There’s a character in Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 film Winter Light who loses his faith in God (and, ultimately, the will to live) after reading in the newspaper that China has The Bomb.
Or at least that’s what his wife says. Jonas Persson himself is a quiet man, despondent, broken, unable to articulate the cause of his despair. Or, more precisely, he’s never given a chance. Even when Jonas comes alone to see Pastor Tomas, the priest doesn’t listen: Tomas himself is so broken-hearted by the loss of his wife and so crushed by God’s silent indifference to his suffering that he lashes out angrily at the poor man and drives him away. So we have to take the wife’s word for it: it’s the Chinese bomb.
How far we’ve come since 1963. Nowadays we are more likely to be driven to despair by the thought that the Chinese have all our money. Have we grown more used to God’s silence, or inured to the threat of nuclear annihilation? Or is it that in witnessing the ruin of our financial markets we detect something very much like what Jonas saw and feared in Red China’s acquisition of the Bomb? Are we seeing into the abyss?
To be sure, the fear is out there, powerful and real. Just the other day, while reading the paper on the subway, I myself had an experience of dread (that’s the right word) as I read the details of Hank Paulson’s cozy relationship with the Chinese. I have been trying to explain it to myself ever since. “America is in an all-hands-on-deck emergency that’s as trying as war,” Frank Rich (no alarmist) writes in today’s column. He feels the dread, too: “the abyss is widening,” he writes; we are in the grip of an “economic terror”.
But what is the content of that terror? When I learned, for instance, that Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet committed suicide after Madoff’s scheme was exposed, I assumed that he took his life because he, too, had been exposed and disgraced. But now I am not so sure, and I wonder if he might have seen in his own financial ruin something about himself, about humanity or about God, even, that was too hard to bear. Unfortunately, Monsieur de la Villehuchet did not favor us with an explanation or an Eli, Eli before he parted this vale of tears. He was no Job — debating, reasoning, praying and pleading in sackcloth and ashes for some insight into the mysterious ways that had led him from riches to ruin.
We may consider wealth a hedge against the radical contingency of our earthly existence, but why react with despair, terror, dread or animal fear when we learn that the hedge — or the hedge fund — collapses? You can tell me that it’s because we have our priorities all wrong, because we are easily lulled into a false sense of security, or because our limited ideas of happiness and well-being leave us ill-equipped for the real uncertainties of life. I won’t argue.
Nor am I trying to be deliberately obtuse about the whole thing. Paulson lets the Chinese dictate terms to him; I might feel outrage because I think he’s acting recklessly and putting the country in hock to our former Cold War enemies, but — really — why dread?
Maybe it’s the fear that we’ve crossed some threshold or point of no return, and that the world as we know it is about to pass. The easy ride is over; the long march of long-suffering humanity is about to begin — again. We may have silenced God, but we have not secured ourselves a place outside of history; we are exposed and we will shake against the wind.