Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Quoted for Truth

My old economics professor used to tell a story, I don't know whether it's a true story but I suspect that it isn't.  He told me the story in a tutorial but I also heard him telling it at department parties and so on and sometimes I would linger to witness the reaction of whoever he was telling it to, because it's sort of unpleasant.  To watch them sigh or squirm or generally give him a look as if to say “Why the fuck did you just tell me that?”
So there's this painter, a post-abstract-expressionist painter who was big in the sixties and seventies but his importance undergoes a reappraisal and he keeps working but his paintings won't shift.  He's a drug user and supports a couple of ex-wives so despite his early success he's broke.  One day he goes to visit the gallery owner who shows his paintings and asks him for an advance against some pieces he's working on and the gallery owner tells him the last thing he needs is any more work because no-one wants to buy his stuff any more.  “I can't give you a loan,” he says, “but I will tell you this.  Five of the world's most expensive whiskies come from one distillery.  And it closed down years ago.”  The artist thinks about this as he walks home.  He's desperate so he concocts a plan based on the idea that his paintings will be worth more when he's dead.  He stretches every inch of canvas in his studio and uses every last bit of paint he has to fill them.  It's an extraordinary flowering of creativity.  Then he borrows a car from an old friend, a fellow user who owes him a favour, and drives it into a concrete pillar at seventy miles an hour.

He doesn't die.  Somehow his drug-addled body survives the impact, but only just.  He's paralysed from the neck downwards.  He has no insurance and someone has to pay for his care.  Reluctantly his family come to his aid.  They try to sell the paintings in his studio.  He's as good as dead, after all, he can never work again.  But his reputation is further blighted by what looks like a cynical attempt to cash in on his own mortality and with all the new pieces  suddenly available his existing work starts to depreciate and his new stuff is basically unsellable.  He lives out the rest of his days crippled, and along with his wives and children, impoverished.  
At this point the Professor would look at his audience and savour their confusion.  If they were expecting to be amused or uplifted they'd come to the wrong man.  He'd pause for as long as he thought he could get away with it before delivering his punchline.
“So the moral of the story is: you can cheat death but you can't cheat the market.”

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