Apocalypse Now

Of Drama and Drachmas

August 25, 2011


“The bottle blondes are to blame,” says my friend the Greek-American cyclist, “all the money left the country for peroxide”—and indeed, blondes are even more plentiful here than goats, their hair of a greenish tinge that makes their olive skin seem sickly yellow.

Others claim the euro is to blame for the current malaise. But would there have been less drama if there were still the drachma? It seems to me that you can call the little symbolons by any name you please and invest them any way you want, but you still cannot invest them with the magical power of inevitable, foolproof increase. They are cents, not seeds, and even seeds, when manipulated by American corporations, can end up not sprouting.

Bound to his sterile rock, Prometheus moans:

I groan, questioning when there shall come a time when He shall ordain a limit to my sufferings. What am I saying? I have known all before, all that shall be, and clearly known; to me nothing that hurts shall come with a new face.

It makes the tragic masks of surprise and indignation worn by officials rather comical—as if it were all out of the blue!

I put my book down and jumped into the water, scattered thoughts of the floating of the dollar floating through my buoyant body.

What is money, I pondered? A pile of gold under the World Trade Center? Or a huge IOU, as the primordial debt theorists say? In 1694 when a consortium of English bankers loaned William of Orange 1,200,000 pounds and in return received the right to print and circulate bank notes, the second modern national bank was born.

Or is money like language—a system of symbols? A dollar bill standing in for a pound of butter like a word does; and coins like words, always striving toward an equivalence they can never attain. Perfect equality of the thing said and the thing seen, of the thing sold and the amount it is sold for, the sum lent and the sum returned.

Which brings us to interest. Adding interest made usury and threw off balance the only exchange that truly was equivalent: Borrow an amount, return the same.

Language and money are both very flexible. We can twist them to suit our needs. In nautical terms “bailing out” is the ejection of water. In financial terms, it is the massive injection of liquidity. In martial terms, taking something from a rival that will not be given back is called “tribute.” In modern international relations, it is called “foreign debt.”

And if they actually were to ask for it all back? Chaos, fire, and brimstone raining down death and destruction. The apocalypse of John the Revelator’s visions.

This island of Patmos is the very spot where he received his revelation, and the cave where it occurred is open to visitors. Down the sun-warmed steps, past the monk in black with his long hair coiled, to the penumbra and candelabra, is the corner where St. John had the visions. A hole in the rock where he is said to have laid his hand to pull himself up is now lined with silver.

If you line a whole with silver, it is still a hole. If you throw more gold in it, it is still a hole. If you renamed it “slate,” however, you could wipe it clean! As the Sumerians did each time a new ruler came to the throne, as the ancient Jews did every seven years: Jubilee, forgive, forget, wipe it clean and start anew!

It wouldn’t be the end of the world, only the end of the world as we know it: a lifting of veils, a shedding of light, a revelation, which is what “apocalypse” actually means. When will that happen? Soon, said St. John two thousand years ago.

Like the society that sent him scurrying to his cave, we may not be very virtuous, but we are very virtual, our treasure transformed to ones and zeros on a computer screen. They have no substance, but they can still make a great din if they come crashing down. Crash go the symbolon like cymbals, crash goes the Dow, tumbling into the sea in widening circles ’til the ripples disappear on the blue Aegean.

The water dripping from my limbs, I climbed back up the ladder to the boat. Iannis served us ouzo.

“Better times ahead,” said Babbis, raising his glass. Turning to our Roman friend he added, “Now it’s your turn to get a slap from the Golden Boys.”

Next stop: Italy.

 

Pay to Play - Put your money where your mouth is and subscribe for an ad-free experience and to join the world famous Takimag comment board.