An Ear for Bull
Synopsis: Journalists have begun their annual end-of-the-year efforts at prognosticating for 2018. But the pictures they are painting give me the impression that they really have no idea.
He walked torpidly through the sun-filled alleys, the cafes crammed with peasants and patricians alike. As usual these days, he was struck by the colors, swirling dresses of red and bright blue smocks that blossomed with the occasional breath of wind. There were straw hats and multicolored umbrellas to keep off the sun. It was a warm fall day in Provence and all the hues and pageantry of the local Rice Festival were on display for him.
In the middle of this tinted landscape the arena stood stony, silent and drab. Noise and light surrounded it as bands played and people drank, but the arena, the place where the bulls went to fight and die stood foreboding and cold. He felt himself float up the staircase, to the entrance and through the old Roman archways to his seat.
Once settled, another bonanza of color began as picadors, banderillos and toreros marched in, adorned in primary shades, flashing capes and glinting steel. The bulls came on, gray or brown muscles rippling and white horns flashing in the afternoon sun. The music came to him too, Paso Dobles and long sad trumpet solos that reinforced the nobility of the bull and the tragedy of his demise. The crowd roared approval or groaned with disappointment and the day passed happily.
It was good for him to be there, at the bullfight where the rules were so well-defined. Ordinarily, he lived in a state of perpetual blur, an impression of reality where nothing was so clear as it was today, in this arena. Bulls would come, they would charge, and they would be sacrificed in a manner that was hundreds of years old. And when a torero distinguished himself he would be presented with the ear of his vanquished foe. It was refreshing for him to know how events would end. The predictability was so unlike his life outside the walls.
The day was late now, the last of the bulls lay prone in the sand. The sun had scampered behind gray-black clouds and he heard approaching thunder. As the music swelled and the colors whirled about him he watched the last torero lift a leathery ear overhead in triumph. He noticed that a lone drop of crimson had spattered the man’s fine silvery suit. Then there was another peal of thunder and the crowd began to melt away. He felt an overwhelming sense of loss, of desperation. It was over. He couldn’t be sure of anything again. He felt the rain drip on his neck as he closed his eyes and the world went dark. It was over.
“Monsieur?” Someone was shaking him
He felt himself coming up from the blackness, sleep ebbing way. Where he usually saw colors and shapes no one else did, now he saw nothing. No light. He heard the voices penetrating like sirens in the darkness. They spoke with authority, chopped sentences full of importance, they were unmistakably French. And just as unmistakably, they were police. He sighed inwardly, what had he done that had brought the town police out on a cold December day, two days before Christmas?
“Mon dieu!” one of them gasped.
“Blood!” another voice announced.
“Is he dead?” No one answered and that made him wonder. Was he dead? Is this the eternal darkness? For some reason he couldn’t quite fathom, he didn’t think so. But so much of the last few months had been a haze, a swirling mass of color without form or shape. Confusing, yes, but exhilarating. It had been the most prolific period of his life, but also the most mystifying. Which was why he often dreamt of the bullfight, of outcomes that were clear and inevitable. His eyes opened and the two policemen took a step back.
One pointed, his face a pale white. “Monsieur, your ear!” His ear? And then knew. Fingering his neck, he knew it wasn’t rain he’d felt and he knew that this time it hadn’t been the bulls ear that was cut.
He looked at the men in his room, the blood on his hands and knew he had done something quite insane. He smiled sheepishly. “My name is Van Gogh. I am an artist.”
The Frenchmen exchanged a knowing glance. “An artist you say? Well, at least that makes some sense.”
Vincent Willem van Gogh, was a little-known painter renting a room in Arles and rendering sunflowers from the surrounding fields. His career seemingly a bust, he had retreated to the south of France to start an artist’s colony. But he feuded with his compatriots, most notably Paul Gaugin and lapsed into deep despair. After lopping off part of his ear on December 23rd, 1888 he wrapped it up as a gift for the cleaning woman of a nearby brothel and checked into a mental institution. Unfortunately, his bouts with dementia and depression weren’t over. Two years later he shot himself, and died at the age of 37.
Van Gogh made groundbreaking art out of the swirling uncertainty of life, but it also ate away at his sanity. Those of us who don’t quite take it as far as he did due to his illness still seek surety in life, and many of us are frustrated at not knowing the how the future will play out. Which is why a few days before Christmas this year, journalists started artfully piecing together their narratives about the predictive powers of this or that, going into 2018.
One such story discussed “The Santa Claus Rally,” or the ‘usual’ modest rise in stocks to close out the year. According to The Wall Street Journal’s Market Data Group over the last twenty years the S&P 500 has been up 0.9% on average over the last five trading days of the year and the first two of January. However…
“It’s tough to know what will happen this time around. In the most recent five years, for example, the S&P 500 has fallen twice and risen three times. But it bears watching if for no other reason than because the absence of the Santa rally has in the past preceded a bear market, or at least a pullback in stock prices…(T)he S&P dropped 3% as 2014 turned to 2015. Later that year, a commodities bust left the index down for the year. A 2.3% fall going into 2016 also preceded a winter correction, though the stock market recovered and ended the year higher. Coming into 2017, the S&P had a Santa Claus rally of 0.4%, and the index is now up nearly 20% on the year.”
Confused? Me too. Perhaps the article should have just ended after stating “it is hard to know what will happen this time around.” At least that makes some sense. Instead we are informed that whenever there is no Santa Claus Rally, sometimes the market is up and sometimes it is down. Which tells us nothing, except that it isn’t just tough to know what will happen this time, it is impossible. Trying to form a clear narrative to the contrary isn’t art, it is a jumbled mess. It is madness.
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