No Matter How Poetic, It’s Still the Filthy Lucre

Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money , by James Buchan. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 320 pages, $25.

Money is like sex. Everyone knows, or pretends to know, something about it but finally no one understands it. And except for the saintly few who do without, most people want more of it.

In his incisive new book, the novelist James Buchan (who also served as a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times ) takes a long, hard look at money, with extended riffs on money in history, money and language, money and desire. He offers us cold comfort: Economics, which Marx called the dismal science, is no science at all, since its theories can be neither proved nor refuted; markets do not operate according to law; political economy occupies the same place in our world that medieval scholastic philosophy did just before its airy abstractions were exploded by the new experimental sciences of the Renaissance.

Both money and language, our two greatest inventions, represent imaginings and cravings. The “frozen desire” of Mr. Buchan’s title refers not to the newest high-fat Scandinavian ice cream, but to the congealing of our wishes, which money alone can make superior to actual goods. Like a potent literary symbol, it takes over for the thing it stands for.

Mr. Buchan is a metaphysician in spite of himself. With his old-fashioned British education-literary, speculative, unscientific, various-he confesses that he “wanted to pierce the veil of money … to find … the emotions and sensations that nestled there.” What he found, of course, during the process of making money and writing about it was that “money becomes money only at the instant it incorporates a wish”; it has no intrinsic value. Desire knows no limits, and money-desire incarnate-is both imaginary and a stimulus to our imaginations. For precisely this reason, Mr. Buchan confesses, money “is diabolically hard to comprehend with words.”

A writer has only words at his disposal. Although you come away from this book knowing more about certain famous episodes, crises and events in the history of money-such as the invention of double-entry bookkeeping, the tulip craze in 17th-century Holland, the man who coined the word “millionaire,” the mirrors-and-smoke economy of Nazi Germany-you never become wiser about the main subject. But you will be impressed with the intelligence and fervor of Mr. Buchan’s own style. Language may not express money, but it certainly expresses the man who knows what to do with it.

One has to admire this beginning: “I first thought about money in 1978, in the city of Jeddah on the Red Sea. I thought about bank notes, collected in bundles and held by twine, and delivered to my hand, in an unsealed airmail envelope, on the last Wednesday of each lunar month.” Weaving his way among autobiography (Me and My Money), history and fanciful speculation, the author here does for his subject what Alberto Manguel did last year in his similarly eclectic and indispensable A History of Reading .

Mr. Buchan confesses with some sadness right at the start that he realized in the Arabian desert that he belonged with the laborer, that he was in fact enslaved, made captive by the very wages that inspired him. Frozen Desire is quite simply the enslaved man’s effort to free himself by understanding his situation and tossing off his chains. His introduction ends with an anecdote about his purchase-from an old woman at a junk fair in Hampstead, England-of a packet of bank notes from the Theresienstadt concentration camp. This was the “model” camp, which the Nazis showed off to credulous Red Cross representatives and other gullible witnesses. Mr. Buchan buys the notes to keep as a garish souvenir. “The fraud and consolation that inheres in all money becomes, in these Ghettokronen , pure deceit, pure fantasy.… As Byron kept a skull upon his desk, so I keep these notes in their cellophane wrapper.… so that I do not forget the people of Theresienstadt and my eventual pauper’s grave.”

From this sober beginning Mr. Buchan takes flight. This is a great book to sit down with and savor, especially if one wants the ambiguous satisfaction of knowing that all societies seem to have been comparably venal, selfish and self-deluded. Money has a history. It came into the world, like language, in different places (Mr. Buchan begins with the coins of ancient Greece), and now that the world is smaller and everyone has eliminated the gold standard, the Age of Faith has given way to the age of money, which threatens to plunge us all (again) into perilous instability.

Like money itself, none of Mr. Buchan’s musings is particularly new. But words are like money: What matters is not what you have but how you use it, and his style transforms what might have been a dull dissertation (there are some sections that will prove rough sledding to the numerically challenged reader) into something of value. He spins speculative straw into literary gold.

Mr. Buchan invests his language with smart, judicious phrases, by turns aphoristic, moving, and rhetorically balanced: “The tragedy of the Jews of medieval Europe, murdered and mulcted of their wealth because it is in money, becomes the comedy of the Restoration.” Or, “The articles of the Bank of England are a bourgeois magna carta : What the barons had started at Runnymede was completed in Threadneedle Street.” His wonderment in the face of his subject provokes as many questions as answers. “Who has not sat in a Victorian railway station, anxious or delayed, and felt overpowered by the yearning in the architecture? For, in reality, those buildings are acts of worship. They celebrate, in awe and fear, the God-like power of money to bring together so many distant and estranged impulses and concentrate them at a single point of space and history.”

Mr. Buchan really hits his stride in the last chapters, as he zeroes in on what he knows best: his Glaswegian ancestors, and then America and the tumultuous century that is drawing to a close. Again, there is nothing novel in his discussion of Americans’ obsession with money (Mark Twain had him beat by a hundred years; Henry Adams knew that after 1865, it was a banker’s world.) Still, when he takes satiric aim, he always hits the target. For this Brit, the Manhattan skyline is “petrified money,” every New Yorker “is in the process of becoming another New Yorker,” and the city-“as Venice was to Goethe-is a triumph of human artifice.” Where an Englishman, seduced by the lure of the land and ancestral estates, builds to last, American property is like money: insubstantial, transitory.

Everyone knows someone who has been penalized by a credit card company for constantly paying on time instead of increasing consumer debt. In the United States, debt is liberty; in the Old World, it’s imprisonment. We Yanks are, according to Mr. Buchan, too trusting about money. Embattled desire, not real knowledge, drives our dealings in the stock market. We think a stock will go up if we want it to. And shopping is the great American way of preventing a recurrence of the Depression, since it “expresses a deep and patriotic motivation: to banish reality for ever.”

Mr. Buchan’s tone turns from inquisitive, playful and sardonic to prophetic and alarmist at the end. There’s something jarring in his final cliché, that we “need to break the compulsory nature of money and make possible a future in which we are not at permanent war with nature and one another,” not because it is untrue or has been heard before, but because it changes the spirit of the book up to that point. Mr. Buchan plays a messianic trump card or sounds a trumpet of the last judgment, but it rings a little hollow. The bulk of his contemplation has suggested that whatever we do or do not know about money, one thing is for sure: The frozen desires that it represents will not thaw, let alone disappear. Human pettiness and greed, perennial staples of our existence, will always be part of the currency.

Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money, by James Buchan. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 320 pages, $25.

Money is like sex. Everyone knows, or pretends to know, something about it but finally no one understands it. And except for the saintly few who do without, most people want more of it.

In his incisive new book, the novelist James Buchan (who also served as a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times ) takes a long, hard look at money, with extended riffs on money in history, money and language, money and desire. He offers us cold comfort: Economics, which Marx called the dismal science, is no science at all, since its theories can be neither proved nor refuted; markets do not operate according to law; political economy occupies the same place in our world that medieval scholastic philosophy did just before its airy abstractions were exploded by the new experimental sciences of the Renaissance.

Both money and language, our two greatest inventions, represent imaginings and cravings. The “frozen desire” of Mr. Buchan’s title refers not to the newest high-fat Scandinavian ice cream, but to the congealing of our wishes, which money alone can make superior to actual goods. Like a potent literary symbol, it takes over for the thing it stands for.

Mr. Buchan is a metaphysician in spite of himself. With his old-fashioned British education-literary, speculative, unscientific, various-he confesses that he “wanted to pierce the veil of money … to find … the emotions and sensations that nestled there.” What he found, of course, during the process of making money and writing about it was that “money becomes money only at the instant it incorporates a wish”; it has no intrinsic value. Desire knows no limits, and money-desire incarnate-is both imaginary and a stimulus to our imaginations. For precisely this reason, Mr. Buchan confesses, money “is diabolically hard to comprehend with words.”

A writer has only words at his disposal. Although you come away from this book knowing more about certain famous episodes, crises and events in the history of money-such as the invention of double-entry bookkeeping, the tulip craze in 17th-century Holland, the man who coined the word “millionaire,” the mirrors-and-smoke economy of Nazi Germany-you never become wiser about the main subject. But you will be impressed with the intelligence and fervor of Mr. Buchan’s own style. Language may not express money, but it certainly expresses the man who knows what to do with it.

One has to admire this beginning: “I first thought about money in 1978, in the city of Jeddah on the Red Sea. I thought about bank notes, collected in bundles and held by twine, and delivered to my hand, in an unsealed airmail envelope, on the last Wednesday of each lunar month.” Weaving his way among autobiography (Me and My Money), history and fanciful speculation, the author here does for his subject what Alberto Manguel did last year in his similarly eclectic and indispensable A History of Reading .

Mr. Buchan confesses with some sadness right at the start that he realized in the Arabian desert that he belonged with the laborer, that he was in fact enslaved, made captive by the very wages that inspired him. Frozen Desire is quite simply the enslaved man’s effort to free himself by understanding his situation and tossing off his chains. His introduction ends with an anecdote about his purchase-from an old woman at a junk fair in Hampstead, England-of a packet of bank notes from the Theresienstadt concentration camp. This was the “model” camp, which the Nazis showed off to credulous Red Cross representatives and other gullible witnesses. Mr. Buchan buys the notes to keep as a garish souvenir. “The fraud and consolation that inheres in all money becomes, in these Ghettokronen , pure deceit, pure fantasy.… As Byron kept a skull upon his desk, so I keep these notes in their cellophane wrapper.… so that I do not forget the people of Theresienstadt and my eventual pauper’s grave.”

From this sober beginning Mr. Buchan takes flight. This is a great book to sit down with and savor, especially if one wants the ambiguous satisfaction of knowing that all societies seem to have been comparably venal, selfish and self-deluded. Money has a history. It came into the world, like language, in different places (Mr. Buchan begins with the coins of ancient Greece), and now that the world is smaller and everyone has eliminated the gold standard, the Age of Faith has given way to the age of money, which threatens to plunge us all (again) into perilous instability.

Like money itself, none of Mr. Buchan’s musings is particularly new. But words are like money: What matters is not what you have but how you use it, and his style transforms what might have been a dull dissertation (there are some sections that will prove rough sledding to the numerically challenged reader) into something of value. He spins speculative straw into literary gold.

Mr. Buchan invests his language with smart, judicious phrases, by turns aphoristic, moving, and rhetorically balanced: “The tragedy of the Jews of medieval Europe, murdered and mulcted of their wealth because it is in money, becomes the comedy of the Restoration.” Or, “The articles of the Bank of England are a bourgeois magna carta : What the barons had started at Runnymede was completed in Threadneedle Street.” His wonderment in the face of his subject provokes as many questions as answers. “Who has not sat in a Victorian railway station, anxious or delayed, and felt overpowered by the yearning in the architecture? For, in reality, those buildings are acts of worship. They celebrate, in awe and fear, the God-like power of money to bring together so many distant and estranged impulses and concentrate them at a single point of space and history.”

Mr. Buchan really hits his stride in the last chapters, as he zeroes in on what he knows best: his Glaswegian ancestors, and then America and the tumultuous century that is drawing to a close. Again, there is nothing novel in his discussion of Americans’ obsession with money (Mark Twain had him beat by a hundred years; Henry Adams knew that after 1865, it was a banker’s world.) Still, when he takes satiric aim, he always hits the target. For this Brit, the Manhattan skyline is “petrified money,” every New Yorker “is in the process of becoming another New Yorker,” and the city-“as Venice was to Goethe-is a triumph of human artifice.” Where an Englishman, seduced by the lure of the land and ancestral estates, builds to last, American property is like money: insubstantial, transitory.

Everyone knows someone who has been penalized by a credit card company for constantly paying on time instead of increasing consumer debt. In the United States, debt is liberty; in the Old World, it’s imprisonment. We Yanks are, according to Mr. Buchan, too trusting about money. Embattled desire, not real knowledge, drives our dealings in the stock market. We think a stock will go up if we want it to. And shopping is the great American way of preventing a recurrence of the Depression, since it “expresses a deep and patriotic motivation: to banish reality for ever.”

Mr. Buchan’s tone turns from inquisitive, playful and sardonic to prophetic and alarmist at the end. There’s something jarring in his final cliché, that we “need to break the compulsory nature of money and make possible a future in which we are not at permanent war with nature and one another,” not because it is untrue or has been heard before, but because it changes the spirit of the book up to that point. Mr. Buchan plays a messianic trump card or sounds a trumpet of the last judgment, but it rings a little hollow. The bulk of his contemplation has suggested that whatever we do or do not know about money, one thing is for sure: The frozen desires that it represents will not thaw, let alone disappear. Human pettiness and greed, perennial staples of our existence, will always be part of the currency.

No Matter How Poetic, It’s Still the Filthy Lucre