Wednesday, October 29, 2008

And So It Goes

Yesterday's action on Wall Street was nothing short of a stampede... this time to the upside. And no doubt a lot of cheering. That's how I picture it anyways. The DOW flew up more than 10% after testing the 8000 region. And it reminded me of a scene in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.

To describe the scene we'll need to give some background. The hero in Vonnegut's tale is Billy Pilgrim, a character who has unintentionally become "unstuck in time." In short, instead of his life flowing in a natural progression, the various scenes occur in apparently random order so that he is in his suburban home, then back in Dresden during World War II, then in a strange place captured by aliens with all these other humans. Vonnegut uses the technique to form allegorical associations, and creative satirical commentary on our times. And so it goes.

I can't help but think the name of the main character is somehow a reference to this modern Pilgrim's progress, except intead of Christian, he is more existentially alienated.

The scene on Tralfamadore, the place where the aliens have taken him, is as follows. (Or at least, this is my recollection of it.) To make the earthlings feel at home there is a large board with stock prices on it. Many of the earthlings watch it unceasingly, with their emotions rising and falling as these numbers go up or down. But the amusing thing is that the Tralfamadorians do not even have the real stock prices there. The numbers change randomly, but the effect on the stock price watchers' emotions is a direct correlation. The Tralfamadorians are simply replicating what they saw on earth so these earthlings feel at home.

It is a hilarious barb at market watchers whose happiness is totally dependent on variables outside their control and the action of the market. That scene came to mind when I heard at day's end that the market had gone up yesterday.
A second scene also came to mind, that of an impoverished Pakistani woman whose life without prospects and despair had resulted in her walking in front of a train with her children... The incident was reported to me not by news media but by someone from Pakistan with whom I have become acquainted through blogging. He witnessed this and said it has been happening a lot as the Pakistan economy continues to unravel. This is not an isolated incident as lack of food and humane living conditions take their toll throughout the world.

The market went up ten percent yesterday. But more than a billion people live in such dire straits that... well, you do not need my help connecting the dots.

For those interested in more about the Vonnegut book, here is an excerpt from a review on
Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

And here is an excerpt from from a reader:
One of the major themes of the book is fate. The prayer of serenity appears twice in the book stating that we need to change the things we can and be wise enough to know which things we cannot change. Also the Tralfamadorians speak of fate. They say they know how the universe is going to end, but they do nothing to stop it. Vonnegut seems to say that yes, war is one of those things we cannot avoid, but we need to change the things we can about it, like the atrocious bombing of Dresden.
For the record, the phrase "and so it goes" appears one hundred times Slaughterhouse Five. I probably relate to the sentiments it expresses, which correlate to my own phrase which I have expressed for most of a lifetime: "We'll see what happens."

As a complete aside, if you are interested in reading more about Kurt Vonnegut, you can read my tribute here, written when he passed from this life a couple springs ago.

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