Everything Solid Melts: Dickens and Madoff

I am not surprised that since the economic collapse, which began in late 2007, we have not heard mention of Charles Dickens’ character Mr. Merdle.

Mr. Merdle is the enormously wealthy and influential banker in the novel “Little Dorrit.” The book, which was written between 1855 and 1857, was originally serialized before being packaged as a complete novel. Americans would wait at the dock for new chapters to arrive by boat. They were fascinated to see if Amy Dorrit had survived her ordeals. Few today seem to remember how eerily prescient the novel was.

Mr. Merdle is approached by lawyers, military figures and religious men to finance their projects. His wife, whom Dickens names “the bosom,” displays her great collection of jewels on this anatomical stage. His bank is where everyone wants to invest. He is credited with all sorts of schemes and influence and almost supernatural powers in the area of money making. Alas, he is a fraud. Having taken in much of London’s money, he commits suicide in a bathhouse. Much of the British elite and the main characters of the novel are left bankrupt. He is every inch the 19th century fictional version of Bernie Madoff.

When I went to college in the 1960s, one in every four college students studied the humanities. This is the basis of a liberal education. Today, that figure is 1 in 16. Latest studies by beleaguered English and history departments show parents unwilling to finance their children’s education in subjects which won’t bring a significant financial return. Many more students major in business now. Children of Depression-era parents longed for an education in subjects elevated from office jobs and assembly lines. They wanted subjects which scrutinized the military industrial complex that underpinned the cold war, which brought the possibility of thermonuclear death.

The sixties brought ethnic studies, women’s studies, micro-history, an interest in folk and roots music and eventually renewed interest in ancient cultures, food and drink, religion and philosophy.

But like a bad episode of “Family Ties,” the new paradigm for 1980s’ students was Alex P. Keaton, the young Republican business/econ major. He was interested in making money, the free market and deregulation.

In a remarkable chapter of “Little Dorrit,” Dickens describes the spread of greed as a sickness, a plague, gradually infecting even those who are skeptical but are nervous about missing the main chance.

Perhaps, if more Americans were familiar with literature, history, ethics and religion (other than fire and brimstone Baptism), ideas of short-term gain and selfishness would not be paramount. We need to see the financial value in studying art, poetry, music, and spirituality. We need a longer, more circular view of life – one that takes in our children and their children and on to many generations.