Sympathy for Bernard Madoff: The Sun Also Sets

The mainstream press will be telling us this Christmas that the motive behind Bernard Madoff's impressive heist was greed. It's not. It never is. It is hard to say in under two words what motivated Madoff. It took F. Scott Fitzgerald many more words.

And in a moment of almost spooky turnings, Bernie is almost an exact reenactment of Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby. He is our own 3.0 version of Jay Gatsby, much as Obama appears to be on occasion a 3.0 version of JFK.

Most telling are the purchases Bernie made with his $50 billion. They are pure symbols, like the house Fitzgerald created for Gatsby in the New York hills of plenty. Bernie's striving and desires are similar to Gatsby's. Money mattered little or not at all. It was all about who he was and is in terms of all the other people, and how he would be seen and experienced within them. As if he himself was a piece of the furniture, like his houses and estates in all the best places; pieces of furniture in our own collective dream. Compared to, say, Bill Clinton, whom time will symbolize by 50 golden watches and a cigar; symbols of the striver who never really gets to where he wants to go — a vision which yields in the direction of the end of life even with his own kind and generation.

I have a hard time disliking Bernie in the same way that I feel a reader would find it hard to dislike Jay Gatsby. In a way, Bernie is like the best of us and the worst of us at the same time, even those of us among the have-nots, like the Quigleys.

If I was ever to be sent to prison, it would probably be some place like D.C. general population or maybe Folsom. But in a gentleman's prison like Allentown, in western Pennsylvania, I think Bernie would make a good cellmate.

Compared to Bill Clinton and his 50 gaudy gold watches, Bernie's symbolism is both gaudy and sublime at the same time. Like Gatsby. As cellmates we could talk together about Torah and the Tao, which are like that. Bernie is at a good age and is able now to go on to the better things of life; the things of “returning” — “... in returning and rest we can be saved ...” it says in my prayer book — and for that it doesn't matter if you are in jail or on the 64th block of Park Avenue with Caroline Kennedy and Mike Bloomberg. It's all ahead for Bernie.

Being in jail with Clinton could get tedious. His friend Vernon Jordan says all they talk about on the golf course is “pussy.” Probably at Folsom you would get a generally higher order of convict. That, according to Johnny Cash, who knew it well. In Folsom's general population, if Johnny's sympathies are at all telling, you don't get sons who turn their fathers in as they do where Bernie will be sent.

I keep thinking about Bernie because I've been listening lately to economists; “grown men” as Sen. Fritz Hollings once said, who actually talk about “jump-starting the economy.”

When you get to the core of their understanding you find a literary fountain that is less than auspicious. For Paul Krugman, The New York Times columnist and recent Nobel laureate, it is science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who wrote a kind of sociology with a scientific bent, but with a science perspective of ascending power that would have been likely rejected as narrow and incomplete by Einstein, Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli.

And celebrity economist Alan Greenspan — referred to as a wizard by Al Gore in his presidential campaign — who reveals a similar Ayn Randian perspective. Both Rand and Asimov were popular novelists in the 1950s and 1960s but I'm not sure they hold up in the Twilight generation. Both suggest the individual alone in the world; an individual alone and at odds with and on the make against all others.

But Bernie, like Gatsby, is vastly more subtle and complex. If you went to gentleman's jail with these other guys there would be nothing to talk about but football. And again, you'd do better in analysis and perspective with that probably at Folsom.

Both these economists have said recently, Who knew? Who could have predicted this world fiscal crisis?

Possibly Bernie. His selection of symbols rather than actual gold watches indicates an abiding vision of the ephemeral transit of the human condition that might be seen at its beginning even as divine in origin and fully predictable as the world and its people run through their cosmic cycles.

Almost certainly, Fitzgerald would have known. He wrote The Great Gatsby five years before the great crash of 1929 to which our current mischief is now begin compared. It was published in 1925, four years before the crash. His friend, Ernest Hemingway, published The Sun Also Rises in 1926, three years before the crash.

These two books are companion pieces and might be nice Christmas presents for fledgling economists, because they well anticipated the crash of 1929. By 1925 the American soul had well come out of the gilded age — much like the Clinton 1990s when grown up men predicted that the Dow was headed for 35,000 — and there would be no going back.

We are there again with Bernie this time — our own Jay Gatsby — and likewise, we will not be going back.

Visit Mr. Quigley's website at

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