Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Magic Mountain

All Fall Down

February 26, 2010

Abe Novick
Special to the Jewish Times

“A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries.”
— Thomas Mann, “The Magic Mountain”

In 1924, between the wars, Thomas Mann published one of that century’s three great novels, “The Magic Mountain.” Along with James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance Of Things Past,” it stands alongside those other peaks of literary enormity and beauty.

Mann’s mountain, high up in the Alps, was a metaphor for Europe where at the top and in Davos was the sanatorium, presciently representing the illness that was to soon befall the continent.

One can’t help but think of that — Sontagian illness as metaphor — as the World Economic Forum recently met in Davos. As The New York Times, reported, “If there was one takeaway from the annual gathering of business and political leaders … it was this: trust in governments, corporations and above all banks has become as elusive as sure footing on the icy streets of this Alpine resort.”

Indeed while faith is a matter of the heart, one can muddle through life without it (see: atheism). But trust seems essential to this world. We trust the driver on the other side of the freeway is not suicidal. We trust Iran won’t carry through with its insane promises because it will be obliterated in return. And we trust our currency will not become cheap wallpaper.

When that trust disappears, we devolve. Like a contagion that infects us, we become an ailing society.

But no sooner after the Swiss confab ended, it was revealed that Greece, the very epicenter of Western civilization and rational thought, was on the brink and threatening a domino effect, taking with it other euro currency-based economies.

Then the threatening tremors trailed back to Wall Street’s Goldman Sachs, the same banking institution that personifies the problem with trust discussed in Davos.

Last week it was reported that Goldman helped Greece obscure billions in debt. “In dozens of deals across the continent, banks provided cash upfront in return for government payments in the future, with those liabilities then left off the books,” according to The New York Times.

It remains to be seen once again: Will what happens in Europe, stay in Europe? Or will this new contagion spread, now that we are all linked and all a part of that craggy, mountainous range.

At the time of Mann’s writing, Europe was still the king of the mountain. When all of that centrality came crashing down avalanche style with the next war, only wreckage was in its wake. Having rebuilt, Germany is again the powerhouse at its peak, all eyes looking to it to rescue Greece and lift the continent out of its slide.

How ironic that the cause of that first calamity, which closed the age of reason and enlightenment, is now positioned to make a decision and contemplate the notion, in a talmudic sense (predicating it upon a country), “Whoever saves a life, it’s considered as if he saved an entire world.”

Does it work in reverse, as we enter a new era of being LinkedIn, Tweeted and “friended” on Facebook by those once oceans apart? Is it also just self-preservation and when one hurts, we all are endangered? The answer, somewhere in between, was sung and dedicated to Haiti at the opening of the 2010 Olympics with the revived “We Are The World.”

But if we choose to be tied together, whether by commerce, energy dependence or something higher, we can rise together or else when one falls off a cliff, as Europe is finding out again, we can all fall.