When you were twenty-seven you opened a big white envelope.
This is a vague but necessary point and a light will be shined upon it.
First, meet the Dani, the last culture to make first contact with the West.
Dani was also the name of the girl who taught you how to steal.
The Dani are from New Guinea and were a warlike people. Stop.
The Dani was a culture in the Neolithic tradition.
They discovered the West in 1930.
Before they were pacified by the Dutch in ’61, they passed the time with bloody wars.
How else could they punctuate their dreary lives. Stop.
How else could they make up their minds?
A war would end only when it rained or fell dark.
The victors gathered booty from the battlefield.
They called what they found “dead birds.”
When you were twenty-seven you lived in Paris, France.
You taught English to businessmen and that’s how you got by.
You took the Métro and emerged in the suburbs where they were trying on new ways of
Everything a plaza unless it was a highrise.
Your students only wanted to talk about what they did on their summer vacations.
Franck raced Go-Karts.
Bartholomew trekked across the Sahara.
He rode a camel and pretended there wasn’t a car filled with water behind him.
Today the Dani stage mock wars to impress their women.
They spend their days raising pigs and sweet potatoes.
The men are naked except for codpieces made from gourds.
These “phallocrypts” can be bought on the World Wide Web for under a hundred dollars.
Some are up to two feet long.
A string belt around the waist holds them at attention.
The nudity of the Dani makes them hard sells for Development.
This is true even though cannibalism has been outlawed in the tribe for some time.
Here in the West we don’t eat each other unless we have to.
Franck was a bastard and asked you out several times.
You told him you weren't interested in Go-Karts, and soon after he switched teachers.
There was a woman named Isabelle who cried when she couldn’t figure out how to say
something in English.
Dani was from the other side of Montana Avenue and didn’t get a clothing allowance.
You lied to her about what you said you stole.
After you opened the white envelope you told some people what was in it.
Some of them haven’t treated you the same since.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was from a prominent family but gave up his fortune to live the simple life of a philosopher and schoolteacher and to design Modernist doorknobs.
According to the World Wide Web, not as many people as you'd expect have actually given up their fortunes.
Alice Oliphant gave up her fortune and entered the Brocton monastery, and Saint Katharine Drexel also gave up her fortune to become a nun.
Jeanne Le Ber was a society girl who in 1682 gave up her fortune and freedom for a life of hair-shirts. Stop.
Jeanne Le Ber gave up the prescribed and highly ritualized life of a society girl in 17th-century France for the prescribed and highly ritualized life of the convent.
“Ben Hur must have been a true convert to Christianity, since he gave up his fortune to save Christ from being crucified!!!”
St. Julien le Pauvre is a quaint 13th-century church not far from Notre Dame. According to the guide, a Frenchman gave up his fortune to found the church as penance for accidentally killing his parents.
Of course these are only a few of the people who have given up their fortunes for religion, only the famous ones, or the ones whose fortunes were very large.
The list grows shorter when you take religion out of the picture; there are philosophers like Wittgenstein, but also the Cynics before him.
Crates of Thebes gave up his fortune and made it his mission to castigate vice and pretense; he shunned bathing as a luxury and when he walked up into town everyone held their breath.
If you look up the Greek word "cynic" you'll find out it means "like a dog."
Schindler was a “flawed but righteous man” who gave up his fortune to save some Jews.
Charles Garland gave up his fortune for the establishment of the American Fund for Public Service.
Matthew Lawrence was a venture capitalist and oil tycoon. In the mid-1980s, he gave up his fortune under the philanthropic notion of giving back to the community. He later became an award-winning language professor.
There was a girl you remember reading about in the paper who gave up her million-dollar fortune as a statement. She became a minor media sensation a few years back but you haven't been able to dig up her name.
A glass of milk
a cigarette but not both
Tom Cruise has been dubbed the Christ of the Church of Scientology, according to its leaders.
In Europe Scientologists are persecuted but in Los Angeles they own more property than God.
When you were looking for an apartment in Hollywood you found out how many of the buildings were owned by the Church; there were always low-level Scientologists hanging around the dumpsters in dirty frocks.
Outside a bar once you saw hundreds of them climb onto an unmarked white bus at 5:00 a.m.
The reason you were at a bar at 5:00 a.m. was your job as a set-decorator for the movies.
You once occupied the former address of a high-level Scientologist who'd neglected to forward his mail. You were tempted to order one of the three-cassette-tape advancement courses but you couldn’t spare the thousand bucks.
That address was in Baltimore, where your job was to teach Composition at the community college. The movie job was in Hollywood, of course.
For much less than a thousand dollars, you can buy Dianetics, which provides “a thoroughly validated method that increases sanity, intelligence, confidence and well-being” and “gets rid of the unwanted sensations, unpleasant emotions and psychosomatic ills that block one’s life and happiness.”
To advance in Scientology, you have to turn your back on anyone who will hinder your progress toward your goals—sick parents, needy friends, persons to whom you might owe a debt of gratitude.
You have heard that the concept of guilt is a product of religion, but you don’t know where religion got the idea.
Walter Benjamin said that all history is the history of guilt; to advance in Scientology you have to become a-historical. Stop.
The kind of guilt that Scientology seems to alleviate has its origins in the West, so does that mean the allure of a-historicity is also Western in origin?
Of course the concept of guilt goes back at least to the Sumerians, but that was the kind of specific guilt that could be relieved by punishment, and only in 12th-century Europe was the concept of ineradicable guilt swallowed whole.
There is another tribe from New Guinea called the Massim, in which the villagers are fully clothed and base their society on the gesture of responsibility toward one’s neighbors.
In Baltimore your neighbors were all white like you but at the community college you stuck out in the halls. The students called you Miss and you couldn’t do a thing to stop them.
From the Church of Scientology Web site you can sign up for a course on Personal Integrity and Value, which teaches you how not to compromise your ambition by cow-towing to the needs of others. The course goes for five to six days, part-time, and has no prerequisites.
but not both
When tourists attend a Dani pig roast, participants are compensated with an entry fee.
In translation, compensation refers to the attempt to make up for untranslatability between tongues. For example, by replacing rhyme, less prevalent in some languages than others, with alliteration. Or inventing a pun in line ten of a translation because the pun in line five proved impossible to render.
In the West the concept compensation is often linked to the concept paycheck. Or payback, in the case of accidents, wrongdoing, lawsuits, and the like.
In the East, the notion of Karma seems linked to the idea of compensation. At least, that's the understanding we have of it in the West.
We tend to have the idea that according to the laws of Karma, a deed committed in one life will be punished or rewarded in another. Of course this is essentially a Catholic idea and Karma, the literal meaning of which is “work,” is a more complicated thing altogether.
The work ethic called Protestant, or sometimes Puritan or Calvinist, was thought by Max Weber to have laid the foundations for Capitalism. It did so by encouraging the accumulation of wealth through its paradoxical emphases on asceticism and material success. Compensation was to be distributed in the afterlife. Stop.
When you learn about the Calvinists, you're told they believed in predestination, that a person was saved or not from the day she was born. You could not, then, earn your salvation through good works; but success in work was a sign of being chosen.
According to Weber, the human trait that evolved to compensate for this lack of control over one’s fate was the trait of Self-Confidence. Because no priest could assure you that you were saved, you had to convince yourself.
The Calvinist paradox was that even as material success was a quasi-sign of salvation, conspicuous consumption still was seen as a sin. This, according to Weber, led to a culture of investment, in which the amassing of discreetly guarded wealth became the rage.
Scientology, on the other hand, seems to act as an apology for conspicuous consumption. Formally, it borrows from Calvin, though, with Celebrity acting as the sign of salvation and wealth its just reward. Following Weber’s idea that Rationalization replaced the spiritual underpinnings of Calvinism, we could be justified in calling Scientology a kind of Calvinism 2.0.
Your mother taught for decades at a college called Occidental, which was founded in 1887 by Presbyterian clergy and laymen, though it soon dropped its religious affiliation.
While known as a liberal campus, it did not change its name to “Western” even during the height of the Political Correctness movement of the 1990s—though it may have been then that it became increasingly known by its nickname, Oxy.
Barack Obama went to Oxy in 1979 but transferred to Columbia after two years. In 1979, the second-wave feminists were deep in their fight for equal pay. Your mother’s compensation was never what it should have been.
It's hard to believe that in the West, compensation for women is still so far below par.
A successful Scientologist may receive above-par compensation, a portion of which of course will be distributed among agents, managers, and most likely the Church itself.
You do not know how much the Dani receive in compensation for their pig-roast performance, nor would you venture to guess how it's distributed among them.
Chilly Jilly’s, 1987, $3.35/hr
YMCA Christmas tree delivery, 1987, $4/hr
Café Montana, 1988, $20/shift, plus tips.
The Blue Nile, 1989-1992, $5/hr, plus tips.
Roger Corman productions, 1991. $5/day in lunch money.
Sharkey’s, Summer ’92, $4.75/hr. Tips.
Café Casbar, 1992-93. £1.90/hr. No tips; 20-40 quid per shift, stolen from register.
Model for figure-painting club, 1992-93. £20/hr,tea and cookies during breaks.
Calpirg, summer ’93. $8.50/hr. Gas money.
The Three of Cups, 1993-95. $5/hr? Tips plus free booze.
Eagle Electric Manufacturing, 1994. $15/hr. Temp agency made $30.
Todo Mundo/Luaka Bop Records, 1995-96. $125/day. Free CDs. Lunch.
Cannes Film Festival, 1990s. Room and Board, airfare, Festival accreditation and a per
Metropolitan Languages, 1997. 75 francs/hour. Subsidised Carte Orange for the Métro.
The aforementioned white envelope, 1997. $1000/month in interest. A couple of million
later if the real-estate market holds up.
VH1, 1998. $500/wk. Swag.
Freelance film production, 1998-1999, Various. Craft Services. Free pager.
Commercial acting, 1998. One feminine hygiene commercial, no lines. About $10K
including residuals. SAG-eligibility.
Baltimore City Community College, 2000. $1600 per course per semester. Free parking.
J.Crew, 2000. $25/hr. Occasional samples.
Martha Stewart, 2000-2001. $45K, plus healthcare, 401K, discount gym membership at
Queens College, 2002-2005. About $2,000/course/semester.
ESPN: The Magazine. $35/hr. Friday night pizza. The occasional cab ride home.
Pratt Institute: $3000/course/semester, plus stipend for administrative work ($9K/year).
Office with a view, on loan.
You lost track of Dani’s whereabouts long ago, probably sometime during high school. Since you can’t remember her last name, you won’t be friending her on Facebook soon. You used to think your family wasn't rich because your car was old and dusty and European: an immigrant car. You used to think you weren't rich because during the drought you let your lawn go brown and the neighbors complained that your house was becoming an eyesore. You used to think you were not a wealthy family because your
mother sewed most of her own clothes and when you were six she taught you how to sew for yourself on a hand-cranked Singer from the ’40s. Your first pair of designer jeans were homemade white Sasson’s. They took a couple of weeks to make and they looked just like you'd bought them at the mall. You used to think you couldn’t be rich because your father had unfixable teeth: immigrant teeth. You thought your friend Callie was rich because her parents, who were Catholic, had built an enormous house and the family had to dress for dinner. She had a double bed with a canopy and you had a twin with a cotton bedspread from J.C. Penney. You wore whatever you wanted for dinner and were allowed to read at the table. In your part of LA, there was no category for “intelligentsia.” There were only the rich and fashionable, the fashionable who aspired to be rich, and the rest.
In your next life you won’t open it
In your next life you will give it away.
In your next life you will take advantage of it.
In your next life you will be ready.
In your next life you will burn it.
Anna Moschovakis teaches at the Pratt Institute. This selection is from the section IN SEARCH OF WEALTH in You and Three Others are Approaching a Lake (Coffee House Press, 2011).