Michelle Bentsman

Avarice Over the Ghost


Charon. Menippus. Hermes.

Ch. Your fare, you rascal.
Me. Bawl away, Charon, if it gives you any pleasure.
Ch. I brought you across: give me my fare.
Me. I can't, if I haven't got it.
Ch. And who is so poor that he has not got a penny?
Me. I for one; I don't know who else.
Ch. Pay: or, by Pluto, I'll strangle you.
Me. And I'll crack your skull with this stick.
Ch. So you are to come all that way for nothing?
Me. Let Hermes pay for me: he put me on board.
He. I dare say! A fine time I shall have of it, if I am to pay for the shades.
Ch. I'm not going to let you off.
Me. You can haul up your ship and wait, for all I care. If I have not got the money, I can't pay you, can I?
Ch. You knew you ought to bring it?
Me. I knew that: but I hadn't got it. What would you have? I ought not to have died, I suppose?
Ch. So you are to have the distinction of being the only passenger that ever crossed gratis?
Me. Oh, come now: gratis! I took an oar, and I baled; and I didn't cry, which is more than can be said for any of the others.
Ch. That's neither here nor there. I must have my penny; it's only right.
Me. Well, you had better take me back again to life.

In Lucian's satirical Death Dialogues, Menippus inverts our financial expectations of the afterlife and casts life as the terrain of the penniless, since the initial passage out requires a transaction that he cannot complete. Charon's obol, the coin that Charon requires to ferry a soul from the land of the living to the land of the dead, is, according to archaeological evidence, usually placed on the mouth of the deceased. But Menippus does the opposite of putting his money where his mouth is —what's a man to do when he has none?

I recently re-opened a self-help book, a variation of "The Artist's Way" geared toward overworked corporate husk-people that I'd bought for four dollars at a Berkeley book shop last year. I found myself in the money chapter, called "Surviving the Abyss," where there was a short list of compulsive orientations towards money. The last arrested me: poverty addiction. It has sparked a pervading, continuing sense of awful recognition.

Poverty Addiction: This person is addicted to not having money. If money comes in, it is chased away as fast as possible. Poverty Addicts overwork, underbill, and even lose paychecks.

As an antidote, the book strongly suggested an exercise: keep an account of everything you spend money on, every day. Simple, a means to be a better budgeter, but with a slightly grander intent. Use this to cut back on unnecessary expenditures, in order to give yourself highly rewarding expenditures. This includes things that cost very little and give you a sense of luxury: e.g. new socks. This includes trading conveniences for luxuries: e.g. make your own sandwiches and get a massage at the end of the month. Above all, this encourages financial empowerment toward manifesting your dreams: start saving for that trip to Borneo, those scuba lessons, your graduate degree. It came as little surprise that my daily expenditures are very few. Aside from using the subway to get to work, the occasional coffee/wifi double dollar, and groceries, I barely spend money.

Look too closely and you might get sucked into the abyss.

In his NY Times editorial "For the Love of Money," Sam Polk describes the pit of money addiction:

In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.

[...] Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk? He’ll do anything — walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma — to get a fix. Wall Street was like that. In the months before bonuses were handed out, the trading floor started to feel like a neighborhood in “The Wire” when the heroin runs out.

[...] Only a wealth addict would feel justified in receiving $14 million in compensation — including an $8.5 million bonus — as the McDonald’s C.E.O., Don Thompson, did in 2012, while his company then published a brochure for its workforce on how to survive on their low wages. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary."

I read this, and I reread this, and I relished it. This was proof, from the mouth of the beast, that money engendered evil. It suddenly seemed worse than an abusive alcoholic, a dysfunctional junkie, an untamable nymphomaniac. But I'm no prohibitionist when it comes to alcohol, drugs, sex, or the like, so why the fanatical stance against money?

It seemed, to me, that acquiring wealth necessarily meant pandering to ruthless avarice. Money was not given for labor of value, I thought. So I wasn't interested in working for money, but I had to in order to survive. So I got the kind of job that could satisfy this need minimally without pressing too much upon my time and energy and I did work that mattered but didn't pay me. I didn't ask for any more compensation than I was given. I didn't set up reimbursement for transportation, though I could've. I didn't set up direct deposit, taking weeks to deposit my earnings, occasionally digging out checks sealed to the bottom of my backpack, under the pile of books that kept me safe on the subway. And if extra cash came my way, I put it away, put it away, put it away.

Compulsive capital aversion: This person avoids thought and action related to money. If money comes up, it is put away as fast as possible. CCAs overwork, underbill, under and overpay, and even lose paychecks.

When I was twelve years old my cousin told me about Madonna. She loved Madonna, idolized her in a way, I think. She told me that Madonna was a cheerleader in high school, that she dropped out, threw her popularity away, and travelled penniless to the mean streets of New York City, where she hustled her way up from homelessness to high glamour. This was only the beginning of a series of odes to the big city, by which my cousin eventually led everyone in the family to transplant. I was the last to come, but I started saving immediately after I learned that the grunginess and muck of that faraway place had the power to erase mundanity, to manifest dreams.

In my closet, I kept a beautiful little black purse that my mother had given me. It was too beautiful to wear out anywhere, but it had elaborate pockets, secret pockets. It was the perfect place for my escape fund. I vowed that if this suffocating suburb ever grew absolutely unbearable during the course of my angsty adolescence, I would use the money to buy a bus ticket to New York and live out my artistic fantasy on those fabled streets. I stopped wanting anything on birthdays. Saving was the only way I could safely escape later.

At around the same time as Lucian, Apuleius wrote, in a conversation between Psyche and the Tower, about the miserly spirits of the Other world: "Hereby you may see that avarice reigneth even amongst the dead; neither Charon nor Pluto will do anything for nought: for if it be a poor man that is near to die, and lacketh money in his hand, none will allow him to give up the ghost."

I came home the other week and remembered the cash, those coat check tips that I'd stashed in the closet when I went away. I wanted to quit my job. I wanted very badly to quit my job. My only two options seemed to be: find a new job and quit your old one, or stay at your job -- it isn't so bad! I wanted another way out. I wanted to quit and then refocus within a magnificent stretch of empty soft space that extends out indefinitely, time like lying in a feather bed on the beach, time that existed outside of money, where I wouldn't run my life, or my bank account, into a hole.

I took the money out and I counted it. About a thousand dollars. Not bad. It took me back to college, when I was miserably working at our most talked about campus coffee shop. It wasn't so different from my current restaurant job. A glamorous drudgery that I endured with great pains, never knowing why I bothered to stay. Last night, on the phone, my friend was telling me something about chaos, and I watched the concept merge with the evening bread basket: would you like sesame, multi-grain, or house-made focaccia? I wanted very badly to ask if he was talking about white bread chaos or the other kind, until I realized during the long pause that I had lost track of reality. At the coffee shop, in college, I became the financial manager, which meant I earned two dollars more per hour and got to hide in the little back room to count money like a gremlin in a cave. That was my favorite part. Being alone in there, swiping ones, fives, tens, and twenties from one palm to another was like combing sand, or painting with clear water. Maybe it reminded me of my escape fund, which I used to take out once in a long while, lovingly swiping the dollars back and forth, each time with a fuller sense of some glorious future.

Money-Worshipping Disorders include hoarding; the hoarder stockpiles objects or money to provide a sense of safety, security, and relieve anxiety.

There is an Asian funerary custom of burning fake money, called Joss paper, hell bank notes, or ghost money, as an offering to deities and to provide for relatives in the afterlife. The Jade Emperor, ruler of the underworld, may be bribed to let a soul escape early, sending them on to an afterlife of lavish spending. The bank notes often have outrageous denominations, ranging anywhere between $10,000 and $5,000,000,000. On the front is an image of the Jade Emperor; the ‘Bank of Hell' is pictured on the back.

It is understood that the spirits of the dead remain interested in worldly affairs, and have the power to bless the living and fulfill their wishes. This accrues debt for the living, owed to the dead, which they repay through burning more ghost money. However, no one pays off all their ancestral debt while alive, so their next of kin also burn ghost money to help pay off their debt, so that they may obtain a new body to pursue their karmic journey. This ritual literally pays respect to ancestors, establishing family loyalty and continuity, and provides a way to watch over ancestors while seeking guidance and assistance from them, with the hope that they will continue to watch over the living.

My mother watches my bank account. She watches like a hawk. She watches so that I don't have to. It is a great relief, a great service to me. It is the way that I feel most supported by her. I can pretend there is no such thing as money, compulsively avoiding while she compulsively watches. Sometimes she calls to say things like, why did your subway card get charged twice? Oh, the machine gave me an error message the first time, and I had to do it again — I didn't think the charge went through! And so she calls, ready as ever to throw a fit to regain a righteous hundred, while I drift on, turnstile after careless turnstile.

I do not use money or phones from sundown to sundown, Friday to Saturday; I observe the Sabbath. My mother once watched my bank account, starting at 9am on a Saturday, slowly get depleted with giant online purchases. She frantically called and texted me, but I did not pick up. After the third purchase, she put a hold on my account. When the sun went down, I saw 24 missed calls. I was worried that someone had fallen ill or died. I called back; she picked up the phone. A classic case of identity theft, caught at the perfect time, but she was terrified that the Babies 'R' Us purchases coupled with newegg.com meant that I was pregnant and deliriously preparing.

I was not.

I was observing the Sabbath — inhabiting a world in which money ceases to exist, if only for a short while. Funny to have someone on the other side, draining your bank account, while you are engaging in your weekly utopian experiment, and someone on the other side of that side, watching the money disappear, while you lounge or prance around and know nothing.

Following Heschel, I imagine the Sabbath as a castle in time, a place where the walls are built by cultivating ideals in real-time, where honoring certain rules keeps the walls in place. Take the prohibition on exchanging money, for instance. If I am thirsty or tired during a long walk, I can't stop into the nearest cafe to purchase an iced coffee. But, since I won't be carrying money, there will be nothing anyone can take from me, and I'll feel safe from theft. The Sabbath may require a good deal of preparation to navigate its strictures seamlessly, but after the sun goes down, I'm wrapped in the peace of already having everything I need — at least for the next 24 hours. This means that emerging from the Sabbath and discovering Saturday morning identity theft is like learning that the dream has entered reality; the walls have been breached and the abstract enemy I thought I was safe from arrived while I was asleep.

The Sabbath opens up the temporary possibility of realizing the ideal. Meanwhile, the fear-laden compulsion to strive, to reach, to do, to make is lifted; creation is not permitted, but observed. On most days, despite my interest in many types of creation, I have gladly embraced what I perceive as a Sabbath-esque attitude towards money. However, this raises a few questions. How much of the Sabbath is meant to enter the rest of the week? If the Sabbath shows me a world beyond creation, does it not, in ending, return me to the old world still waiting beyond the curtain? How many times can I, should I, go beyond my perceived reality? And what about the final "beyond", the place beyond life —does money exist there?

No, according to Lucian. In "On Mourning," death is a sweet liberation from the stuff: "Hunger and thirst and cold are his no longer! He is gone, gone beyond the reach of sickness; he fears not fever any more, nor enemies nor tyrants. Never again, my son, shall love disturb your peace, impair your health, make hourly inroads on your purse; oh, heavy change!"

However, Charon's obol and Joss money tell a different story: money exists in the afterlife, and it may not be so heavy as Lucian thinks. In the case of Charon's obol, one coin is generally placed on the mouth of the deceased. This is all it takes to get a ride to the land of the dead. This is such a small amount that it can be understood as nearly nothing. It is not nothing, but it is enough for everyone to have it. Money is that substance that all have enough of in death, but not in life. Charon's obol, then, is a token of human equality. Joss money, meanwhile, is a token of continued honor, remembrance, and service to the dead, a way of maintaining an intimacy by actively providing and being provided for. Money, then, is a symbol of care, devotion, and a cry for help when used in regard to the dead; perhaps this could also be true of money in life.

An ant is asked in a midrashic parable, "Since you live for so short a time and eat so little, why do you collect so much food?" She responds, "Lest the Lord decree life upon me." The possibility that we might live overwhelms the likelihood of death — but it could also mean that the amount of focus on a non-existent future precludes a full presence to the life being lived. This is a rejection of death, but not necessarily an affirmation of life. My great fear is that money has the power to pull you into a living death. To acquire it is a false guard against death, as Robert Heinlein said, "The supreme irony of life is that hardly anyone gets out of it alive." Still, society says, without money money money, you cannot live. Apeleius, Lucian's Mennipus, Charon's obol, and the custom of Joss money say that without money, you cannot die. There is no escape, no looking away from that abyss.

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