"God's Frozen People"

Mouths gaped open at the meeting of the “Awakening of the Faith” group at the local Catholic church on Friday. Pere Marchand, a priest who tries to be both politically and doctrinally correct, criticized the Christmas program put on by the youth group as “passe-ist” and “nostalgist.” Strange comments from someone who practices his profession in a building that dates back 1,000 years… whose creed has been barely altered for 12 centuries… and who serves a man who’s been dead for two millenia.

In a scene that has been re-enacted all over Christendom, Pere Marchand desperately wants to face the future rather than the past. More than that, he wants to be almost hip or cool — at least by the standards of a 55-year-old Catholic cleric in a forgotten rural area of France.

I was not there myself. The division of labor in the Bonner household leaves Elizabeth in charge of ecclesiastical matters. She reported that the priest’s complaint was almost exactly the same as the one we had heard from our Episcopalian minister in Maryland — that the parishioners were a bunch of moss-backed, hidebound conservatives, who must be dragged by the clergy into the modern world. Our shepherd in Maryland referred to his flock as “God’s Frozen People.”

In England, the clergy has arranged “Raves in the Knaves,” inviting rock bands to perform in the cathedrals. In America, ministers forsake the backward collar in favor of more casual wear. And here in France, too, those who desire nothing more than to continue to practice the traditions of their faith that have been little changed since the council of Nicea in 325 AD, are hectored to move on… to modernize… to get with the times.

I tried to think of some plausible connection between this reflection and financial issues. I puzzled over it while the children squirmed and our other priest, Pere Blot, gave his sermon on Sunday. I could think of nothing.

But while I was cogitating, I noticed a cold wind blowing against my back. It is nothing new to be cold in these unheated, stone edifices in early January. But it is unusual to feel the wind blowing as though you are in the middle of an open field.

The source of the ventilation turned out to be a stained glass window blown out by the recent storm. I examined it carefully. It was a picture of St. Martin. Handsome in his beard and robes… regal with his crosier and confident gaze — it was a shame his lower half was in shards.

The window bore the date 1899. But not all the stained glass windows in the church of St. Marcel are so old. A couple of them must have been replaced during the last few years, or maybe the ’70s. They are of a very different style. In fact, they are like so many stained glass windows you see in America — like a painting by Mondrian, whose work foreshadowed the “geometric abstraction” school. The shards of colored glass in these more modern windows also are arranged in patterns. But the patterns are quite simple. They look like the work of a child. Compared to those of 1899, they are amateurish, crude… and ugly.

I imagine the art historian of the, say, 22nd century. Touring the church with a group of students, what comments might he make? Would the church still be in business? And how would he judge the artistic achievements of our time?

There is no way to know what the future will bring, of course… neither in stock prices nor in esthetic trends. But it seems likely to me that the Mondrian windows will be either knocked out and replaced… or regarded as an unfortunate aberration. Our century will be seen as incredibly bloody… and absurdly ugly.

Art and religion are natural things. They mutate and evolve over time. But most mutations in nature are dead-ends. They are sterile — like mules — incapable of further growth and development.

Many mutations were attempted in the 20th century — an extraordinary number by historical standards. People had the time and money to experiment. I, personally, built an experimental house in my youth — constructed of ferro-cement and half-buried in the ground. I was quite happy with it. But Elizabeth hated it. We later built another one — along neo-classical lines — and lived there happily.

On a tour of the Peabody Conservatory of Music across the street from our office in Baltimore, I remarked that a particularly ugly new wing reminded me of the Kennedy Center.

“Same architect,” said my guide. “Edward Durrell Stone. And the roof leaks, just like the Kennedy Center.”

Over many centuries of human experiment, people discovered that pitched roofs leaked less often than flat ones. They are also more attractive to the human eye, in my opinion. Modern architects (myself included… in the amateur category) felt that they would be liberated from the old constraints by new materials. But the flat roofs, often, still leaked.

Architects refined the structural column over many centuries. Since the time of Pericles it has become a thing of grace and beauty. But the architect of the Kennedy Center, not wishing to be accused of being stuck in the past, decided to hold up the roof with some kind of steel pipe. The effect is that of a cardboard box with the flaps propped up with steel chopsticks. The Kennedy Center is cut off from the architectural wisdom of 25 centuries. It seemed excitingly new and adventuresome when it was built in the 60s. But now, like the Mondrian windows — it is a garish and vulgar aberration — shrill, like Frankie Valli singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”

Pere Marchand thinks he is being modern and hip. But he is already hopelessly out of date. The “modernist” tide upon which the Kennedy Center floated until it came to rest on the banks of the Potomac… and on which the clergy hopes sail now… has already reached whatever glory it will ever achieve. The waters are flowing in another direction now. The young people of the parish — and there are not many of them — find the “modern” to be old fashioned and pathetically demode. They look to the future… and find it in the pre-modern past. They chose the old, pre-Vatican II, pre-1965 hymns for their Christmas service.

When a mutation fails, it dies. It is either sloughed off by nature… or pruned back by God… depending upon how you look at it. Growth continues, though, sprouting from the healthy roots.

The young are abandoning modernism. Where they are going, I do not know. But the young people of our parish seem to be picking up where the 19th century left off… rediscovering the wisdom and beauty of the evolved art, religion, architecture and manners before WWI.

I wish them Godspeed.

Bill Bonner

Paris, France January 10, 2000

*** The markets were lively last week. There were signs that the Rocket Chips were falling back to earth, while the broader market was taking off.

*** The big question: Is the bear market over? This takes a bit of explaining. Most people think we’ve been in a spectacular bull market ever since the earth cooled.

*** But most stocks have been going down since April of ’98… while the market leaders — Big Caps, techs & nets — soared.

*** Last week, the trends reversed. The Nasdaq — home of most of the market leaders, what I’ve called “The Rocket Chips” — went down 4.59%. But most stocks went up. There were 1841 advancing stocks, versus 1657 declining ones — on the NYSE.

*** Friday confused things a bit — with the Dow rising 269 points. And the Nasdaq up 155 (the biggest one-day gain in Nasdaq history.) There were actually more stocks hitting new highs than new lows, too.

*** Even Amazon went up $4, proving that dead internet cats bounce just like other felines. Amazon, however, at $69 is still well below its price, $92, a year ago.

*** So what’s going on? Well, I predicted that the gap between the market leaders and the rest of the market would narrow. That is almost certain to continue. It could close, of course, with a new bull market in the majority of stocks, while the leaders remain stable.

*** Or, there could be a real bear market in the Rocket Chips… while the run-of-the-mill stocks gain ground.

*** Or, the Rocket Chips could crash and bring the whole market down with it. And the economy too.

*** Your guess is as good as mine. But I think the Rocket Chips are out of gas and out of luck. I don’t believe it is possible for them to sustain their current wacky price levels.

*** Rick Maybury passes along a Sacramento Bee report saying that even the porno sites are having trouble making money on the internet. If you can’t trust them to keep profit margins up — what hope is there?

*** The entire Cabinet of Ecuador resigned over the weekend after the currency, the sucre, fell 20% during the week. The President announced that the sucre would henceforth be linked to the dollar, at the rate of 25,000 to one. (Sucres to dollars, that is.) Anyone hoping to buy something in Ecuador might want to make his move now.

*** They’re moving holidays around in Japan to try to create more 3-day weekends and stimulate consumer spending. Consumers in Japan are on another planet from Americans. Their spending is falling — by about 3% annually.

*** Seen on the Paris metro this morning, a twisted, T- shirt version of the Four Seasons’ 1962 hit song: “Dead Girls Don’t Cry.” This is the kind of black humor that may be laundered out by the feminizing enthusiasm of the coming century.

*** Meanwhile, Russian troops are trying to subdue the Chechnyans. “Remember Stalingrad,” their commanders warn, recalling the costly house-to-house conditions of the WWII battle. And the Chechnyans are finding some success penetrating Russian lines and attacking positions believed to be secured.

*** There is a group called “Mothers of Soldiers” who give voice to the feminine concerns of the coming age. They say over 2,000 Russian soldiers have been killed. Moscow says only half that number have fallen.

*** Another sign of the risk-averse, feminizing trend can be found on the Atlantic beaches of France. The Herald Tribune reports that an enraged Frenchman told a reporter that he would send the government a bill for a new pair of boots, after his became fouled by the oil that leaked out of a sinking tanker. The government is now responsible for everything.

*** And here’s another. Bill King reports that “high- profile divorce attorney, Raoul Felder,” is going to court in Westchester Co, NY, to have new resident, Bill Clinton, registered as a sex offender.

*** It was not a quiet weekend out in the country. Every chainsaw in private hands was in use as people sawed up the debris from the holiday storms. There is so much wood on the ground that the local wood market has collapsed. Sawmills, which paid good money for large saw logs a month ago, now have to be begged, and of course paid, to haul them away.

The Daily Reckoning