October 06, 2013

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For about three years I have subscribed to two free Internet sites that offer investment advice. In a moment of madness or lack of self-knowledge, I thought I might start to take an interest in my own financial affairs, but one does not develop such an interest (as against the necessity to do so) in one’s sixties. I have never unsubscribed to the two sites, but I have never taken their advice, either. I leave my investments, such as they are, to fester quietly. I have no idea whether I would have done better to pay attention.  

I mentioned my lack of interest in my financial affairs to a businessman the other day, and he replied, “€œAll men of substance are interested in their financial affairs.”€ I felt much deflated, for I had rather prided myself on my negligence, with its implication that my mind was fixed on higher, more substantial things. Could it be, then, that I was a man of no substance? 

It depends on what you mean by substance as applied to a man. I think my interlocutor meant economic substance only, but no writer, of however humble ambition, could think of human substance exclusively in this way. Is a man necessarily of no substance because he is possessed of no fortune? Is a man’s substance to be measured on a simple linear scale of dollars and cents? Am I of half the substance, then, of my own best friend?

“€œMan is the only species that derives consolation and even delight from the contemplation of its own extinction.”€

The expression for substance used by the sites I have mentioned is the extremely vulgar-sounding “€œnet worth.”€ Am I a man of high net worth or of low? With monotonous regularity the sites offer me (if I am the former, which they flatteringly suggest that I am) one last chance to take advantage of an exclusive offer of access to a share-trading method that has outperformed the stock market by 20 percent over the last two years. I never take up this last chance because I know another last chance will be offered next week and the week after that. 

The sites prey upon two human emotions, hope and fear: hope of effortless gain on the one hand and fear of losing everything on the other. Every since I have subscribed to them, these sites have depicted a future economic catastrophe of huge and unprecedented proportions, one that would make the Great Depression seem like an era of carefree prosperity. But as they point out, one man’s catastrophe is another man’s opportunity. There is a great deal of money to be made out of mankind’s misery.

The economic catastrophe that the sites have predicted weekly for the past three years is repeatedly postponed, like the end of the world according to Christian chiliasts. But like the chiliasts, the sites never lose faith that the catastrophe is to come, and in my heart of hearts I believe them. Yes, the West is a giant ship headed for the rocks of economic ruin and it has come too near them already to be saved by a change of course.

There is a great deal of pleasure to be had from contemplating future disaster, especially when one can claim not only to have foreseen it (unlike most of the blind and benighted people by whom one is surrounded), but when it will be on a vast and horrific scale. Man is the only species that derives consolation and even delight from the contemplation of its own extinction. Who has not thrilled to news of the emergence of viruses of unheard-of virulence, or of asteroids which, should they collide with Earth, will send Homo sapiens the way of all dinosaurs? A film I once saw treated almost with joyous anticipation the period after nuclear war when the insects would inherit the Earth. The problem with global warming as a catastrophe is that it is too slow to capture our imagination. If it takes place at all it will give us time to adapt and might even bring us advantages, such as a long growing season in Greenland. Even if some Pacific atolls disappear, there will be Norwegian vintages and Patagonian tropical fruits; lemons will grow in Siberia. To delight us, disasters must be unequivocally disastrous.


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