A Power Parable

blitt siegel 4 A Power ParableThe Observer‘s slogan is “Money, Power and the City.” That is exactly as it should be. Because of the uniqueness of this city, money and power do not always add up to the same thing.

For example.

I was once invited by a woman friend to accompany her to a dinner party on Park Avenue, somewhere in the 70s. The host was a very wealthy banker, a Rothschild, in fact.

I  happened to be sitting next to him and, after a few glasses of wine, I decided to tell him an old joke. It was a joke about a poor Jew from a Polish shtetl called Tarnopol, who shleps all the way to Paris to ask M. Rothschild to give him two hundred francs. In exchange, he says, he will reveal to M. Rothschild the secret of eternal life. It is an interminable joke. Here is the punch line: “Monsieur Rothshild, go to Tarnopol. A rich man never died there yet.” The banker laughed minimally, politely. Then he returned to his food. 

I performed a quick psychoanalysis on myself and concluded that I had told this unsuccessful joke because sitting next to the very wealthy banker in his palatial apartment made me feel precisely like that poor Jew from Tarnopol. Thus I had attempted to reverse the situation by making him laugh at a joke about a poor Jew who turns the tables on M. Rothschild by using wit to put wealth in its place. So much for that.

Little did I know that fate was on my side that evening.

At one point, ever gracious, my wealthy host asked me what I did. I told him that I was a writer. What sort of writer are you, he asked. Ever mindful of John Updike’s definition of critics as “pigs at the pastry cart”–in fact, I was literally lapping up a divine dessert–I told him that I wrote about culture. For example, he said. For example, I said, I have an essay coming out about Freud’s notion of Thanatos, the death-instinct. The what? he said, suddenly fixing his eyes on me. The death-instinct, I repeated. The idea that everyone, I explained, on some level, wishes to die.

The wealthy banker gently laid down his fork and turned toward me. Everyone wants on some level to die? he said. That’s ridiculous. Who said that again? he asked. Freud did, I said. Well, he said, he’s wrong, and that’s nonsense. No one wants to die, he said. He looked me in the eye and said it again, No one wants to die. Well, I said, seizing the advantage, that’s what Freud said. Incidentally, I added, it is a famous and powerful concept in the history of Western civilization. We returned to our dessert. He seemed to be brooding. After a few minutes, he turned impulsively toward me and said. Do you know what I like to do on the weekends? I like to hunt grouse. I shoot them by the dozens. He raised his arms. Boom, boom, boom, he said. Like that. Boom, boom, boom. He was graciously, elegantly, quietly furious about demonstrating that not only did he not want to die, but that he rained death himself when he so desired.

For a fleeting nanosecond, the power of culture, or of a certain type of urban mental energy, had made this wealthy banker feel the need to defend himself against an intangible, unquantifiable idea. Then it was the subway back to Brooklyn for me. (The old, rented Brooklyn.)

This is the thing about New York. There is so much money that being wealthy isn’t enough. The investment banker wants to make art. The hedge fund wizard wants to subsidize the publication of a line of scholarly books. The real estate mogul wants to rescue a small newspaper. (Bless his heart.) When the power of money desires such unquantifiable experiences, these experiences acquire an incalculable power over money. There is, how can I put it, a heady, if unstable, urban freedom in that reversal.

In fact, experience is one of New York’s two great engines. Mental energy is the other one. And the media is where mental energy makes sense of experience. The media is also where power becomes disaggregated from money.

Strange as it may sound, New York, as the media capital of the world, is the place where moguls go on bended knee to supplicate the kingdoms of mental energy. Think of Rupert Murdoch, who came to town determined to own Dow Jones the way an ancient potentate, followed by a caravan bearing trunks of gold and jewels, might travel to a distant land seeking the hand of a princess. In such a quest, money prostrates itself before the mysterious commodity of a city’s mental energy.

It works the other way, too. Media princes who became rich by harnessing the city’s creative intellectuality may desire a power that money cannot buy–or cannot buy directly, anyway. When Mr. Bloomberg presented his case to the public for suspending mayoral term limits, what he was really saying was that eighteen billion dollars was not enough. Mr. Bloomberg was willing to undergo the humiliation of publicly baring his naked need for power in order to hold on to it. Even his unimaginable fortune could not buy his way out of being accused of buying his way back into office. There is a touch of pathos to the mayor’s arrogance. You recall Orson Welles’ rueful remark as Citizen Kane: “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” 

Every other city that I can think of either is not the world capital of anything, or is the world capital of one or two things. Maybe three. New York is the world capital of just about every type of mentally energetic industry you can think of. It’s this versatility of moneymaking that produces power’s innumerable forms. And because all these many money centers require creativity, creativity becomes a power in itself, apart from money. And so money hungers to be creative.

At the heart of creativity is self-expression. New York power is defined by money’s tireless quest to convert itself into not merely influence, but into self-expressive activity. Indeed, the greatest New York figures are judged by their ability to secrete expressions of some colorful, hidden self, or shady past, or dark experience. Just about every figure on The Observer‘s power list has this quality.

This hint of loucheness, this insinuation of a person’s mental energy secretly overflowing its boundaries, is why we love outsize figures. In New York, flamboyance, eccentricity, recklessness are all precious commodities on the power-exchange. We like characters always on the verge of exploding, imploding or plummeting to earth. Such precariousness indicates an uncontainable creative turbulence. Which indicates untapped power.

Everyone in New York has this inner turbulence, this latent attention-drawing ferment. It’s what propels you here. It’s what makes you stay here. It’s what keeps your eye on, and maybe one foot or toe in, the ever-mutating power-exchange. In that very special sense, and only in that sense, a completely powerless man–or woman–never died here yet.

lsiegel@observer.com