Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Mercury-Gold Amalgam: The Confusion by Neal Stephenson


In the second volume of his excellent Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson takes the major charactors we met in Quicksilver, Daniel Waterhouse; Eliza, Duchess of Qwghlm; and Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, on a world-wide adventure of piracy. The complexity of style in the Baroque Age, the taste for endless recursions, loops and folds, partaking a tiny portion of a thousand styles and mingling them into a single con-fused fashion, is both the theme and the apparatus of the novel.

Like Quicksilver, The Confusion is divided into books, in this case, two: Bonanza and The Juncto. Bonanza tells the tale of Vagabond Jack Shaftoe in his new life as a Barbary galley slave, gold thief, king in India, and co-conspirator. The Juncto centers around Eliza as she straddles the roles of mother, wife, political financier, King-maker and correspondent. The two books alternate in describing European (and Asian) politics and financial matters during the Baroque Age.

Solomon's gold, which pirate Jack acquires for the cabal of freed galley slaves he leads, is reputed to contain an essence not found in "baser" golds. This essence, which makes the gold marginally denser than the ordinary metal, is what the alchemists of Europe desire; Jack's theft brings him (and Eliza, by association with him) into the enmity of such as the Duc d'Arcachon—and Isaac Newton.

Jack, however, is unaware of the extraordinary quality of what he has stolen. So when he and his cabal escape the Barbary fleet by sailing south through the Red Sea, they take the golden loot into the Indian Ocean. There, it is stolen in turn from them by the warrior queen Kottokal, along with several of Jack's ex-slave cabal.

Meanwhile Eliza, and her infant son Jean-Jacques (reputed to be the son of Etienne, heir of d'Arcachon, but probably the son of Jean Bart the French privateer), fleeing to England with her wealth of gold and silver from the collapsing finances of Belgium and Amsterdam, is captured by the privateer Bart. Thinking fast, she loans her captured wealth to the King of France for use in the war against the English. As a consequence, instead of being a captive of war, she is a guarded noblewoman (Countess de la Zeur)—and eventually, as wife of Etienne, Duchesse d'Arcachon.

Eliza is given a commission to travel to Lyon and purchase timber for the French Navy. The commission is a meant to be a learning experience for her, to teach her the byzantine ins and outs of the paper used in Lyonnaise finance. As Eliza grasps the way this new concept of money works, we learn the foundation for the alchemical lead-into-gold shift that creates wealth from commerce, that derives value from the flux and change of values, and rests on trust and knowledge.

This "flux and change of value" is the quicksilver to the gold of known facts and scientific concepts (and hard money); the amalgam of the two will give rise to a new system of the world's finance—and new paradigms for wealth, government, and even knowledge itself. Whenever fluxion, the derivative as the slope of the curve of change, is discussed in this era, Newton and Liebniz must be involved. Their on-going dispute over which is the originator of the calculus supplies another of the intricate Baroque inter-weavings to the story.

In an appropriately Baroque fashion, Newton also serves as the pivot-point for another mercury-gold analogy. With the intercession of Daniel Waterhouse, the physicist-become-alchemist is installed as director of the London Mint, at a time when the political battleground between Whig and Tory has been made concrete by two institutions, the Bank of England (based on the mercuric changes expected from Commerce) and the Land Bank (based on the hard-money asset of England itself).

Daniel's reward for convincing Newton to assume to assume control of the Mint is an endowment for the "Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technological Arts," a one-way passage to the colony, and a sinecure as the Institute's Director. There, Daniel hopes to create a Knowledge Engine, conceived as a way to categorize scientific facts, and eventually, to mint new theorems from this flux and change of knowledge.

The Confusion uses its interleaved themes to create a thrilling tale almost (but not quite) overwhelming to the senses, and its appeal demonstrates that the human taste for the artistically complex did not die with the end of the Baroque age. The story is a crucible, with its contents, quicksilver and gold, beaten into a perfect amalgam, somewhat denser than gold alone, and containing the essence of wisdom.

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Blogger samraat said...


4/03/2010 10:37 PM  

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