Friday, December 24, 2010

Buchan on Money

I suspect it is easy to overpraise James Buchan's Frozen Desire: Meaning of Money. They say people take you at your own valuation and Buchan's evaluation of himself seems high. I'd file him next to Henry Adams: the same self-assurance, the same deep-seated good breeding. Also: the same not too well concealed astonishment that, given his past and his parts, the world has no particular interest in him. They're too grownup to cry about it: Adams responds with a wry self-mockery at the picture of himself struggling to maintain standards among knaves that smell of sweat.  Buchan's tone is more one of faintly amused bewilderment.  It does serve him well insofar as it motivates him to try to consider his subject--money--with a kind of detached scrutiny rare among students of the topic.

This an approach which yields what is perhaps best in the book--an eye for the giddiness and confusion that money can create, not simply in one who wants money, but in more or less anyone who finds money within easy reach.  It allows him to convey a convincing sketch of the flavor of the madness that overcame France and then England in the two great ur-bubbles -- Mississippi  and then South Sea--of the 18th Century.  It leads him to a surprisingly compassionate portrait of Karl Marx and his family, struggling in Dean Street.  He doesn't simply dismiss them as confused visionaries--they were confused visionaries, at least mama and papa, but as poor fallible human beings who make the same damn kind of mistakes that the rest of us are wont to make.

He also has a good ear for anecdote---it was from him I pinched point d'argent a few days ago.   Yet it is very gift for anecdote that seems to betray him: he tells so many good stories about, e.g., John Law and the South Sea Bubble that you begin to suspect he doesn't understand Law's project itself all that well.  Similarly, over at the end of the book he lifts an arch piece of satire from Tom Wolfe in which the go-go Wall Streeter finds he cannot explain the bond market to his child.  "The Master of the Universe," intones Buchan,
ties himself in knots.  For even poor Sherman has grasped the imperative, which is categorical enough to be worth repeating, once a century: that even in great cities of finance, if you cannot explain your job to your child, you probably shouldn't be doing it.
He's probably got a point there, but it may not be the one he thinks he is making.  Specifically, if Sherman cannot explain bonds to his child, it may not that there is anything particularly corrupt or insidious about it; it may be simply that he doesn't understand it very well.  In outline if not in detail, the bond market is actually not all that difficult to explain.

1 comment:

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

I think that Buchan's point may be that Sherman cannot explain his job to his child in any way that does not make Sherman appear to be a parasite.