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15 february 2017

I don't think I own any movable gold at present, though there's a gold post beneath one of my teeth and there's probably some gilding here and there in the devices that litter my home and office. But I've always been attracted to the idea of owning some small amount of the metal, just because of its associations. Most people crave gold to some extent. Gold's physical properties, as Rebecca Zorach and Michael Phillips note in a new book, make it unique among the elements in terms of purity, malleability, and lustre. It's not intrinsically any more beautiful or useful than a bunch of other heavy metals, but it's emblematic. The book Gold is in part an investigation of why this particular shiny metal is especially captivating.

Zorach and Phillips look at gold in symbolism, religion, economics, art, and science. A continual theme in their brilliantly-illustrated book is that gold has inflected global politics, and the courses of colonialism and capitalism, more than your typical chemical element. Lust for gold has been responsible not just for the parabolic disasters in fictions like Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale and B. Traven's Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but for ecological and human-rights catastrophes around the world and across history.

A haunting theme in Zorach and Phillips' Gold is that virtually all of the gold ornaments ever made have subsequently been melted down for their bullion value. Pre-Colombian Americans had little sense of gold as money, but valued it greatly for art and adornment. Colonial powers extracted tons of those craft objects, shipped them to Europe, and melted them down, a process that went on for centuries. Meanwhile, the goldsmith's art in Europe itself was quite an ephemeral thing. Gold objects, like slightly more durable versions of ice, sugar, or butter sculptures, existed for the moment, on their way to the recycler's pot. Unless gold was found in tombs in later, more archeologically-conscious times, and transported directly to museums, it was unlikely to last long in any crafted form.

Gold retains a powerful hold on the political-economic imagination, long after its usefulness in the global financial system has faded. Texas recently authorized the building of a gold depository so that the gold of Texans could be kept physically close to us and our horses and guns, far from those unreliable bankers in New York and Zürich, and definitely out of the hands of those federal-government types at Fort Knox. (And of course the depository would be a privatized agency, so that even the politicians in Austin couldn't mess with Texas gold.) As of this writing, the gold depository remains a wishcast, but there is always hope for the repatriation of our precious metal.

Zorach and Phillips are scathing on the human cost of gold mining. It has always been a brutal business for rank-and-file workers. Even the seeming free agents who flock to gold-rush communities are desperately exploited in a wholly unsustainable effort that wrecks local environments. We are now conscious of the problem of conflict minerals. States, institutions, and individuals try to avoid traffic in gold that comes from war-torn regions. But gold is even more fungible than diamonds, and traces of its origin are easily melted away. If you buy gold today, you cannot be sure that its sources are pure – in fact you can be pretty sure that they're not. The shiny new ring you buy at the mall may contain atoms from Congolese conflict metal, the jewelry and teeth of Holocaust victims, and the ransom of Atahualpa. On the whole, after reading Gold, I'm much more reconciled to owning so little of it.

Zorach, Rebecca, and Michael W. Phillips Jr. Gold. London: Reaktion, 2016.