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On the wrong side of the coin

Oleg Yuriev takes a black tomcat to the crossroadson Christmas Eve to gain new perspectives on the nature of money.

1. Selling a black tomcat at the crossroads on Christmas Eve.

The motif of a coin or a bank-note, in other words a piece of money, that cannot be spent is a motif that exists in folklore the world over. The money always returns to its owner. The purchased wares/and or services, however stay where they are – practical, eh? The only thing you can't do is get change (leave it on the counter or give it as a tip: keep the change!) otherwise the coin loses its magic power.

This serviceable item can be acquired through one or other magical operations of middling difficulty. In Russian, for example, you have to tie up a black tomcat with a tarred piece of string, take it to a particular crossroads on Christmas Eve, and sell the caterwauling creature to a certain Somebody (who will appear automatically) for one silver rouble (no less, no more, however many millions are offered!) This, at least, is how the procedure is described by a wonderful Russian writer Nikolai Leskov (1831 – 1895) in his story of 1894 about "The Magic Rouble."

Undoubtedly this fairytale motif reflects the (all too) human desire to be relieved of material concerns, the dream of the land of milk and honey. A pocket land of milk and honey, so to say. But we know and the fairytale knows that this is impossible – folklore as a whole seems to be almost entirely void of a story in which the possession of a coin that always returns to its owner ends happily every after. Sooner or later the coin is lost and everything it brought ends in misery. It's as if such a thing was not intended for us. This is the difference between magic money and other magic objects which pay in kind – the magic wishing table, for example, which lays on a spread whenever asked.

If it's not meant for us, who is it meant for!?

II. Money is uncanny

Money is a relatively recent discovery in the history of man and we have still not come to terms with it. What is money and why does it buy everything, where does it come from and where does it go? - our forbears shuddered at all these questions, until the economists of the 18th and 19th centuries convinced us (and themselves) that they could explain it. And since then, we have been shuddering at all their answers.

Magic money shows the fear that simple people have of the magic of money. Another (and more general) manifestation of the same fear is "money fetishism" as Karl Marx liked to call it.

Perhaps it is because of all this fear and idolisation, that the motif of the magic coin has enjoyed such little currency in Western art and philosophy. After all what metaphorical basis does it offer us? We naturally identify with the owner of the coin, and this brings nothing except moral and pragmatic platitudes: work and expect nothing for free, there's no such thing as a free lunch. We know all this already: the good Lord Money taught us that thousands of years ago!

Admittedly the possession of a magic coin is a triumph, if fleeting, over the uncanny powers of an almighty god; but Westerners have long since abandoned their beliefs in such triumphs, and what's more, in recent times they have settled into an amicable arrangement with the money fetish. The idol has become relatively merciful. Of course we could never (nor would we want to) say that everything is rosy, but ... if things don't get worse, we are quite content... Why should we want to start thinking about some bouncing coins? Everything is fairly clear isn't it? Surplus value, productivity, globality.

In contemporary Russian literature, on the other hand, which, for professional reasons, I observe systematically, three or four prose pieces and countless poems are published per year, which deal in some way or touch on the motif of the magic rouble. The motif has made a comeback. This probably has something to do with the fact that Russia (as at the end of the 19th century when Leskov wrote "The Magic Rouble") is once again in a transition phase between commodity fetishism and money fetishism, and the Russian population is struggling to keep up. It was different in the Soviet era. In the classical (ideological) Soviet society of the 30s through to the 60s, it was not money (the defeated capitalist god) that determined a person's value, but his proximity to power, his direct share in it. Later, in the internally de-ideologised USSR of the 70s and 80s, it was, again, not money itself but consumer goods that were the focus of society's interest - as would be expected of an economy of scarcity.

III: Back to the here and now – on the wrong side of the money

First and foremost we are interested in the here and now, and not in a lot of old stories from the East. Of course. We live in the here and now. And money is flowing through each one of us here and now. It enters and leaves... But where does it go?

Let's look at the flip side of the situation with the magic coin - not through the eyes of the coin's owner, but from the perspective of the baker or butcher, who are on the losing end when the coin bounces out of the till. Suddenly there's a lot more to see. Everything gets a lot more interesting and - most importantly – more personal. We suddenly see that the paradigm of the magic money reflects the entire way Western civilisation functions, and what's more, how it effects us. It's just that we are not the ones who pay with the magic coin; we are the ones who get paid with it.

We are not buyers. We are sellers, just as old Marx tried to try to tell us. But under the pressure of consumer propaganda we have, to this veryday, failed to take his warning on board. We sell our work, our time, our bodies. And occasionally our black tomcats, too, not that we have any takers.

And we get money in return for our wares, but where is it all? Money disappears, we all know this. The person who pays us the money probably gets it back. He already has the goods and he seems to have the money as well. So it must be our money that is filling his pockets.

We are simply on the wrong side of the coin.

Somebody else has the magic coin and we are living off the change that he forgot on the counter, or left as a tip. The rest is for you. - Thank you Mr. Somebody. In principle we are living off tips (that here and now are generous, so we are ... no, of course we're not content, but... we can survive...) But who is this other person, the owner of the magic money, who seems to have the entire social and economic system in his grasp?

Different people will give different answers to this question – depending on their political and philosophical views, experiences and ranking in society. Everyone knows (or thinks they know) to whom and what they are selling - work, time, bodies or black tomcats, whether it be employer, state or audience. And the point of turning things around is to find the person with the magic coin: the great, anonymous one. The great, anonymous one, however, will not be so easy to find, probably impossible to find if "he" does not want to be found, but it is more important to start looking and to learn some stuff along the way. It's not so much about finding that lot - to find yourself (or at least see yourself from another perspective) would be pretty good going. Alone the possibility of being able to answer the central question of our time "Where does all the money go?" with "It goes back where it came from" is a light to guide us in the dark. Even before we have defined that lot.

The first thing that springs to mind, of course, is the credit services sector, "the banks" who are the real villains in most people's way of thinking. Without wanting to absolve these "loan sharks" of blame, I do want to keep them out of this story: the money that we "borrow" from the bank is bought at great expense. This in not money that we receive in payment and then discover is missing from the till. We know all along that it's not ours forever.

So I'm not talking about these "profiteers". And ultimately it would be too easy and uninteresting to think of them as that lot. After all, everyone else thinks of them as that lot.

IV. In the land of the farmasons

Our image also functions at a macro-economic level. Now we find ourselves, as inhabitants of the wealthy West / North, on the right side of the money for once, which makes the fact that we are "on the wrong side at a personal level" more bearable and financially secure. The wealthy West / North is apparently in possession of a magic coin which always returns, no matter how much money - whether in aid, payment for raw materials or cheap labour – the East / South gets (we won't include loans here, although they could be said to represent a form of gift or payment whose repayment is neither expected nor even wanted.)

In the family tree of Eastern European legends about returning money, there is one, very tender branch: the belief that somewhere "in the threetimesninth land in a threetimestenth state" – as Russian folklore calls a fairytale kingdom, there is a magical land – where the "farmasons" live (a folksy pronounciation of the franc-maçons or freemasons). The "farmasons" - in 19th century Russian argot the word simply meant "scoundrels" or "thieves" - are the ones who, in their "farmason land" are in possession of the magic money. This is where it originated, this is its home. In the 19th century, the land of the farmasons might have meant some sort of folkloristic kingdom, but today it clearly means Europe, "the land of holy miracles", as Fyodor Dostoyevsky half-mockingly-half-admiringly called it. Or more precisely: the European Union.

This is why the desire of the Eastern and Southern European countries to join the EU has an exaggeratedly sacred, irrational undertone – they all want to get onto the right side of the money. The EU is an inexhaustible bag of coins according to the "hopeful candidates" (although the Brussels Eurocrats seem to be of the same opinion). But that's a slightly different fairytale motif and it would lead us metaphorically to very different, if fertile, territory, which has more to do with the understanding of money as a raw material, a natural product which, for unexplained reasons, is made available to certain individuals and peoples. So it does no one any harm to take from it, endlessly. This explains how budget structuring works in certain state and superstate organs, but it doesn't bring us any closer to the mysterious being behind the image of the magic money. This image is much more closely related to the nature of money, which we are discussing here, than with human nature or the nature of nature.

It seems important to reinstate the motif of ever-returning money in the (collective) consciousness. Particularly here, in the homeland of the magic coin, and now, at the peak of its power. It is always worth gain a better understanding of things, as the history of the human race would teach us, had it not refused to some time ago. History is in the middle of a teacher's strike, you might say. Thank God geography's still being taught: the farmasons are living in the "threetimesninth land in a threetimestenth state" – at least we still know that.

V. The (post) Marxist (magic) formula

At this point I could declare my duty done, having reinstated the motif of the magic coin in the collective consciousness. To do more is not a matter for a single author, you'd need lots of thinkers and artists from different cultures to contribute.

What worries me and keeps me from wrapping up this tract, is the fate of the poor black tomcat which, on Christmas Eve, was tied up with tarred rope and sold, caterwauling, to someone for a silver rouble at the crossroads of four streets (one of which leads to the graveyard). Why does this somebody need him, and what happens to him next? What becomes of him? The cat, I mean.

...Suddenly I know the answer! The cat will be trained as a 'magical helper'. These are the creatures in the fairytale world who help the heroes achieve their goals. They are often animals: a wolf, a hunch-backed pony, a cat. Puss-in-Boots, for example.

...Does every cat get boots? I allow myself to doubt it.

With or without boots, our black tomcat will emerge from his training, able to transform himself into whatever commodity he chooses, whereupon he will be offered for sale by his owner. As soon as he's been sold, he will turn back into a cat and return to his owner. Clever, eh?

This is another great eye-opener. Because we live in a consumer world which supplies us with a steady flow of things of questionable necessity which, shortly afterwards, disappear again (whether it be into the bin, the cellar, oblivion or thin air!) On both micro and macro-economic levels!

... But what happens if they meet again, the black tomcat and the magic coin? If you pay for disappearing goods that return to their owner with disappearing money that returns to its owner?

What if we add a black tomcat (T) to Marx's formula of C(ommodity) - M(oney) -C(ommodity):

T - M - C = M - C - T, or simply T - T - T?

Would that be an allegorical confusion or its opposite? It's something us economists, poets and philosophers need consider in more depth.

VI. P. S.

And what happens when the owner of the world's magic money summons it all back at once, out of our purses, tills and banks?

Correct: financial meltdown.


Oleg Yuriev was born in 1959 in Leningrad in the former USSR, where he graduated in 1982 from the College of Political Economics and Finance, having completed his studies in the field of Economic Mathematics and System Theory. In 1991 he moved with his family to Germany. He writes pieces for the theatre, essays, reviews, and prose in Russian and German. He has his own column in Der Tagesspiegel. His most recent novel "Die russische Fracht" ("The Russian Cargo") published 2009 by Suhrkamp. It describes the trip of a mysterious ship with a mysterious cargo of dead corpses from Petersburg to Germany.

Translation from German:lp - let's talk european