What could be more timely, in these economically unstable days, than a discussion about debt?
The essays in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth were presented as a series of radio lectures in Canada in November 2008. While I often enjoy the non-fiction writings of writers who are more famous for their novels (Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen King, among others), such collections are usually on a variety of topics or on a fiction-related topic such as writing. In Margaret Atwood's case though, she has taken on the subject of debt, although not exclusively financial debt.
Starting with a history of debt that is sprinkled with childhood memories of Scrooge McDuck and her first bank account, she examines the morality of owing other people. Using examples from literature and from nature, Atwood explores the universality of the concept of fairness. When capuchin monkeys realize that when one of their group is being rewarded with juicy grapes while the rest of them are being rewarded for the same work with lesser treats, they know it's a rotten deal and they rebel.
Atwood looks at how changing attitudes toward debt have affected the way we look at debt in literature. In Shakespeare's A Merchant of Venice, for example, Shylock is a moneylender, which is a necessary, but not very respectable profession. Until the recent fiascos, banking was one of the most respected professions, which of course, is mainly moneylending.
Debt isn't just about money. Atwood explores the concept of forgiveness, such as when Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison and knew he had to forgive those who'd persecuted him over the years and he had to do it before he walked out of the prison grounds. Otherwise he would carry those resentments with him forever. We know, as he did, that failing to forgive does more harm to ourselves than it does to those who wrong us, but we want payback. Payback for those psychic debts. It's only right, isn't it?
Atwood concludes with a modern-day Christmas Carol that puts all of these debt-related conundrums into perspective. God bless us, every one. Except maybe the bankers. (Still working on the forgiveness lesson.)