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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

Reviewed: April 1, 2009
By: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Anansi Press
230 pages, $18.95

Last week (as I write this) the CBC rebroadcast the Massey Lecture series reprinted in this book. The teaser promos broadcast during the week were completely misleading and must have been written by someone who never heard the lectures or read the book. Anyone hearing them could be pardoned for expecting a serious inquiry into the nature of economic collapse which has overtaken us since last October.

Payback has nothing to do with the state of the world’s financial mess. Indeed, given the lead time Atwood would have needed to write the five essays and deliver them across the country to be recorded for their original broadcast last November, she would have required a really good crystal ball to pull that off.

Instead of a trenchant commentary on the foolish ways of bankers and economists, Payback is a study of how the notion of debt, in its many forms, is intrinsic to religion, literature and human social interaction in general.

The opening essay, “Ancient Balances”, takes us as far back as the ancient goddesses of justice, who are often depicted as holding scales, and whose function seems to be to determine the worth of a lives, as measured in terms of whether it balanced with an objective weight. Balance was good for passage into the afterlife, Imbalance was a deficit, or debt, that had to be worked off somehow or compensated for.

In “Debt and Sin” Atwood explores notions of morality. Does being in debt equate with being immoral? How have the ideas of good and bad been related to debt over time? Is it better to be a lender than a debtor, or did Polonius have it right when he cautioned his son to be neither in Hamlet? Ironic as it may be, it seems that the favoured solution to our current economic collapse, caused b a failure of the the debt and credit system in the United States, is thought to be that we must spent more money in order to prime the pump wth more debt in order get the wheels of banking and industry turning again.

Consumers are now being encouraged to borrow and spend at the same time as they are being castigated for having too much credit card debt. It seems that debt may be good or bad, depending on what point the speaker wants to make.

“Debt as Plot” examines the relationship between debt and literature, where plots can generally be described as being the working out of debt and credit (not necessarily financial matters) among the characters. There are many kinds of debts - of love, respect; for individuals or groups; etc. - that can drive a story. Atwood looks at several familiar tales with this in mind.

“The Shadow Side” is about what happens when people don’t, won’t or can’t pay their debts. In fact, “what if the debt is one that by its very nature can’t be repaid with money?” This question might have been asked with respect to residential schools, but talk of money seemed to steer the conversation for some years. Atwood looks at some history, some colonial examples, Biblical examples and The Merchant of Venice.

The book’s title is also the title of the last essay, in which Atwood spends some time with Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” and Marlowe’s version of the tale of Doctor Faustus before essentially rewriting Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. She sees the doctor and Scrooge as being mirror images, both having to do with theme of debt.

Faustus lives the good life for an extended period after his bargain with Mephistopheles, but eventually his debt must be paid. Scrooge amasses riches without actually living well, and it takes the intervention of his dead partner’s ghost and visits by three spirits to show him that he owes a massive debt to the life he has wasted and the people he has ill used. He gets busy paying it off.

In the end Atwood leaves us with some observations and few questions to ponder.

“Like all our rules of moral conduct - in fact, like language itself - notions about debt from part of the elaborate imaginative construct this is human society. What is true of each part of that mental construct is also true of debt, in all its many variations: because it is a mental construct, how we think about it changes how it works.

“ Maybe it’s time for us to think about it differently. Maybe we need to count things, and add things up, in a different way. In fact, maybe we need to count and weigh and measure different things altogether. Maybe we need to calculate the real costs of how we’ve been living and of the natural resources we’ve been taking out of the biosphere. Is this likely to happen? Like the Spirit of Earth Day Future’s. my best offer is Maybe.”

If you’d rather listen to the lectures than read them, you can buy a set of CDs from the same publisher, or go to http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/massey.html, where they can still be heard in streaming audio for a few months yet.

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