Brain Pickings

Henry Miller on Money and How It Gets That Way

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“The dilemma in which we find ourselves today is that no matter how much we increase the purchasing power of the wage-earner he never has enough.”

Henry Miller was not a man shy of strong opinions, having pondered such existential questions as the art of living, the joys of growing old, the future of humanity, and the meaning of life. But there was one inevitable, essential aspect of existence to which he’d never given much thought until his friend Ezra Pound, upon reading Miller’s controversial novel Tropic of Cancer in 1935, inquired about it: Miller received a postcard from Pound, penned “in his usual cabalistic style,” asking if he had ever considered the issue of money, “what makes it and how it gets that way.”

The question, at once simple and riddled with complexities, gave Miller pause. In the year that followed, he collected his “meditations and lucubrations” on the subject in Money and How It Gets That Way, originally published in Paris in 1938 and reissued in America as a limited-edition chapbook of 1,500 copies eight years later, shortly after the end of WWII — a time when the question of money was even more loaded, uncomfortable, and urgently pressing, making Miller’s angle of playfulness and poignancy all the more compelling. Only a few copies of the chapbook, which features illustrations by Jack Wright, are known to survive. The essay was eventually included in the anthology Stand Still Like the Hummingbird (public library), which also gave us Miller on originality.

After a brief history of how money was invented, Miller considers “the axiomatic” nature of the concept:

Money has no life of its own except as money. To the man in the street, unaccustomed to thinking of money in abstract terms, this obvious truism may smack of casuistry. Yet nothing could be more simple and consistent than this reduction to tautology, since money in any period whatever of man’s history has, like life itself, never been found to represent the absence of money. Money is, and whatever form or shape it may assume it is never more nor less than money. To inquire therefore how it comes about that money has become what it now is is as idle as to inquire what makes evolution.

[...]

Money, then, whatever its real nature, reveals itself to us through form. Just as hydrogen and oxygen reveal their presence to us in varying forms and yet are not themselves, either separately or combined, such as water or peroxide, so money, whether in specie or counterfeit, is always something inclusive, coexistent, consubstantial and beyond the thing manifest. In a profound sense money may be said to resemble God Almighty.

This worship of money, Miller argues, effects a particular deterioration of the soul. A man of wide and cross-disciplinary interests, he crafts an apt metaphor out of the biological process of heart-rot — a fungal disease that decays a tree’s trunk and branches from the inside out, which scientists first began studying about a decade before Miller’s treatise. With his signature blend of intellectual wisdom and irreverent wit, he writes:

To borrow an expression from the arboriculturist, we might add that gold has a tendency at times to bring about a condition of “white heart rot.” That is to say that, though outwardly all may seem well, the eye of the forester can detect beneath the bark the disease which lurks in the very heart of the tree and ravages it mercilessly. White-heart-rot has been frequently compared to tuberculosis in the human organism; it is encountered chiefly in metropolitan areas among city trees. In finance it is recognized as “inflation.” If the disease has not completely eaten the tree away cement may be administered to preserve what life is left. With dying currencies the treatment employed is to amass gold, or to ship it frantically from one country to another. Whenever, therefore, gold is amassed in unusual quantities, or when its movements become erratic and frenetic, the indications are that the money of the countries in question is diseased.

This rotting of the psyche, Miller suggests, is rooted in a dynamic that springs from the religious concept of guilt and has to do with the notion of debt:

The evolution of the idea of money is closely associated, for reasons which must be apparent to even the most casual observer, with the development of the notions of sin and guilt. Even in the earliest periods of trade we find rudimentary principles at work such as would lead us to believe that primitive man had evolved methods of exchange which sui generis implied the existence of debt. It was not until Ricardo’s time, however, that a formula was arrived at which expressed the relationship between debtor and creditor beyond all caviling. With almost Euclidian simplicity Ricardo summed it up thus: “a debt is discharged by the delivery of money.”

But what compounds these symbolic complexities is also the fact that money itself has become an abstraction — something Miller argues was brought on by the invention of double-entry bookkeeping, which led money to be “regarded not in terms of pieces of money but as an abstract symbol of wealth”:

With the invention of double-entry bookkeeping … the reality of money began to diminish until in our day it has almost disappeared entirely.

It’s worth pausing here to note that Miller expressed these concerns in 1936, decades before credit and charge cards became the dominant Western mode of payment — practice that further abstracts money and removes it from its source, to say nothing of recent modalities like crypto-currency, abstracting the transactional exchange of goods and services further still.

And yet, noting that money evolved out of the gold standard, Miller laments the “great pity” of the shift away from it, “for gold is capable of making a greater appeal to the imagination than any other symbol known to man.” But perhaps the very allure of concepts like crypto-currency lies in their ability to stir the imagination in new, differently compelling ways. Still, despite this — or because of it — Miller’s words ring with double poignancy today:

To have money in the pocket is one of the small but inestimable pleasures of life. To have money in the bank is not quite the same thing, but to take money out of the bank is indisputably a great joy. The pleasure then is in the handling, not the spending necessarily, as some economists would have us believe. It is very possible, indeed, that the coin or specie came into existence to meet this very human need…

Here, Miller makes an interesting point about the concept of price — perhaps the most artificial abstraction of all:

A price is a piece of goods, a commodity as we say, expressed in gold or any other metal that is acceptable to the public conscience, without the necessity of being weighed on the spot. Price has value only to the extent that there is a mobile cash quantum to back it up. Anything which can inflate to-day and collapse to-morrow has neither weight, substance nor value. It is not even gas, because gas after all answers to all three of these descriptions. This is to my mind the best proof of what thinking in money leads to, which is the collapse of thinking, or, as Sir Isaac Newton expressed it, “a vacuum in extenso.”

And so we get to the difference between money and wealth and the disconnect between being rich and being wealthy. Long before the concept of “the hedonic treadmill” was coined, Miller describes it with immeasurable wisdom and wit:

Money … is only theoretically related to wealth. In the realm of theory it is true that “action and reaction are equal and opposite,” but money is more than a theory, and wealth, even if it is not money, is at any rate something real. What is needed above everything is a clear conception of money.

The dilemma in which we find ourselves today is that no matter how much we increase the purchasing power of the wage-earner he never has enough. If he has enough money to own a Ford he wants a Packard; if he has a Packard he wants a Rolls Royce, and if he has a Rolls Royce he wants an aeroplane… Men imagine that they need money, that if they had it they could satisfy their desires, cure their ills, insure their old age, and so on. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For if it were so that money could accomplish all these miracles, then the happiest man on earth would be the millionaire, which is obviously an untruth. Naturally those who have not enough to eat, nor place to sleep, are just as miserable as the millionaire, perhaps even more miserable, though it is difficult at times to tell with certainty. As always, the golden mean obtains. He is sure to be more happy who has eaten well and slept well and has besides a little money in his jeans. Such men are rare to find for the simple reason that most men are incapable of appreciating the wisdom of such a simple truth. The worker thinks he would be better off if he were running the factory; the owner of the factory thinks he would be better off if he were a financier; and the financier knows he would be better off if he were clean out of the bloody mess and living the simple life.

Money, then, is best used as a dynamic method for inhabiting the present moment, rather than a static symbol of wealth to amass and hold on to for future use — another manifestation of Miller’s philosophy of flux. He writes:

Money is one of the insoluble problems of life. Men of theory will tell you that it is unnecessary, but men of theory are generally very ignorant fellows. Often they have never had any money, and if they had it they wouldn’t know what to do with it. The last thing in the world to occur to their minds would be to spend it. And yet that is the chief satisfaction which money affords. Whoever has money let him put it in circulation!

Money and How It Gets That Way is, sadly, well out of print but well worth the hunt. Complement it with John Armstrong on how to worry less about money and Paul Graham on how to get rich, then revisit Miller on growing old, the meaning of life, and his irreverent notice to visitors.

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