26 May 2010


I'm in a place with a television this week and I decided to turn on the news as I was eating breakfast. I was amused/disturbed to notice that Fox News (which was, in its defense, the only "news" network not running stories about cute puppies or things of a similar nature) was running non-stop advertisements for gold investment services in between its news stories about how the sky was falling. In between wondering whether or not gold was likely to be a particularly good investment, since its convertibility into local currency presupposes some demand for the commodity (a demand that is dampened and not heightened by economic instability), I was struck by something I had written about some time ago in the context of a discussion of Beowulf. What exactly is the value of gold? And why do dragons dwell on buried gold-hoards? There is something perverse about burying refined gold-work back in the earth from which it came. Gold should be seen in the sunlight, not placed back into the earth.

As the advertisement correctly observed, gold has always held some value. This value is not "conventional" in the way that the value of our currency is conventional, nor is it derived from its practical utility in industrial applications. In the alchemical symbolism, gold is the perfection of nature subsumed by the spiritual. In Beowulf, gold is a physical manifestation of the virtue of a people personified in their hero. When the people are no more, the burial of the gold calls dragons to its glitter. This image is one the most intriguing of the poem (which is partially a reflection upon gold) and rewards careful attention and reflection. The proper meaning of gold is almost entirely erased when it is viewed as a means to stabilize one's IRA against fluctuations in equity prices; and it is highly significant that in these situations the person purchasing the gold generally does not take physical possession of the gold but controls it through shares in a mutual fund or through an ETF. Yet even in this utterly etherealized form there is still something mysterious about the manner in which gold eludes mathematization, as fluctuations of gold prices are highly difficult to model for any practical financial purpose.

"there laid within it his lordly heirlooms
and heaped hoard of heavy gold."
Beowulf XXXII


William Koch said...

I think it was Tolkien, undoubtedly inspire by Beowulf from which he drew much of his inspiration, who offered the most practical and prosaic explanation for a dragon's infatuation with gold hoards. You see, they are hot from the fire within them that they breath so finding a bed is rather difficult. Most soft things burst into flames beneath them. Gold, however, is soft but non-combustible so it makes the perfect bed to sleep on for dragons.

It seems like the very thing that makes gold impractical for many industrial purposes provides it with an aesthetic value that may be the basis of its economic value. Gold is soft, easily shaped and molded. It also doesn't tarnish. Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but this seems the origin of its value. Does this seem to simple?

Sebastian said...

I'm having difficulty finding the appropriate method of addressing your response. Perhaps one way of looking at it is this: the interpretation of gold as an economic object presupposes the existence of some sort of currency and some sort of market that sets prices. Such institutions did not exist in the time of Beowulf, therefore I would submit that such a reading of the poem is anachronistic.

What I was attempting to suggest was that the gifts of gold given to the heroes was not a payment in the sense that one is entitled to a salary for a certain number of hours worked. The heroes, after all, did not go to some gold-market and convert the golden goods they were given into useful goods. Indeed, from the standpoint of use, gold is more or less useless (excepting certain rare industrial applications).

What I was trying to suggest was that the inhabitants of the epic view gold in a non-objectifying manner. The only person who takes anything golden for the purpose of accomplishing some practical end is the thief who steals the chalice from the dragon's hoard. Gold is given to heroes not as payment (the heroes don't seem interested in trying to "cash in" their gold) but as an acknowledgment of their heroic deeds.

A similar viewpoint towards treasure and gifts can be seen in other epics (the Iliad is a good example). Treasure is given to the hero not as payment (since the hero's actions are properly priceless). The poem "Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries" by Housman also shows the same epic sensibility: the mercenaries give their lives and "save the sum of things for pay." You can't put a price-tag on certain actions, which means any consideration given isn't really payment.

Hopefully that did not make my point even less clear than before.

William Koch said...

That makes sense Sebastian and my point about economic value was a side issue, purely to suggest that economic value is derivative and not primary here. You make that same point very nicely.

I certainly can't speak extensively concerning Beowulf, but I am far more familiar with the Ancient Greek context. As far as "treasure" generally goes it certainly seems, in the Iliad for example, to have to do with honor/social-standing and not economic value. I absolutely agree with you.

I supposed I focused on gold specifically rather than treasure generally, and was curious about the actual origin of its worth. Why does gold specifically occupy the space it does? I had assumed from your original post that this was part of your interest. It seems interesting that it is arguably aesthetic considerations from which it may derive its value.

Sebastian said...

To carefully address the question that you pose ("why gold?") is not an easy task. I'm not willing to write it off as a matter of aesthetics since an aesthetic interpretation of gold would imply that we value it for the pleasure that its apprehension gives us. However, I am suggesting that gold's value is not the result of a subjective apprehension of pleasure. Part of the reason I reject this interpretation is because I am attempting to examine gold in a non-objectifying manner; whether you think this is possible or not, you will admit that if gold's value really is based on aesthetics then it is one of the few aesthetic constants throughout the history of humanity.

I'd be inclined to suggest that gold is valued because of the manner in which it is an image of the sun. However, this begs the question of why an image of the sun should be valuable, and I'm not prepared to argue that point at any length.