By way of the Parisian underground
A new Read/Listen list follows at the end of the essay, with wolves, Bill McKibben on Jesus, and Timothy Snyder on Ukraine. Many thanks to my good friend Stephen Alvarez for sharing these photos—and an apartment in Paris years ago.
In a roomful of riches we all looked shabby and tired.
Perhaps it was the glow. The way the sad fluorescent light fell evenly over cloth, steel and skin but on the gold’s fine surface it seemed not merely reflected but transformed. You had the sense of staring at sequestered sunlight, at something pure. And on each bar, in rows of identical numerals, was stamped a measure of that perfection: 99.999 percent. Fine as gold could be.
We stood there like rubes, ten stories below the streets of Paris, in the vault of the Banque de France. Gold bars lay all around, piled on pallets and stacked in cages and passed hand to hand through our covey of official chaperones. Not five minutes passed before I was thinking of theft.
A bank executive read my mind and hefted a bar over to me. A deep crease scored its bottom.
“American gold,” he said, pointing to the mint mark. “It is the ugliest.”
This was a decade ago. My friend and collaborator Stephen Alvarez had talked us into the Banque, past the retinal scanners and the metal detectors and the paperwork. At the time we were reporting a story for Nat Geo about the city below Paris,1 the dark world of tunnels and cemeteries, gathering places and watercourses, that makes life at the surface possible and lends it a certain edge.
The Banque was a natural stop on our subterranean tour. Here lay France’s greatest treasure: some 2,600 tons of gold, we were told, that on today’s market would be worth more than $120 billion. A crucial, invisible, pillar holding up the world.
Stephen and I found ourselves thinking of France’s hoard a couple of weeks ago at the start of the invasion of Ukraine, when the media focused, for a while, on Russia’s gold reserves. We learned in that eager pre-war coverage that Putin had spent a lot of energy trying to make his nation “sanction proof,” or at least less vulnerable to Western financial penalties. One way he tried to do this was by stockpiling gold.
Gold is among the rarest of metals, born eons ago in the collisions of stars. The bar I held in my hand that day had been unburied in the darkness of faraway mines. It was then hauled briefly into sunlight where it may have taken shape in a ring, a coin, a Pharaoh’s seal. Finally it was melted down into dull anonymity and returned to darkness below the Right Bank.
I had never been so close to so much wealth, and it was impossible to square the value of the hoard with its muteness, deafness, and immobility. Here was Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, broken into pieces, locked away in cages.
Russia is now thought to posses the world’s fifth largest gold store. When I took a brief look into this recently I noticed that Russia’s gold-buying “binge” began around the time Stephen and I were standing in the vault of the Banque, casually wondering how long it would take the French to miss a bar or two.
I’m sure Putin’s gold looks just as alluring and dull, just as dull-uring, as these photos suggest. Imagine it, sitting there in a similar vault below Moscow—the inert source of a dictator’s power, his ability survive and make war. And also our own. Markets may no longer rely on a gold standard, but the U.S. is still by far the globe’s largest hoarder of bullion. Our gold—if I can call it that—is connected to their gold, to all gold, inseparably linked by an artificial gravity of greed. Which of course just means we are owned by our objects.
In the vault that day bank officials showed us gold that had been minted in many countries, including France, the U.S., China and more. All were equally pure, though each bar was slightly different in shape. Bars from the U.S. were considered so unattractive, I was told, that no one wanted to buy them—gold as a mirror of national character. The American bars were being quietly shipped off to smelters who would recast them into more pleasing forms.
Elsewhere in France’s enormous collection were bars made in the Soviet Union. I stood over one of these and peered down at the hammer and sickle stamped into its face. Here was the relic of a vanished state, proof that gold’s guarantee is thin.
A bank man said that the Soviet bars were safe, for the time being, from smelting. They weren’t as pretty as some, but less ugly than others. I think they also held a certain nostalgia: the newest of them would have been minted just before the last time the world ended, in 1989, when a young KGB officer named Vladimir Putin was calling for tanks to stop protesters in East Germany.
I ran a finger along the smooth cool face of Soviet history and the strange desire returned that’d been nagging me all morning. I thought of how heavy the bar was, how my shoulder bag would sag as I slipped it in.
Then I looked up to see if anyone was watching.
Read / Listen
This episode of the Ezra Klein show with Ukraine scholar Timothy Snyder was one of the best discussions I’ve heard recently on the causes of what’s happening in Ukraine. It’s easy to get over-Ezra’d, but this one was worth it.
I’ve been enjoying a pod called The Wolf Connection lately. Shout out to Kira Cassidy, who appears in this episode talking about wolves in Yellowstone N.P., and who helped us much with our wolf project a few years ago.
Surprise! Animal personalities play a role in nature.
Bill McKibben: I have not been a fan over the years. But lately I’ve been reconsidering his work. An essay called “The Christian paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong,” from Harper’s was really quite good, and—though it was written in 2005—still true. I read it in a book of his collected essays; if I find a free version I’ll post it.
Update: here’s the essay, on a university blog, tho not exactly a secure connection… be warned. “When Americans hunger for selfless love and are fed only love of self, they will remain hungry, and too often hungry people just come back for more of the same.”
Sorry about the paywall. Anyone actually interested in reading this old piece can write me and I’ll send it along.