Tuesday, February 9, 2010

February 9

This is the most interesting and, frankly, terrifying website I've discovered in a while -- Daily Job Cuts. They are on top of things that I wish no one had to be on top of:


Every time I read a "recovery" story in the mainstream media, I'm going to be tempted to click on this site for a reality check.

While we're on the subject of the economy, the near-simultaneous release of two novels about unscrupulous bankers, Jonathan Dee's The Privileges and Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic, has not gone unnoticed. First I spotted a tandem review by Sam Sacks at Open Letters Monthly:


That's a good piece, but it pales besides James Wood's take on the same two novels in The New Yorker. Anyone who wonders how Wood got his reputation as one of the best reviewers of our time need look no further:


James Wood has sometimes been taken to task for his conservative taste in fiction and his conservative approach to writing about it, and there is merit in those arguments, but an essay such as this clearly demonstrates that if you take him on, you are aiming at a very high target, because he is unquestionably a brilliant writer. A single line about the protagonists of these two banking novels -- "They march into illegality with efficient supply lines" -- would be more than sufficient to establish that (and leaves me quite agape with admiration).

I've commented before in this blog on the essential amorality of the business type these novels describe -- most recently on January 17, when I pulled a quotation from The Privileges (from yet another review; the novels are getting plenty of attention for their timeliness). I thought of this issue of amorality again when I came across a comment from astronaut Alan Bean in Andrew Smith's excellent Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, one of my current books-in-progress. Bean is talking about how fellow astronauts worked their way up the pecking order:

It's an advantage to be more ruthless than I am, no doubt about it....I think you can be just as happy and even more successful if you're able to cast aside the rules. I mean, I'm not gonna do it. But my feeling is from looking at it, that if you can be ruthless, lie, and all those other things -- and be smart about it -- that's a big advantage, because then you can take shortcuts.

That word "shortcuts" triggered a memory of an observation I made almost a year ago here at PMD:

It is in the nature of those who want to rise to the top to take such shortcuts as offer themselves. To be sure, there are differing degrees of scrupulousness about what shortcuts may be taken. That can be based on conscience; quite often it is based on expediency -- what level of risk of exposure is acceptable?

But show me someone who disdains all shortcuts and I will show you an ethically admirable person who will never rise to the top in any organization. The ornery principled type who insists on "making it on their own merits" will assuredly never do so.

The real goal is to get ahead, and gather all the power and money to oneself that one can. If you can do that by telling the truth, great; by lying, that's OK, too. By benefiting others, fine; by harming them, what the heck. The point is not being moral or immoral per se, since depending on the situation, either will do. Being "moral" is actually advantageous when you can manage it -- Dee's banker becomes a major league philanthropist -- since it leaves you with less to cover up, less to explain away, and more to take credit for. But much of the time, questionable shortcuts are necessary in order to take proper Machiavellian advantage of a situation. The extent to which you can do so is the true measurement of whether you should bother being involved in a situation at all; nothing else really comes into play.

If this all sounds somewhat sociopathic or psychopathic -- well, I'm reading Dave Cullen's Columbine, too, with its vivid analysis of Eric Harris's psychopathy, and Harris seems just like these fictional bankers, or like the CEO I've known best: monstrously self-involved and self-justifying. The makers of the interesting documentary film The Corporation -- newly relevant because of the Supreme Court's recent decision to allow corporations unfettered monetary influence in the American political process -- reason that if corporations are deemed to be "persons," in the legal sense, then surely they are very troubling persons. So are the individuals most advantaged by the corporate system.

Among notables born on this date are novelists Alice Walker, Natsume Soseki (Japan), Thomas Bernhard (Austria), and J.M. Coetzee (South Africa), Irish playwright Brendan Behan, poet Amy Lowell, humorist George Ade, President William Henry Harrison, novelist and U.S. Senator Jim Webb, composer Alban Berg, painter Gerhard Richter, singer-songwriters Carole King and Joe Ely, broadcaster Roger Mudd, baseball executive Bill Veeck, and actors James Murray (The Crowd), Carmen Miranda, Mia Farrow, Zhang Yiyi, Joe Pesci, Ciaran Hinds, Brian Donlevy, and Ronald Colman. I mentioned the other day how The Crowd was the first silent movie I saw and loved, and James Murray's lead performance was pivotal to my appreciation -- his is one of the best "everyman" performances in film history, and he was noticed for it at the time. I've always been haunted by the well-known story of Murray's decline from that point:

Despite success in subsequent MGM films such as Lon Chaney's Thunder, Murray's life soon took a turn for the tragic that eerily mirrored his role in The Crowd. Excessive drinking led to a scarcity of roles, and by 1934 he was panhandling on the street. In an instance of extreme coincidence, he tried panhandling a man who turned out to be King Vidor. Vidor offered Murray a role in his upcoming film, Our Daily Bread, but Murray turned it down, deeming it an act of pity....In 1936, Murray drowned after falling from the string-piece of a pier into the Hudson River. The medical examiner determined that the cause was asphyxia by submersion, without ruling on whether it was an accident or suicide.

The character in Our Daily Bread is in fact the same as the one played by Murray in The Crowd -- John Sims --and the later film follows logically upon the first, taking the Sims family from the frustrations of the city to a possibly better life in the country. The result is not as great as The Crowd, and Tom Keene and Karen Morley don't come within a mile of Murray and his co-star Eleanor Boardman, but the movie does have a truly memorable final sequence (the digging of an irrigation canal, filmed in the style of a Soviet silent).

Here is Murray at the time of The Crowd: