My first memory of money: Sitting on my mother and father’s bed one evening when I was very young, bathed in a red-orange light that only existed from 1978 to 1981, with a pencil and a blank piece of paper. My mother told me that I was now old enough to help out around the house and in exchange for my labor, I would be paid an allowance. She handed me the pencil and paper and told me to write down how much money I wanted to be paid. I was very young, I’d never had money of my own before and had little understanding of what money was, beyond the fact that I knew that quarters could be put into the mouths of machines in exchange for bouncing balls containing amazing colors. Suddenly given the opportunity to not only possess some of my own, but also to select exactly how much I would receive, a thrill filled my body. Images of vast piles of cash rose before my eyes and a vision all of the toys that I would buy crowded my eyes. I didn’t really know what money was, but I wanted as much as I could get. Boldly, and with the expectation that my parents, upon reading my demand, would scoff and possibly punish me for my greed, I wrote 60 CENTS.
J R opens with the memory of two kinds of money: money that is alive and money that is dead. Julia and Anne Bast remember the first time they saw paper money, a lifeless thing compared to the harmony of metal coins they remember making music in their father’s pocket. These two monetary visions are poles between which the world of the novel will move. Money is a primal thing, its existence taken for granted. The only question is what manner of money it will be. In law school I learned that money is fungible. One dollar bill is as good as any other dollar bill. This is not entirely true, however. Forests, rocks, oceans—all elemental forces contain spirits and shadows, some good and some evil. Money is just another haunted element.
And yet, J R’s subject is not just money. In the first twenty lines, Gaddis introduces money and immediately pairs it with art. Like Wagner, Gaddis introduces the novel’s leitmotif which will be developed over the rest of the novel.
When the Bast Sisters remember money, they remember its sound and how their father made a living teaching piano. They remember how he used the money that his piano students would pay him to improve their technique by placing the coins on their hands. This new, paper money may be lifeless, but the sisters remember a time when money was key in creating something good.
In the minds of most people, money and art sit on opposite ends of utility, yet they are inextricably linked. Throughout the novel’s first day, nearly every reference to art is paired with a reference to money.
The sisters remember when their father first fell in love with music, to his own father’s violent dismay (–We were a Quaker family, after all, where you just didn’t do things that didn’t pay.) Rachmaninoff’s insured fingers. The children unable to practice their Ring without a bag of money on the table in front of them (–See? Like for the Rhinegold, with real money so we can really pretend, see?). Mozart begging for support and writing himself into the ground. Schepperman selling his blood to buy paint. The great composer James Bast, unable to make ends meet with the money from his awards, engaging in real estate scams. Just as coins are paired to nurturing art, lifeless paper money is paired with lifeless paper music, the piano rolls for player pianos. James and Thomas Bast fight over whether or not music can live in those paper rolls that Thomas’s company creates.
–Nevertheless I would not have imagined that there was still so much money in piano rolls…
When we talk about money and art, we usually think in terms of commercialization and commodification. We think of art consumed into investment portfolios. We think of art as a tool for creating more money. Yet, money is there at the creation of art as well. Though some idealize the idea of the Starving Artist, it is a myth. If you don’t have some sort of income stream, you cannot create art.
—-rich people who commissioned work from artists and gave them money.
You must either be of independent means, have a spouse or parents willing to support you, a job that allows you enough spare time for your art, or people must pay you for your art. In every case, you must have money. Money to buy food while taking the time to write. Money to buy materials to sculpt or paint. Money to rent space to rehearse and perform.
–Hiring musicians to play his compositions, getting them recorded and all the rest of it his royalty checks aren’t a drop in the bucket, even the awards seem to cost twice what they bring in.
With a novel of this scope, it is fruitless to try and say anything definitive or profound about the relationship between money and art at this point. However, it strikes me as interesting that this first linking of money and art is not a corrosive one. The novel begins not by considering the corrupting power of money on art, but rather with the memory of money being used in a positive way to create art, to foster the talent of young musicians.
The question for us to answer is where this relationship goes wrong. Remember: that idyllic vision of Father Bast using money to teach ends with his sons–the composer and the business man–trying to sink his bust in the harbor, the old man’s ashes blowing back in their beards.