Among the thousands of substances in the world which are in some way important to us, there are a few to which we have a curiously complicated relationship. Man's first knowledge and use of these substances lies far back in the darkness of prehistoric times, in unrecorded eras of primitive existence in which religious rites and everyday life were inextricably bound up with each other. Substances of this kind possess a quality that distinguishes them from other, equally ancient and possibly more utilitarian materials: these substances are "sacred". And, because they are sacred, they are a source of irritation to the intellect; to a greater degree than any other kind of matter, they represent the embodiment of a victorious irrationality, a nonsense, which has triumphantly survived all the renaissances and enlightenments of history.
Alcohol is one substance of this kind. No one knows exactly when man first discovered how to make use of the fermentation process in itself a natural phenomenon in conjunction with selected raw materials. There is, however, no doubt that man has brewed and consumed alcoholic drinks since prehistoric times, in all parts of the world and in all eras. And although it is true that the production and marketing of beer, wines and spirits is a sober, industrial and commercial business and that alcohol is clearly and concisely defined, described and regulated in text books on chemistry and legal documents, the "intoxicating elixir" has nevertheless always had an element of "sacredness" about it which it still retains today. What is it that induces men to intoxicate themselves, to give themselves up to the experience of their confused, befuddled senses? Because it is sacred, alcohol awakens emotions: pleasure and remorse, subjugation and the urge to fight, mysticism (we have only to think of the role played by wine in the Christian Holy Communion); euphoria, passion and exhibitionism can all be conjured up by alcohol.
Gold, too, is a "sacred" substance of this kind. The hysterical, uncontrollable fluctuations in the price of gold in the nineteen-seventies were enough to cause confusion to the most sober banker or investor, and many a clear-thinking man has secretly wondered at the fact that the cold, sterile metal stored in the cellars at Fort Knox and other state treasuries represents the overall situation of the pulsating economic life of a nation. What would happen if a hitherto unknown insect (a "gold termite", perhaps) were to find its way into the state treasuries overnight and consume the precious stores? Would this mean that a flourishing economy would go bankrupt in a country where millions of men and women were turning out useful and valuable products in factories and on the land every day?
However vehemently we try to explain the meaning and function of the gold standard or other currencies based on the value of gold as thoroughly realistic, reasonable and understandable, there nevertheless remains a feeling of uneasiness, an intellectual irritation. For the fact remains that gold is more than just a practical standard of value in today's computerized international exchange of goods gold is also sacred, and as such an uncomfortable reminder of the early days when self-supporting man changed over to a system of economics by no means purely for reasonable motives, but also for cultic and psychological reasons. We do not like to be reminded how deeply our technologized production system is rooted in irrationality a system which, based on the systematic employment of labor and the accumulation of capital, we like to regard as an outstanding achievement of human reason. No one likes to be reminded neither the "capitalist", to whom the system is home ground, nor the "socialist" who, while decrying it, nevertheless dialectically accepts it in the hope that he may develop it along his own lines.
However understandable this unwillingness to be reminded may be, it is nevertheless important that we should remember, learn and think about the matter if we are to become clear about human society and its origins. This is one reason for the creation of this book. Although the theme of gold, discussed in all its forms and aspects, must of necessity include reference to many murky chapters in the history of mankind and some dark abysses of the human mind, it also offers opportunities for aesthetic appreciation and for encounters with bold and fearless human aspirations.
It is just this astonishing range from one extreme to another that makes gold so fascinating. Psychology, dream research, mythology and folklore all teach us that gold Is regarded by man as being comparable with everything elevated, pure and noble even with love itself; it is the ideal of the basically egocentrical purification rituals of the true alchemist, and it is the highest reward for virtue.
At the same time, however as is evident both from psychology and from millenniums of tradition gold is the incarnation of all that is evil in the world. Thus gold, viewed now as pars pro lob, as a tangible embodiment of all calculation, organization, accumulation in short, of all profitable management, is also an object of a distorted eroticism.
Could there be anything more contradictory than the stacks of gold bars in Fort Knox and the "philosophical gold" which the alchemist hopes to attain as a reward and confirmation of the perfect ennoblement of himself and his raw materials in an endless struggle with matter requiring all his strength and skill? In fact, though, the two images are logically linked; both follow from the basic characteristic which has determined the fate of gold in its relationship to man from the very beginning: gold was never solely a substance with a clearly defined place in the periodic system of the elements, but above all a symbol of something beyond itself.
Wood, stone, bronze and iron are all substances which man has used unquestioningly ever since he became aware of their potentialities; they were not symbols of something else, but material in their own right. This was not so in the case of gold. Seen from the point of view of its industrial usefulness in modern times, this metal is useless in the utilitarian sense. It is, however, beautiful so beautiful in its yellow radiance that it was instinctively associated with the radiant sun, and worshipped as a giver of life. And since the sun was sacred as it basically still is to us children of Copernicus its representative on earth must of necessity be sacred too.
Since gold was of no use. for any but cultic and aesthetic purposes from the very beginning, its exchange value was always much greater than its practical value, and it was this characteristic, together with the metal's suitability for coinage and its comparative rarity, which determined its value for all time. Thus a metal which was from the practical point of view relatively worthless became an object of desire and longing which seduced men into investing ridiculously large amounts of energy, time, suffering, avarice and cunning in order to obtain ridiculously small amounts of it. This paradox cannot be explained by reason alone.
It is a long road which leads from the first time that man stretched his fearful hand into the river to take out a gold nugget to the gold currency of today and the Fort Knox treasury. It is also a tragic road, although one not divorced from logical cause and effect: it began the moment that life became more than mere subsistence.
No one knows exactly when and why man started producing more than he, alone or in a clan, needed to live on. Once taken, however, this step was of absolutely unique and epoch-making importance, for it signified a complete revolutionizing of man's psychological structure. Like animals, men are basically obedient to the laws of pleasure, gain and avoidance of discomfort; and nothing would seem more improbable than that, in the course of his development both as a species and as an individual, man would desert this well-trodden path of the pleasure principle.
This, however, is what happened, and we can only conjecture about the reasons. They must, we believe, have been connected with a primarily psychological development: specifically with the birth of the superego as a consequence of an internalization of biologically-based selection mechanisms (we can regard the Oedipus syndrome as a mechanism of this kind). Connected with this is a whole range of fears and guilt complexes, and the .strong desire to compensate for this imaginary guilt by concerted achievements laid at the altar of the superego.
It now becomes clear that if we wish to offer up a sacrifice to a divinity for the expiation of our guilt, we must produce this sacrifice in addition to what we need to live on; and this step changes our status from that of self-supporters to that of subjects of an economic system. The act of sacrifice represents the birth of the economic system. It is not surprising that an economic society would have to progress immediately to the next steps, namely division of labor and exchange, and this also had important consequences: it suddenly became possible for certain individuals, at first those who had the monopoly over direct contact with the divinities i. e. the priests and chieftains to acquire an above-average share of the additional production, thus forming the basis for the creation of castes and classes. On the other hand, it soon became essential to depart from the bilateral system of trade by barter, or the exchange of goods for goods, and to create a freely convertible standard for comparison which was useless for any practical purpose and which could be exchanged for goods of the desired kind. This was the birth of money.
Gold, however, does not occupy a leading position in the list of substances and objects which have been used as money in the course of man's history. The modes of payment were heads of cattle (the relationship between the Latin pecunia = money and pecus = cattle is an interesting linguistic reminder of this), rice, dogs' teeth, shells and other kinds of currency; nevertheless, wherever gold was available in sufficient quantities, it was recognized sooner or later as being the ideal form of currency. It is durable and virtually indestructible, easy to work into conveniently sized pieces, clean and pleasant these are the obvious advantages; in addition, gold has three classical qualities: it has an exchange value practically devoid of any utility value, it is "sacred", and it is comparatively rare.
Gold's triumphal march as a form of currency continued unimpeded. It regulated the exchange of goods to an almost unbelievable extent and enabled advanced civilizations to come into being and to prosper. At the same time, however, it promoted the alienation of man from his work and from nature itself. The legend of King Midas still provides the most vivid description of this: Midas' wish that everything he touched should turn to gold was granted; he lost the ability to eat, drink or reproduce and became a wretched figure, cut off from the bases of his existence, divorced from reality and cruelly unsatisfied by the acquisition of his symbolic prize.
The story of gold takes a. curiously roundabout and zigzag Course, but the long-term, socially relevant development proves to be essentially logical. Thus today's economic system would appear to be a necessary extension, or, to put it another way, a potentization of the economic behavior whose inherent danger had already been drastically portrayed in the ancient legend of King Midas. The growing importance of money forced a rift with older values and liberated unsuspected forces.
There is no doubt that these forces were creative but they were also destructive, and they forced man's alienation to its ultimate consequence: workmen and craftsmen were replaced by whole armies of paid employees working for highly rationalized factories; nature was replaced by commodities; metal currency became restricted, and the money economy was dominated by bank notes, which were totally useless in themselves and only abstractly linked to gold, or by the even further removed system of banking. The gold itself, the symbol of value, lies in Fort Knox or other treasuries; the state issues bank notes according to the existing gold cover symbols of a symbol; and large-scale transactions are calculated in terms of bank notes but carried out through the cashless credit system the symbol of a symbol of a symbol.
The sensual and aesthetic qualities of gold have no place in this system. Whereas it might have been possible for the miser or the thief to experience pleasure as he rummaged through his sacks of gold, sublimated eroticism of this kind is becoming more and more elusive in our present day cashless clearing system; and this, too, represents a frustration which should not be underestimated, for denials of this kind can trigger off dangerous aggressions. Even our children's world of comics is no longer up-to-date on this point: Dagobert Duck, the multi-millionaire duck from Walt Disney's fantasy world, is given to taking a refreshing gold bath in his treasury from time to time.
Now more than ever, when world economy is reaching the limits of the supply of raw materials, power supply and marketing possibilites, and following an era of pragmatics the future and aims of the economic system are being basically reconsidered, the sacred substance gold is worthy of our close attention. Anyone who investigates the subject in all its aspects and with all its light and dark sides the devilish gold, bringer of misery, pain and wretchedness as well as the heavenly gold, the inspiration of ancient art and the prescientific thirst for knowledge will recognize that the search for paths which lead back from the present' to the sources of archaic experience provides a key to a better understanding of our civilization. Naturally, we cannot go backwards in our evolution. But it is easier to achieve a more realistic view of the way ahead if we know as much as possible about our origins.
Writer – Sebastian Speicb