Monday, March 23, 2009

The Madoff Mystique

He is out of sight behind bars now, but the maddeningly blank face of Bernard Madoff is still with us like the smile of the Cheshire Cat. The mild-looking little man who stole billions with minimal exertion is proving to be irresistible to the literary imagination.

In a New York Times OpEd, Daphne Merkin, who is writing a book about Jews and money, maintains, "There is no single code word--no 'Rosebud'--that will lead us to decipher the Madoff phenomenon...

"Indeed, what is lost amid the fury of some of those who handed their money over to him is that theirs was a voluntary--nay, eager--association. No one was holding a gun to anyone’s head, saying sign up with Mr. Madoff or else.

"Far from it: people scrambled to find a home within his financial orbit, auditioning for the role of Madoff client the way you would try out for a place at an Ivy League college, nudging connections to put in a good word, calling in favors to get in on a piece of the Madoff action."

She concludes that "to call Mr. Madoff a sociopath isn’t really to explain him so much as to explain our failure to pick up on his scam. 'Everything that deceives,' decreed Plato, “can be said to enchant.'"

In the New Yorker, Woody Allen conjures up two Madoff victims who have been reincarnated as lobsters in the tank of a Manhattan restaurant: "The day I found out he could handle my account I was so thrilled I cut my wife’s head out of our wedding photo and put his in. When I learned I was broke, I committed suicide by jumping off the roof of our golf club in Palm Beach. I had to wait half an hour to jump, I was twelfth in line.” When Madoff shows up for a seafood dinner, the crustacean victims see their chance for revenge.

Life and art intersect in the person of Elie Wiesel, the bard of the Holocaust, who lost all his own and his charities' money. Madoff, he recalls, "presented himself as a philanthropist," and they talked about ethics and education:

"It was a myth that he created around him...the myth of exclusivity...He gave the impression that maybe a hundred people belonged to his club. Now we know thousands of them were cheated by him."

The myth was an echo of the Midas Touch with no memory of the curse that comes with it. Whatever happens to Madoff himself, he is on his way to becoming a symbol of "the stuff that dreams are made on" in the long line of literature from Shakespeare to Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon."

1 comment:

Mike said...

Greed and a lack of common sense are huge factors here.

Greed: You rush to invest in a fund that consistently pays out more than every like fund, never questioning how that's possible. In short, you want big bucks for no work, and want it so badly you'll lobby for a chance at it. You're one of many who have ceased to think of wealth as a product of hard work.

Lack of common sense: You put all of your considerable sum of money in one place. If that's what Elie Wiesel did, he clearly lacked common sense.