There was nothing holding up our rampant spending, and the markets crashed—hard. Banks that had been enduring enterprises, like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, were shuttering and dispensing with flocks of confused employees. The article quoted Richard Florida as saying: "The economy couldn't survive on speculation and what really amounted to advanced financial alchemy... We are now realizing it is our human creativity that is our real capital." This quote is reminiscent of Canto XI of Dante's Inferno, in which Dante condemns usurers to the seventh circle of hell: "After what manner Nature takes her course/From Intellect Divine, and from its art.../That this your art as far as possible/...And since the usurer takes another way, /Nature herself and in her follower/Disdains he, for elsewhere he puts his hope." What Dante knew during the Medieval Ages still resonates strongly today. He finds usury distasteful because moneylenders generate money from money—not actual work. Like St. Thomas Aquinas once said, "It is in accordance with nature that money should increase from natural goods and not from money itself." The crash was a huge wake-up call for former investment bankers—it essentially revealed to them that their life source had no grounding. Everything they dealt with dissipated within days. Dante's vocation as a poet, while considered laughable by many today, has a sense of enduring purpose. He can at least point to his poems and declare, "Here, I wrote this. These words are mine!" God, or nature, or maybe even DNA has endowed people with imagination and creative inspiration, and what could be more wonderful than revealing this innate potential? Finally, we are realizing—even if it was a long time coming—that there is something deeply disturbing about investment banking. With Bernie Madoff fleecing Kevin Bacon, Steven Spielberg, and countless others, it may not be that reductive to liken him to a money launderer. Perhaps writers and painters are not creating works with concrete worth—perhaps their artistic endeavors are simply expressions of humanness. Sure, money is great, not to mention essential for subsistence, but most fortunes are evanescent. Our current economic crisis is certainly not the first time that a market crash has sparked such a cultural reconfiguration. The forefather of stock market crashes occurred with the introduction of paper money in Sweden in the 1670s, which catalyzed a period of wild speculation. The transformation from a culture dependent on coinage to one with the freedom of paper money gradually spread to other countries, and this growing globalization influenced literature with the popularization of travel narratives. The first stock bubble—the South Sea bubble—burst in 1720. The middle class and the aristocracy's frenzied investment increased the stock value fourfold, and after the burst, many were left in financial ruin. While the new culture of credit and speculation allowed for social fluidity, people were also shocked by the newfound instability of life, in which fortunes could be made and lost in a day. Novels, like Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, saw writers taking on the widespread struggle of re-conceiving the self. Our current situation is also spurring individuals to reposition themselves. People with previous pre-professional dreams of grandeur on Wall Street must search elsewhere—Patrick Bateman is no longer in the cards. We need to rebuild the economy on items of value and permanence, like literature and art. After all, we're still reading Dante 700 years later, but in another 700 years, Madoff will, at most, be a five-line blurb in a high school American history textbook. Lucy Tang is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. Sentimental Education runs on alternate Mondays.
Columbia Spectator Staff