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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. [Thesis. "[M]oney is incarnate desire" (19)—an idea already present in John Briscoe's A Discourse of Money (1696) (105).] Epigraph. John Locke. Introduction. While being paid in Jeddah in 1978 when working for a Saudi paper, Buchan realized banknotes are "an outcrop of some vast mountain of social arrangements" whose value lies only in what can be got with it (7; 3-8) Introductory meditation on money as "the God of Our Times" (a notion Buchan takes seriously; cf. 48 and also 129, where it is attributed to Heine) but real "only so long as [it is] in motion" (13; 816). Ch. 1: Mineral Stones. Money has no inherent "form, content, or origins," but is rather "incarnate desire"; this was expressed by Gibbon thus: "The value of money has been settled by general consent to express our wants and our property, as letters were invented to express our ideas; and both these institutions, by giving more active energy to the powers and passions of human nature, have contributed to multiply the objects they were designed to represent" (19, 20 [cf. another allusion to Gibbon's view, formulated as "Man's great inventions are . . . words and money" ; 17-22). Money in the GrecoRoman world (22-35). "Money is normative. So pervasive is its influence on our lives that it makes less moneyed ages incomprehensible, consigning them to barbarism or folklore" (34). Ch. 2: Thirty Pieces of Silver. Jesus's attitude toward money (36-39). His statement "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" was tactically 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 the economy" (41; 39-41). Money in the Gospel of Matthew (41-45). "Jesus will inevitably appear irrational, petulant or sentimental unless we recognise that he saw, in money, the agent and symbol of his death" (45). Pictorial representations of 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 dead beyond all resurrection; that there is nothing left to us but a few coins on the dusty floor and our bestial natures; and that in every monetary transaction, wholesale and retail, Christ is recrucified" (48; 45-49). Ch. 3: An Idea of Order in Borgo Sansepolcro. Coins (50-55). Money erodes and finally destroys feudalism (55-59). "Property begins to disintegrate into its two components, title and use" (60). Money reorders politics, first around princes, then around bankers (6064). Luca Pacioli [1446/7-1517] of "Borgo Sansepolcro" [now called Sansepolcro, formerly Borgo Santo Sepolcro, or in Italian Borgo del Santo Sepolcro; Buchan is apparently using the town's name in Luca's time], who described double-entry bookkeeping in the third section (of five) in Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalità (Venice, 1494), "[o]ne of the most widely read books of the Renaissance": "every journal and ledger entry must be made twice, as a debit on
the left-hand side and a credit on the right-hand side"; in this way "property . . . has taken on . . . a life and character of its own. . . . The world is dissolved into numbers" (67; 69; 70-71; 64-72). Ch. 4: A Disease of the Heart. Columbus and the nature of money in his time (73-77). The quest for gold and silver in the New World; Potosí (77-80). Inflation-caused convulsion in Spain (8084). Don Quixote as the "combat to the death of money and romance"(85; 8486). The Merchant of Venice, another profound "meditation on money" (87-92). Timon of Athens presents gold as a "diabolical stone [that] turns everything into its opposite" (94; 93-95). "There can be no tragedy in the age of money" (95; cf. "in the age of money where all values are and can only be relative and inconstant, there can be no tragedy, as there can be no epic" ). Ch. 5: The Floating World. In "men and money," not in territory, lies the strength of a people (98; 96-98). But the example of the Dutch caused the dawning in the 17th & 18th centuries of an awareness that the "treasure . . . on which the whole enterprise rested was not metal but faith" (98; 98-102). Banking led to an elusive quest for understanding (102-07). the tulip mania of 1637 as one of many consequences of "the Dutch discovery of a monetary reality behind appearances" (112; 10712). "[P]robability and compound interest" replace "an immortal soul and a benign providence" as "the theology of modernity" (113). Insurance (113-16). "[M]onetary personalities": the beau, the dandy, the gambler (116-20). Money transformed Japan in the 17th-century Toshugawa Shogunate and produced the melancholy aesthetic of ukiyo, the 'floating world' (120-26). Ch. 6: Mississippi Dreaming: On the Fame of John Law. John Law [1671-
1729], the richest man in all of history for about 500 days in 1719-1720 (127-29). "The System" was a world-historical moment (129-30). Pellegrini's 130-foot ceiling painting of the Salle de Mississippi at Law's bank was destroyed in 1724, it is "the great lost work of modernity" (130). Law's System was so modern that only recently has it been understood; this explains his present obscurity (131-33). John Law was "the greatest of all Scots" (133). At the heart of Law's system is "a notion of money as something without substance . . . [in Money and Trade Considered, with a Proposal for Supplying the Nation with Money (1705)] Law presented precisely the theory underlying the modern banknote, which is 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 the value for which Goods are exchanged, but the Value by which they are exchanged" (137). Law, born in Edinburgh, fled England after killing a man in a duel; he went to Scotland, then Paris (134-39). Louis XIV's death gave Law his opening: France's finances were bankrupt and Law tried to save them with a system that "I do not think . . . was a 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 a Federalist coup d'état, a "the triumph of creditor over debtor, money over virtue and religion, commerce over liberty" (155; 155-58). "The issues of paper money [the assignats] by the French revolutionaries are . . . the revolution itself" (158; 158-63). After Waterloo, the British instituted the Gold Standard, called by Keynes "part of the apparatus of conservatism," which collapsed with World War I and its aftermath (164; 16365). Complexities of women and money: inheritance, work, sex (165-75). Money in economic theory (175-82). But
"economics is not a science" (182); Dostoevsky shows that "the end of economics" is "the world reduced to a scorching slum, its women to whores, its men to murderers" (183). Ch. 8: Death in Dean St. Romanticism represents a homesickness for a vanished world, but [t]ourism is the Romantic excursion at retail" (190); "the sensation of beauty cannot survive in the age of money: for any beauty must be exploited . . . The sole aesthetic sensation of modernity is nausea: permanent, lethal nausea" (191; 184-92). Marx saw the world created by money as a phantasmagoria that must be broken (192-202). Freud (202-03). Balzac and Baudelaire (204-07). But "poetry, the perfection of language, has a special quality, which is this: it is beyond money and all its entanglements. It costs nothing to write or read and remember, belongs to everybody, can't be sold and lasts for ever" (207). Ch. 9: The Sheet of Glass. Family history: how the life of John Buchan (1811-1883), the author's great-greatgrandfather, was ruined in the 1878 failure of the City of Glasgow Bank, and how this ruin affected his descendants, especially his famous grandfather, John Buchan (1875-1940) (208-19). Ch. 10: Mississippi Dreaming: Reprise. Henry Adams, who saw America dominated not so much by money as by the pursuit of money: "The American mind had less respect for money than the European or Asiatic mind, and bore its loss more easily; but it had been deflected by its pursuit till it could turn in no other direction" (223, from The Education of Henry Adams; 220-24). New York City, whose bustle is entirely "for money" (226; 224-28). Law and money are fundamental categories by which Americans "arrange their reality"; they delight in credit and do not build to last (228-39). Americans are
credulous in their belief that "money [and markets] conveys knowledge"; in fact, "markets condense not knowledge but desire" (239-43). Ch. 11: The Sinews of War. Money replaces violence in human affairs, but by a sort of reflux "is itself the chief object of violence" (244-45). Money is the 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 means of "a great money fraud" that enabled Germans to work at "destroying themselves" (256; 252-56). The money of Theresienstadt (256-60). Fear of a European Central Bank; "The continentals misunderstood the nature of money" (261-67). Ch. 12: Money: A Valediction. Summary of the book's argument (26872). John Maynard Keynes (272-76). Pace Keynes, money cannot disappear: "Money expresses man's permanent dissatisfaction, which is the spring of his activity, his achievements, and his profound unhappiness. Like desire itself, money is destroyed only to be reborn" (277). But money is "a great destroyer" (278) and its "compulsory nature" must be broken lest we be at "permanent war with nature and one another" (280). Only non-monetary values—religion, beauty, honor, charity, virtue—can do this (280-82). Notes. 27 pp. Index. 13 pp. About the Author. James Buchan covered the Middle East ("long residences on the Arabian Peninsula and in Iran" ), Europe, and the U.S. ("in the 1980s" ) for ten years for the Financial Times of London, and has written several novels, one of which won the Whitbread First Novel Award (A Parish of Rich Women).
[Additional information. James Buchan, born on Jun. 11, 1954, is a member of a notable family of Scottish writers; both his father, William Buchan, 3rd Baron Tweedsmuir (1916-2008) and grandfather of John Buchan (1875-1940; governor general of Canada, 1935-1940) wrote popular novels, memoirs, and histories, but in his father's era the family fell upon hard times (cf. 11). James Buchan was educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford. He is married to Lady Evelyn Rose Phipps, daughter of the 4th marquess of Normansby; they have three children. Buchan wrote this book "in Bloomsbury Square," London (135). [Critique. This is a very unusual and original work that the author acknowledges to be "amateur and impressionistic" (11). Its manner is highly personal, yet its subject impersonal (Kirkus Reviews called it "discursive and idiosyncratic"). Buchan challenges the reader with opaque, cryptic, even hyperbolic modes of expression. An erudite man, he assumes his reader is well grounded in history and literature. Buchan's thinking is often difficult to follow and is expressed in a manner designed to force the reader to
slow down and reflect. This is a book for pondering and rereading. As he anticipated (268), professional readers have dismissed it. For example, Adrian Ash of Bullion Vault wrote: "More philosophy than economics, less education than poetry, Frozen Desire has been called 'one man's obsession with everybody else's obsession with money'—and the ticks and twitches of too much research, too many lost hours amongst the library stacks, show on almost every page. Unsure why it started, the book upends itself by closing with . . . hopeless, romantic idealism." But ecologist Peter Warshall of Whole Earth Catalog, who holds a Ph.D. in biological anthropology from Harvard, called Buchan "the only nonfiction writer willing to trek into this dangerous world . . . His breadth is huge, from Homer to Rembrandt to liability/asset management to John Law. And quixotic. . . . An accomplished writer with a roller-coaster style that loops you back to read the best paragraphs two or three times." Buchan hoped Frozen Desire would "survive for a while as a sort of byway of the study of money, like an alley one enters to escape the blinding, crowded street" (268), and there are signs this has come to pass.]
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