Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Review of Magic, Myth and Money by William H Desmonde

Here's my 'sensible' review of William H Desmonde's Magic, Myth and Money. I've put it on Amazon here. If you like it please take a moment to pop over to amazon and 'like it'. Thanks.

The subtitle to William H Desmonde's 1962 Magic, Myth and Money is The Origin of Money in Religious Ritual. As such Desmonde draws on the work of German polymath Bernhard Laum who explored the idea that currency was born of religious ritual in his 1924 work Heiliges Geld (Holy Money). Desmonde's contribution is to set Laum's idea of tokens arising from the sharing of meat from ritualistic slaughter within a Freudian context. Specifically Desmonde draws on Freud's later works on society, in particular Totem and Taboo. And in doing so he offers a view on currency very much at odds with that espoused by economists. Desmonde doesn't even consider barter in his explanation for the development of currency.

The book is very readable (especially for those with a familiarity of Freud's ideas) and at 178 pages, it's a short read. I found a few reviews of the book (on JSTOR) contemporary with its publication, from various academic journals (sociological or anthropological) and all of them are generally positive (albeit with some reservations relevant to each reviewer's particular area of academic expertise). Richard F Curtis in the American Journal of Sociology (Vol. 68, No. 4 [Jan., 1963], pp. 497-498) tells us that "Desmonde performs a real service in pointing up the relevance of social science classics to one of the central moral issues of our times."

What the contemporary reviewers seem to miss about the book is its uniqueness. I've been a fan of Freud for 15 years and have had an interest in Money and the origins of currency all my life. I only came to know of the existence of Desmonde's book when I noticed it mentioned in a footnote in Marc Shell's Money, Language and Thought (p.42 n49 & n50) (a somewhat obscure book itself) which I read last year. I would take some blame myself for missing it for so long but I have made extensive inquiries about Freudian influenced views on the origin of currency and Money. Although there is some work on 'Anal' characteristics and the propensity to save, and of course some gossip about Keynes' relationship with Strachey (Freud's translator), I had not found anything that tried to meld Freud's later work with an explanation of the origin of currency. Magic, Myth and Money attempts to do this. That's why it is unique.

However, I wouldn't say that Desmonde provides a wholly convincing origin story, even for someone such as myself who is sympathetic to Freud's theories. Desmonde's book does not have sufficient rigor to support his contentions in a meaningful way. Nor does it ground itself in evidence about primitive currency to help to create solid story about currency developing from the shared meat of ritual sacrifice to coinage. A harsh charge would be to say that what Desmonde offers is merely pop-psychoanlysis beefed up with a sprinkling of aphorism. I wouldn't go that far, myself. I think it more likely that Desmonde struck a balance between academic rigor and readability. It's a balance that doesn't seem to have worked for him. The book was neither a best seller, nor held in high regard in academia.

Nevertheless this book, as it stands, still represents a unique contribution to theories about the Origin of Currency. It's an essential text for anyone interested in the history of Money. You can rest assured that you'll never have read anything like it.

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