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Buchan - Frozen Desire (1997) - Synopsis

Buchan - Frozen Desire (1997) - Synopsis

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Published by Mark K. Jensen
Synopsis of James Buchan, Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, October 1997; Welcome Rain Publishers paperback, November 2001); originally published in U.K. by Picador in September 1997. -- Discussed at Digging Deeper (www.ufppc.org) on December 28, 2009.
Synopsis of James Buchan, Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, October 1997; Welcome Rain Publishers paperback, November 2001); originally published in U.K. by Picador in September 1997. -- Discussed at Digging Deeper (www.ufppc.org) on December 28, 2009.

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Published by: Mark K. Jensen on Dec 29, 2009
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UFPPC (www.ufppc.org) — Digging Deeper CVII: December 28, 2009, 7:00 p.m. 
 James Buchan,
Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money 
(New York: Farrar Straus& Giroux, October 1997; Welcome Rain Publishers paperback, November2001); originally published in U.K. by Picador in September 1997.
[
Thesis.
"[M]oney is incarnate desire"(19)—an idea already present in JohnBriscoe's
 A Discourse of Money 
(1696)(105).]
Epigraph.
John Locke.
Introduction.
While being paid in Jeddah in 1978 when working for a Saudipaper, Buchan realized banknotes are"an outcrop of some vast mountain of social arrangements" whose value liesonly in what can be got with it (7; 3-8)Introductory meditation on money as"the God of Our Times" (a notion Buchantakes seriously; cf. 48 and also 129,where it is attributed to Heine) but real"only so long as [it is] in motion" (13; 8-16).
Ch. 1: Mineral Stones.
Money has noinherent "form, content, or origins," butis rather "incarnate desire"; this wasexpressed by Gibbon thus: "The value of money has been settled by generalconsent to express our wants and ourproperty, as letters were invented toexpress our ideas; and both theseinstitutions, by giving more active energyto the powers and passions of humannature, have contributed to multiply theobjects they were designed to represent"(19, 20 [cf. another allusion to Gibbon'sview, formulated as "Man's greatinventions are . . . words and money"[127]; 17-22). Money in the Greco-Roman world (22-35). "Money isnormative. So pervasive is its influenceon our lives that it makes less moneyedages incomprehensible, consigning themto barbarism or folklore" (34).
Ch. 2: Thirty Pieces of Silver.
Jesus'sattitude toward money (36-39). Hisstatement "Render therefore unto Caesarthe things which are Caesar's; and untoGod the things that are God's" wastactically effective in the short term but"fatal" in the long term because it"seemed to be authorizing the creation of two separate and co-ordinate kingdoms,religion and what is now called theeconomy" (41; 39-41). Money in theGospel of Matthew (41-45). "Jesus willinevitably appear irrational, petulant orsentimental unless we recognise that hesaw, in money, the agent and symbol of his death" (45). Pictorial representationsof money in the Gospels, esp.Rembrandt's "Judas, Repentant,Returning the Pieces of Silver" (1629):Rembrandt "saw into the marrow of history: that the divine in man is deadbeyond all resurrection; that there isnothing left to us but a few coins on thedusty floor and our bestial natures; andthat in every monetary transaction,wholesale and retail, Christ is re-crucified" (48; 45-49).
Ch. 3: An Idea of Order in BorgoSansepolcro.
Coins (50-55). Moneyerodes and finally destroys feudalism(55-59). "Property begins to disintegrateinto its two components, title and use"(60). Money reorders politics, firstaround princes, then around bankers (60-64). Luca Pacioli [1446/7-1517] of "Borgo Sansepolcro" [now calledSansepolcro, formerly Borgo SantoSepolcro, or in Italian Borgo del SantoSepolcro; Buchan is apparently using thetown's name in Luca's time], whodescribed double-entry bookkeeping inthe third section (of five) in
Summa dearithmetica, geometria, proportioni et  proportionalità
(Venice, 1494), "[o]ne of the most widely read books of theRenaissance": "every journal and ledgerentry must be made twice, as a
debit 
on
 
the left-hand side and a
credit 
on theright-hand side"; in this way"property . . . has taken on . . . a life andcharacter of its own. . . . The world isdissolved into numbers" (67; 69; 70-71;64-72).
Ch. 4: A Disease of the Heart.
Columbus and the nature of money in histime (73-77). The quest for gold andsilver in the New World; Potosí (77-80).Inflation-caused convulsion in Spain (80-84).
Don Quixote
as the "combat to thedeath of money and romance"(85; 84-86).
The Merchant of Venice
, anotherprofound "meditation on money"
 
(87-92).
Timon of Athens
presents gold as a"diabolical stone [that] turns everythinginto its opposite" (94; 93-95). "There canbe no tragedy in the age of money" (95;cf. "in the age of money where all valuesare and can only be relative andinconstant, there can be no tragedy, asthere can be no epic" [86]).
Ch. 5: The Floating World.
In "menand money," not in territory, lies thestrength of a people (98; 96-98). But theexample of the Dutch caused thedawning in the 17th & 18th centuries of an awareness that the "treasure . . . onwhich the whole enterprise rested wasnot metal but faith" (98; 98-102).Banking led to an elusive quest forunderstanding (102-07). the tulip maniaof 1637 as one of many consequences of "the Dutch discovery of a monetaryreality behind appearances" (112; 107-12). "[P]robability and compoundinterest" replace "an immortal soul and abenign providence" as "the theology of modernity" (113). Insurance (113-16)."[M]onetary personalities": the beau, thedandy, the gambler (116-20). Moneytransformed Japan in the 17th-century Toshugawa Shogunate and produced themelancholy aesthetic of 
ukiyo
, the'floating world' (120-26).
Ch. 6: Mississippi Dreaming: On theFame of John Law.
John Law [1671-1729], the richest man in all of history forabout 500 days in 1719-1720 (127-29)."The System" was a world-historicalmoment (129-30). Pellegrini's 130-footceiling painting of the Salle de Mississippiat Law's bank was destroyed in 1724, itis "the great lost work of modernity"(130). Law's System was so modern thatonly recently has it been understood; thisexplains his present obscurity (131-33). John Law was "the greatest of all Scots"(133). At the heart of Law's system is "anotion of money as something withoutsubstance . . . [in
Money and TradeConsidered, with a Proposal for Supplying the Nation with Money 
(1705)]Law presented precisely the theoryunderlying the modern banknote, whichis a claim not on the gold in the Bank of England or Fort Knox but on the wealth of the nation embodied in the central bank"(136). In it, he wrote: "Money is not thevalue
for 
which Goods are exchanged,but the Value
by 
which they areexchanged" (137). Law, born inEdinburgh, fled England after killing aman in a duel; he went to Scotland, thenParis (134-39). Louis XIV's death gaveLaw his opening: France's finances werebankrupt and Law tried to save themwith a system that "I do not think . . . wasa fantasy or fraud" (144; 139-48).Reflections on Law's demise (148-51).
Ch. 7: Coined Liberty: His and Hers.
Fiat currency in the American Revolution(152-54). The U.S. Constitution was aFederalist coup d'état, a "the triumph of creditor over debtor, money over virtueand religion, commerce over liberty"(155; 155-58). "The issues of papermoney [the
assignats
] by the Frenchrevolutionaries are . . . the revolutionitself" (158; 158-63). After Waterloo, theBritish instituted the Gold Standard,called by Keynes "part of the apparatusof conservatism," which collapsed withWorld War I and its aftermath (164; 163-65). Complexities of women and money:inheritance, work, sex (165-75). Moneyin economic theory (175-82). But
 
"economics is not a science" (182);Dostoevsky shows that "the end of economics" is "the world reduced to ascorching slum, its women to whores, itsmen to murderers" (183).
Ch. 8: Death in Dean St.
Romanticismrepresents a homesickness for avanished world, but [t]ourism is theRomantic excursion at retail" (190); "thesensation of beauty cannot survive in theage of money: for any beauty must beexploited . . . The sole aestheticsensation of modernity is nausea:permanent, lethal nausea" (191; 184-92).Marx saw the world created by money asa phantasmagoria that must be broken(192-202). Freud (202-03). Balzac andBaudelaire (204-07). But "poetry, theperfection of language, has a specialquality, which is this: it is beyond moneyand all its entanglements. It costsnothing to write or read and remember,belongs to everybody, can't be sold andlasts for ever" (207).
Ch. 9: The Sheet of Glass.
Familyhistory: how the life of John Buchan(1811-1883), the author's great-great-grandfather, was ruined in the 1878failure of the City of Glasgow Bank, andhow this ruin affected his descendants,especially his famous grandfather, JohnBuchan (1875-1940) (208-19).
Ch. 10: Mississippi Dreaming:Reprise.
Henry Adams, who sawAmerica dominated not so much bymoney as by the pursuit of money: "TheAmerican mind had less respect formoney than the European or Asiaticmind, and bore its loss more easily; but ithad been deflected by its pursuit till itcould turn in no other direction" (223,from
The Education of Henry Adams
;220-24). New York City, whose bustle isentirely "for money" (226; 224-28). Lawand money are fundamental categoriesby which Americans "arrange theirreality"; they delight in credit and do notbuild to last (228-39). Americans arecredulous in their belief that "money[and markets] conveys knowledge"; infact, "markets condense not knowledgebut desire" (239-43).
Ch. 11: The Sinews of War.
Moneyreplaces violence in human affairs, butby a sort of reflux "is itself the chief object of violence" (244-45). Money isthe sinews of war (
Pecunia nervi belli
)but often leads to hyperinflation and ruin,as happened to Great Britain (245-52).Hitler financed the Third Reich by meansof "a great money fraud" that enabledGermans to work at "destroyingthemselves" (256; 252-56). The moneyof Theresienstadt (256-60). Fear of aEuropean Central Bank; "Thecontinentals misunderstood the nature of money" (261-67).
Ch. 12: Money: A Valediction.
Summary of the book's argument (268-72). John Maynard Keynes (272-76).Pace Keynes, money cannot disappear:"Money expresses man's permanentdissatisfaction, which is the spring of hisactivity, his achievements, and hisprofound unhappiness. Like desire itself,money is destroyed only to be reborn"(277). But money is "a great destroyer"(278) and its "compulsory nature" mustbe broken lest we be at "permanent warwith nature and one another" (280).Only non-monetary values—religion,beauty, honor, charity, virtue—can dothis (280-82).
Notes.
27 pp.
Index.
13 pp.
About the Author.
 
 James Buchan
covered the Middle East ("longresidences on the Arabian Peninsula andin Iran" [180]), Europe, and the U.S. ("inthe 1980s" [228]) for ten years for the
Financial Times
of London, and haswritten several novels, one of which wonthe Whitbread First Novel Award (
 AParish of Rich Women
).

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