Poetry News

Peter Lamborn Wilson on the Dragonish Malignancy of Money

By Harriet Staff


We've been pointed to a timely and magical reprint of an essay by poet and critical writer Peter Lamborn Wilson, who gives money an exteriorized soul for Reality Sandwich in a piece called "An Army of Jacks to Fight the Power." Lamborn Wilson orients his reader with the fairytale: "In fairy tales, humans can possess exterior souls, things magically containing or embodying individual life force -- stone, egg, ring, bird or animal, etc. If the thing is destroyed, the human dies. But while the thing persists, the human enjoys a kind of immortality or at least invulnerability."

As for money? "Humans created it, in some sense, in order to hide their souls in things that could be locked away (in tower or cave) and hidden so their bodies would acquire magical invulnerability -- wealth, health, the victoriousness of enjoyment, power over enemies -- even over fate."

Wilson goes on to relate money to Russian and Slavic myth and, moreover, relates the fact that:

[A] messianic movement Cargo Cult, or Ghost Dance type resistance movement springs up within a generation or two after first alien contact. These cults invariably make appeal to spirits (or even demons when circumstances really begin to deteriorate) for the power to overcome money, to "provide good things" without recourse to the black magic of money, the vampirization of other peoples' external souls -- the malignancy of wealth that is not shared.

Yes, yes, we can align this with the Wall Street protests! Sure (this entire piece has resonances). But it's also a fascinating look at how folk and fairy tales have cycled through certain tropes:

It's worth noting that in marchen, folk tales, the characters with external souls are often the villains. Clearly, the practice must appear uncanny to any normal society -- in which magic (call it collective consciousness in active mode) is channeled through ritual and custom to the life of all -- not the aggrandizement of one against all (black magic or witchcraft). In the form of money, the exterior soul, shattered into fragments, so to speak, can be put into circulation but also stolen, monopolized, guarded by dragons, so that some unlucky humans can be stripped of all soul, while others gorge or hoard up soul-bits of ancestors and victims in their goulish caves or "banks," etc.

The beloved in the tale may also have an exterior soul. It falls into the grasp of the evil sorcerer or dragon and must be rescued. In other words, desire, which is alienated in the form of a symbolic object (reified, fetishized), can only be restored to its true fate (love) by re-appropriation from the expropriator, stealing it back from the wizard. The task falls to "Jack," the third and youngest, sometimes an orphan or disinherited, possibly a fool, a peasant with more heart than any prince, generous, bold, and lucky.

Exactly the same story can be seen acted out in every honest ethnographic report on the introduction of money into some pre-monetary tribal economy. Even without the usual means of force, terror, oppression, colonialist imperialism or missionary zeal, money alone destroys every normal culture it touches.

To learn more about what money means to "the people," or to Midas, who choked on his magical gold, go here.

Originally Published: October 11th, 2011