Deep Read | 16 May 2024

Week 4: Inversion of the Retrograde


Hello and welcome to the fourth and final week of the 2024 Deep Read exploration of Hernan Diaz’s Trust. Catch up on Weeks 1, 2, and 3.

We hope Deep Readers in the Santa Cruz area will join us this Sunday, May 19 for a Conversation with Hernan Diaz now at the Kaiser Permanente Arena in Downtown Santa Cruz.

This week, we’re focusing on the final section of the novel, Futures, by Mildred Bevel, the diary Ida Partenza finds and steals from the Bevel Museum at the end of A Memoir, Remembered. Mildred’s diary marks another change in genre and tone in Trust, but one that itself has multiple registers. Futures is many things at once: confessional and secretive, witty and serious, nostalgic and forward-thinking. It is a poetic and experimental cancer journal in which Mildred chronicles the end of her life at a Swiss sanatorium, jotting down daily and nightly musings both banal (“Bathed at length”) and profound (“Distracted by unseen birds unable to break their bondage to their 2 or 4 notes”).

It is also explosive. In it, we discover many secrets that jettison us back to previous sections of the novel, causing us to revisit both major and minor threads that perhaps we had thought we’d left behind. Many readers experience a massive reveal: Mildred was the financial genius at the heart of the Bevel fortune! We also learn many other secrets: Mildred was a modernist aesthete with a quick wit and busy social calendar; Andrew was a criminal inside-trader; Mildred was one of the chief patrons of the avant-garde music of her time …

Indeed, music is key to understanding Trust‘s many secrets. Of the book’s four sections, Futures is the one that invites readers to hear the music of Trust. And if we listen carefully, we can unlock some of Mildred’s secrets. Those of you who attended the Faculty Salon were treated to Professor of Music Dard Neuman‘s performance of the inversion of the retrograde and are well prepared to talk musically about the novel. If you need a bit more of a musical warm-up, Hernan Diaz himself put together two playlists for an interview with Service95; one is a playlist of the music he listened to while composing Trust and one is a soundscape of Mildred Bevel’s New York in the 1920s.

For our final Deep Read message, we’ll turn to three UC Santa Cruz professors to grasp the nature of the secrets revealed in Futures. After hearing from Professor Neuman about the centrality of music, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Carolina Flores will explain how philosophical borrowing is crucial to understanding Mildred’s role in the novel, and Zac Zimmer, Associate Professor of Literature, will discuss how Trust implores us—even compels us—to reread.

Music & Math, Finance & Emotion

One major theme of Mildred’s journal is the intersection of music and finance capital. At many points in Futures, she reveals how her musical training and expertise allows her to understand and manipulate the financial markets. Mildred recounts when Andrew Bevel first discovered the success of her philanthropic investments and attempted to replicate them: “He looked at my books. Had me explain them. Weeks later, said he’d tried my approach with disappointing results. Showed me his work. He’d merely replicated what I’d done but at a much larger scale. He’d accounted for market impact, yes, but it had all been done with a lifeless, artificial sense of symmetry. The right notes without any sense of rhythm. Like a player-piano. I made him a new sketch for his volume. And it worked.” Andrew’s literal approach to the market is the problem; he lacks a poetic, rhythmic sensibility. To play the market, one needs financial skill and aesthetic sense.

Professor Neuman highlights how Mildred’s grasp of music and finance is rooted in the mathematical character of music and in the emotional, affective character of finance. The secret to her success is this twin understanding of the mathematical and emotional interplay of music and finance:

Mildred is a connoisseur and patron of music. She embodies a transitional figure, having moved from the old world of aristocratic patronage to the new world of capitalist philanthropy. She deeply enjoys the company of artists but is critical of classical music. The old form is too predictable, composed in such a way that she can anticipate what comes next. Because of this, Mildred’s interest lies with the avant garde. But her interest is not merely aesthetic. Through music, it turns out, Mildred can predict. And she does so through connecting three insights: the economy is not just about math (Andrew’s position), but also emotions. Inverted, music is not just about emotions but also math. Music is that special art-form that represents and provokes emotion through the organized intervals of math, pitch, and time. What of collective emotions? People invest (or not) based on different levels of confidence. Not only do social and musical patterns exist, it turns out they are linked. That’s Mildred’s third and fundamental insight, the secret behind the secret, the secret behind Mildred’s devious insight to sell short. In the new world of the modern economy, where interest-bearing capital reigns supreme, Mildred draws on Schoenberg’s logic–the inversion of the retrograde–to anticipate and exploit the decision making of others. If the movements of classical music are predictable, so too are the actions of the speculative class. At least they are for Mildred, who is armed with socio-musical insight. Music is therefore the ultimate of the predictive social sciences. It is music, with its unique harmonizing power, that fuses the old world’s power of prophecy to the new world’s power of forecasting. It is music that serves as the hub from which radiates out the spokes of mathematics and emotion; the social and the economic; and ultimately the beautiful and the sublime. And so it is music that lies at the heart of Mildred’s brilliant intellect, which, in turn, produces Bevel’s fortune.

As Professor Neuman eloquently describes, it is Mildred’s grasp of musical complexity that allows her to foresee the 1929 crash and capitalize on market instability via short selling. She analogizes her short-selling plan to a retrograde bell motif: “Short selling is folding back time. The past making itself present in the future. Like a retrograde or a palindrome. D F# E A / A E F# D. A song played in reverse. But going against the mkt., everything is turned on its head: the more a stock is depreciated, the larger the profit, and vice versa … D F# E A becomes D B♭C G. But backwards. The inversion of the retrograde. A song played in reverse and on its head.”

Professor Neuman explained and performed Mildred’s “inversion of the retrograde” at last week’s Faculty Salon. Watch that part of his presentation to hear what Mildred’s retrograde inversion looks and sounds like when transposed to a different musical tradition. Professor Neuman’s rendition of Big Ben’s tower bells on the sitar is a beautiful tribute to Diaz’s musical analogies in Trust, and it also suggests how we might need not only to read but to listen to this novel if we are to fully grasp its secrets.

Trust But Verify

Now that we’ve listened to the inversion of the retrograde and delved into the intersection of music and finance in Trust, we must pause and ask ourselves: is Mildred really the secret of Trust? Or, to put it another way, is the revelation of Mildred as the “great woman” behind the “great man” all that’s going on here? Professors Carolina Flores and Zac Zimmer don’t think so.

Professor Flores notices some similarities between passages in Mildred’s diary and the writings of 20th-Century Austrian Philosopher Ludwig Wittingstein that opens up another, perhaps more significant, secret at the heart of Trust:

Diaz has left a strange Easter egg in this section, and one which suggests that we should not see Mildred’s voice as profoundly authentic. This is the fact that a few passages are pastiches of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, an obscure but similarly seductive work of aphorisms written in the 1940s. Where Mildred writes “I want to move a leg. Then I’m aware of its moving. But what moved it?,” Wittgenstein writes “what is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?” Where Mildred writes “Nothing more private than pain. It can only involve one,” Wittgenstein writes “In what sense are my sensations private?—Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it.” 

What might this mean that Mildred’s voice at some points is actually Wittgenstein’s? And especially at these most intimate moments when she reflects on her cancerous body and her private pain? As Professor Flores points out, it “compromises the appearance of authenticity” when it comes to Mildred’s voice and perspective. In other words, it casts doubt on the reliability of Mildred’s authorship and narrative as a whole. As we know, Mildred’s diary and all of her archival papers are illegible to the archivists at Bevel Museum. Ida has stolen and published one, but are we certain that this is a faithful transcription, even though that’s what we are meant to assume? How can we know?

In addition to the secret of Mildred’s unreliability, Professor Zimmer sees another secret at work in Futures. When we read the passage about “short selling … folding back time. The past making itself present in the future,” Diaz is not just commenting on the intersection of music and finance as Professor Neuman discusses above, but he is also evoking our current moment. As Professor Zimmer explains, “most immediately this description lets us know that Trust, although set in the 1920s and 30s, is very much about our contemporary world of speculative financial capitalism in the twenty-first century.”

Professor Zimmer continues: “But the line is also a stage direction, instructions for us readers: now that we’ve come to the end of the novel, where everything seems to have been flipped and turned upside down, we can and should go back to the beginning and re-read again, folding back our own time as readers.”

What happens when we re-read? We notice resonances and echoes among the four books that make up Trust. Professor Zimmer suggests that one particular sequence from the fourth section of Bonds stood out the most upon his second read. In these pages (pp. 98-101), an anguished Helen Rask arrives at the Medico-Mechanic Institute in Switzerland, visits her father’s old room in the facility, converses with the kindly Dr. Frahm about esoteric knowledge, and finally, tranquilly melts into pure perception, “existing only as that which saw the mountaintop, heard the bell, smelled the air.”

In that passage, we read a line that we know must have been lifted directly from Mildred’s journal: “A pastoral bell echoed across the sky, dappled with flocks of small solid clouds, while unseen birds found themselves, yet again, unable to break their bondage to their two or four notes.” We have seen that line before! (Hint: see the third paragraph of this message). At the very least, this proves a connection between Harold Vanner and Mildred’s diary. Furthermore, in one of Bonds’ most lyrical passages, Vanner and Mildred both use a word—“bondage”—that shares a root with the novel-within-a-novel’s title.

In Bonds, the passage is meant to invoke the heights of Helen’s wildest, fully unmedicated delirium: “And what is choice but a branch of the future grafting itself onto the stem of the present? Past father? Future father? Helen laughed again and moved on to consider the subject of gardening in relation to alchemy.” And yet these pages also express—through the pen of Harold Vanner and the laugh of Helen Rask—Mildred’s own philosophy of time:

She laughed quietly at the doctor’s question. Only a fool would distinguish past from present in such a way. The future irrupts at all times, wanting to actualize itself in every decision we make; it tries, as hard as it can, to become the past.

In the early pages of Bonds, we are told that on the Rask grand tour of Europe, young Helen “became somewhat of a ‘thing.’” The closer we seem to get to Mildred, the more ephemeral a thing she becomes. It is like the true secret itself is just a retrograde inversion of some other secret, an ouroboros that consumes its own tale. Unthreaded, indeed!

Community Conversations

What did you think of Futures? Did you anticipate the “big reveal” that Mildred was the “real” force behind the Bevel fortune? Do you think this was the secret of the novel, or, like Professors Flores and Zimmer, did you see other, perhaps more significant, secrets revealed by the end? What do you think about the revelation of Mildred’s inauthentic voice in her diary that Professor Flores points out? Do you think this incorporation of Wittgenstein fully undermines her reliability? Does it make you think about her differently? Like Professor Zimmer, did you find echoes between Mildred’s diary and other sections of Trust, and, if so, what do you make of them? Finally, what do you think about the music of Trust, both Professor Neuman’s interpretation of the “inversion of the retrograde” and the interplay of music and finance? What does it mean to listen to a book as a way of reading it deeply? What does it mean to be invited to reread as a way of deep reading? Will you take up this invitation and reread Trust now that you’ve read it once?

Feel free to pose other questions, respond to others, and offer your ideas in the comments section below.