Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

Paperback | October 1, 2008

byMargaret Atwood

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Now a major motion picture
Official selection: 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Legendary poet, novelist, and essayist Margaret Atwood gives us a surprising look at the topic of debt -- a timely subject during our current period of economic upheaval, caused by the collapse of a system of interlocking debts. Atwood proposes that debt is like air -- something we take for granted until things go wrong.

Payback is not a book about practical debt management or high finance, although it does touch upon these subjects. Rather, it is an investigation into the idea of debt as an ancient and central motif in religion, literature, and the structure of human societies. By investigating how debt has informed our thinking from preliterate times to the present day through the stories we tell each other, through our concepts of balance, revenge, and sin, and in the way we form our social relationships, Atwood shows that the idea of what we owe one another -- in other words, debt -- is built into the human imagination and is one of its most dynamic metaphors.

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Now a major motion picture Official selection: 2012 Sundance Film Festival Legendary poet, novelist, and essayist Margaret Atwood gives us a surprising look at the topic of debt -- a timely subject during our current period of economic upheaval, caused by the collapse of a system of interlocking debts. Atwood proposes that debt is ...

Margaret Atwood is one of the world's preeminent writers -- winner of the Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Governor General's Literary Award, among many other honours. She is the bestselling author of more than thirty-five books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, including The Handmaid's Tale, Alias Grace, The Blind ...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:240 pages, 8.25 × 5.25 × 1.27 inPublished:October 1, 2008Publisher:House Of Anansi Press IncLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0887848109

ISBN - 13:9780887848100

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Reviews

Rated 4 out of 5 by from Intriguing view of what is debt Atwood comes at the conept of debt from a literary perspective which I found very refreshing. A great alternative to the more turgid stuff on consumerism and the credit card fueled lifestyle
Date published: 2009-12-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting But No New Insights I guess it would be a stretch to expect something revolutionary about economics from a literary writer. "Payback" is more of a philosophical and philological analysis of debt and credit as opposed to a theoretical analysis which again, you would not expect from a Margaret Atwood. Atwood's humanist approach is refreshing. What she is really seeking to explore is why and how the system of credit affects and is influenced by human traits of desire, fear, and trust. The first few chapters on the classical texts of the Bible, or Dickens, or Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" are good. The last chapter on Scrooge is too moralistic bordering on elitism. As part of the Massey Lectures series, I thought this was a good addition. Certainly innovative in having a literary writer analyzing a topic such as economics. Definitely an interesting read, both for the topic and because of the writer.
Date published: 2009-04-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Debt and redemption Given the current worldwide economic situation, it appears rather prescient that the 2008 Massey Lectures are on the subject of debt. In these lectures, Margaret Atwood provides an examination of the concept of debt as a motif in human society, particularly through an examination of the metaphors of debt in western literature. As such, this book only obliquely deals with monetary debts. Rather, the focus is on the more general idea of debt in relation to justice, sin, redemption, balance, and revenge, among other topics. Atwood begins with the notion of debt and its relationship to fairness, which is ingrained in the psyche of the human race (and other intelligent creatures). In early societies, she describes how notions of debt are aligned with justice, typically represented by a supernatural female figure. It is the emergence of Greece, and the induction of the court system described in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, that the idea of a female arbiter of fairness/justice (and thus of debt) is replaced. Next, Atwood describes the links between debt and sin. In heaven, debts are forgiven; in hell, debts are eternally paid back. The character of Satan is described as a collector of debts, and is often shown with a ledger or balance sheets. With these notions of debt and sin, the creditor is often seen to be as sinful as the debtor, particularly in pre-industrial literature. Moreover, motifs of debt are always twinned with motifs of credit, one symbiotic with the other. In the lecture on “Debt as plot”, Atwood examines the characters of Faust (as exemplified by Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, in particular) and Scrooge (of Dickens’s Christmas Carol). In a fascinating section, she asks if Dickens wrote Scrooge as a reverse characterization of Faust: "Was Dickens consciously writing Scrooge as a reverse Faustus? … There are so many correspondences it is hard to avoid the thought: Faustus longs to fly through the air and visit distant times and places, Scrooge dreads it, both do it. Both have clerks – Wagner and Bob Cratchit – the one treated well by Faustus, the other treated badly by Scrooge. Marley is Scrooge’s Mephistopheles figure who carries his own Hell around with him… Everything Faustus does, Scrooge does backwards." As someone who has been studying variations of the Faust legend for over a decade, I found this digression fascinating. Indeed, the characters of Scrooge and Faust loom large over all of the lectures. An examination of the shadow side of debt described in the title focuses on the ideas of punishment, resentment, and revenge, among others. The endless cycles of revenge and counter-revenge exemplified in the myth of the house of Atreus is shown as analogous to cycles of debt and credit: one is a moral debt, the other a financial one. The solutions to both are laws (as exemplified in the Oresteia) or forgiveness (as exemplified by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission). Forgiveness can break non-ending cycles of moral debt and financial debt. The shadow side of the debtor is the creditor: hence we have Faust/Mephistopheles, Scrooge/Cratchit, and Antonio/Shylock. It was inevitable that a treatment of the motif of debt would include a section on The Merchant of Venice, and Atwood succeeds by providing a detailed and trenchant analysis of the relationship between Antonio and Shylock with regards to their debtor/creditor roles. Payback is associated with redemption, and requires recognition on the debtor’s part of the debt incurred. In the concluding lecture, Atwood returns to Scrooge. Recognizing two archetypes in the Dickens tale (Scrooge Original, before his redemption, and Scrooge Lite, after his redemption), she introduces a third archetype: Scrooge Nouveaux. This twenty-first century Scrooge is an annoyingly narcissistic modern businessperson, both astoundingly rich and astoundingly ignorant. This Scrooge is visited not by the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future, but the spirits of Earth Day past, present, and future. At this point, the narrative moves into a strong focus ecological ethics and the role of debt. The debtor, Scrooge Nouveaux, is a stand-in for all of us and our negligent razing of the planet, racking up an enormous amount of ecological debt from our creditor. We can either start to pay back through sustainable and ethical practices and receive the forgiveness of Gaia, or proceed with business as usual and face her revenge. As Scrooge Nouveaux begins the new day after the nocturnal visit of the three spirits, he thinks: "I don’t really own anything… Not even my 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?" Scrooge’s thoughts apply to all of us. Where shall we begin?
Date published: 2008-11-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Whose debt? Whose story? If Margaret Atwood had written Payback in order to pay off a debt like Charles Dickens is said to have been motivated to write A Christmas Carol, perhaps it would have turned out be a better book. Perhaps if she’d had another year to write it: originally her Massey lecture was scheduled for 2009 but was brought forward when a conflict emerged with the publication date of her next novel. As it turned out, Payback: Debt and The Shadow Side Wealth, is somewhat like a character in a novel itself; caught up in circumstance, a hero determined to change the course of events yet doomed to fail by a tragic flaw. A tragic flaw may or may not be known to the protagonist and in this case, Atwood is acutely aware of it. Still, she plods on as she tragically must, determined to fashion an answer to what was, a year or two ago when she started crafting her arguments, no more than a glimmer of pending economic crisis. Atwood chooses Dickens’ Scrooge for the model of her redemption story, contriving Scrooge Nouveau, a worldly, corporate, media savvy version of Dickens’ original, and a capitalist with a keener eye for self-interest than the old miser ever had. But like Dickens’ Scrooge, Atwood’s Nouveau version finds redemption to be a relatively free ride; it comes at no real cost to himself; he is more than able to share his enormous wealth. Like Dickens, Atwood advocates personal, internal, even spiritual change. Adopting an attitude of service to others, or the earth as Atwood suggests, serves everyone better, including oneself. It’s a slight of hand accomplished by looking at everything one has, even one’s body, as borrowed. Atwood’s Scrooge parable is the fifth and final chapter of Payback, and surprising because there is no payback, no belt-tightening, no hard choices, no revenge and no sacrifice, even after the four previous meticulously researched chapters show how the debt “story” or narrative always involves a payback, a literal paying back of what has been borrowed, or a symbolic and often vengeful payback, extracting a price for a moral wrong, often from the usurious creditor. In either case, the story of debt always involves loss: of homes, relationships, jobs, even lives. History shows no compassion in balancing the scales. So it seems odd that the sardonic, intellectual Atwood would fashion a happy ending in which no one gets hurt. Like Dickens, Atwood’s outcome lacks the tragedy of real payback. Unlike Dickens, it lacks the fireside warmth of reconciliation. The result is unconvincing. Though like Dickens, Atwood’s somewhat Disney-like ending is likely to serve. Literary critics have puzzled over Dickens enormous popularity and commercial success despite being an outspoken political critic. Perhaps it was because he could only imagine individual solutions to problems that he also saw as arising out of individual failings. The individual is after all, no matter his or her political stripe, the basic building block of capital. Ultimately Payback fails to is paint a picture of human folly and redemption in terms adequate to the scale and scope to the social and systemic crisis we are facing. The Dickensian world has been superseded by a global one of mass media and public and private institutions so large as to be unimaginable in his time. Of course, it is too much to ask of any artist, even if they are more observant, sensitive, tuned in than most folks. Artists may indeed be prescient but cannot be expected to be oracles. And in fairness, Atwood drops hints here and there about interesting “outside the box” type solutions like debt cancellation, which at this point we must imagine leaders and bankers around the world to have put in play billions and trillions of dollars in order to effect. In his Salon review of Payback, Louis Bayard pretty much nails the problems mentioned here, in particular the cheesy Scrooge Nouveau ending. Perhaps the book was brought out too soon, driven by circumstance, or even the avarice of a publisher quite possibly giddy with their good fortune to have in hand something like a first person account from the cliff edge of the lemmings charging over. At publication date, the full extent of the economic crash still wasn’t clear (it’s still not) and Atwood’s lecture would have been conceived and written months before when everyone still thought the environment was the No. 1 issue facing humankind. It’s a bit like Stephan Dion’s Green Shift in the recent Canadian election; a program years in the making, diligently crafted, intelligent, yet effortlessly blindsided by the economy and a Conservative “be happy, don’t worry” sort of non-engagement. Payback is a story that needs a new ending. Better still, a new ending written every few years (or months at the current pace of change). If debt will always be with us, what becomes critical is who writes its story, particularly the ending.
Date published: 2008-11-14

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Editorial Reviews

"...a fascinating, freewheeling examination of ideas of debt, balance and revenge in history, society and literature - Atwood has again struck upon our most current anxieties." - London Times Online"...an extraordinarily vibrant Massey Lecture on debt, how it plays a motor force in much literature, in our own lives and in the machinations of the crowd we elect to govern us." - Maclean's"...witty, acutely argued and almost freakishly prescient...as amusing as it is unsettling." - Chicago Tribune"...these pieces offer a panoramic look at how the concept of debt acts as a fundamental human bond and - when obligations go unfulfilled, when ledgers are left unbalanced - how it can threaten to tear societies apart." - Georgia Straight"A celebrated novelist, poet, and critic, Atwood has combined rigorous analysis, wide-ranging erudition, and a beguilingly playful imagination to produce the most probing and thought-stirring commentary on the financial crisis to date." - John Gray, New York Review of Books"Atwood's book is a weird but wonderful melange of personal reminiscences, literary walkabout, moral preachment, timely political argument, economic history and theological query, all bound together with wry wit and careful though casual-seeming research.???????" - Publishers Weekly"In Payback, Atwood freely mixes autobiography, literary criticism and anthropology in an examination of debt as a concept deeply rooted in human - and even, in some cases, animal - behaviour...Building an argument that abounds with literary examples...Atwood entertainingly and often wryly advances the familiar thesis that what goes around comes around." - Toronto Star"Payback is a delightfully engaging, smart, funny, clever, and terrifying analysis of the role debt plays in our culture, our consciousness, our economy, our ecology and, if Atwood is right, our future." - Washington Post"...[Payback is]...a demonstration of Atwood's ability to evoke in memorable detail our vanished cultural past, and to examine both past and present in the form of language. Writing in this mode, she's never off her game." - National Post"...[Payback is] elegant and erudite...As one would expect from a novelist of Ms Atwood's calibre, the phrasing is polished and the metaphors striking." - Economist.com"...replete with anecdotes and opinions, witticisms and barbs...Payback is more about economic principles, and even the market crisis, than it appears at first glance. As impressive as Atwood's intuitions, or her intellect, or even her humour, is her insistence on tracing responsibilities, and possibilities, back to those human, and thus imaginative, constructions." - Globe and Mail"Elegant and erudite...As one would expect from a novelist of Ms. Atwood's calibre, the phrasing is polished and the metaphors striking." - Economist"Nothing if not timely...Few writers are able to combine the esoteric with the polemic as [Atwood] does...darkly entertaining." - Winnipeg Free Press"Payback is a stimulating, learned and stylish read from an eminent author writing from a heartfelt perspective." - Conrad Black, Literary Review of Canada"The lectures remind us of why Atwood has been so important to our literature." - Financial Post"There has been much written about Atwood's 'prophetic vision' and her ability to be eerily 'prescient'...given Atwood's track record, I'm a believer...Either Atwood was born under a lucky star or she really should be moonlighting from a shady storefront with a sign that says 'Palm Readings: $25.'" - Rebecca Eckler""Ms. Atwood is a witty and astute writer of broad sympathy and wide-ranging curiosity, and the prose of the book, at once commonsensical and counterintuitive, bristles with insight and implication."" - A.O. Scott, New York Times