The price of everything and the value of nothing
FROZEN DESIRE: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money by James Buchan, Picador pounds 17.99 THE REAL MEANING OF MONEY by Dorothy Rowe, HarperC ollins pounds 20
Sunday 21 September 1997
James Buchan, as always in his writing, leads with the brain, tackling his Big Questions head-first, bombarding them with a formidable intelligence and coralling them into a firmly historical, fact-filled narrative. Dorothy Rowe, as we'd also expect from her much more psychological orientation, takes another route; she leads with the heart and guts, and concentrates more on individuals, starting apparently from the premise that we're all scared of money, and that we all should be.
It is interesting, given the contrast between the books, that the "meaning" of money comes into both titles. It gives us a clue straight away as to what these Big Questions actually are: that we are not, here, talking about real value - water in the desert, for instance, or an absolute moral sense - or about currency and exchange value either in its broader sense (labour or sex, knowledge or skill) or even in its crazier local manifestations (tobacco in prisons, or the tulip in 17th-century Holland), even though all these things, and many more, are covered by Buchan and often mentioned by Rowe.
No, we are firmly in the world of money as a mental and emotional category. Buchan's title, "Frozen Desire", is only one of many such phrases he coins (sorry) in his book: he also has "incarnate desire" (his own), "coined liberty" (Dostoevsky's), to quote just two. Both books are attempts to discover why money matters. We know all the obvious reasons, which are devastatingly simple; these authors want to work out, it seems, why it isn't in fact simple at all.
Although Dorothy Rowe's style is quite different, a certain breathlessness in the face of the subject also unites the writers. "Money is now quite beyond human control" Rowe tells us early on, and ends her preface with "Understanding money is a matter of understanding ourselves". The cooler- headed Buchan seems to echo some of this in his "Money, which we hope to see and hold every day, is diabolically hard to comprehend with words." Diabolically? This is hardly rational language.
Still, once these early signs of panic are over with, both writers settle down. Buchan traces the public history of money dutifully and skilfully, if sometimes a little stodgily, and takes more entertaining excursions into Shakespeare, for instance, and gender relations. This chapter sees Buchan living dangerously. In the name of tough talking, presumably, he decides to pull no punches, but it would require more than the length of this review sufficiently to take issue with this:
"The reticence of romantic love is three-fold. Money conveys desire: it cares not at all where that desire finds satisfaction. To give money to a woman - and here I must speak as a man - is to deny her special quality, her irreplaceability, and reduce her unique amiability to a commodity. Money takes away her name, while transforming her lover into a nameless customer of a market of appetites."
Because Rowe's book is based more extensively on interviews and people's own expressions of their feelings about money, from children's pocket money to whopping city deals, it takes a line which is easier to sympathise with. But she does occasionally trip herself up on statements which are half crashingly obvious, half obscure ("Clothing is essential in more ways than protecting us from the cold. We use clothing to maintain our sense of existence and ward off the threat of annihilation"). Her book could have been a good deal shorter without losing any of its essence.
So, do either of these books actually answer the Big One: the one about why money is no simple matter? At the end of each book, we feel we know a lot more facts (courtesy of Buchan) or a lot more about attitudes (thanks to Rowe), but in trying to sum up the hard business of financial coinage their linguistic coinage goes a bit haywire. Buchan gets increasingly orotund and schoolmasterish ("So we see..."; "we have learnt that..."): "Amid thoughts like these, we ... marvel at the prophecies of St Matthew: that the agony of Jesus on the Cross was not at his own death but the death of his doctrine ... as he closed his eyes, he saw, first dimly and then with great clarity, the thirty tetradracms."
Perhaps this is an occasion to which one just can't rise. I got increasingly fascinated by the aphorisms and quips which decorate both books. It was Oscar Wilde (always the master) who defined a cynic as a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing; also enjoyable is Somerset Maugham's "Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five". There are many more, and they are more than just entertaining: in some ways, these apparently throwaway remarks get closer to the heart of this scary subject than all the learning in these books, fascinating and highly readable though they both are.
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