Can Debt Feel Like Inheritance?

Issues of debt are so present in our lives and the news. Here’s a brief excerpt from The Secret Life of Money that discusses one aspect of debt.

There is an uncanny resemblance between debt and inheritance. For example, money received by borrowing feels much like money received by inheritance. We receive something for which we do not work; our present resources are increased and we are better off. Of course an inheritance does not have to be repaid, while debt does. But repayment is a future consideration; in the moment of receiving the money we are like heirs, we are richer than we were before. 

William Thackeray, the contemporary of Charles Dickens, made the following observation about debt in Vanity Fair: “Everybody in Vanity Fair must have remarked how well those live who are comfortably and thoroughly in debt; how they deny themselves nothing; how jolly and easy they are in their minds.” While Thackeray is satiric, he certainly captures the sense in which debtors may imagine themselves to be heirs — at least, until the time when the debt must be paid.

Even the story of John Dickens languishing in debtor’s prison shows the peculiar similarity between debt and inheritance. Dickens had been imprisoned in Marshalsea for a little over two months when his mother died at the age of 79. In her will she gave her son 450 pounds, more than enough to pay off all of Dickens’ debts and let him and his family begin a new life. On May 28th John Dickens walked out of Marshalsea a free man — an heir and not a debtor. While John Dickens never returned to debtors’ prison, his son Charles carried the burden of that experience for the rest of his life: “My whole nature was so penetrated with the grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life.”

The Nourishment of Fiction

Firmin by Sam Savage is a wonderful read, especially for bibliophiles.

It’s no accident that Firmin’s name rhymes with vermin, since he is indeed a rat. Born in the basement of a Bostonbookstore at 3:17 P.M. on April 30, 1961, Firmin is the unfortunate thirteenth member of his mom’s litter. Since she can only feed twelve at a time and Firmin is the runt, he is reduced to eating books instead of drinking his mother’s milk. So he is nurtured by gnawing on Finnegan’s Wake and soon comes to imagine that his adventurousness comes from devouring Moby Dick and his sense of being a strange outcast results from turning Don Quixote into confetti.

 Firmin, of course, is a good stand-in for any author learning his craft. His developing imaginative life lets him distinguish among various authors by the texture and taste of the books on which he gorges. His mother and siblings eventually vanish, but he remains in the bookstore that is his birthright and home. When he discovers an equally solitary sales clerk in the bookstore, Firmin dreams of a friendship that could transcend their differences.

Unfortunately, this section of Boston is to undergo urban renewal and the bookstore is to be torn down. How Firmin deals with this and the other challenges of his life make for a touching, inventive, and wonderful read. The loveliness of a rat with a writer’s sensibility is brought home to each copy of the book by a neat graphic device: the right side of the book has literally been gnawed away. So we better ingest this marvelous stuff quickly or a hungry rat may fill himself first!

The Desire Not to Write

Phillip Roth recently retired from writing. His career, started in 1959, has spanned five decades and included thirty-one novels. Nearing 80 (next March), Roth has had enough of writing.

“The struggle with writing is over.” That’s what he wrote on the note attached to his refrigerator. He no longer has to face the daily creative struggle.

What is a loss for his readers is a relief for him. As he says, “I look at that note every morning, and it gives me strength.”

The desire not to do something can be very powerful. Creativity is a wonder on the best days, a misery on the worst, and a struggle on almost every day. What creative person hasn’t thought at one time or another that it would be a blessing to stop. To simply say, “No more,” and turn one’s back on the demands of the psyche.

It will be interesting to see if Phillip Roth really can retire. In a way, I’m rooting for him to succeed. Isn’t five decades long enough to devote to any career? Hasn’t he accomplished more than enough?

“I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration,” Roth observes. “Writing is a frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” And that’s if you’re one of the best hitters in the game.

To allow for the cessation of an activity that has received so much of one’s life energy is a brave attempt to create the new. What shape will the new take in the case of Phillip Roth or any of us who dare to allow space and time for the unfamiliar to enter our lives? Roth suggests that friendships, entertaining company, will be more part of his life. For the rest of us, if we ever face a similar challenge and opportunity, the answer is unknown, unfathomable, and worthy of at least a bit of speculation.

Do Dreams Tell the Future?

I just finished reading An Experiment with Time by J. W. Dunne. First published in 1927 and reissued in 2001 with an introduction by physicist Russell Targ, An Experiment in Time argues that some of our dreams reveal the future. This precognition is not the ability of a limited number of psychic adepts, but according to Dunne is the birthright of all humanity.

Dunne gives a number of examples of precognitive dreams from his own experience. Then he brings his scientific training (he was one of the early aeronautical engineers) to bear on developing meaningful tests and experiments for whether dreams can indeed foretell bits of the future. Much of the book is devoted to relativity theory and the nature of time in an effort to show that time—including the past and future—are not fixed in the way that our day-to-day awareness would expect.

To be meaningful, the correspondence of images between the dreaming and waking states would need to have statistical significance. J. B. Rhine devised experiments for telepathy from which statistically significant results could be derived. Dunne’s experiments have elements of subjectivity that makes such statistical significance elusive and, at best, uncertain.
Another challenge to the book is why dreams must be harnessed to such a practical purpose as foreseeing the future. The purpose, and value, of dreams will be a topic for future blogs.

Ariadne by Giorgio de Chirico, Metropolitan Museum of Art, photograph by wallyg, used by Creative Commons license.

Should Rapists Have Child Visitation Rights?

I find the question shocking, because the answer to me is obviously no. But the laws of a majority of the states allow for a rapist to demand visitation rights just like any father. This travestry is especially worth looking at in an election year when the Republicans promise an end to Roe v. Wade and generally are hostile to women on the many health care issues relating to contraception and abortion.

A woman who is raped has three choices. She can place her baby for adoption. She can have an abortion. Or she can raise this child of rape as her own. If the mother gives up the pregnancy by abortion or the baby by adoption, she will never have to deal with the rapist again once she testifies in the trial that sends him to prison. But if the mother chooses, as many loving women do, to raise this child, she may be the one who has to defend herself in court when the rapist demands rights of visitation.

Basically, a rapist has the same rights to visitation as any father unless the state has enacted a law cutting off those rights. The majority of states have not enacted such a law as discussed in an excellent law review article in The Georgetown Law Journal. That every state should have such a law is apparent.

The legal travesty that in many states a victim of rape who chooses to mother can be sued and haunted by her rapist suggests the need for a look at the larger picture of women’s issues and needs in the context of the election campaigns. There is no such thing as “legitimate rape” and women’s bodies don’t simply take care of avoiding pregnancy when a rape occurs. While I have sympathy for women who imagine that a Republican president could create a better economy with more jobs (although this is wishful thinking since tax cuts for the rich will do nothing to help the middle class), I don’t think these women could possibly recall what it was like before Roe v. Wade if a woman needed an abortion.

Also, women’s issues are economic issues. Motherhood has enormous financial consequences. If contraception is restricted as much as possible (will it be covered by health plans, for example) and the overturning of Roe v. Wade makes abortion illegal, a woman’s risk of mothering against her will is greatly increased. To try and take this decision out of the hands of women makes as little sense as allowing a rapist to demand visitation rights with the child of the victimized woman.

This election could do great damage to women. I certainly hope that an informed electorate won’t allow that to happen.

Can You Afford to Sue for Copyright Theft?

Writers, artists, designers, photographers and many small businesses are effectively unable to sue for copyright infringement because of the very high costs of litigation in federal court. To remedy this, bills have been proposed from time to time to give special treatment to small copyright claims so that creativity is protected for everyone and not just big corporations.

The Copyright Office will be holding public hearings in November 2012 with respect to small copyright claims. Additional information is available at

If you or an organization to which you belong want to testify with respect to these potential reforms, the deadline for requests to participate in the public hearings is Thursday, October 25, 2012.

Solace for a Retreating Napoléon?

“Can you imagine the terrible retreat from Moscow, stumbling men in uniforms of rags freezing by the thousands while the emperor sips champagne in his cozy tent?”—from A Floating Life by Tad Crawford

Napoléon visited the caves of Moët and Chandon to stock up on champagne before his campaigns, including the catastrophic attack on Russia. The disparity of treatment between the emperor and his soldiers fueled Tolstoy’s desire to write War and Peace. The photograph of the caves is by Giulio Nepi [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Does Baseball Have a Role in Murakami’s Creativity?

This blog post is part of a series exploring why Haruki Murakami’s “mesmerizing fantasies offer a tonic to a culture overly enmeshed in the realities of the day to day.” In my last post I discussed the remarkable fact that Murakami’s epiphany, his realization that he could be a novelist, came at a baseball game.

The circumstances of the epiphany were quite specific. Murakami was enjoying a beer and rooting for his favorite team, the Yakult Swallows, who were playing the Hiroshima Carps. In the bottom of the first inning, with the Swallows batting, Dave Hilton, an American, hit a double to left field. At that moment Murakami realized he could write a novel.

To drink a beer and watch a ball game are pleasures. So, for Murakami, a starting point for his fiction is a place of pleasure. It is also, as I pointed out in my last post, a place removed from everyday concerns and realities. In the particular case of Murakami, it’s interesting and appropriate that an American batter drove the double to left field. Murakami is a writer of the East and West. His fictions are set in Japan, but the influences on his characters are frequently western.

Dave Hilton was born in Uvalde, Texas, on September 15, 1950. Picked in the 1971 draft, he played four seasons for the San Diego Padres before playing three seasons in Japan for the Yakult Swallows and Hanshin Tigers. So Hilton was very much like Murakami, a model for Murakami in the sense that his origin in the west did not prevent him from having success in the east. In fact, 1978 was the year that the Yakult Swallows won the league championship and then the post-season championship.

Murakami remembers him “as the leading hitter that year.” After Murakami’s first novel won the Gunzõ Newcomers Award for 1979, Murakami secured Dave Hilton’s autograph and thought of the ball player as “a lucky charm”. In a way, the ball park and the beer might be thought of as the containing space and the intoxicating beverage in a ritual of creative initiation. The Texan’s double provided the stimulus to open Murakami to unexplored and immensely productive inner vistas. And, once the Yakult Swallows won the championship that year, how could Murakami fail to win the Gunzõ Newcomers Award the year after?

Meiji Jingu Stadium in Shinjuku, Tokyo, is the home field of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. The photograph is by ROG [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia

Do You Worry about Legal Issues when Selling Art?

This blog post discusses some legal questions that arose when an artist wanted to use discarded New York City subway cards to make a limited edition of forty decks of customized playing cards. With a museum store interested in selling the decks of cards, the artist became concerned over several potential legal issues.

The artist asked for helpful resources and also answers to the following questions: (1) Should the deck of cards be copyrighted? (2) For buildings depicted on the deck of cards, would licenses be necessary from the owners of the buildings? (3) Should the Metropolitan Transit Authority be contacted to license the use of the discarded cards that had been taken from trash receptacles and transformed?

I answered as follows: (1) The card decks don’t have to be copyrighted because the artistic additions to the cards automatically have copyright from the moment the artist creates those additions. While not strictly necessary, the artist would be wise to put
copyright notice on the deck to protect the added artistic elements. In addition, the artist might want to register the deck with the Copyright Office. (2) Buildings in general don’t have copyright or trademark protection so the artist would be free to use images of buildings and wouldn’t need to get a license from the owner of a building. (3) The
subway cards are simply physical objects. Even if they had a copyright notice (which the Metropolitan Transit Authority did not place on the original cards), the purpose of that notice would be to prevent the production of cards that looked like subway cards. Since
the artist is using real cards, there shouldn’t be a problem.

In addition, the artist might want to do some simple documentation with the museum or other parties who receive the decks for sale. This might be a bill of sale or a consignment agreement, depending on the deal. And the artist might consider how to guarantee the limited edition is limited. For example, the artist might want to give a certificate of limitation. Good resources would be Legal Guide for the Visual Artist and, for negotiation checklists and forms on a CD-ROM, Business and Legal Forms for Fine