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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 an imaginative construct—and how this construct mirrors and magnifies both voracious human desire and ferocious human fear” (2; 1-2). Early experiences with money (2-6). Ads promising to free people from debt (6-7). Credit cards (8). The financial crisis (8-10). Some “ancient inner foundations” underlie the existence of debt: 1) our need to eat regularly; 2) our sense of fairness (10-15). As Robert Wright argues in The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are (1995), related to Robert Axelrod’s work on reciprocity as a strategy, this sense of fairness is rooted in biology as well as culture (1521). Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies (1863) personified two forms of reciprocity in Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid (21-23). The constellation Libra also symbolizes reciprocity as a form of justice (23-24). The Egyptian goddess Ma’at (25-30). The Greek goddess Nemesis (30). The Roman goddess Iustitia (31-32). The afterlife, Greek, Christian, and Muslim (32-34). That justice is usually personified as feminine may be related to “the fact that among the chimpanzees it’s often the older matriarchs who are the king-makers” (35). Aeschylus’s The Eumenides symbolizes the advent of a higher standard of fairness (36-40). Debt and Sin. “We seem to be entering a period in which debt has passed through its most recent harmless and fashionable period, and is reverting to being sinful” (41; 41-43). The Lord’s Prayer: 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 in Aramaic, the Semitic language that was spoken by Jesus, the word for ‘debt’ and the word for ‘sin’ are the same” 45). Sermons against debt are common on the Web (45-48). The Bible calls for debt relief every seven years (48-49). If Jane Jacobs (Systems of Survival, 1994) is right that we acquire only through taking or trading, debt exists in the “shadowland” in between (49-51). Pledging: it, too, is hedged about with restrictions 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 to a poor person, who pawns his soul in return) and substitution sacrifice (59-67). Christianity as a variation on this theme (67-70). James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) (70-72). Patrick Tierney, The Highest Altar: The Story of Human Sacrifice (72-73). The Infernal Book that is part of such pacts with the devil derives from the institution of debt, which is also at the origin of writing, and which took on a malign cast as a result (74-79). “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” (79-80). Debt as Plot. “[A]ny debt involves a plot line” (81). Metaphors for debt (8182). Eric Berne, Games People Play (1964), names “Debtor” as one of five “life games” (82-86). Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol with asides on Marlowe and Washington Irving (86-99). Money is central to the 19thcentury novel (100). Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848) (101-05). Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) (105-06). Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (106). Thomas Hardy’s “The Ruined Maid” (107-08). An aside on mills (108-14). George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (108, 114-19). Parlor game: “Forfeits” (120-21).
The Shadow Side. “What happens when people don’t pay their debts? Or won’t pay their debts?” (122; 122-26). Quotes Samuel Johnson: when a debt is not repaid, “the creditor . . . more than shares in the guilt of improper trust” (128). English debtors’ prisons (128-30). Contemporary dunning for debts; personal bankruptcy (130-32). Elmore Leonard on criminal lending (132-34). When the state is the borrower (134-36). War as the basis for “many a hefty tax scheme” (136). “Some tax systems are jigs . . . ingenious mechanisms for extracting more money than the extractor ever intends to pay back in the form of services rendered” (137-38). “There are two forms of tax systems: ones that are resented, and ones that are really resented” (138, emphasis in original). Roman tax farming, using “publicans” to collect (138-39). What did Jesus mean by “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”? (139-40). Rebellions caused by heavy taxation (e.g. the American Revolution, which was “a tax war” of which a precondition was British victory in the Seven Years’ War and expulsion of the French from Quebec ) (140-43). State borrowing for war, either from “(1) your own subjects, to whom you can sell war bonds; (2) the moneylenders within your own country; (3) the governments or financial institutions of other countries” (143). Ways of escaping such debt: default, “Kill the Creditor” (143-47). Revenge (based on “a psychic debt” to heal “a wound to the soul” ) involves debts that cannot be paid in money (147-50). Jung’s theory of the Shadow: unacknowledged and unaccepted parts of the self projected onto others (15051). Shakespearean Revenge Tragedy; The Merchant of Venice (151-58). Cites James Buchan’s Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money (1997) (158). Alternatives to vengeance: (1) courts; (2) forgiveness (159-61).
Payback. Recapitulation (162-65). Debt and time: “Every debt comes with a date on 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 purchases for his fellow man? (167-73). Atwood proposes we imagine a “Scrooge Nouveau,” a corporate capitalist living in Tuscany (174-77). The Spirit of Earth Day Past lectures Scrooge Nouveau on our “debt to Nature” (181; 178-90). There are“ 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 Your Life”—“If it is a war, you could add two more—Fight, and Surrender—though these might be dark subsets of Helping Others and Give Up and Party” (186). The Spirit of Earth Day Present visit “disaster in the making” (190-97). The Spirit of Earth Day Future on possible futures (197-202). “Maybe it’s time for us to think about [debt] differently” (203). Conclusion: “I don’t really own anything, Scrooge thinks. Not even my own body. Everything I have is only borrowed. I’m not really rich at all, I’m heavily in debt. How do I even begin to pay back what I owe? Where should I start?” (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 books and won many major literary awards, including the Booker Prize. She lives in
Toronto with her husband, Graeme Gibson. [Additional notes and remarks. Atwood was born on Nov. 18, 1939. Her father was an entomologist and her mother a former nutritionist. She grew up in Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, Toronto, and the backwoods of northern Quebec, beginning formal schooling only at the age of eleven. She aspired early to be a writer. She majored in English with minors in philosophy and French at Victoria University in the University of Toronto, where she studied with Northrop Frye. Her first book was Double Persephone, a poetry collection published in1961. She earned an M.A. and continue study at Harvard, but did not complete here Ph.D. She has taught at the Univ. of British Columbia, Sir George Williams Univ. in Montreal, the
Univ. of Alberta, York Univ., and NYU. She married Jim Polk in 1968 and divorced him in 1973. She has lived with Graeme Gibson since the mid 1970s; they have one daughter, Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson. She divides her time between Toronto and Pelee Island. She is currently working on a chamber opera entitled “Pauline” about the Canadian writer and artist Pauline Johnson (1861-1913). Among her books, The Handmaid’s Tale (1987) won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction, but she has disputed that classification of the work. Among her non-fictional works is Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972 and 2004). Politically, she has called herself a “Red Tory” and is a member of the Green Party of Canada. She favors the banning of gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers.]
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