Harpagon 1

The miser is a figure, a character, who exists, in the ancient world and the early modern world, in terms of comedy and vice. He is usually old. He is usually miserable. In terms of Simmel’s schema of money, he is perverted in a key way: he has forgotten the function of money as a means, and in this way, he has forgotten the ends of life.

“When one wants to grasp human fate in the schema of the relationships between the wish and its object, one must say that money, in relation to the stopping point in the series of ends, is really the most inadequate, as well as the most adequate object of our desire.”

Moliere’s miser, Harpagon, can certainly be seen from this side of things. If we look at the sexual objects of desire in play, here, from the beginning we have two secret love matches - of Harpagon’s daughter and son – that contrast with Harpagon’s own overt desire for his son’s choice, Mariane, a space that has been opened by a fact mentioned in the very first scenes – the mother in this household has died. Elise replies to her brother Cleante’s recital of griefs received from their father, Harpagon:

“It is really true that, every day, he gives us more and more reason to regret the death of our mother, and…”

At which point she is interrupted by Cleante who hears the voice of their father.

The death of the mother/wife is both the occasion of the removal of a certain limit to the existential perversion that now characterizes Harpagon – his avarice – and allows the father, an old man, to reverse the natural order by seeking to marry a young woman, Mariane. I want to make a little more business of this competition between the love match and the old man’s money – but I’ll do that later. At the moment, let’s note that the mythic background, here, of an underground god raping a young woman – Pluto/Persephone – fits with certain features of Harpagon’s character that seem borrowed from Aristonphanes Ploutus – the ragged clothes, for instance. And, in particular, the buried treasure.

Harpagon’s two-fold perversion has one source – forgetting the ends of life. Sexually, the end of life, in the seventeenth century, is reproduction. Ever more life. Similarly, the end of money, as Boisguilbert will show in 1690, is commodities – use values.

Simmel interprets this curious synthesis of sterility and desire as the logical result of making a sort of category mistake – mistaking the absolute means for the absolute end:

“If therefore the mediated character of money has the effect that it emerges as the abstract form of pleasures that one does not yet enjoy, then the valuing of its possession in as much as it is not expended preserves a coloring of objectivity, it costumes itself with that fine charm of resignation, that accompanies al objective end goals, and combines the positivity and negativity of enjoyment in a peculiar unity that words can hardly express.
Both moments achieve in avarice their most extreme tension with each other, because the money has an aspect like an absolute means to unbounded possibilities of enjoyment and at the same time as the absolute means can still be completely untouched in its function as the unexploited possession of pleasure.”

Simmel is touching, here, on the ascetic life style of thrift that Weber will later emphasize – and yet the miser does not seem to be a normal bourgeois, even if his character does enter into all descriptions of the bourgeois up to the twentieth century. And even, among outlier fortunes – for instance, those having to do with suddenly gained primary product wealth, like the Texas oil billionaires of the 19302-1960s - the miser figure pops up again, in all its archaic glory, as does its companion, the spendthrift.