“WHAT’s money?” asks the young Paul Dombey in Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son. “What can it do?” “Money, Paul, can do anything,” comes his wealthy father’s confident reply. The boy thinks for a moment. “Why didn’t money save me my mama.”
Here is a challenge for those of us who live and work in the City. In his brilliant book Going Sane, the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips suggests a Freudian reading of this little exchange between Dombey and his son.
For Freud, genuine human happiness is the fulfilment of deep desires, desires that originate within childhood. As children, we want to be wanted: to be loved and held and fussed over. Moreover, the one thing small children have no interest in is money; for the love of money does not spring from our deepest psychological wants and cares.
So, Freud asserts, the danger of money is that it can become something that we as adults desire so much and so powerfully that we actually lose touch with the real source of human joy — the fulfilment of these fundamental childhood desires. As Professor Phillips puts it: “The love of money becomes the love that makes us betray our other loves.” This is why the self-denial of Lent puts us in touch with who we really are, back in touch with true desire.
But there is, of course, another side to all of this that Freud does not properly acknowledge. While it may not be a part of a child’s desires to seek after money, it is certainly a part of parental responsibility to care for the material welfare of our children. We allow children not to worry about money because we parents do so on their behalf.
Money may not meet the deepest needs of the human heart, but the lack of money is misery for 1.4 billion people on this planet.
Freud is right in suggesting that our interaction with money is the site of many damaging fantasies we have about ourselves — fantasies of power, fantasies of glamour, fantasies of independence. He is also right that these fantasies can cut us off from our true selves and deepest desires.
Yet, in his wish to see everything from the perspective of the child, Freud crucially overlooks the fact that money is also the language we have to speak if, like a grown-up, we are practically to engage in the care and welfare of others.
The City of London is a place of many damaging fantasies, but it also creates jobs and wealth, and puts food on people’s plates and clothes on their backs. An ethic that has no sense of what something costs is little more than sentimentality.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.