A cultural history of debt
From The Economist print edition
WITHOUT debt there would be no capitalism; mankind would be living in caves and eating whatever it killed. But Margaret Atwood’s elegant and erudite canter round the literary, cultural and historical aspects of borrowing, lending, owing and repaying has less to do with economics than with human nature. Her new book is a collection of radio talks, conceived and delivered long before the current crisis, but its publication is remarkably timely.
Debt is as old as human civilisation. The first recorded laws had to do with repayments and repossessions. The idea of debt depends on a common sense of fairness: if you borrow and don’t pay back, justice is violated. That is not exclusive to humans; chimpanzees seem to have similar ideas. But debt is not morally neutral. Borrowing too much is a sign of depravity. So is being a merciless lender. Debt metaphors (“overwhelmed”, “drowning”, “crushing”) are dramatic. In the end, money is time, and you may pay with your life—if not through death, then through drudgery.
The best bits of “Payback” are about debts that do not involve money. What do people owe to the planet? To other people? To God? The author is particularly taken with Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”, a story usually read only as a sentimental fable. Ms Atwood strips it down and rebuilds it with the brisk pen of an expert literary critic. The Archangel Gabriel bears the same relationship to God as Bob Cratchit does to Scrooge, she argues. It sounds odd, but makes perfect sense when you read it.
Ms Atwood weaves in all kinds of literary references from nursery rhymes to modern fiction, from Aeschylus to Darwin, via Mary Poppins and Charles Kingsley’s “The Water Babies” (where the lovely Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby is the counterpart to the severe Mrs Be-donebyasyoudid). As one would expect from a novelist of Ms Atwood’s calibre, the phrasing is polished and the metaphors striking: revenge taken in red ink can be even more satisfying and gruesome than that taken through red blood.
One criticism is her caricature of Christianity, which has shaped Western thinking about the debt of sin and the means of redemption for the past two millennia. Ms Atwood’s apology for squashing Christian theological thinking into two chatty and disrespectful pages does not sound wholly sincere.
But the overall effect of the book is stimulating, if a trifle dizzying. Even Ms Atwood, scintillating wordsmith though she is, cannot quite patch holes in the logic. Her greenish, gently leftish convictions poke through rather too visibly sometimes. Ultimately, debt is a way that people bet on their own futures, placing a wager on their own ability, cleverness, diligence and luck. When those bets fail, the consequences for the loser can be sad. But the world is a better place, on the whole, if people have the right to make such wagers in the first place.