Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money

100 Million Deutschmark note, 1923

I first thought about money in 1978, in the city of Jeddah on the Red Sea. I thought about banknotes, collected in bundles and held by twine, and delivered to my hand in an unsealed envelope on the last Wednesday of each lunar month.

In those days I worked at a newspaper I’ll call the Saudi News. It was in a plywood building at the end of the airport runway, and the newspaper and the building and the airport have since vanished; for they were embarrassing physical reminders of an earlier epoch in Saudi history, the years before 1973, before money. The quadrupling of the dollar price of crude oil at the end of that year had detonated the world’s trading system, and money was streaming into Saudi Arabia as once the silver of America into Spain.

The room I worked in had two windows blocked by air conditioners, four steel desks, four burst chairs and four manual typewriters, a telephone with one outside line, a glutinous carpet, and a strip of fluorescent light. On that Wednesday night, the last of the lunar month, I sensed the room begin to shake and roar; the accountant glided in with his briefcase and flip-flops; a blizzard of Arabic greeting (“My darling,” “My sweet”); and then the haul of envelopes from the briefcase, like fish pulled in on a hand-line.

This moment wanted to appear – and perhaps did appear to some of my friends in the room – as a moment of unity that abolished our identities as British or Yemeni or Indian or Egyptian and relabeled us as men, who labor and are paid. The banknotes, with portraits of King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud (who never had any money till Standard Oil of California gave him thirty-five thousand sovereigns in 1933) or King Faisal (who was murdered in 1975), were our common consolation for the nights of work and days without sleep, the indifference of our hosts, the misery of our women if we had them and of our solitude if we hadn’t. And for the treadmill of heat.

Within the consolation of money was an exasperation.  These banknotes inflamed our particular or national humiliations. For the Egyptian, it could not make good the demolition of a worldly Arab culture that had arisen in the metropolises of the Delta and flourished in the Arab nationalism of Abdul Nasser; while it reminded the Eritreans and Sudanese and the Somali head proofreader with scars on his cheeks, that their grandfathers and grandmothers had been slaves. Their bearing toward me, communicated not in words but in reflexes, was tinged with shame and pity: that an Englishman, whose grandfathers had organized these sheikhs, sold them armored cars and planes if they were good and, if they were bad, shipped them on destroyers to picturesque islets, should now take their pay.

The moment dissipated. My friends picked up their money, gripped it at the twine between the middle and index finger of the right hand, flicked it over, and with the thumb counted the notes fanned by the counter-force of the flick. This action, both familiar and deft, occupied them for half a minute; but I left my money uncounted. That was for several reasons. I was not capable of such dexterity – I’d tried and taken instruction. I was indifferent to its sum, not only because a hundred-riyal note really would not be missed in a ten thousand-riyal bundle, but also because I sensed that indifference, the vice and virtue of the British, was my chief protection in this gaol and linked me to our masters, who themselves never really believed in the prosperity that had fallen on them in a few days of October 1973, and could quite happily return to herding and growing dates and trading bullion and fleecing pilgrims.

What need had I of money? There was nothing I wanted to buy. I had no interest in what people now call positional goods, for where were my witnesses, my publicity? Not this demoralized Babel or a dying generation in England, absorbed in a society that was manifestly on its last legs: the future, in the shape of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag, was at that moment struggling to take form. And though my mind’s eye filled with lawns and swimming pools tended by placid women, cold horses, bank robbery, spectacular and maudlin acts of secret charity, inextricable frauds, my intellect told me those were merely metaphors of extinction or escape. I didn’t care to provide for my old age, for I didn’t think I’d have one. Anyway, I couldn’t put out the money at interest, for interest was haram [anathema], and the banks paid their depositors just half a percent of commission (while they lent their money abroad at eight and earned fabulous profits and no doubt a fair stay in hell). I could not own real estate for rent, for that was denied to foreigners. I could not put the money at risk, for there was no stock market, just as there was no income tax or social security.

In my cauldron of solitude and desire, I thought I should try to learn to think and, for the first time, down ways not chosen for me by teachers or professors or the set questions of newspapers and television. I thought there must be some reason why I was doing what I was doing.

My purpose must have been to acquire money. What was this thing, this watermarked rectangle of paper, engraved by De La Rue in London, but now stinking from some laborer’s armpit, worthless in itself, but available for commerce or hoarding by consent (and not always even then, for badu taxi drivers would sometimes reject a clean note, merely because it felt obscurely wrong to them)? That was stronger than love of liberty or women, self-respect and despair; or rather that drew into itself a portion of all those sentiments? That was, it seemed, a self-evident and self-sufficient purpose for all the human existences I saw around me.

I was not interested in the operation of money in society or the creation of social wealth. The science we now call economics seemed to me, from my reading and a study of the Saudi economy – admittedly primitive – modest in its aims.  In reality, economics seemed to have fallen prey to the very social mechanism it attempted to describe and authorize, and the various theories merely confirmed or denied the privileges or fantasies of social classes. Even so, I busied myself with economics, rather as one might learn the rules of baseball: as a social adornment, and to put people at their ease. Yet I could never penetrate beyond the first pages of Ricardo or Marshall without a sort of exasperation – that long before money had even been defined to my satisfaction, we had moved on to the profits of stock, as if all study of money were a mere distraction from its pursuit. I learned bookkeeping, and for a moment the world came into focus, as if I had mastered philosophical German. In reality, to describe the world purely in terms of the replacement value in money of its institutions and inhabitants was itself at best ideology, at worst insanity.

In 1980, I picked fights with several influential men and was politely shown the way to the airport. I converted my bundles of riyals into sterling; they made, I guess, about thirty thousand pounds, or the equivalent in purchasing power of about seventy-five thousand in the money of 1997. Because I regarded money with suspicion, I changed it into property of one type or another, and that accorded with the spirit of an inflationary age. The money was, in its time, a mortgaged house in Lavender Hill, a slow racehorse, stock in the Dresdner Bank, an excessive number of eighteenth-century engravings of St. Petersburg, an apartment in lower Manhattan, stock in supermarket corporations. At each transition, it shed chips off the side to stockbrokers, picture dealers, realtors, the Inland Revenue, the Customs and Excise, the IRS and the Federal Taxation Office, but always disintegrated into more money than at its previous dissolution. I traveled the world at this period and assembled an obsessive collection of banknotes which I stored in the drawer of an old desk my mother had left me in her will: a highly symptomatic action, I recognize. There were Yemeni and Iranian riyals, Kuwaiti dinars, Iraqi dinars, West and East German marks, United States and Fijian and Maria Theresa dollars, zlotys, rubles, rupees, shekels, Ecuadorean sucres, Mexican and Chilean pesos, French and Swiss francs, English, Turkish, and Egyptian pounds.

It was not a miser’s collection, for they were daily, with a few exceptions, becoming useless as a hoard or medium of payment. I experimented once with a high Turkish bill, ten years old, which I presented at Istanbul airport in the belief it might still buy a packet of fags. It couldn’t buy Chiclets. So much for the economists’ store of value! I kept them because I sensed their value evaporating, their moneyness seeping into the old satinwood, till they were just colored paper you couldn’t even write on. And at some moment – I cannot remember when – looking at that confetti, I had a thought: I realized that moneyness was not a permanent attribute of those pieces of paper, but attended them for a period of their existence, rather as good fortune had attended me as a young man; in reality, attended them only so long as they were in motion. The banknotes shared that character with no other physical object, for a clock remains a clock and an automobile a vehicle even when they do not move. Further, I realized money must be visible, for a buried hoard is not money until it is exhumed; and must have an owner, for a banknote blowing in the street, like an Egyptian half-pound I once saw on the Corniche of Alexandria, is not money until it is run after and picked up, as my companion ran after it and picked it up. Money becomes money only at the instant it incorporates a wish; and I saw that it was a treadmill, that it led us all on a mad bacchanal from which we could not break out and sit down.

At about that time, a change came over my life. The money from Jeddah began to breed, first slowly, then convulsively. While I slept, or was drunk, or made love, or smoked a Benson on the porch, my money worked; and, as far as I could tell, with smaller effort and for greater reward than I did. My future receded down a darkling enfilade of compound interest, as if two mirrors had been placed to face each other. I felt an unbearable regret: that that lightness which comes with empty pockets, the airy, tremulous sense of self which had been mine throughout my teens, the alienation from even the fabric of commercial society, its street corners and bullying office blocks and lighted shops – in short, my liberty – was now lost to me, possibly forever. I felt disabled. It was as if my subject, while enabling this project by relieving me of care, were also mocking me.

Together with this disesteem of money was a new and exaggerated esteem for money. In Britain, Germany, the states of Central Europe, Russia, Latin America – indeed everywhere I went, but particularly in Britain – money was quickly displacing all other psychological goals. Duty, religion, public service, liberty, equality, justice, or aristocracy – all the cultural flesh that clothed the bones of money for those that possessed it – all became suspect; only money, it seemed, was to be trusted. In Britain, at least, that no doubt had to do with the frustrations of the young who had had it up to here with the senile prattle of a society they thought ripe for the boneyard. In Russia and Eastern Europe, money took on the character of emancipation and modernity more comprehensively than even the early paper money of the United States or the first issues of assignnats in revolutionary Paris. Only money could measure success or failure, happiness or misery. Only money could reward or punish. States and governments must just stand back, and money – which reconciles all clashes of human will – would see us right. Money was good.

Now, I had learned by then that money is our greatest invention, has done more to make our civilization even than letters – for those must be translated, whereas money is the language that almost every human being speaks and understands; enabled the movement of people and ideas; given us world wars and monuments of architecture; transformed our notions of luxury or want. As a means, I saw money was all but absolute: it could now realize every fantasy of creation or murder. And it was transforming once again: into an absolute end. Money was valued not for its power to convey wishes; rather, it was the goal of all wishes. Money was enthroned as the God of Our Times.

One Sunday in Hampstead, I walked into a junk fair and saw, on a table among fake Bohemian glass and ratty trinkets, a set of currency notes in a cellophane wrapper. Behind the table was a small old woman. She seemed fragile, cunning, old-fashioned, cosseted, like a painted Easter egg in cotton wool. I sensed she must have been hard-used at one time and had not lived much or changed her habits since that time. I looked at the glass and the W.I. badges and then, offhand-like, at the notes.

“How much are these?”

She looked at me. She was trying to establish their value in British money, which was not easy for her because they had no value to her, and because she did not know of my obsession, did not know their value to me. She could not judge my willingness to buy, only my ability, and for that she must look to my appearance, which was not encouraging: I was wearing jeans and flip-flops and had not shaved. I was not used up by my investigation – No, ma’am! – but had become careless about my dress, no longer wore a suit north of Oxford Street, disliked giving occasion for any monetary predicate. I had abandoned financial speculation and even spending money except in a new addiction to tobacco: the gold of the cigarette packet soothed and excited me more than ever the metal.

“It’ll have to be twenty-five pounds. They’re…”

I knew what they were. At that moment, I thought (though not necessarily in this order), how deep are the ironies of my topic that for these currency notes, which never ever bought anything, I am about to exchange something that’ll buy this lady heat or light of Kaffee und Kuchen, and that I am now reversing the famous law that holds that bad money drives out good. The money in its wrapper on the table was not just bad, but the worst ever minted. I picked up the notes and put them down again. The topmost was biscuit-colored, watermarked, in good condition. Its face value was a hundred crowns. It was dated January 1, 1943, in Austrian German, and signed by a Jakob Edelstein. Its reverse showed the sum and a warning in High German which read: ANY PERSON COUNTERFEITING OR COPYING THESE BILLS OR HANDLING FORGED BILLS WILL BE SEVERLY PUNISHED. In a roundel was a nice portrait of Moses carrying the Ten Commandments.

I paid twenty pounds.

These notes, which were signed by the Chief Elder of the Council of Jews in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt in Bohemia and issued as wages or dole, barely circulated, according to the historian of the town, and were used chiefly as counters in card games. Jakob Edelstein was murdered at Birkenau on July 20, 1944. The notes stood in the same relation to reality as the postcards certain deported prisoners sent from Poland: The journey was exhausting but without incident. The fraud and consolation that inheres in all money becomes, in these Ghettokronen, pure deceit, pure fantasy. People believed in them as we all believe in money, because without it we cannot live in the world, which presses in, becomes a prison at night clanking with long trains setting out for the north.

James Buchan
Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money (1997)

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