Several authors in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly take the liberty of doing so, and I like to think that their presumption serves a greater good than the lighting of an Easter candle for the soul of Citibank or the falling prostrate on a prayer rug in Dubai. Although I know that it ill becomes a true American to find fault with the dream of riches that wins presidential elections and waters the deserts of California, I also know that the accumulation of too many converts to “the world’s leading religion” (like the too abundant concentration of methane gas released by the livestock in the nation’s feed lots) sucks the oxygen out of the atmosphere and wilts the roses. Transfer to money the properties of mind and spirit for which it often stands as surrogate—the freedoms of thought, the play of the imagination, the consolations of philosophy—and sooner or later it comes to pass that instead of the people owning the money, the money owns the people. The poor return on the investment sinks to the bottom lines reported in the newspapers under the headings of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, panic on Wall Street, the deteriorating health and happiness of the American people, the depreciating value of the American dollar, the melting of the Greenland ice sheets, and the disappearance of the honeybees.
If it’s nothing new to say that the fervent love of money results in predictably high yields of stupidity and fear (the Bible is explicit on the point, as were Aristophanes and Adam Smith), what comes as a surprise is the news that we seem to have constructed a universe requiring us to inflate the lovelorn speculation to record highs. Over the course of the last century, the immense expansion of the world’s money supply has been produced by correspondingly immense extensions of credit, which in turn demand increasingly generous suspensions of disbelief. As opposed to objects that can be firmly grasped—jewels, furs, gold coins, captive women—wealth consists of nothing more substantial than the icons making cameo appearances on Google. Jack Weatherford’s essay, “Prometheus Unbound” (page 187), speaks to the vast but invisible cloud of energy set free in the international currency market, $3.2 trillion orbiting the globe at the speed of light—money as pure spirit, immaterial and transcendent, trading at all hours of the day and night (if not in New York or London, then in Hong Kong, Sydney, and Mumbai); the sum of mortal man’s desire compacted into immortal abstraction, unburdened by the need to plant a crop, dig a well, reap a harvest, destroy a castle, or build a church. The flesh becomes word, and in the metaphors inscribed on its computer screens, the modern world finds a digital analogue for the revealed truth streaming down upon the medieval kings of France through the stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral.
The enterprising merchants who wrote the Constitution in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 had it in mind to make their new republic safe for the dream of riches (by the word “liberty,” they meant liberty for property, not persons), and in the pages that follow, it’s no accident that more than a fair share of the commentary is American in attitude and tone. Interpreting the scripture of money is a native art and craft, adapted by the Calvinist clergy in Boston to the blessing of fortunes extracted from the slave trade and the traffic in contraband rum, developed in Benjamin Franklin’s self-help manuals and Alexander Hamilton’s 1790 report to Congress promoting the need for a national bank, further revised and amended over the next 218 years by writers as otherwise unlike one another as Melville, Dreiser, and Fitzgerald into what becomes a national pastime more dearly beloved than baseball.
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