Real heroes seldom look like their predecessors or textbook models. Ben Shalom Bernanke reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s Dormouse. Small, bald, pepper-and-salt bearded, his voice repressed toward monotone, this ex-student of the Talmud, son of a Dillon, SC pharmacist and a school teacher, taught himself calculus, got the highest SAT scores in his state, worked as a waiter to help put himself through his Harvard summa cum laude BA and, according to a friend of mine who knows him, endured and clearly overcame serious personal phobic crises. Out of this human swirl emerged a Roland, a Galahad, a non-Heston El Cid, who under enormous pressure led to the making of a decision that may well have saved the world economy from plunging into a black hole. Through light and dark hours, estimating the consequences of not acting or acting poorly, gathering with other dedicated guardians of the economy, he helped work out the decision to keep Bear Stearns from the collapse whose blasted filaments would almost surely have brought on economic catastrophe. To hear him on April 2 and 3 responding to the well-informed, often belligerent, often self-serving “inquiries” of congressmen, one saw the epitome of thoughtful, forceful, knowledgeable reason. None of the egocentric self-flaunting, mean-spirited boastfulness of some of his questioners (my least favorite, the ex-great pitcher, Jim Bunning of Kentucky). Here we had the true civil servant at his best, a model, as far as I’m concerned, for the person who under pressure makes crucial decisions.
As I listen with familiar but renewed joy to a fine pianist (Cecile Licad) play Chopin’s G Minor Ballade (Opus 23), some of the human strength which has been drained these last weeks from my old body, flowed in, and I felt the luck of being left with the genial inventions and creations of human genius. In his way, little Ben Bernanke was helping create the conditions out of which such creations and inventions come.
I’d been having trouble finding something truly engaging to read, but three days ago, dropped the poorly written new book that hadn’t drawn me in and took up two old favorites, the prose of George Orwell and the stories of W.S. Maugham. I read Orwell on Mark Twain as a “licensed jester,” his portion of Voltairean disgust and outrage muted by his enchantment with success and by the prudential decorum of his wife, his brilliance surviving largely in his portraits of an age otherwise irrecoverable. A harsher judgment than my own but as always in Orwell, the sense that a high, independent intelligence has made one that had to be considered. Then Maugham: two stories of the far east, “A Vessal of Wrath” and “Flotsam and Jetsam.” The exactitude and surprise of observation, the unexpected, piquant detail and the powerful underplayed feeling for the happy, Dutch hedonist who runs the Malaysian colony or against the hate-charged, failing rubber plantation whose hating couple welcomes the malaria-struck white man who’s carried into their home took me thousands of miles and hours away from the markets Bernanke and company had saved and I could hardly wait to see what would happen to the puritanical evangelist who brings the dissolute Ginger Ted to the malaria-struck island although terrified that he will rape her or what had driven the couple in the other house to remain together despite the hatred that colored every inch of the air around them.
But lesser Maugham stories tired me, so I took up Anna Karenina and rose into narrative sublimity, just reading here and there about Dolly and her children, Levin working with the peasants, Anna’s amazing stream of consciousness as she heads for the railroad station and her suicide. I wish I knew Russian so that I could relish, say, what the brilliant D.S. Mirsky says about Tolstoy’s style (its combination of idiomatic Russian nobleman speech and complex French syntax) but there is enough here for a thousand enchanted readings.
Finally, a film, the amazing There Will Be Blood, with a central portrait unmatched by anything I’ve seen in film including Citizen Kane, Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview. I haven’t read the book on which Paul Andersen’s script is based, Upton Sinclair’s Oil, but I suspect it is an attack on capitalism and religion. The film could be reduced to such “meaning,” but that would be like reducing Ben Bernanke into a standard bureaucrat and Tolstoy into another merely excellent writer.