The Rich Aren’t Like You and Me…
…They’re worse. Or at least that’s what a lot of people think. Until, of course, their own ship comes in
What is it about money? We envy it, some of us kill for it, we look down our noses at it, some of us won’t have anything to do with it, and yet its place in the cultural consciousness is assured. Money, that is, can’t be overlooked, pro or con. Freud, who hadhis own complex relationship with money, cultivating some patients solely in the hope of their ¬endowing his psychoanalytic endeavor, thought that wealth could never bring happiness because it didn’t answer an infantile wish—that its roots lay later on in human development. Still, while blithely equating money with feces in the unconscious, he himself was not immune to its power: “My mood alsodepends very strongly on my earnings,” he wrote to a colleague. “Money is laughing gas for me.”
One might argue that money is laughing gas for most of us in its ability to dissipate anxiety and send our spirits soaring. It speaks to our sense of freedom, to our wish not to be hemmed in by the prosaic circumstances of our lives. Although you can travel on $5 a day (or used to be able to), it is farless taxing and more cushy to ¬travel by private jet. Among money’s less overtly acknowledged uses, which is implicitly addressed by purveyors of luxury brands, is separating one from the masses, ensuring that one feels like a king or queen for a day—or a week, or a lifetime.
But here’s the odd thing: Although money in itself arouses many emotions, including admiration, we tend to despise thepeople in possession of it. We suspect them of having come by it unfairly, of somehow not being “worthy” of their own wealth. The popular animus against the rich is inscribed in our cultural narrative as surely as is our curiosity about them; indeed, the critic Lionel Trilling observed that “the novel is born with the appearance of money as a social element.” Perhaps the most comprehending “insider”novel ever written about the damage money can do is The Great Gatsby, in which F. Scott Fitzgerald observes of the immensely rich Tom and Daisy Buchanan: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”I’ve experienced firsthand the barely veiled hostility that being rich—or merely being perceived as rich—can elicit from veritable strangers, even those who are themselves well-off. As a writer who draws on personal material, I’ve been candid about the vexed issue of money in my life in a way that few writers are; in a piece published in The New Yorker more than a dec¬ade ago, I noted thatmoney, “far more than sex, lingers as our deepest collective secret, our last taboo,” and that I had little idea of how even my closest friends managed to live in an expensive city like New York (and send their children to private school to boot). My honesty about my own affluent background has left me vulnerable to various jabs. I remember, for instance, going to lunch with a friend, a writer whohappened to come from a family far wealthier than mine but who was generally silent on this aspect of his lineage, and another writer, an Upper West Side liberal type of more modest means, who had the usual clichéd disdain for businessmen and anything that smacked of a pecuniary imperative. We were discussing the difficulties of supporting oneself as a writer, the unspoken but snobby assumption forboth of them being that it was beneath their principles to write out of anything but the most pure and nonremunerative of impulses. (I refrained from pointing out that no less a literary light than Samuel Johnson had said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”) Instead, I offered up that I actually liked writing for the sort of magazines that paid well since they came with a larger...
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