"Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."
-- From "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats (1919)

When Yeats wrote those chilling words, he had the endgame of World War I and the fall of European aristocracy on his mind. "The Second Coming" will reportedly be featured in tonight's season premiere of NBC's Heroes, foreshadowing the way the series' villains will rise in power and prominence this season.

But Yeats might as well have penned this poem in response to last week's events on Wall Street -- with an eye to the future.

The best
From my Foolish point of view, the heroes of the investing world are individual investors like you and me, along with people and agencies who have our interests at heart. That includes the Securities and Exchange Commission (on a good day), bountiful information sources like Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) Finance or our own Motley Fool CAPS community, and champions of sensible investing like Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) Warren Buffett or "invest in what you know" advocate Peter Lynch.

Most of these guys can be forgiven for a lack of conviction in today's market. Way back in 2003, Buffett warned that derivatives and other complex, poorly understood financial instruments would be "weapons of mass destruction" -- especially if paired with massive debt leverage. Lynch told Boston Globe last week that we shouldn't panic. America will come back from this meltdown like it always does, even if your portfolio hurts in the meantime.

The CAPS crowd is hardly sitting on their hands, but their message is deeply skeptical. Over 230 players rated Citigroup (NYSE:C) last week -- in a sea of red thumbs. All-star player mnymaker compares the banking sector to a game of musical chairs, where the music just stopped playing "and someone has stolen all the chairs." Boring financial megacorporations Citi and Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) have vaulted into our top 12 water cooler stocks now, ahead of super-exciting water cooler fodder like BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM).

... and the worst
Meanwhile, the SEC put on its not-too-friendly face and turned its back while the Federal Reserve bailed out a couple of the most overleveraged risk-takers out there. The bill to be footed by American tax payers is running into the hundreds of billions. To put that huge number in context, consider that a $700 billion bailout package means over $2,000 from every American man, woman, and child.

Turnover on the stock exchanges took a flying leap. Over the past year, $173 billion's worth of all NYSE stocks changed hands every day. It was $296 billion last week (and NYSE Euronext (NYSE:NYX) collected commissions every time -- no wonder it's a five-star CAPS stock!). Every time a stub gets bought and sold, somebody gains on the transaction and somebody loses a bit. I bet that the big financial boys pulled the long straw again and ended up net buyers amid the bloodbath, picking up shares on the cheap from panicky individual investors hoping to cut their losses.

The aftermath
If you weren't selling last week, you're a winner. Peter Lynch, Warren Buffett, and the Fool's School would all agree on that one.

When the new, revised beast that is the post-banking-meltdown American stock market "slouches toward Bethlehem to be born," you'll be ready to tame it with the help of a few Fools.

Bank of America is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. NYSE Euronext is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation and a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick, and the Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. He sold his Bank of America stock back in February, saving big bucks on antacid pills and sleeping aids alone. You can check out Anders' holdings if you like, and Foolish disclosure wouldn't touch 30-to-1 leverage with a ten-foot dried herring.