whether a fundamental switch away from UN/WTO internationalism might not bring some relief here?

AE: And what is Noah denkt™’s position in this? Obviously you have defended both the European Union and Houellebecq’s work in the past. Continue reading

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About Immature and Mature Artists : A Tale of two Wilhelms

Wilhelm Meister (J W Goethe) meets Wilhelm Adler (Saul Bellow) and others

Standing a little apart, Wilhelm began to cry. He cried at first softly and from sentiment, but soon from deeper feeling. He sobbed loudly and his face grew distorted and hot, and the tears stung his skin. A man—another human creature, was what first went through his thoughts, but other and different things were torn from him. What’ll I do? I’m stripped and kicked out . . . Oh, Father? What do I ask of you? What’ll I do about the kids—Tommy, Paul? My children. And Olive? My dear. Why, why, why—you must protect me against that devil who wants my life. (…)

The flowers and lights fused ecstatically in Wilhelm’s blind, wet eyes; the heavy sea-like music came up to his ears. It poured into him where he had hidden himself in the center of a crowd by the great and happy oblivion of tears. He heard it and sank deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart’s ultimate need.

Saul Bellow, Seize the Day, 1956

 

You’ll get right away why the following story caught our attention and why we ran with it. After all, it’s a tale of two Bills, Wils or Wilhelms. Both of them dream of being famous. Both of them want to make in the art world. And both of them eventually leave the arts behind after having failed therein or having found it seriously wanting. We are talking here about Saul Bellow’s Wilhelm Adler, aka Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day (1956) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96). Obviously, there are serious differences between the two of them. Mr. Meister has a credible enthusiasm and interest in theater from Day 1 while Tommy gets into acting only after a fraudulent talent scout talks him into pursuing a screen actor’s career in Hollywood. And while Tommy fails in his Hollywood stint quite miserably, Mr. Meister does in fact have some noticeable success therein.

The bottom line however is that both protagonists enter the art world without having adequately reflected on themselves and without having had a serious immersion into the real world of labor before pursuing their artistic calling. In this they differ somewhat noticeably from Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1800 /1802) which was crafted at the time to be a stellar counter-piece to Wilhelm Meister. Novalis felt that Goethe had put the validity and legitimacy of the poetic profession in such serious doubt through the publication of the Wilhelm Meister story that it bordered on destroying it altogether.  Hence, Novalis’ attempt to rescue the dignity and indispensability of the poetic calling by offering an alternative pro-poetry piece to the Wilhelm Meister pitch. And there are in effect significant differences in the route that Mr. von Ofterdingen takes into the arts. He doesn’t jump into poetry right away. Instead he goes on a journey first which leads him to spend (albeit not enough) time in studying the military and commercial job reality before finally settling on becoming a writer. There is consequently a bit of a chance that Mr. von Ofterdingen will be exercising the poetic profession with a balanced mind and not fall victim therein of his own lofty and narcissistic needs.  The latter is however exactly what happens to both Tommy Wilhelm and Wilhelm Meister. They are both driven by some shiny and woolly ideas of fame and beauty. And they both realize eventually that neither of the two can be had by way of an escapist pursuit.

In fact, Bellow is very convincing when pointing out in his novel that an earth-shaking Jesus Christ-all-is-lost moment (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  Matthew 27.46) is pretty much indispensable for any artist, and perhaps for any human being, to reach the sort of personal that is indeed necessary to provide a meaningful original contribution. “A true soul”, he (Bellow) has the otherwise quite ambivalent Dr. Tamkin say, “is the one who must pay. It suffers and consumes itself, and realizes that a false soul cannot be loved. Because it is an imposture. A true soul likes the truth. And when a true soul is in that state it wants to kill the false soul. Love has turned into hatred. It is then when we become dangerous. We are capable of killing. We have to kill who cheats us.” (p.128)  And a few pages later Tamkin continues: “In reality, you have a deep personality and have great creative abilities, but you also have emotional disorders.” (p.130) (These quotes are our translation from a Spanish language edition of “Seize the Day”. See footnote *) In other words, Tommy, just like Mr. Meister, will first have to weed out and kill his “emotional disorders”, i.e. his narcissism in an “all-is-lost”-crisis before he can hope with some legitimacy that fate, reason and balance will ultimately be on his side.   Continue reading

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Napoléon III versus Trump I

Review of our forecasting performance in 2017, inspired by Émile Zola’s 1871 novel “The Kill”

It’s the time of the year again, when Noah denkt™ looks back on the year gone by to qualify its economic forecasting acumen. This year however this poses somewhat of a problem. Sadly, we have hardly made any economic predictions throughout the year other than maintaining our view that the Trump presidency will ultimately do more damage to the economy than help it. In fact, we have been so turned off by the knee-jerk reaction of the stock market to the rambling goodies delivered by Trump Presidency (tax cuts, government spending, deregulation) that we couldn’t even focus on the economic coverage any more. Instead we have immersed ourselves in studying the analytical expertise of literary luminaries such as Honoré de Balzac or Henry Miller to find some intellectual reprieve from the socio-economic deterioration of which the Trump White House is only a symptom not the cause.  It therefore comes in handy for this year’s year-end review that we are just finishing the reading of Émile Zola’s 1871 novel “The Kill” (“La Curée”). There are such serious similarities in this novel to our present time that we simply cannot resist in including it in our annual evaluation exercise.

“The Kill” which is the second book in Émile Zola’s 20 volume series “Les Rougon-Marquarts” talks about the rise of a Paris financier (Aristide Saccard) during the real estate boom years of the 1860s in Paris. It describes how a self-obsessed Emperor (Napoléon III) flooded the city with capital in the vain attempt to glorify himself with the specter of brilliance and adventurism. It details how subject financial narcissism unleashed the “animal instincts” (Jamie Dimon) in the Parisian financial community and it has us understand how such mindless greed eventually ended in tears once the fundamental strategic miscalculations of the Napoléon reign came to light in the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71.

Now, to be frank, Zola’s book is not first and foremost an economic study of the causes that led to the Long Depression in the 1870s. His work is primarily a socio-psychological analysis of the Saccard family and the circles they move in. “The Kill” consequently ends three years before the Napoléon daydream finally comes undone.  At that time, Mr. Saccard’s fortune’s are still by and large intact. And yet the ominous signs of the later breakdown of the entire financial system are already there to see for those who want to see them. The Moroccan Port Company had just failed miserably, the Bank “Crédit mobilier” had crashed and Napoléon III’s 1862 Mexico invasion had ended a year earlier in a shameful and humiliating retread. So by 1867 the Emperor himself is already talking about “some black spots that are darkening the French horizon” (see footnote*). Zola specifically refers to that famous Napoléon III speech of Aug 27, 1867 in his description of the Cotillion dance during the final ballroom spree hosted by Aristide Saccard and his wife Renée (see footnote**).  It is hence fair to say that there are ample allusions in Zola’s work to the fact that the intellectual deficiencies of the Napoléonic leadership will ultimately cause a serious bust in the French society and financial system. Here is the most important reference to that effect:   [For our own English translation of the following excerpt, please see footnote *** ]

“A cette heure, Paris offrait, pour un homme comme Aristide Saccard, le plus intéressant des spectacles. L’Empire venait d’être proclamé, apres ce fameux voyage pendant lequel le prince-président avait réussi à chauffer l’enthousiasme de quelques départements bonapartistes. Le silence s’était fait à la tribune et dans les journaux. La société, sauvée encore une fois, se felicitait, se reposait, faisait la grasse matinée, maintenant qu’un gouvernement fort la protégeait  et lui ôtait jusqu’au souci de penser et de régler ses affaires. La grande préoccupation de la sociéte était de savoir à quels amusements elle allait tuer le temps. Selon l’heureuse expression d’Eugène Rougon, Paris se mettait à table et rêvait gaudriole au dessert. La politique épouvantait, comme une drogue dangereuse. Les esprits lassés se tournait vers les affaires et les plaisirs. Ceux qui possédaient déterraient leur argent, et ceux qui ne possédaient pas cherchaient dans les coins les trésors oubliés. (…) Dans le grand silence de l’ordre, dans la paix aplatie du nouveau règne, montaient toutes sortes de rumeurs aimables, de promesses dorées et volupteuses. (…) L’Empire allait faire de Paris le mauvais lieu de l’Europe. Il fallait à cette poignée d’aventuriers que venaient de voler un trône un règne d’aventures, d’affaires véreuses, de consciences vendus, de femmes achetées, de soûlerie  furieuse et universelle. Et, dans la ville ou le sang de décembre était à peine lavé, grandissait, timide encore, cette folie de jouissance qui devait jeter la patrie au cabanon des nations pourris et déshonorées.

Aristide Saccard, depuis les premiers jours, sentait venir ce flot montant de la speculation, don’t l’écume allait couvrir Paris entire. Il en suivit les progress avec une attention profonde. Il se trouvait au beau milieu de la pluie chaude d’écus tombant dru sur les toits de la cité. (Émile Zola: La Curée, Pocket 1990, ISBN 978-2-266-19802-8, p 82-83) Continue reading

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Henry Miller: A Different Kind of Silence Breaker

An essay on Henry Miller triggered by Charlie Rose’s sex scandal and the #Metoo Campaign

The same day we learned that US news icon Charlie Rose had been fired by CBSNews and PBS on substantiated allegations that he too of all people may have sexually harassed female co-workers our literary pursuit had us stumble upon the following text:

[I]did the work of five men at a time. In three years I hardly slept. I did not have a single shirt in good condition (…)

The best of the new approach was the introduction of female telegram messengers. It transformed the entire atmosphere on the premises. Especially for Hymie [my assistant who assigns the new hires to the various offices] this was a gift from heaven. (…) Despite the increase in work, he had a permanent erection. … At the end of the day, I always had a list of five or six [female applicants] that were worth trying. The trick was to keep them in uncertainty, promise them a job, and get laid in the process. In general, it was enough to invite them to eat, to take them back to the office at night and go after them on the zinc-covered table in the dressing room. If, as sometimes happened, they had a cozy flat, we would take them home and finish the party in bed.

(see footnote *)

This is an excerpt from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, a semi-autobiographical novel which was originally published in 1939 and banned in the US until 1961. In the age of the Matt Lauer et al. sex scandal, it isn’t easy to take note of a passage like this without considering it twice. After all, we are talking about an unabashed description of a sexual harassment here. And subject description is even included in a piece of art which undoubtedly forms part of the US canon of literature. So what is going on here? Is this another example of men dominating what is considered to be legitimate art, i.e. another example of male insensitivity towards the needs and rights of women? Or does art get a free pass here because it is considered to be a mind-game only?

Before we get too excited though about Miller’s daring prose we need to put it into perspective. Tropic of Capricorn is above all a novel about the existential challenges a writer has to face in order to discover his artistic calling and then run with. Miller explains that his effort to survive as an employee in the American economy pushed him to such a point of despair that he had to consider suicide before finding the guts to bank on the artistic capacity he had earlier diagnosed in himself (On the connection between considering suicide and becoming a writer see also our own “Businessplan Existenzphilosoph” on this). So, the novel is first and foremost about Miller’s own self- resurrection from near-annihilation. On a second tier it is also about the inhumanity of human existence in general and in New York in particular. According to Miller the capitalist reality in New York likes to pretend that everything’s running fine and smoothly when it actually “stinks from within”(**). Hence the excruciating devastation he experiences when trying to make a living there in a run-of-the-mill fashion. Only in a third tier, finally, Tropic of Capricorn is also about explicit descriptions of sexual encounters. Clearly, these different layers of the book are interconnected with each other and they influence one another.  But it wouldn’t be right to say that Tropic of Capricorn is mainly about sex or loose talk about it. It is a contemplation of life, – at times poetic, at times direct -, that naturally includes the portrayal of sexual encounters which clearly are an essential part of human existence.  And this is precisely one of the aspects which explain Miller’s inclusion into the canon of literature.  We have to bear in mind that all talk about sex was effectively taboo in the Victorian and pre-Wilsonian ages.   The topic was considered to be dirty and salacious. And taking issue with this uptight and potentially dangerous silence on one of the most powerful aspects of human nature is a big part of the social liberation fight that is being waged after World War I and in the 20s of the last century. Henry Miller is part of that liberation movement and breaks new ground here. Others will later follow in his footsteps and will face considerably less obstacles in discussing intimate aspects of their life and how they impacted their evolution. Continue reading

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Who can succeed Chancellor Merkel in Germany?

Observations on the failure of the four-party-coalition talks in Germany

La création du premier être, premier représentant d’une nouvelle espèce intelligente créée par l’homme  “à son image et sa ressemblance”, eut lieu le 27 mars 2029, vingt ans pour jour après la disparition de Michel Djerzinski. Toujours en hommage à Djerzinski, et bien qu’il n’y ait aucun Francais dans l’équipe, la synthèse eut lieu dans le laboratoire de l’Institut de biologie moléculaire de Palaiseau. La retransmission télévisée de l’évènement eut naturellement un impact énorme – un impact qui dépassait même de très loin celui qu’avait eu, une nuit de juillet 1969, près de soixante ans plus tôt , la retransmission en direct des premiers pas de l’homme sur la Lune.. En prélude au reportaje Hubczejak prononça un discours très bref où, avec la franchise brutale qui lui était habituelle, il déclara que l’humanité  devait s’honorer d’être “la première espèce animale de l’univers connu à organiser elle-même les conditions de son propre remplacement”.

Aujourd’hui, près de cinquante ans plus tard, la réalité a largement confirmé la teneur prophétique des propos d’Hubczejak – à un point, même, que celui-ci n’aurait probabalment pas soupçonné. Il subsiste quelques humains de l’ancienne race, en particulier dans les régions restées longtemps soumises à l’influence des doctrines religieuses traditionelles. Leur taux de reproductions, cependant, diminue d’année en année, et leur extinction semble à présent inéluctable. Contrairement à toutes les prévisions pessimists, cette extinction se fait dans la calme, malgr’e quelques actes de violences isolés, don’t le nombre va constamment décroissant. On est même surpris de voir avec quelle douceur, quelle resignation, et peut-être quell secret soulagement les humains ont consenti à leur propre disparition.

Michel Houellebecq: Les Particules élémentaires, Flammarion 1998, pages 315f

 

In the early hours of Monday, Nov. 20, Germany’s Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) officially tanked all efforts by Chancellor Merkel to form a four-party-coalition government in Germany. This unprecedented move by the FDP may well signal the beginning of the end of Ms. Merkel’s otherwise formidable rule over political affairs in Germany and in Europe. It is hence time to introduce to our international audience the candidate within Ms. Merkel’s center-right CDU who is most suited to eventually succeed her both as president of the party and as Chancellor of Germany. The person that comes to mind here first and foremost is Germany’s current Minister of Defense, Ursula von der Leyen. What kind of person is she? And does she have what it takes to live up to the awesome legacy that Ms. Merkel is leaving behind?

If Prof. Stephen Hawking and French author Michel Houellebecq are correct in predicting that the future of mankind will largely depend on its ability to substitute itself by a scientifically created human race, then Ursula von der Leyen clearly represents the next step in man’s evolution towards a flawless cyborg. Her hairdo never moves an inch. Her composure rarely comes undone.  And her body has withstood the test of time and motherhood without apparent sign of wear and tear. Not just has she given birth and raised 7 children, she also found time to gain a PHD in Medicine and a Master degree in Public Health. She spent time in Stanford, California, studied at the London School of Economics and speaks English and French with stunning ease and fluency. In short, she is a perfect combination between Evelyn Waugh’s Lady Marchmain (Brideshead Revisited), TV Azteca’s Patty Chapoi (Ventaneando) and The Good Wife’s Diane Lockhart (Christine Baransky); or to put it in more colloquial terms, she, Ursula von der Leyen, is a captivating blend of what is most noticeable in Ann Coulter, Nancy Reagan, Bree Van de Kamp and Claire Underwood.

If she herself is, however, an improbable product of perfection, we have to admit that this article on her is just as much an engineered hybrid. Continue reading

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