SBF from Girard to Dawkins to Xanadu and back

by William Benzon

He liked being known as “SBF.” Why? It is kind of cool on its own terms. But I wonder it there might not be some mimetic desire lurking there. After all, there IS an enormously wealthy and well-known man who is known by his three initials, two of which are shared by SBF. I’m talking about MBS of course – Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia. Does SBF want to be like MBS?

And there’s that luxurious Bahamian compound, a bit like Xanadu. As you know, Xanadu was the name of Charles Foster Kane’s mansion in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. It is also the nickname Bill Gate’s house. DJT (aka 45) has said that that’s his favorite film. Back in the mid-70s a group of developers made plans to build a hotel in Las Vegas to be called Xanadu. The project fell through, but not before considerable architectural work had been done, preliminary plans, renderings, models, etc. Donald Trump knew about this and was influenced by it in his Atlantic City Casino, which had a night club called Xanadu. All of this is online.

Rendering of a proposed Xanadu hotel.

I discovered this some time ago when, on a whim, I did a web search on “Xanadu.” Why?  Because I have a long-term interest in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” with its famous opening couplet: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure dome decree.” Just like that – Make it so! – and there it was. What billionaire wouldn’t thrill to that?

I digress. Much to my surprise the web search turned up millions of hits. Why? Coleridge’s poem is well known, about as well-known as poems can be. I searched the Oxford English Dictionary for uses of the name, and found a few. I also searched the archives of the New York Times and found, for example, mention of a Xanadu yacht in the 1930s. It became clear, however, that it was Citizen Kane that put “Xanadu” on the socio-cultural map, leading to what I have called a sybaritic cluster of associations, which is about wealth and luxury.

I also found a cybernetic cluster, which originated in the late 60s and on when Ted Nelson started his hypertext effort, Project Xanadu. That was quite influential in the tech world. Thus it came about that NASA chose “Xanadu” as the name of a bright feature on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

Titan, a moon of Saturn. Xanadu is the white area to the right of center.

The name itself is (somewhat anglicized) from Shangdu, Kubla Khan’s summer capital of Yuan dynasty China. Marco Polo had visited it in 1275. Early in the seventeenth century the Parson Samuel Purchas wrote called on Polo’s description in his Purchas his Pilgrimes – or Relations of the world and the Religions observed in all ages and places discovered, from the Creation unto this Present. And that’s where STC – Samuel Taylor Coleridge was another one of those who sometimes like to go by their initials – read about it, his brain addled with opium he was in the habit of taking “as a relaxant, analgesic, antidepressant, and treatment for numerous health concerns.” Lest you think STC was some kind of deviant, you should know that opium was readily available at the time and widely used as a general cure-all.

So, from Kubla Khan – who was wealthier and more powerful in his time than MBS is in his – to Marco Polo, to Parson Purchas, to Samuel Coleridge, to Orson Welles, to Donald Trump, and from Coleridge, to Ted Nelson, to NASA, “Xanadu” does get around.

By this point we have long left the territory of Rene Girard and entered that of Richard Dawkins, who is also interested in imitation, but with a different valence. Girard was interested in people imitating other people. Dawkins was interested in units of cultural evolution imitating one another. He called these units memes. This passage is from the 30th Anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.

Just how this Dawkins’ idea devolved – if that’s the term – into LOLcats whizzing around the internet is an interesting story, but irrelevant.

We’ve strayed rather far from SBF. But as you know, there’s a great deal of speculation about the use of performance-enhancing drugs at his Bahamian Xanadu. That doesn’t seem so far from Coleridge’s use of opium to enable him to perform at all, a use that in this instance sent him wandering in an altered state of consciousness, one that birthed one of the greatest poems in the English language.

Moreover, we hear talk of sexual excess. In late November the New York Post ran an article with this headline: “Partner-swapping, pills & playing games: Inside Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX party house.” We are told:

On an island paradise of moneyed traditionalists, SBF and some of his employees led a life allegedly fueled by drugs, vegetarian food and open sexuality.

“Stimulants when you wake up, sleeping pills if you need them when you sleep” — that was the formula for FTX’s success, according to a tweet from Bankman-Fried.

It was alleged on the Twitter feed of @AutismCapital that SBF used a drug called EMSAM in patch form. It is a methamphetamine derivative used on-label to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and is known to increase energy. According to Coindesk, “Bankman-Fried was … possibly suffering side effects of EMSAM (which include compulsive gambling).” […]

A figure in Miami’s high society, recalling the FTX group’s attendance at a crypto conference put on by SBF at the Baha Mar resort in the Bahamas in April was not impressed.

“They were staying up all night, snorting Adderall, smelling like they hadn’t showered in a week,” he alleged to The Post.

I suspect those lines reflect a combination of middle-class American abstemiousness and, you know, the naked truth. I don’t know how to calibrate the combination, but I’m not sure it matters, not in something as public as this. At 30 years he had it all, wine, women, and money.

It thus appears that Sam Bankman-Fried has been securely placed in the sybaritic camp of Xanadu denizens. How did he get there? By trading in cryptocurrency, an obscure high-tech invention – blockchain, server farms burning megawatts of electricity, decentralized finance and who knows what else. That places him firmly in the cybernetic camp. Sex drugs and tech has replaced sex drugs and rock and roll. This long-haired baggy-pantsed billionaire is a virtual Kubla Khan of the 21st century, with financial virtuosity substituting for military prowess.

We are now, I believe, back in Girardian territory. Will Sam Bankman-Fried be made an example of? That is, will he be sacrificed? To what? To the dreams of easy success that distract us from hard work and sacrifice. Coleridge’s poem has it all, wrapped in a poem behind a haze of opium. We can see it, but cannot touch it. We are safe. Sam Bankman-Fried had it all, but he walked the mortal ground with the rest of us (albeit in the Bahamas). We are not so safe.

In an article in The New York Times, assistant U.S. attorney Nicolas Roos committed crimes of ‘epic proportions’ and that the case against him involved cooperating witnesses, encrypted text messages and tens of thousands of pages of financial records.” In a different article, Jonah E. Bromwhich noted that Bankman-Fried’s $250 million dollar bond “is highly unusual.” Bernie Madoff’s bail was only $10 million. He also noted: “But if the crypto executive abides by the terms set by the court, the amount is largely symbolic.”

How are we to read that? Do we read it as “merely symbolic, only a slap on the wrist”? Or, it is “really symbolic, we’re going to make an example of him”? We’ll have to see.

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[1] I lay this out in a working paper, One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: The Xanadu Meme, Working Paper, March 15, 2010, pp. 24, That paper was, in turn, partially derived from a blog post and discussion at The Valve, which is now defunct. However, I did make a PDF of the whole discussion, which you can find here,