[In]Securities Guest Blog: In Dreams by Aegis Frumento Esq

March 26, 2020


In Dreams

"We are such stuff," says Prospero the magician in The Tempest, "as dreams are made on."

In his great open letter to his son, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehesi Coates spends most of the book lamenting the inability of African-Americans to live what he calls "The Dream." The Dream is the underlying assumption of being white, that our bodies will not be subjected to random violence. But then, in a remarkable literary turn, Coates reframes his reverie on race consciousness into an existentialist truth:

[Whites] have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world.  . . . . In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.
I am sorry that I cannot save you -- but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life. . . . The fact is that despite their dreams, their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real -- when the police decide that tactics for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities -- they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you be like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life.

As we muddle through yet another week of lockdown here in New York, we are told the worst is yet to come. The apex of the pandemic will not hit New York City hospitals for another three weeks, according to recent projections. Our own vulnerability is about to become more real than ever, as will be our shock.

We could not be prepared for this. We have never seen this before. Most of us have never even read about it before. The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed 675,000 Americans. Adjusted for population, that would have been about 2.2 million today. To those naysayers who still believe that Covid-19 does not compare, reflect that if 40% of the current U.S. population becomes infected and 1.5% of them die of it, the toll will in fact be 2 million dead. And 40% is on the low side of the expected infection rate. 

Our collective Dream did not include a plague. For a hundred years, several generations of us in this country have slumbered on believing that plague and pestilence was the stuff of history, as remote to us as the Black Death. I'm not forgetting the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s. It was horrific, killing about 700,000 and several thousand each year still. But AIDS/HIV never caused generalized quarantines that brought economic life to a standstill, like the Spanish Flu did, like Covid-19 is doing today. This is different, and new to us.

In this week's New Yorker, historian Jill Lepore surveys the literature of pandemics. Like Sherlock Holmes' dog in the night, what's missing is what's curious. There is no great literary treatment of the Spanish Flu. It can't have been for lack of writers. All the literary giants of the 20th Century -- Faulkner, Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos among them -- they all lived through it. And yet not one chose to write about it. 

In the same way, William Shakespeare lived through many lockdowns as the plague shut down London for months at a time almost every year in the early 1600s. There's been some chatter recently about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined in his quarters for several months in 1606. See https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/mar/22/shakespeare-in-lockdown-did-he-write-king-lear-in-plague-quarantine. We've reason to doubt it, and so to dismiss the implied criticism that we aren't similarly productive in our quarantine. James Shapiro explored Shakespeare's doings in 1606 in detail in The Year of Lear, and he thinks King Lear was finished before the plague struck. 

What is true is that Shakespeare no more wrote of the plagues of his day than Hemingway or Faulkner wrote of the Spanish Flu. "Dramatists of the day delved into almost every troubling or taboo subject," writes Shapiro. "But one thing [theatergoers] never saw depicted were plague victims or their symptoms." And so, scholars are reduced to finding passing references to plague in dialogues about other things -- "a plague on both your houses" and the like. 

It's a silly exercise, much like the argument proffered by those who believe the plays were not written by Shakespeare, but by someone else writing under that name. For me, the real lesson of living through a plague is not in the day-to-day monotony of sickness, death and quarantine. It is in what lessons we draw from it about our shared vulnerability as human beings. It is in Lear's epiphany as he stands, not a king but a mere mortal suffering the wild elements, that we learn about plague, about life:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have taken 
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayest shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.

We are, in other words, all in the same boat, and we need to help each other through the storm. Today, when I hear New York's pleas for masks, gowns, ventilators and volunteers, along with its offer to share equipment, staff and knowledge with other states when they face the pandemic later in the year, I think of Lear on the heath. Shakespeare, as he always does, got it just right.

The only serious novel about quarantine written last century was Camus' The Plague, which I am rereading -- because, why not? The hero of the story, Tarrou, could have left Oran before the city was quarantined, but stays to help Dr. Rieux fight the epidemic. "There's no question of heroism in all this," says Dr. Rieux.  "It's a matter of common decency.  [T]he only means of fighting the plague is - common decency." For Dr. Rieux, common decency simply means "doing my job."

Dr. Rieux' job was caring for the sick and dying. In an earlier scene, Tarrou commented that his "job in life [was] giving people chances." "[O]n this earth," he said, "there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences."

We should consider, whenever we hear someone, or ourselves, pass judgment on when the economy should "reopen," or when a potential victim is "too old" to save, or how we should prioritize ventilators, whether we are giving people chances or joining forces with the pestilence. Governor Cuomo reported that hospitals were experimenting hooking 2 patients to one ventilator. I heard from inside one of New York's major hospitals that a few days ago doctors and nurses had successfully hooked up three patients to one ventilator. You can be sure that none of that is covered in the operating manual, and a dozen regulatory requirements were ignored in the doing. But that kind of ingenuity gives people chances against the pestilence. Tarrou and Lear would approve, and so do I.

Edgar Allen Poe purloined Prospero's name for the protagonist of his own Masque of the Red Death. Prince Prospero threw a party for his special friends. He dreamed they were safe inside his fortified walls, designed especially to keep out the plague of the Red Death. So they partied on, sharing in his dream of inviolability, like springbreakers in Ft. Lauderdale, like guests at Mar-a-Lago, oblivious to the pestilence outside. The Red Death, always an uninvited guest, got them anyway. 

The plague got Tarrou in the end too. It may be that by the time this is over, most of us will know someone who will have died. There may not be much we can do about it. But if we are given the opportunity to make choices, I hope we all show the common decency to side with the victims and not to join forces with the pestilence.


Aegis J. Frumento

380 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10168

Aegis Frumento is a partner of Stern Tannenbaum & Bell, and co-heads the firm's Financial Markets Practice. Mr. Frumento represents persons and businesses in all aspects of commercial, corporate and securities matters and dispute resolution (including trials and arbitrations); SEC and FINRA regulated firms and persons on regulatory compliance issues and in SEC and FINRA enforcement investigations and proceedings; and senior executives of public corporations personal securities law and corporate governance matters.  Mr. Frumento also represents clients in forming and registering broker-dealers and registered investment advisers, in developing compliance policies, procedures and controls, and in adopting proper disclosure documents. Those now include industry professionals looking to adapt blockchain technologies to finance and financial market enterprises.

Prior to joining the firm, Mr. Frumento was a managing director of Citigroup and Morgan Stanley, a partner and the head of the financial markets group of Duane Morris LLP, and the managing partner of Singer Frumento LLP.

He graduated from Harvard College in 1976 and New York University School of Law in 1979. Mr. Frumento is a frequent author and speaker on securities law issues, and is often quoted in the media on current securities law developments.

NOTE: The views expressed in this Guest Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of BrokeAndBroker.com Blog.

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