Friday, December 11, 2009

Madoff unhappy? Maybe not...

You remember Bernie Madoff, con man extraordinaire? The 71-year-old Madoff made off with billions by snookering investors in what was the greatest Ponzi scheme not run by a government.

Well, Madoff is now serving time in Butner Federal Correctional Complex in little old Butner, North Carolina. No more Manhattan penthouse. No more country clubs. No more living the big rich life among the moneyed elites.

He must be miserable right? As Harlene Horowitz, one of those who lost a bundle in Madoff’s scam, put it: “For someone who lived so high, he can’t be happy in his surroundings.”

We disagree. He can be happy. He might not be, but it is possible…

In today’s Wall Street Journal, there is a piece on Madoff’s prison life. He told his lawyers that the food was good and he liked the people he had met in prison. He takes daily walks. He chats with fellow inmates such as crime boss Carmine Persico and spy Jonathan Pollard. Madoff even seems to have admirers in prison. As one inmate said, “To every con artist, he is the godfather, the don.”

Nancy Fineman interviewed Madoff in prison. She had this to say: “To me, it was all like he was on stage. He was well-spoken and you could tell he thought about what he was going to say. He’s just used to being in command and telling his story.”

It is an interesting choice of words. We often refer on this blog to the idea of how we are all playing roles. We are like actors on a stage. And, in fact, Camus used the actor as an example of an absurd man in his book the Myth of Sisyphus.

Madoff may or may not be happy in his current surroundings. We can’t say whether he is or isn’t. But the question does bring up an interesting absurd angle. We think Horowitz makes a poor assumption in saying Madoff “can’t be happy.” On the contrary, we think, if he was an absurd man, he could very well be happy in prison.

This is an important point in Camus’ view of the absurd. It’s why Sisyphus, despite his ceaseless meaningless struggle, can be happy. It’s why in Camus’ novel The Stranger, a condemned man finds happiness. “I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world,” says the narrator of The Stranger. “I was happy again.”

An absurd man can be happy or content anywhere. That is part of the power of the absurd point of view. (It is easier said than done, we know, as we’ve written, too, about the challenges of being absurd in a world filled with anti-absurd people.)

This point of view may well disturb those who would like to see Madoff suffer. But really, his happiness is in his control. Like Sisyphus, we all have our rocks we push. It's up to us how we think about our rock.

If Madoff embraced absurdity, he could find that he, too, can be happy again.


  1. Yes, it can be very hard to accept the basic truism that our happiness *is* always under our control. As stoic Marcus Aurelius stated, “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” It's never--really--about the circumstances in our lives; rather, it's about how we *relate* to those circumstances.

    Living by this philosophy is, indeed, the project of a lifetime, and our culture will go to no ends to keep us perpetually distracted and "asleep-at-the-wheel" (as I like to say), so we fail to recognize our true power. Hence, the power of consumerism: trying to buy our way to happiness and place our faith in externalities, when the key to freedom lies within . . .

    Best to all--


  2. Sometimes the absurd man needs to lighten up a bit. is a good place to start!