Monday, 29 November 2021

Bernie Madoff as Tragic Hero

A Tragic Hero?

Bernie Madoff died Wednesday, April 14, 2021, while serving a 150-year prison sentence.  It might grate to see Madoff described as a "hero."  In literature, a tragedy is a situation, a plot structure.  A "tragic hero" is the character at the center of that situation.  Imagining Madoff as a monster may be more comfortable, but that image prevents us from learning whatever there is to learn from his story.

The Death of Tragedy

The history and concept of tragedy is one subject where I can actually claim some expertise.  For almost three thousand years, every major philosopher and most major and minor literary theorist had something to say about tragedy.  It all came to a stop in the postmodern period.   As Terry Eagleton observes in Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, “the term [tragedy] hardly scrapes into the postmodern lexicon” (ix).  The discussion may have finally exhausted itself or, as Alvin Kernan suggests, in The Death of Literature, “The definition of a central genre like tragedy has proceeded in so many directions, many of them quirky in the extreme, as in the end to disintegrate, rather than firm up, the term and any experience that might possibly lie behind it" (42).  Ultimately, my claim of expertise is a bit like saying I'm in the top one hundred of a sport that nobody plays anymore.

The History of Tragedy

That said, here's the two-paragraph description of the 3000-year history of tragedy. The word "tragedy" comes from Greek and would roughly translate as "goat song."  Why a goat?  Tragedies were performed as part of an annual competition and the prize was a goat.  Also, these performances were part of the annual Dionysian harvest festival.  Dionysus was the god of wine and madness and tragedy.  (If you're getting bored:  Dionysus is Baccus in Latin, as in Bacchanalian orgy, so you can substitute sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll here to get the general idea.) The goat--known for its sexual prowess--was the symbol of Dionysus.

The major Greek tragedies were written in the 5th century BCA.  A hundred years later, Aristotle wrote The Poetics, in part to refute Plato's claim that in the perfect society poetry would be banned but more importantly for the following millennia Aristotle claimed that tragedy was the highest form of literary art.  For the next 2,500 years or so, it was generally accepted that tragedy was the highest form of literature because . . . well, because Aristotle said so.  The only debate was about which of Aristotle's features was the most important and did this play or that play have the necessary features.  Eventually, the word "tragedy" began to be used as an honourific; in other words, it wasn't being used just to describe a category of literature or a thing so much as to connote greatness.  In the Modern Era (the 20th century until the mid-60s), the West was going through an adolescent crisis of self-esteem, and it was commonly claimed that we were no longer capable of producing tragedies.  We lacked the culture, the refinement, the sensibilities, the character and characters, the myths, rituals, gods, and whatever, to create or appreciate tragedies.

The Double-bind Theory of Tragedy

Then I came along with my double-bind theory of tragedy which dozens of people have now read--okay, maybe a dozen if I include myself.  Everyone knows that "tragedy" means something bad and sad happens.  When I studied the dramas that most people readily acknowledge as tragedies I saw a consistent pattern. The pattern I saw closely resembled the "double-bind situations" which Gregory Bateson and  R.D. Laing claimed to be, in 100% of the cases studied, the cause of schizophrenia.  Having noticed this resemblance between the claimed etiology (the causes) of schizophrenia and a similar pattern of double-bind, no-win situations in tragedy, I also noted that tragedies led to actions which were not only bad and sad but mad. The hero's fate was inevitably stereotypical insanity, alienation, self harm or suicide.

The Double-bind Etiology of Schizophrenia

The ''double bind" as described by Bateson and Laing is one in which the individual faces contradictory injunctions but cannot escape the situation.  Laing explains that the bombardment of the individual with contradictory demands that s/he must do something and must not do that same thing, most often imposed by the closest of family members, leads to "ontological insecurity" and mental breakdown.

This image is typically presented as a lighthearted version of a double bind:

Imagine that at every important twist and turn, every love-hate, life-or-death dilemma in your life you faced this kind of unsolvable double bind.  R.D. Laing surmises it would drive you crazy. We can all intuit as much.  The authors of tragedies throughout history have intuited as much.

The Orestia by Aeschylus

The Orestia by Aeschylus, the only extant complete ancient Greek tragic trilogy, establishes the pattern.  Orestes, the son of King Agamemnon, is bound by prevailing notions of justice and his role as a prince to avenge his father's murder.  Orestes is further compelled by his self-identity as a moral agent under the scrutiny of the gods and the world to do what is right:  avenge the assassination of the King, his father.  However, justice requires that he kill his mother, Queen Aegisthus, who is responsible for the murder of her husband, King Agamemnon. We can boil down Orestes's double bind to something like:  in order to maintain his understanding of himself, justice and the world, Orestes's must kill his mother.  But in killing his mother, Orestes will abandon his understanding of himself, the world and justice.  To be Orestes, he must kill his own mother; killing his mother, he will no longer be Orestes.  

The Madness of Hamlet and Orestes

Two thousand years later, Shakespeare adopted a similar plot in his version of Hamlet.  Hamlet slowly descends into madness as he attempts to come to terms with the fact that his mother, Gertrude, and his uncle, Claudius, are responsible for the murder of his father, King Hamlet. When Orestes kills his mother, he is immediately possessed by the Furies--possession by the gods being the stereotypical understanding of madness at the time.

An Identity requires a view of the world, a sense of reality

The destruction of the tragic hero implies more than the death and/or madness of an individual.  The hero's identity is part of an ecosystem.  Individual identity is fed and sustained by a larger worldview, an understanding of the world which in its imagined, narrative form we call a myth. The collapse of the individual into madness is, by definition, the collapse, overwhelming and negation of a sense of reality--the sense of reality though which an individual identifies and defines her/himself.  Faced with a double bind which is a product of identity and a corresponding sense of reality, which must be resolved and cannot be resolved, the individual descends into "ontological insecurity." Self and reality cease to exist.

Bernie Madoff's world and identity

The fact that, more than an individual identity, a sense of reality or worldview or, in a more succinct shorthand, a myth is brought into question and negated by the double bind is exactly what makes tragedy modern.  It is also what makes this discussion of Bernie Madoff's life story relevant.

Tragedy penetrates myth, questions and negates reality

In The Origin and Early Development of Greek Tragedy, Gerald Else describes tragedy as "a new penetration of myths from within" (38). Tragedy allowed a questioning of the gods by an individual from "personal experience and hard personal meditation, without benefit of revelation or cult" (37). Additionally, as Karl Jaspers observes, in Tragedy Is Not Enough, "breakdown and failure reveal the true nature of things" (43).  Carrying these observations to the case of Bernie Madoff, we recognize that Madoff's fall and the collapse of his 64-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme coincided with the collapse of the financial markets in 2008.  The tragedy of Bernie Madoff, King of Wall Street, was a penetration, from the inside, of the myth of capitalism.

It is commonly claimed that no American was ever charged with a crime because of the collapse of the markets in 2008. In fact, Madoff was the icon, both the villain and the victim, of 2008. His Ponzi scheme was different in degree but not kind from the sub-prime-mortgage chicanery which brought down the markets. Bernie Madoff wasn't caught by the authorities; he confessed and turned himself in when he realized that the Wall Street collapse would also collapse his Ponzi scheme

The Wizard of Lies

Diana Henriques' The Wizard of Lies supplies the details which allow us to see the tragic double-bind pattern of Bernie Madoff's life.  We can see hints of a "Romeo and Juliet" story in the fact that Ruth Madoff was thirteen when she first met her future husband.  She was eighteen when the Madoffs married on November 25, 1959.  Days later Bernie filed the papers to create Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities.  He was twenty-one. 

Henriques observes that Ruth's family, the Alperns, were significantly higher on the socio-economic ladder than the Madoffs. We might imagine a "Great Gatsby" scenario with Ruth playing Gatsby's "Daisy" and the object of his Macbeth-like ambitions. By 1962, as Henriques reports, Bernie was already operating illegally as an unlicensed stock broker for clients of his father-in-law's accounting firm and covering up "huge losses he inflicted on his clients when he improperly invested their savings in high-risk newly issued stocks."  Madoff's fraudulent reporting of profits actually enhanced his reputation on Wall Street leading to more people investing in his firm.  After the crash of 1987, Madoff began to pay off his clients with cash from new investors, and his Ponzi/pyramid scheme had begun in earnest.  Madoff claimed to be aware in 1998 that his scheme was destined to collapse and his crimes uncovered.  Why he didn't run? Why didn't he escape somewhere with his ill-gotten millions? Henriques quotes Madoff that “There was never a thought to run away and hide my money.… It never entered my mind to do that.”

Bernie Madoff's world

We may doubt that Madoff never thought to run away, but the evidence supports his claim:  he didn't run away, and we might surmise that the possibility was beyond his imagining.  In his description of tragedy, Arthur Miller writes:
It is necessary, if one is to reflect reality, not only to depict why a man does what he does, or why he  nearly didn't do it, but why he cannot simply walk away and say to hell with it.  To ask this last question of a play is a cruel thing, for evasion is probably the most developed technique most men have, and in truth there is an extraordinary small number of conflicts which we must, at any cost, live out to their conclusions.  [. . . . ]  I take it that if one could know enough about a human being one could discover some conflict, some value, some challenge, however minor or major, which he cannot find it in himself to walk away from or turn his back on. . . . .   I take it, as well, that the less capable a man is of walking away from the central conflict of the play, the closer he approaches a tragic existence. (Arthur Miller's Collected Plays 8).
There are a number of parallels to note between Bernie Madoff and Willy Loman, the tragic hero of Miller's Death of a Salesman:  a New Yorker, father of two sons who eventually repudiate him, husband of a long-suffering wife, a man with "all the wrong dreams," whose demise was an indictment of the myth of "the American Dream."

The Madness of Bernie Madoff

Bernie Madoff lost everything.  He defrauded friends, family, charities and people around the world, many of whom, through the machinations of their financial advisors and investment banks, were unaware that their money was invested with Bernie Madoff.  Madoff's crimes caused the loss of life-savings, pensions, homes, jobs and lives.  For many, the challenge was to find punishment equal to the scale of Madoff's crimes.  But tragedy isn't about justice.  Strict moral justice is reserved for melodrama.

Madoff lost his wealth (though most of it did not exist), his property, and his reputation.  He became a universally acknowledged icon of evil.  Bernie and Ruth made a suicide pact, taking a deliberate overdose of sleeping pills.  Their attempt failed.  Their older son, Mark, also attempted suicide with pills, then later hung himself in his New York condo while his infant son slept in another room.  Ruth became a social pariah and was unable to attend her son's funeral.  The Madoff's younger son, Andrew, died of cancer.

Novalis:  "Character is fate."

Was there a time when Madoff could have stopped and put an end to his fraud?  Perhaps. But, like Oedipus, the king of another time, Madoff was a victim of his own success.  Arguably, given his character and his world (New York, Wall Street, the financial markets), he was fated to see his tragedy through.  We can calculate Madoff's double bind.  He showed the willingness to fully attest to his own guilt to protect his family.  To confess to his crimes at any point would be to destroy his family.  Continuing his crimes would also eventually destroy his family, leaving, in his own words "a legacy of shame for children and grandchildren."   

Bernie Madoff as scapegoat

Terry Eagleton argues that the scapegoat ritual is the essence of the tragic. I disagree. The purpose of the scapegoat ritual is to load the sins of the community onto a symbolic figure which is destroyed, thereby expiating the community from its guilt. To treat Madoff as an egregious anomaly, a singular deviation, a monstrous incongruity, a scapegoat, is to absolve the financial system, which allowed his fraud to thrive for more than two decades, from any culpability or inquiry. Tragedy is relevant today specifically because it brings into the question exactly those mythologies which we might imagine beyond question. As Henriques observes: 
Madoff’s construction of the biggest Ponzi scheme in history was enabled by the Wall Street he had helped to build. He played a prominent role in shaping the modern market, from computerized NASDAQ trading to the mystique of hedge funds to the proliferation of specious derivatives.

Bernie Madoff as human being

If there is anything to learn from the Madoff case, and I believe there is, we must begin with the premise that he was human and consequently susceptible to a double-bind situation which, in turn, brings his ecosystem into question.  As Henriques concludes:

[. . .] to insist, as so many of his victims have, that Bernie Madoff was not fully human, that he was a beast, a psychopath, is a facile cop-out, one last comforting delusion that will leave us forever vulnerable to the seductive spells that all Ponzi schemers cast. Madoff was not inhumanly monstrous. He was monstrously human. He was greedy for money and praise, arrogantly sure of his own capacity to pull it off, smugly dismissive of skeptics—just like anyone who mortgaged the house to invest in tech stocks [ . . . .]

The Wizard of Lies (film)

In the film version of The Wizard of Lies, Diana Henriques plays herself interviewing Bernie Madoff (played by Robert De Niro). Not surprisingly, the film retreats from the  image of Madoff as a tragic human.  (The movie business in general, like postmodernists, is reluctant to embrace tragedy.) In his final scene in the film, Madoff/De Niro complains of being compared to the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and  addresses the rhetorical question to Henriques: "Do you think I am a sociopath?" The question does not appear in the book.  If the intended subtext is that Madoff remains protective of his ego and indifferent to the tragedy he has wrought, then whatever is to be learned from the failure of his existence and the world that nurtured it is lost. The less likely interpretation that Madoff's flat affect was a sign of impending schizophrenia is the one that I would uphold.


  1. "Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive." When an accounting fraud is perpetrated (such as "kiting" accounts receivable), what might start as a relatively small infraction can quickly grow to a very complicated, involved situation that becomes very convoluted to keep track of. The perpetrator never gets vacation for fear of being found out, and ultimately has higher and higher stress levels which result in "sleepless nights" and broken relationships. But they can't stop, human nature being what it is. When they ultimately are caught (which they are), they virtually all express huge relief at finally having it all over. Bernie isn't unique; he just tangled a bigger web.


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