Friday, August 05, 2011

Echo-gnomicks: Financial Meltdown and the Sound of the Underground

By Mr. VI

Okay, who did it? Who went and angered the Gnomes of Zurich? Who screwed the dwarves out of their rightful tribute? Who went and annoyed the boys at Gringotts? I know somebody did, because otherwise we wouldn't be in this mess.

No, really we wouldn't. Of course, it always happens this way – humans get greedy for gold and it all goes downhill from there. All you have to do is keep your head down and don't go near them. Instead, like magpies in their black and charcoal plumage, the suits decided to plunder the shiny realm, help themselves to the pots of gold.

Look where that has got us – another financial meltdown. Stocks plummeting, doom upon the horizon. Some part of me wouldn't be surprised if Ragnarok was around the corner, except of course it always is – just at the corner of your eye, but that's another story.

Economics – or as Terry Pratchett puts it 'reflected-sound-of-underground-spirits' a.k.a. Echo-gnome-ics – purports to be the art of dealing with such things. But as anybody who understands the myth of Echo will tell you, there's a bit of a problem.

Echo was doomed to repeat the words of others, her voice taken away by Hera in revenge for consorting with Zeus. Essentially, her communication was reduced to that of a cargo cult – mimicking and repeating sound with little hope of understanding.

Now, notwithstanding the fact that all communication is a bit like this, economics is about appearance. Those bankers and stockbrokers are doing the equivalent of listening to the voices of the gnomes and other chthonic spirits, echoing down mining tunnels and fissures in the Earth. They interpret echoes and make decisions based upon them – an entirely virtual construction based off second or third order perceptions.

It's no wonder really, considering that Paracelsus states that gnomes are capable of passing through solid rock as easily as humans pass through air, so for those of you who enjoy Harry Potter it might help to envisage them as being masters of the Apparate spell.

As apparitions, their substance is by nature more loosely bound than those humans – their outline lest fixed and form more fluid. It makes sense then, that they are masters of the physical, because their ability to modulate matter is a massive engineering boon. This is why in Norse myth, the dwarves are the creatures that create the weapons and tools of the very gods themselves.

This excerpt from Neil Gaiman's award-winning novella The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, which is available in full here, illustrates this really quite well:

I wondered what I would have seen in that cave if my father had been an innkeeper from the lowlands.

You would be seeing gold, said a whisper that was not a whisper, from deep in the heart of the mountain. It was a lonely voice, and distracted, and bored.

“I would see gold,” I said aloud. “Would it be real, or would it be an illusion?”

The whisper was amused. You are thinking like a mortal man, making things always to be one thing or another. It is gold they would see, and touch. Gold they would carry back with them, feeling the weight of it the while, gold they would trade with other mortals for what they needed. What does it matter if it is there or no if they can see it, touch it, steal it, murder for it? Gold they need and gold I give them.

“And what do you take, for the gold you give them?”

Little enough, for my needs are few, and I am old; too old to follow my sisters into the West. I taste their pleasure and their joy. I feed, a little, feed on what they do not need and do not value. A taste of heart, a lick and a nibble of their fine consciences, a sliver of soul. And in return a fragment of me leaves this cave with them and gazes out at the world through their eyes, sees what they see until their lives are done and I take back what is mine.

These chthonic beings operate on their own rules, incomprehensible to humans despite the suited figures insistence that they know and comprehend how the gold flows, how the wealth is made and how the foundations of the world are built. They claim, these priests of finance, the shamans of stock, to know the rituals to summon them, to bind them and put them to service.

Yet all they hear is echoes, all they hear and operate upon is shadows seen in dark caves, where sight is occluded and the whispers and hisses of subterranean gases induce chaotic visions, where the creaking of mine supports is constant, and marks upon the wall are glyphs some protection against cave in and collapse.

These glyphs, these etchings, these ink stained paper signs and signifiers are magical, apotropaic rites to ward off displeasure from the hidden Masters of Form – those processes which influence the world and are hidden from sight and awareness.

They don't work of course, as our current situation shows. Such fundamental things are beyond modelling, and cannot be grasped in totality. To say anybody is in control is foolish. Yet we act as if they are, and when those subterranean ideas, those unconscious desires and unmappable labyrinths of dwarven make are revealed to be beyond comprehension or its manipulation, panic sets in and your world is torn apart.

Just like Echo, you are doomed to be torn apart by panic and limited to repeating the words of others. It's your food, your drink, your shelter, all your necessities that are given to you at one remove, and probably more.

So perhaps, if you feel rage and despair – if panic surges in your veins – perhaps the magpie folk and their shiny lust for gold should have their wings clipped? After all it's not like you can influence the gnomes, or deal with the dwarves is it?

Be seeing you.

Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized.(Or sign up to be notified of its release on


  1. Gotta give props to you for repeating the "award-winning" words of Neil Gaiman... he's not bad. Grant Morrison is alright too. Also, thanks for repeating Terry Pratchett's 'reflected-sound-of-underground-spirits' a.k.a. Echo-gnome-ics - its pretty cute.

    Nice echoes on Echo as well. If you like greek myths, you should look into the one about Narcissus, to see what he saw. It's intense.

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  3. Neil Gaiman is an incredibly impressive individual. I've never seen someone who could articulate so clearly in an interview setting. (Also, the only person that I've ever seen keep up with Colbert, though Sorkin was close.)

    Calling them "alright" is pretty funny.



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