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Let's Admit it, the Financial Crisis is Kind of Cool

11/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Back in 2002, The Onion ran one of the truest of the thousands of untrue headlines that have appeared in that publication over the years. It read, "Peace Activist Has to Admit that Barrett .50 Caliber Sniper Rifle is Pretty Cool."

The piece (you can read it here) explains that "[Peace Activist] Robinson also noted that anyone with $7,300 can buy the civilian version of the M82A1, a fact he finds 'thoroughly repugnant' and 'kind of tempting.'"

That things can be both awesome and awful is an apparent contradiction that philosophers have attempted to make sense of since the time of Longinus, the Greek who first struggled with the concept of the "sublime," a sort of hideous grandeur usually associated with nature and its infinite vastness. 18th Century British intellectuals further developed the notion while abroad on the Grand Tour. They were inspired by the dramatic landscape of the Alps where great forces beyond mortal comprehension stood poised to sweep them away or crush them to atoms.

It is typical of the Romantic intellectual discourse that Edmund Burke and others were able to nurture an aesthetic appreciation for the perilous and horrible, while exploring the tension between their rational and emotional faculties. This is, after all, the milieu in which Frankenstein's monster was born.

It was Burke who argued that the sublime and the beautiful were mutually exclusive. And though the current financial crisis has been ugly indeed, one could say that it has also been sublime. The scope of the proposed bailout is equally awe-inspiring and also sublime, if no less terrible. Just the notion that, as a nation, we could do such a thing and spend that amount of money should fill anyone with a sort of delectable foreboding like climbing aboard a roller coaster operated by a one-armed drunk might.

Intelligent people should be able to hold competing ideas in their head, even if they are fully contradictory. While I am no more delighted than the next fellow to see the Treasury Department taken over by Goldman Sachs as millions of nest eggs turn rotten, I have to admit that watching the great wheels of the global economy sputter to a halt and then periodically be restarted by the main force of the United States Government in the past few weeks has been kind of cool.

I admit it's not always easy to get enough distance from events to feel their sublimity. But, if you can, try and sit back and marvel at the grandeur of what's happening from time to time. The mountain has slid apart, like a Bond villain's lair, to expose the enormous workings, beltwheels, and gears within. If you've already phoned your Congressman, there isn't much you can do besides watch in grim fascination anyway.

You may protest that I wouldn't find the financial crisis so sublime if I were about to lose my job or my house. But, in fact, it is exactly this sort of personal hazard that distinguishes the sublime from a more detached aesthetic experience: looking at a painting, say, or hearing a symphony. That we are all involved, all at risk, is partly what makes the crisis so sublime. An avalanche that is rushing toward you is even more sublime than one that will pass you by and take out a Swiss village instead.

But if the sublime qualities of the current catastrophe seem a little hyper-rational and bloodless to you, there are some simpler pleasures to be gleaned. George Bush becomes the greatest New Dealer since Harry Hopkins; hot shot Wall Streeters are brought low; Congress is staggered by the Will of the People... Irony, just desserts, and the public roused to righteous indignation all have their satisfactions. More importantly, there's the warm feeling one gets when the rich get poorer along with everyone else, even if that happens only for a moment or, perhaps, only in our imagination.

Like most Americans, I have a bias for Bigness. Our Big successes are more fun than our Big disasters but they are no more compelling. And because we do things Big here, a Big disaster will beget a Big rescue which will, eventually, bring Big change. Change is something voters have said they want this year. Well, they've got it, but courtesy of George Bush not Barack Obama.

The essence of the sublime is to accept that, at a certain scale, the forces of destruction are also those of creation, that if an event is large enough it may transcend the distinction between good and bad. Whether the current crisis is this sort of event is something you can only decide by probing your own feelings about it. If it seems kinda cool to you, too, it may very well be.

The "creative destruction" spoken of by economists is a sublime phenomenon whereby old, broken, or failing systems that have become entrenched must be violently swept away rather than surgically repaired. The result is new opportunities for new players. The author of Ecclesiastes would recognize the moment we have arrived at. This is a time to be born.