Magic Money Trees: a Conservation Order

Google ‘magic money trees’. Avoid googling them — they’ll still sprout. There’s an Amazon rain-forest of them. Did we always plant and nurture so many?

As children, we learn to mythologise and imagine, amongst other things, our own potential greatness, our unique place in the world of feeling and actions. Enter the ‘magic money tree’. It’s not new. After all, the ‘money tree’ traces its origins to ancient and primitive societies, and for the Chinese pachira aquatica is holy. A ‘money tree’ lights our way through life and then the afterlife and underworld, a thing bright and shining and truthful; a carrier of good fortune and luck; a tree recommended by Feng Shui practitioners as a creator of positive energy; its gold representation, dripping with diamonds and rubies and emeralds supplied in perpetuity; plucked at will to ornament and embellish ourselves and our icons on altars, or on our wrists and around our necks. Or its leaves are plain vanilla fictional, evergreen and white printed. They flutter into our wallets, Quantitatively Eased there to comfort us and keep us spending, during ‘hard times’ after exotic sounding Black Swan Events. If we could but grow a ‘magic money tree’, our lives and futures would be gorgeous and blessed and simple. In a goldmine of money metaphors and euphemisms — because the genteel or bourgeois, aside from your average Jane Austen, don’t much care to admit money’s important, (biblically, ‘lucre’ is qualified as ‘filthy’) — the ‘magic money tree’, as plain spoken and enduringly simple and loaded a whimsical notion, is a threatened species.

What’s clear is that rarely are our lives or dreams or imaginations void of glimpses of glinting sun-like coinage, shining emblems of riches, whether dropping from a tree or in a pot at the end of a rainbow, glimmering in a treasure-cave on an island or, today, winking flirtatiously at us from a seductively placed logo on a gadget or package. Name me a story or a life where the ‘magic money tree’ isn’t yearning to get through the earth beneath our characters’ or our feet, striving for symbiosis, recognition, and reconciliation. How many paupered protagonists feature in happy endings? How many times have we read, ‘And they lived happily ever after, on their handouts from government, because their families were too tight or embarrassed to pitch in?’

We were childishly delighted that Mr Darcy was loaded (and in possession of a lot of trees). We suspected Emma Bovary wasn’t going to spend her way out of a boring provincial marriage, but willed her to sort herself and her finances out. The last thing we wanted was for Jay Gatsby to wind up floating the wrong way up in his swanky swimming pool, as ethereally fraudulent as he was. We found it difficult to not like Tony Soprano, turned Carmela’s blind eye to him. We were sure from the start that Walter White was going to die, and that crystal meth is a bad shortcut to riches even if it’s ironically altruistic. We insisted that Don Draper was beautiful and profound even as we heard him say, ‘what you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons’. We rooted for Stringer Bell, as he sat diligently in his macroeconomics class. Was he Gatsby, again? We revel in the antics of Tyrion, because he’s a disgustingly honest rogue and funny with it. Fictional worlds elicit these responses to the good or bad fortunes of both our flawed heroes and compelling villains. That’s as it should be.

So yes, we consume: imagined other lives, stories in which people get rich and live happily ever after, die tragically and painfully, or simply wind up meditating on a cliff-to during a ‘me me ohmming retreat’ to come up with the biggest ad of all time and strike it rich, again. But we’re adults. We understand that fiction is fiction and real is real. We do indeed comprehend that there’s no ‘magic money tree’. We’re not, mostly, in the business of wandering off to the woods or London park half way through the day, to stand beneath a tree and shake it unless we’re after a free (edible) apple. We might sit down under it, turn off our smartphone, eat our sandwich, and day-dream for a moment.

There’s no need to remind us that there’s no such thing, or keep trying to teach us how to grow one or blame us if there isn’t one. This is illogical, a sort of upside-down version of a performance technique — violating a rule that’s about violating a rule known as ‘breaking the fourth wall’. If Frank Underwood turns to us to make an ironic aside, or a character in a pantomime, Moliere or Shakespeare play addresses us, he’s not telling us that what’s happening isn’t possible, that something doesn’t exist. On the contrary — he’s telling us to suspend disbelief. What on earth is he doing talking to us? Shouldn’t be inside his fiction? Ah, he’s recruiting us to his alternative reality. How magical. Is our speaker or writer today saying ‘Yes! There is a Magic Money Tree’? No, he’s not. He’s publicising the lie of the whimsical notion or childhood myth or history of a dynasty, that we enjoy. Over and over, as if we’re being told to grow up and pay attention, he’s telling us what we already know and destroying the fiction.

To assassinate a simple metaphor or myth, by bullying it and torturing it, brandishing it threateningly in its misery to bored intelligent dreamers and audiences or readerships of millions, so that it finally expires, dies the ignominious public tormented death of a cliché –this is a dreadful crime, and must be prevented. Otherwise, as Stringer Bell said, ‘We ain’t gotta dream no more’.