WHAT ARE YOU READING?
The Legend of King Midas
I decided to talk about the King Midas myth instead of a regular book this month because it’s the end of the year, and at the end of the year one tends to take a look at how the last eleven months have gone. This year the answer is: not so well. And so I was thinking about the world one night when it occurred to me that the myth of King Midas and the Golden Touch is the perfect allegory of human greed. King Midas loves gold. There is nothing, he believes, that he loves more. He loves it so much that when the gods grant his dearest wish he is given the power to turn everything he touches into gold. At first King Midas is pretty happy about this. He touches a tree and it turns into gold. He touches the roses and they turn into gold. There are several versions of this story, of course. In one, he sits down to dinner and discovers that the food turns into gold, which even he can see could cause some problems. In the version I remember best, his daughter runs to him, upset about what happened to the roses, and in trying to comfort her he turns her into gold. Which is when he realizes that there was something he did love more.
I’d always read this as the story of one man whose greed is his undoing. But as I was thinking about the world and what’s happening to it, I realized that it also applies to us – to humans – as a species. We’ve turned just about everything on the planet into money. Other Earthlings. The land. The air. The water. The fossilized remains of our past. Forests, jungles, mountains, even deserts – all have been co-opted to make money. If something exists, you can be sure that someone’s found a way of making a profit from it. As if nothing else matters. So here we are in a year that ends with scientists warning of an impending, irreversible planetary calamity, for which we’re responsible, and politicians and corporations ignoring these warnings and thinking about nothing but wealth. We are the King Midas species. Midas Man. Always wanting more. We’ve even managed to turn the celebration of the birth of a poor carpenter who preached love and compassion into a virtual shark-feed of consumerism. We’ve destroyed (and continue to destroy) the planet for money, and in the process have lost sight of what makes life good. Also in the version of King Midas that I know, King Midas gets a second chance. Will we?