A lump of coal has more intrinsic value than the far more expensive diamond it might someday become. Part of the value of diamonds derives from their rareness, but a diamond’s value comes primarily from the desires of a particular community, whose members want to sparkle and cut the glass eyes of their friends with envy, and believe in metaphor.
But diamonds are easy. The girl’s best friend can be purchased, pocketed, and sported away in a short shopping spree, later slid slowly onto the empty, waiting finger at the top of some Ferris wheel. Rhinestones are a guy’s quick getaway; there’s a reason the girl wants the real thing, as Marilyn Monroe and Emmylou Harris sing in “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” lyrics cued from the Anita Loos novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925). Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, writing in Psychology Today (2008, May 29), explains the friendship: “The courtship gift for the purpose of screening dads from cads must not only be costly but also lack intrinsic value. Diamonds make excellent courtship gifts from this perspective because they are simultaneously very expensive and lack intrinsic value.”
Kanazawa doesn’t mention the Styne and Robin movie lyrics or the Loos novel, and his explanation doesn’t quite seem to square with the original lyrics: “Men grow cold / As girls grow old, / And we all lose our charms in the end. / But square-cut or pear-shaped, / These rocks don’t loose their shape. / Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” But Kanazawa argues “Of course, diamonds and flowers are beautiful, but they are beautiful precisely because they are expensive and lack intrinsic value, which is why it is mostly women who think flowers and diamonds are beautiful. Their beauty lies in their inherent uselessness; this is why Volvos and potatoes are not beautiful.” This is not psychology; it’s advertising. The smart, working class mom won’t buy it. She knows it takes time, pressure, and heat to turn her lump of coal into a diamond. A diamond can be purchased in the heat of the moment with a piece of plastic; it takes time and pressure and heat to turn a lump of coal relationship into a marriage.
Time and pressure have intrinsic value, but value that can’t be easily purchased or traded. It took J. D. Salinger ten years to write The Catcher in the Rye. It took James Joyce seven years to write Ulysses and seventeen years to write Finnegans Wake. But here we are online, where the demand is for speed and constant change, instant access, diamonds without a hard core process. We want instant gratification: flipping houses and cars; constantly checking stock prices and email; texting our latest thoughts without giving them time to simmer and develop. We want instant success, so it’s instant success that we’ve come to value. We’ve become a culture of quickie junkies.
Yet we are each of us a lump of coal in the process of becoming a diamond. A diamond is hard and pure and difficult to adulturate; it takes a lifetime to turn a marriage into a diamond, and you can’t wear it on your finger. We should not value diamonds – it’s too easy; we should value time and pressure. And if we value time and pressure, we’re more likely to realize the diamonds that we are, that we have already become – through wear and tear, through life-learning experience, through the pressure and time required to go back to school, to try something new, to forget and forgive and let go – to value our own experience. Then, after all that time underground, we surface with the epiphany, and it feels sudden, but we “…know my song well before I start singing” (Dylan), realizing the opportunity to do what we were born to do, realizing the diamond that is buried deep in our lump of coal, as Paul Potts, 2007 Got Talent winner, explains. The soul is not a diamond; the soul is a lump of coal.
Notes: The photo used in this post can be found at the Library of Congress site, in their American Memory collection, under “Culture, Folklife.” The Paul Potts reference (follow link) is to a mini-doc. video of his performance. After his song, Judge Amanda Holden says she thinks Potts is “a little lump of coal going to turn into a diamond.”