Money Madness

I’ve been reading Adam Phillips again. I know, I know, I go on about him a lot, but believe me, he is just a brilliant essayist and one who never fails, with his lucid, accessible and yet always original viewpoint, to make me pause and think. I’ve been enjoying his most recent book Going Sane. It’s far more natural for us to think about, and to define, madness, Phillips, says, whilst sanity becomes an implied condition, the ever-shifting terrain where madness is not, the self-evident ‘natural’ state which is, of course, nothing of the kind. Phillips deftly shows us how sanity is used as a kind of lobbying device to persuade people to do certain things, an idealized state of being that we never really reach, and sometimes a two-dimensional cartoon-ish frame of mind from which all the pithy challenges and the violent emotions of being human have been carefully excluded.

One of the most intriguing sections – probably because I wasn’t expecting to become so interested in it – concerns our culture’s current worship of money as an unfortunate mental aberration. Phillips begins with a very good quote from Maynard Keynes: ‘When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance’ he wrote in 1932, ‘there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles that have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value.’ Now I became very interested at this point, because I think that it’s the capitalist culture that’s undermining the arts in this country. If we only ever appreciate and support ventures that make money, then naturally the arts are going to sink down to the bottom of the list. One of the great virtues of art is to say things people particularly do not want to hear, and who, pray, is going to pay money for that? Similarly the capitalist culture is making a mockery of education, because running schools like businesses means that so-called ‘hard’ subjects like physics, maths and foreign languages simply get dropped from the curriculum so that schools can maintain their pretty meaningless grade averages and their places on league tables. It’s all very dangerous to my mind, as it blinds us to the real value (non-monetary) that art and education can deliver, if we let them.

But Adam Phillips says it much better than I could: ‘When wealth is not being blatantly celebrated as it is in the money-cult we now live in, it is usually described as an object of desire that has waylaid us from a better course in life. The desire for money in this account becomes the desire that sabotages, that betrays all the other, better, desires; that makes them look both old-fashioned and unrealistic.’ I cheered at this point, because I’m regularly accused of being naïve in my opinions on money, which usually subscribe to the cliché that money cannot make you happy, and that once you have sufficient on which to live (I’ll never say that poverty is anything other than ghastly and humiliating, and having money worries is a sordid, thankless way to exist), then it’s time for the real business of living to begin. Yes businesses need to make money to keep the economy ticking over, and only a healthy economy provides the support and services necessary to protect its population, but can we honestly say that’s the situation we live in? Looking around my own culture, I see a lot of waste and inefficiency and confusion; lots of money, yes, unimaginable quantities of money circulating, but little to be proud of to show for it. Oddly, the higher the average standard of living rises, the less we seem to trust ourselves. The need for money plays so acutely on people’s longing for security, and yet if you have two arms, two legs and a brain, if you’re in reasonable health with a certain quantity of common sense then surely there will be work you can do? What kind of a society have we created for ourselves if we all doubt so damagingly our capacity to find a place for our fundamental, let alone our individual, skills?

But I think that’s why the concept of money is so powerful; it plays on our deepest insecurities. Our fear of not being equal to others, of not being valuable or worth anything, our uncertainty that we can survive and remain autonomous. Phillips goes on to say that: ‘The love of money is especially good at exposing the insanity of human desires. Its exorbitance, its carelessness, its brutality, its short-sightedness; the guilt that makes it so aggressive, and the aggression that can make it so un-negotiable; all are revealed.’ Because the desire for money is not actually a desire for anything specific (it only provides the capacity to satisfy some desires if we choose to), it lays out before us the sheer ugliness of desire when it remains untamed and undirected. One way of staying sane, Phillips suggests, has traditionally been to consider what money can’t buy. And that’s why I often find that bookish folk are the ones who are least ready to succumb to the lure of lucre. To enter the world of books and stories and become absorbed into it, you have to be interested in the elusive quality of life that comes from considering how best to live it. The arts don’t make any money because they tell us that there are no quick and easy solutions to the business of living, nothing you can buy over the counter to cure you of life. Instead they invite us to consider our interpersonal relationships, our precarious sense of selfhood, our hopes and fantasies and fears. They suggest that existing is a challenging struggle, full of set backs and uncertainties that can only be survived by the quality of input we ourselves mindfully attempt to bring to it. They ask us to take a good, hard look at ourselves and at the world we’ve created. No wonder the commercial world detests the arts! What they each hold dear stands in direct conflict. But if you’re asking me to pick which perspective holds the sane, rational, accurate depiction of how to create a rich life, then my money’s on the arts every time.

11 thoughts on “Money Madness

  1. Funnily enough, I’ve just read a post over at Persephone’s Box talking about how our wants (for things, and also the money to buy things) are helping to cause the environmental crisis. She wants us to want stuff less. This dovetails so nicely with what you’re saying: that the desire for money does not necessarily lead to happiness and peace. You might try over-the-counter remedies for what life brings, but they not the best coping mechanisms. I love how you say that an immersion in art and stories are better mechanisms for that.

    I also love the suggestion that “sanity” is also a state of flux, that it is not a given. I certainly have my mad days when I’m all over the place, and then my calmer ones when life flows nicely.

  2. Please do go on about Phillips. I bought this book on your recommendation and though I haven’t read it yet, your posts give me a good idea of what it’s about and how he writes.

    Please don’t get me started on the state of mass education. I’m liable to combust. The original ideas behind education, particularly at the tertiary level, no longer exist at least in Canada. The entire industry is nothing more than a vocational factory.

  3. Charlotte – I shall have to have a look at Persephone’s Box. I hadn’t thought of the environmental side of it whilst writing this, but that is another strong argument. And I’m right with you on those mad days; I think they’re the ones where you see the workings at the back of life and get some inkling of their impossible complexity! Imani – oh I do hope you like him. I think he’s wonderful (this will come as no surprise). I am glad to find a fellow battler on the barricades with me, as regards education. How can you have a vocation until your education has shown you what you are fit for? Still, at the risk of both our physical integrities, we should find ways to discuss this more. We need a Slaves of Golconda novel that is concerned with education, no?

  4. Wonderful post. it sort of has echoes of the one on the intellectual you did recently. I find it interesting that we only know what sanity is by saying what it isn’t. I read somewhere that much of what we know about the brain comes from studying brains that aren’t working right. It seems backwards to me.

    As for money, sure I dream of finding the winning lottery ticket on the sidewalk (since I rarely buy a ticket) so I can spend my life as a traveling bookish philanthropist, but if that never happens I am still quite happy. I don’t feel the need to keep up with the Jones’s and buy a bigger house and a bigger car and all that other junk.

    And the educational system, I’m grinding my teeth just thinking about it. I like you idea for a Slave novel.

  5. All right, you’ve inspired me! I could not think of any book in my own collection that fit the bill, nor could I come up with any off the top of my head, so now I’m searching the library catalogue and have found some promising survey-like tomes about “university education in fiction”, “college girls in fiction” and the like. Perhaps I’ll find something promising. And of course everyone else is free to come up with suggestions. Since I get to pick the person who selects the next novel, maybe it could be you, litlove? Or I can make a general post about your idea on the blog and get suggestions? Let me know what you think.

  6. The name threw me for a moment. In Australia we have an essayist and art critic, Phillip Adams. I am one who finds education to be the major casualty of modern capitalism. “What is the need to educate the peons when we are only going to pay them subsistence wages? Education will only make them want more.” Sanity seems to me to be severely over-rated as the rate of “insanity” seems to be increasing. I think back to the Soviet Union and its classification of anyone who disagreed with the State as “Insane”.

    I have an acquaintance who assists in the etching of our banknotes. His opinion is that his art’s on the money, all the time!

  7. Being in education publishing, I’m another one who will say, “Don’t get me started on the state of education and the businesses running it.” I keep hoping it’s only the U.S. where it’s so bad, but I guess that’s just a little fantasy of mine. Meanwhile, I’m with you: I’m lucky enough to have what I need in order to be comfortable, and now I’m into this business of getting on with life and discovering its meaning. For the longest time, I didn’t understand the whole need to “keep up with the Joneses,” but that’s because I was looking at it from the materialistic viewpoint (I couldn’t care less about cars and big houses. As a matter of fact, I’m kind of ashamed I live in a pretty big house, which could easily house a family of five and only houses two), which I don’t understand. However, when once I realized that I’m guilty of “keeping up with the Joneses” when it comes to the numbers of books I read, I decided it must all be part of some innate human need to feel we’re as good as or better than those around us that just manifests itself in different ways according to what’s most important to each of us.

  8. Stefanie – it’s worse that that; there’s a post I was half considering writing about what it actually means to do research in the arts and then I realised it was fundamentally the same thing again as this one and the one on intellectuals!! I’m getting lost in an idee fixe! Imani (and Stefanie too), you’ve got me thinking too now, and why can I not come up with a good novel?? There MUST be one. Do post on it, imani, if it suits your schedule, as we clearly need to bring all our collective book minds together on this one! Archie – no really? I’ll have to read him, just for the pleasure of confusing myself. I think there’s sanity, which is a useful thing that probably incorporates a bit of madness, and then there’s Sanity as tool of propaganda. Loved the line about the artist and the money! Emily – how right you are. I’m wondering where I ‘keep up with the Jones’s’ and it must have something to do with books and reading. How intriguing! You’ve certainly made me think about that some more!

  9. Like Charlotte, I think of the environmental side of this — I see the countryside torn apart so people can build McMansions, which are utterly ridiculous, because while they are supposed to show off the family’s wealth, they look so cheap! That kind of conspicuous consumption — look at us, we have money! — is rather hard to take.

    Okay, now I’m trying to think of a novel about education too …

  10. Your post is a direct echo of an iconoclastic economics book by a Keynes fan (and very serious university teacher) called Bernard Maris that I am finishing at the moment: l’Anti-Manuel d’Economie. In both volumes he relentlessly mentions disinterested endeavours such as artistic creation as the main engine of the creation of value, and merchants and businessmen are just picking the value in its wake, and trying to find all possible means to monetize everything. All the second part of volume 2 is dedicated to the psychoanalysis of economics. I have only just started that part, but the author starts by saying that Keynes, as a member of the Bloomsbury group, was deeply influenced by Freud. That was a very refreshing read, with quotes from many non-economists.

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