For a Few Dollars More

Frank Kermode

  • Frozen Desire: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money by James Buchan
    Picador, 320 pp, £17.99, September 1997, ISBN 0 330 35527 9

‘I have no life except in poetry,’ runs an aphorism of Wallace Stevens; but in another he says ‘Money is a kind of poetry,’ so the fact that he spent his working life as vice-president of a large insurance company did not invalidate the claim. It is plausible enough that money, with all its promises of pleasure, the anxieties it brings by being elsewhere when needed, the care one is expected to take to prevent it from disappearing unexpectedly, and, I suppose, the delight to be had in simply making it, has a certain relationship with poetry. And in so far as it is believed, whether sensibly or not, that money is somehow real and credit merely imaginary, we, who largely live on credit (mortgages, credit cards etc), could claim with Wallace Stevens that our whole life, whether we are reading or writing poetry or applying for life insurance, is an affair of the imagination. As a certain Richard Price explained in 1778, paper money must be thought of as the sign of a sign. If coin signified real value, paper, ‘owing its currency to opinion’, had ‘only a local and imaginary value’.[*] We have no choice but to re-imagine it daily.

I looked forward to this book because my attempts to understand its subject, interesting as I find it, have hitherto always failed. If it had an affinity to poetry, which I can sometimes handle reasonably well, I was missing it. In particular it was puzzling that it was precisely when one needed money that it was always hard to find; I remember I was once suddenly switched from monthly to quarterly pay, and filling the gap was a huge problem, greater in those days (when the bank manager wrote sternly if you overdrew by four or five pounds) than it would be now, when banks implore one to borrow as if there were no tomorrow. Much later, if you’re lucky, you find yourself not particularly needing anything though within reason able, if you choose, to have it. Money may be Frozen Desire, but when it thaws out Desire may emerge less lively than one had hoped.

James Buchan would agree that it isn’t much use talking to economists about these money mysteries, for they will all tell you different things, with little in common except their unintelligibility. He himself clearly does know a lot about all these matters and is pleasantly and even passionately involved in them, though admitting that they are ‘diabolically hard to write about’. Apart from a few excited passages in which he has failed to gauge the ignorance of such a reader as myself, he is willing to explain the mysteries in reasonably ordinary language.

There are moments when he becomes poetic about money, calling it an invention at least as great as language, and agreeing with Stevens that you can produce poetry from both. And, just as we are willing or even eager to admire some wicked poets, he has a certain regard for certain operators who have learned how to manage money on what might properly be called an epic scale. On the whole, though, he decides that money is bad for us, that it can be blamed for much, even most, if not all, our woe. It is the forbidden tree, and that is itself an epic theme. Moreover he dares to hope that in some fortunate future we’ll regain paradise and find the tree gone.

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[*] I borrow this quotation from Peter de Bolla’s grippingly difficult chapter, ‘The Discourse of Debt’, in his book The Discourse of the Sublime (Blackwell, 1989).