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Atwood - Payback (2008) - Synopsis

Atwood - Payback (2008) - Synopsis

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Published by Mark K. Jensen
Synopsis of Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (Toronto: Anansi, 2008). Discussed at Digging Deeper (www.ufppc.org) on May 4, 2009.
Synopsis of Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (Toronto: Anansi, 2008). Discussed at Digging Deeper (www.ufppc.org) on May 4, 2009.

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Published by: Mark K. Jensen on May 28, 2009
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UFPPC (www.ufppc.org) Digging Deeper LXXXI: May 4, 2009, 7:00 p.m.
Margaret Atwood,
Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth
(Toronto:Anansi, 2008).Ancient Balances.
This book is about“debt as a human construct—thus animaginative construct—and how thisconstruct mirrors and magnifies bothvoracious human desire and ferocioushuman fear” (2; 1-2). Early experienceswith money (2-6). Ads promising to freepeople from debt (6-7). Credit cards (8). The financial crisis (8-10). Some “ancientinner foundations” underlie the existenceof debt: 1) our need to eat regularly; 2)our sense of fairness (10-15). As RobertWright argues in
The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are
(1995), relatedto Robert Axelrod’s work on reciprocity asa strategy, this sense of fairness isrooted in biology as well as culture (15-21). Charles Kingsley’s
Water Babies
(1863) personified two forms of reciprocity in Mrs.Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs.Bedonebyasyoudid (21-23). Theconstellation Libra also symbolizesreciprocity as a form of justice (23-24). The Egyptian goddess Ma’at (25-30). The Greek goddess Nemesis (30). TheRoman goddess Iustitia (31-32). Theafterlife, Greek, Christian, and Muslim(32-34). That justice is usuallypersonified as feminine may be related to“the fact that among the chimpanzeesit’s often the older matriarchs who arethe king-makers” (35). Aeschylus’s
TheEumenides
symbolizes the advent of ahigher standard of fairness (36-40).
Debt and Sin.
“We seem to be enteringa period in which debt has passedthrough its most recent harmless andfashionable period, and is reverting tobeing sinful” (41; 41-43). The Lord’sPrayer: debts vs. trespasses: Wycliffe
debts
(1381), Tyndale
trespasses
(1526),Book of Common Prayer
trespasses
(1549), King James
debts
(1611) (43-45).“But it’s interesting to note that inAramaic, the Semitic language that wasspoken by Jesus, the word for ‘debt’ andthe word for ‘sin’ are the same” 45).Sermons against debt are common onthe Web (45-48). The Bible calls for debtrelief every seven years (48-49). If Jane Jacobs (
Systems of Survival
, 1994) isright that we acquire only through takingor trading, debt exists in the“shadowland” in between (49-51).Pledging: it, too, is hedged about withrestrictions in the Bible (51). Pawnshops(51-56). Pawning people: debt slavery(allusion to Zola’s
Germinal
) (56-59). The practice of sin eating (giving food toa poor person, who pawns his soul inreturn) and substitution sacrifice (59-67).Christianity as a variation on this theme(67-70). James Hogg’s
The PrivateMemoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner 
(1824) (70-72). Patrick Tierney,
The Highest Altar: The Story of HumanSacrifice
(72-73). The Infernal Book thatis part of such pacts with the devilderives from the institution of debt,which is also at the origin of writing, andwhich took on a malign cast as a result(74-79). “Neither a borrower nor a lenderbe” (79-80).
Debt as Plot.
“[A]ny debt involves aplot line” (81). Metaphors for debt (81-82). Eric Berne,
Games People Play 
(1964), names “Debtor” as one of five“life games” (82-86). Ebenezer Scroogein Dickens’s
 A Christmas Carol
withasides on Marlowe and Washington Irving(86-99). Money is central to the 19
th
-century novel (100). Thackeray’s
Vanity Fair 
(1848) (101-05). Flaubert’s
MadameBovary 
(1857) (105-06). Edith Wharton’s
House of Mirth
(106). Thomas Hardy’s“The Ruined Maid” (107-08). An aside onmills (108-14). George Eliot’s
The Mill onthe Floss
(108, 114-19). Parlor game:“Forfeits” (120-21).
 
The Shadow Side.
“What happenswhen people don’t pay their debts? Orwon’t pay their debts?” (122; 122-26).Quotes Samuel Johnson: when a debt isnot repaid, “the creditor . . . more thanshares in the guilt of improper trust”(128). English debtors’ prisons (128-30).Contemporary dunning for debts;personal bankruptcy (130-32). ElmoreLeonard on criminal lending (132-34).When the state is the borrower (134-36).War as the basis for “many a hefty taxscheme” (136). “Some tax systems are jigs . . . ingenious mechanisms forextracting more money than theextractor ever intends to pay back in theform of services rendered” (137-38).“There are two forms of tax systems:ones that are resented, and ones that are
really 
resented” (138, emphasis inoriginal). Roman tax farming, using“publicans” to collect (138-39). What did Jesus mean by “Render unto Caesar whatis Caesar’s”? (139-40). Rebellionscaused by heavy taxation (e.g. theAmerican Revolution, which was “a taxwar” of which a precondition was Britishvictory in the Seven Years’ War andexpulsion of the French from Quebec[142]) (140-43). State borrowing for war,either from “(1) your own subjects, towhom you can sell war bonds; (2) themoneylenders within your own country;(3) the governments or financialinstitutions of other countries” (143).Ways of escaping such debt: default,“Kill the Creditor” (143-47). Revenge(based on “a psychic debt” to heal “awound to the soul” [150]) involves debtsthat cannot be paid in money (147-50). Jung’s theory of the Shadow:unacknowledged and unaccepted partsof the self projected onto others (150-51). Shakespearean Revenge Tragedy;
The Merchant of Venice
(151-58). Cites James Buchan’s
Frozen Desire: TheMeaning of Money 
(1997) (158).Alternatives to vengeance: (1) courts; (2)forgiveness (159-61).
Payback.
Recapitulation (162-65). Debtand time: “Every debt comes with a dateon which payment is due” (166). What if Scrooge became aware of and tried to“make amends” for his other debts,those that paid off by making purchasesfor his fellow man? (167-73). Atwoodproposes we imagine a “ScroogeNouveau,” a corporate capitalist living in Tuscany (174-77). The Spirit of Earth DayPast lectures Scrooge Nouveau on our“debt to Nature” (181; 178-90). Thereare“ six reactions possible in a crisis, if the crisis isn’t war”: “Protect Yourself,Give Up and Party, Help Others, Blame,Bear Witness, and Go About YourLife”—“If it is a war, you could add twomore—Fight, and Surrender—thoughthese might be dark subsets of HelpingOthers and Give Up and Party” (186). The Spirit of Earth Day Present visit“disaster in the making” (190-97). TheSpirit of Earth Day Future on possiblefutures (197-202). “Maybe it’s time forus to think about [debt] differently”(203). Conclusion: “I don’t really ownanything, Scrooge thinks. Not even myown body. Everything I have is onlyborrowed. I’m not really rich at all, I’mheavily in debt. How do I even begin topay back what I owe? Where should Istart?” (203).
Notes.
10 pp. (in the form of annotations).
Bibliography.
74 items; 5 pp.
Acknowledgments.
Publisher, agents,copyeditor, research assistants, readers,staff, husband (220-21).
Permissions.
2 pp.
Index.
7 pp.
About the Author.
 
Margaret Atwood
has written more than thirty-five booksand won many major literary awards,including the Booker Prize. She lives in

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