Sunday, August 1, 2010

Money by Giles Watson

Money is the paradox which proves that humans are absurd: we cannot live without it, our governments cannot be persuaded to discuss anything that does not involve it, it is hard to purchase even poetry when deprived of it, and yet it does not actually exist. What is money exactly? If it were a system of work-credits, a case could be made that it was, in fact, something real. But since money itself can be used to make money without any observable work being done, it is clearly not this. Nor does a salary or a wage in any way reflect the amount – or quality – of work that may have been done.

Nor is money a measure of wealth in any reasonable sense. Ancient currencies were reflections of prosperity to a certain extent. Polynesians, trading goods for cowry shells, were at least trading something of utility for something of beauty. The same might be said of cultures which exchanged gold, whether minted as coins or fashioned
into artefacts: it is an inert metal which retains its purity because it does not react with other substances, and there is something beautiful about purity – as a blackbird or a nightingale knows when it sings. A bower bird might collect gold coins to beautify its bower.

Even silver might be said to have some inherent value, since it reflects the world around it, conducts heat and electricity, and can be fashioned into useful objects, such as spoons. But when the Polynesians bashed in heads on account of cowries, and when the Europeans devalued their silver with lead, the beauty and the utility were tainted, just as any precious metal is rendered useless when it becomes a powdery oxide.

In modern societies, the inherent worthlessness of money was tacitly accepted when it came to be transferred in the form of slips of paper – and then even these evaporated into an idea, transferable instantaneously from a computer in Iceland to a computer in Such a development would be a mere curiosity – a testament to the fickleness of the human spirit – were it not for the fact that people die and are killed for it, nations are subjugated because of it, and the needs of other species are entirely neglected due to its influence. Yet if the internet collapsed – let us say, as the result of an accurately aimed asteroid collision – enormous amounts of money would simply evaporate, and
only human beings would deem it important.

The tragedy is that they would deem it so important: a sure sign of enslavement. It is one thing to be a slave to beauty; it is quite another to be enslaved to a figment of the collective imagination. It is not an exaggeration to say that our state of servitude has reached the point at which we are prepared to destroy ourselves and the world as we know it for the sake of something that does not exist. Governments, which should be deciding how best to promote the welfare of the human species whilst ensuring the viability and diversity of the planet on which it lives, are instead slaves to money, and elections are lost and won on the basis of how cavalierly political parties are prepared to prognosticate, pontificate and lie about how they intend to use our money.

Meanwhile, oak trees bleed and wither for want of the money required to fund research into why they are dying. Ecosystems are ravaged because of our craving for natural resources which can be pillaged and converted into money. The pollinators of the plants upon which we subsist are eradicated by farmers hungry for instant money. Individuals and multinationals pump carbon into our atmosphere, knowing that it means certain doom, because in the short term they believe that it will save them from Whilst we, lovelorn in our pursuit of money, court destruction, birds feed their nestlings, without money. Flowers bloom, without money. Microbes infect and reproduce, without money. In fact, the whole of the natural world continues on its merry way, and the only thing that impedes it in its progression is human slavery to money.

And yet, to burn a banknote in a public square is a blasphemy. To be in monetary debt is a state of man, and yet simultaneously a source of shame. To be “rich” is to acquire a consuming and unfulfilling lust for nothing more than money.

Dramatists would say that there is an exquisite irony in this. Human beings have refined some things that other animals pioneered, in a most delightful way. A blackcap or a lyrebird can sing; humans have turned their art to music. A bowerbird can adorn his bower to make his lover swoon; human beings have turned this impulse
to poetry, art, film, dance and a thousand other beauties. A wren can woo his mate with a mayfly proffered in his bill; we can make a symphony, an elegy, a triptych, a Taj Mahal, a pyramid, a Golden Gate Bridge. If we could only demolish the edifice that makes us inexplicable in the eyes of nature, we too could be sublime.

Instead, we reiterate the litany of our enslavement to money. We select, apparently at random, our art-works for sale and re-sale for exorbitant amounts of money. We pimp our profoundest love-offerings at an altar dedicated to money. We prostitute our vision of perfection in our quest for more and yet more money.

Whilst we are doing this, the universe expands. Suns wax into red giants, and then implode. Solar systems, impossibly distant from our own, may or may not support other intelligences. Should they be proven to exist, we wonder, would they too be entangled in some invisible bond of servitude? Or would they, according to their own code of communication, point at us and laugh, and say, “Here, at last, is a planet worthy of our attention – were it not for money”?

Author bio:

Giles has been writing poetry and taking photographs for as long as he can remember, but more recently began painting and drawing in order to illustrate his own work. Giles also writes prose essays on natural history and mediaeval visual culture, is an avid walker and amateur naturalist, and has a keen interest in theatre. He has taught English, History, Drama, Sociology and Film. He is currently working on the libretto for a musical of his own. His photography can be viewed at his Flickr stream.

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