Monday, December 18, 2017

Romantic Stories

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- You seem to want to say something. Let's hear it.
- I was thinking over your little dance about politics in poverty and poverty in politics,* and your making symbols out of the characters you bring in. I think I've discovered something.
- What?
- The epitome of all symbols of money and politics and their dance with each other is our new president. The stunning surprise of his election is that the American people, hitherto holding to the myth of themselves as being good people, especially good people, could elect someone who was not only obviously bad but extremely bad.
- And now you know the why and how of it?
- You be the judge. Isn't he unique in all history, in all time and space for all I know, in being famous because he is rich, and rich because he is famous?
- Is that true?
- I wouldn't bet on the all history part, but yes, I think it's true. Rich because famous: most of his money comes from his much watched performances on TV shows and renting out his name to buildings he doesn't own. Famous because rich: the part he plays on his TV show and the message of his name is being famously rich. What do you think?
- You've got something there.
- Then I'd like you to explain a little more about symbols, the culprit in this perverse dance of politics and money.
- This particular dance is not hard to explain. Both fame and money are quantifiable symbols of power of social role: the more dollars, the more people who know about you, the more your role can be assumed, on general principles, to be powerful, the greater the guarantee of  your safety against the isolation and destitution that is always a danger to people who's security depends on the complementary role play of others.
- Fame, because it is a form of security, is worth money, and a quantity of money, another form of security, easily can attract to itself fame.
- Yes. Can I tell you a story about money, about symbols? Something that happened on the afternoon of the day I spoke of last time.
- Sure.
- I was riding my bike through the back streets of Beverly Hills, on my way to Westwood. I turned down the street just behind the Peninsula Hotel...
- Where the guy worked who stole your last bike.**
- And where the movie producer in our latest scandal used to summon actresses for "meetings" in which he presented himself to them naked.
- And when his requested sexual favors were resisted would whine, 'You don't like me because I'm fat!'
- Another symbol of our times.
- Yes. A movie producer, rich, famous, with bad character, but not rendered invulnerable by that unique dance of fame and money of our president. So, I was turning the corner when I spy on the pavement, exactly in the middle of the intersection, a five dollar bill neatly folded in half. I stop, looking out for traffic, and pocket the bill. I glance around for where it could have come from, and now see other bills blowing in the breeze across the intersection. I pick these up too.
- How much money are we talking about?
- A ten, and a few ones. I'm ready to mount my bike and go when a large SUV pulls up in front of me. A guy leans out the passenger window, a Mexican-American in his twenties, and says, 'I threw the money out the window.' I ask:
- Why'd you do that?
- I'm an idiot I guess.
- You want me to give you the money?
He nods. I realize he might have said, which is more probable, 'The money flew out the window'. The bills might be his tips working as a parking valet at the hotel. Or maybe this is the trick that had been tried on me in Budapest. A man walking down the street in front of you leans down and picks up a wallet. You stop to watch as he opens it, disclosing a set of identification cards and a large amount of money. He notes your attention, says to you he doesn't want the trouble of returning the wallet to its owner. Would you like to have it? - only he'd like a finders fee before turning it over. If you pay, or even if you don't, after the man leaves another appears, flashes what appears to be a genuine police badge and accuses you of conspiring to steal the money in the wallet, and then suggests a bribe for his, just this one time, letting the whole thing go.
- You gave the guy in the car the money. The symbolism isn't clear here.
- We have promising elements - loose money, a famous hotel - but the story doesn't appear to mean anything. In Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship a distinction is drawn between lives given up to fate, and those given up to chance. Those who bet on fate know what things in the world they want and actively pursue them. Those betting on chance know it is not arrangements in the world they have their heart set on; they let the world lead them where it will. Here's a passage from the novel:
Spring had come in all its brilliancy; storm that had been lowering all day went fiercely down upon the hills; the rain drew back into the country; the sun came forth in all its splendor, and upon the dark vapor rose the lordly rainbow. Wilhelm was riding towards it: the sight made him sad. "Ah!" said he within himself, "must it be that the fairest hues of life appear to us only on a ground of black? And must drops fall, if we are to be enraptured? A bright day is like a dull day, if we look at it unmoved; and what can move us but some silent hope that the inborn inclination of our soul shall not always be without an object? The recital of a noble action moves us; the sight of every thing harmonious moves us: we feel then as if we were not altogether in a foreign land; we fancy we are nearer the home towards which our best and inmost wishes impatiently strive.
Symbols have their place in tragic stories: stories of people whose role play blinds them to danger. They make mistakes and suffer from them. Their predictably repetitive action playing a role creates their fate. The romantic character, like Goethe's Wilhelm, however, doesn't follow the tragic form of action but the epic: a series of episodes of danger and escape, each themselves of no meaning: they lead back home, the ultimate place of value.

Further Reading:
Romantic Lives
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* Departure
** A Bike In Trumpland