Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Margaret Atwood is the kind of writer who makes me want to read more - not just more of her own writing, though certainly I intend to eventually read all she's written, but she also makes me want to read everything there is out there. Her breadth of knowledge and acquaintance with other texts is always astounding. In addition to writing incredible books, I'll never forget her wonderful sense of humour and fascinating talks - living in Edinburgh was a treat for a bookworm like me.

"Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth" is one of the CBC Massey Lectures. Inaugurated in 1961 to provide a forum on radio where major contemporary thinkers could address important issues of our time, Atwood's series of lectures are from 2008. People often tell me I'm impossible to buy books for because I've read or bought so many of the ones I want that they can't determine what I wouldn't have. For future reference (mom), since the local English bookstores don't carry the Massey Lectures series and I've only read three (the other two were "The Truth About Stories" by Thomas King and _____________________ by Stephen Lewis), so they are always a safe bet. All three have been incredibly fascinating books.

In the first chapter, Atwood talks about the origins of a sense of fairness, balance, and justice - concepts that may go back beyond humanity - apparently monkeys also get upset if when they have been taught that they can trade pebbles for cucumber slices and then one of them gets a far more coveted grape. She goes on to examine, in Chapter Two, the connection between debt and sin and between debtor and creditor, both of whom have been considered sinful at different times in history. The third chapter looks at the use of debt in plots and the symbolisms of mills and millers, who were thought of as cheats and Devil-like characters as the Industrial Revolution and capitalism marched on through the nineteenth century. She concludes the chapter with an old Greek saying, that the mills of the Gods grind slowly but they grind very small (thoroughly). Chapter Five looks at what happens when it comes time to pay up: debtor's prisons, loan-sharks, liquidating creditors, rebelling against unfair taxes, and blood-soaked revenge. The final chapter is a rewrite of the Scrooge story, reframing it to look at the debt we owe to the environment, which we destroy, and those in the developing world, whose labor we profit off of.

"Saint Nicolas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers-there's a touching legend whereby he provides dowries for three poor girls who can't get married without them... There's nothing whatsoever to the other legend about Saint Nicolas-that he comes down the chimney every December 25 with a sack full of stuff he's nicked from the pawnshop. It is however true that the nineteenth-century colloquial expression "Old Nick"-meaning the Devil-is directly connected with Saint Nicolas. There are other clues. Note the red suit in the case of each; note the hairiness, and the association with burning and soot. We get the slang term "to nick," meaning "to steal," from.. But I digress, pausing simply to add that Saint Nicolas, as well as being the patron saint of young children, those sticky-fingered elfin creatures with scant sense of other people's property rights, is also the patron saint of thieves. Saint Nicholas is always found in the vicinity of a big heap of loot, and when asked where he got it he'll tell an implausible yarn involving some non-human labourers hammering away in a place he euphemistically calls his "workshop." A likely story, say I."

"Without memory, there is no debt. Put another way: without story, there is no debt. A story is a string of actions occurring over time-one damn thing after another, as we glibly say in creative writing classes-and debt happens as a result of actions occurring over time. Therefore, any debt involves a plot line: how you got into debt, what you did, said, and thought while you were in there, and then-depending on whether the ending is to be happy or sad-how you got out of debt, or else who you got further and further into it until you became overwhelmed by it, and sank from view."

"In my part of the world we have a ritual interchange that goes like this:
First person: "Lovely weather we're having."
Second person: "We'll pay for it later."
My part of the world being Canada, where there is a great deal of weather, we always do pay for it later. One person has commented, "That's not Canadian, it's just Presbyterian." Nevertheless, it's a widespread saying among us."

"By making amends then, Scrooge is paying a moral debt. To whom does he owe this debt, and why? In Dicken's view, he owes it to his fellow man: he's been on the take from other people all his life-that's where his fortune has come from-but he's never given anything back. By being a creditor of such magnitude in the financial sense, he himself has become a debtor in the moral sense, and it's this realization that's at the core of his transformation. Money isn't the only thing that must flow and circulate in order to have value: good turns and gifts must also flow and circle-just as they do among chimpanzees-for any social system to remain in balance."

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