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Posted November 7, 2013
Toronto-based author, Margaret Atwood, explores the concept of d
Toronto-based author, Margaret Atwood, explores the concept of debt in her book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. The title itself may give the appearance that this book was written for debt management, but one must understand that this book has nothing to do with debt management. Atwood herself states that the book is about “debt as a human construct”(Atwood 2). She also states that her motives for writing the book are for her own “curiosity”(Atwood 1) as she delves deeper into the concept of debt and other subject matter which surrounds it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Atwood, throughout the course of the work, focuses on the reasons debt occurs. She uses this as a means to not only explain the concept but also unravel the mysteries behind debt. This can especially be seen in the initial chapter as she explains how humans somehow have this concept of fairness embedded into their genes since they seem to grasp this concept so early on in their childhood through play. This fairness then gives birth to that of debt since we expect some sort or repayment after something has been done to us. These childlike concepts help bridge and display even deeper concepts of debt such as that of fairness and what it is in regards to debt. To even help further explain her points she uses recurring characters such as that of Dr. Faustus or her own yuppie version of Scrooge. These characters not only serve as a purpose to explain the concepts but to further entertain the audience and make them think.
By this time the audience will begin to think like Atwood as they continue to explore debt within the last two chapters. She brings back older concepts which were taught throughout the book which explore how some of this child’s play can be carried on into adulthood. She uses these means to further explain the darkside that debt has to offer where $10 could cost you an arm if you don’t keep your word. This is even more evident in the example she uses which is the Shakespearean play The Merchant of Venice. She reveals that debt does not only have to be generally viewed as a negative and explains that Debt can also have it’s good side. This thought is, what I believe, best displays Atwoods’ open mindedness as she continues to explore the subject and also displays how this book is not in any way biased. She displays the subject to be thoroughly researched to the best of her ability.
Lastly, she displays a silver lining when it comes to debt. She begins to display her own theories on how debt can work for a common good. I believe this is what sets her apart from any writer trying to explore economic theories. She really wants good to come out of debt and believes it is vital for the world to continue to have progress. It’s these types of theories and use of her characters such as Scrooge nouveau which truly express Atwood’s creativity to the fullest. It is this creativity and expression which drive the book forward to a promising conclusion.
As a reader I would have to say that I am impressed by the book despite the concepts becoming dull at times. Atwoods approaches the concept of debt from a unique perspective which delves into the reasons for debt and why were so bound by it. It is her curiosity and open mindedness which drives the book and helps us come to a satisfying resolution .I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to satisfy their philosophical and economic itch.
Posted November 6, 2013
In Payback, Atwood employs a large assortment of references
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In Payback, Atwood employs a large assortment of references to prove that debt can be much more complex than is commonly believed to be. The concept of debt is unraveled to become much more than a monetary issue, instead, it has ties into religion and the overall structure of our society. Atwood demonstrates with example of how debt is embedded in our human culture. We start demonstrating the knowledge of fairness at a young age, as Atwood describes how children are often heard screaming, “that’s not fair,” in a case where they might feel as if something was indebted to them (p13.) This examination of debt crosses over to the perception of debt. We often see debt in a negative way, but is debt so dark that it can be considered a sin?
Atwood proceeds to study the exploitation of debt and how people use it in malicious ways. She creates a bridge between debt and sin in her next chapter by referring to the vernacular of Jesus Christ where debt and sin are synonymous (Atwood p45.) Ultimately debt effects most, if not all people in our society, but this debt does not magically appear, Atwood also examines how debt becomes entrenched in our lives. She suggests debt involves a sequence of events and is the consequence of these events. (Atwood p81.) To continue her trend of debt being a static evil, Atwood presents the darker side of debt by addressing the certain kind of debt that cannot be paid by money. This kind of debt can only be paid by blood or someone’s life referring to the play, The Merchant of Venice written by William Shakespeare (Atwood p152.) By the end of this novel, many questions were raised about exactly what Atwood was trying to prove about debt, but she eventually gets to her point. Although she effectively ties up all of her convictions about debt, at the end, she leaves the reader with a much more pivotal question.
After reading through the novel, a few concepts stood out to be the impetus that created the evil in debt. It’s the concepts of people being enslaved by their debt and how the time will always come for someone to pay their debt. To support her claims, Atwood uses terrifying details and reveals debt to be much more dangerous than we commonly believe.
The Code of Hammurabi of Mesopotamia are a collection of amendments that allows a man to sell his wife, his kids, inhabitants of his household, and even himself into slavery to pay off a debt (Atwood p56). Even though these laws were dated in 1752 B.C.E., debt slavery still exists today (Atwood p57). Consider the entrapment that is involved with smuggling illegal immigrants from Asia to the United States. In return for their long journey over, they are forced into labor to pay off their tremendous debts to these smugglers (Atwood p57). In another situation, the operations of a brothel includes renting rooms, clothing, and selling drugs to prostitutes on a tab that could never be paid off. This type of control chains people to continuous work and essentially enslaves them to their debt (Atwood p58). The notion that someone can be enslaved by his or her debt is distressing, but the certainty of the collection of ones debt presents a more demoralizing aspect.
When there is debt, there exists a time frame or a certain date in which payment must be made. This date will always come, and it can be seen through the play of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. This story involves a man known as Dr. Faustus who sells his soul to the devil for worldly goods and wealth. The tragedy comes when its time for Faustus to pay up his end of the bargain. It’s a scene where he begs for more time to be with his loved one but time is relentless in nature and just keeps ticking. (Atwood p169) It becomes more relative as to us by examining the questions provoked by Atwood in Payback. What is our debt to society? What is our debt to our earth? If there is a debt that we owe to our society, we can be certain of one thing, the time to payback these debts will eventually be at our doorsteps (Atwood p166).
Posted April 16, 2013
Debt Shall Have Its Dominion It's not only money - our thoughts
Debt Shall Have Its DominionWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
It's not only money - our thoughts and actions are also weighed in the balance, as Margaret Atwood's erudite account shows. With this short, lively and exceedingly timely book, Margaret Atwood has written what might be described as an intellectual history of debt. There are no Alvin Hall-style tips for getting out of financial difficulty, and those looking for insights into the causes of our current economic predicament will be disappointed. Atwood's focus, instead, is on debt as a “human nature”(Atwood p.11) - or, to put it another way, debt as an idea. Not surprisingly, given her day job as a novelist, she peppers her argument with copious examples from literature, dipping into texts ranging from Aeschylus's The Eumenides to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The end result is not so much a single argument as a compendium of mini-essays on the various ways that debt has been thought about through the ages.
Debt is certainly a good subject for a survey of this sort. For one thing, it's a topic that rarely gets tackled by anyone other than economists and personal finance gurus, so the territory is wide open. For another, the concept of debt is, when you think about it, amazingly broad in its reach. Understood at the most basic level, a debt has nothing to do with money; it is simply something that is owed. And all sorts of things can be owed, both material and non-material. We can be indebted to someone for their love and friendship, or we can be indebted to them for the cup of sugar they brought round the other day. Equally, we can incur debts for wrongdoing. If I hurt my friend then it is reasonable for him to expect me to make up for that hurt. If I don't then he may consider it his right to do me an injury in return. This is the principle of revenge, to which Atwood devotes several pages. Almost every human interaction carries with it a metaphorical balance sheet, an implied burden of obligation and reward. Debt, understood this way, is inseparable from the business of life.
Moreover, the concept of debt underpins many of society's most important belief systems, most obviously the law, morality and religion. Our notions of justice and punishment are predicated on the idea that those who break the law owe society a debt, which they must make good either with a monetary payment - a fine - or by means of some other penalty, such as a prison sentence. Morality, too, is at root a system of debt, although this time the entity you owe payment to - the creditor - is not society but God.
The Christian narrative can likewise be viewed through the prism of debt, with God figuring as a kind of benign banker. He has given us something of incalculable value - life - and, if we play by His rules and make our moral repayments on time, we'll be allowed to hold on to it forever. By the same token, the Devil can be seen as a malevolent creditor, tempting us with material benefits of wealth, sex, power in exchange for our long-term spiritual health. It is no surprise that in literature the Devil is often portrayed as a lawyer or accountant, totting up the debts or, in the Faust legend, souls owed to him in a ledger.
In Payback, Atwood touches on all these themes and many more besides. The book began life as a lecture series, which perhaps explains its ultra-chatty style. Atwood clearly isn't bothered about coming across as a know-it-all, and the knowledge she displays is formidable. She appears to have read the whole of Western literature and to be an authority on ancient languages. At one point she even makes a foray into animal anthropology, citing a study of capuchin monkeys which, she claims, demonstrates that a rudimentary grasp of debt exists in primates.
Still, Atwood's enthusiasm for her subject and lively style go a long way toward making up for these flaws. She can be a brilliant phrase-maker, and has a gift for summing up an idea with a single vivid image. She points out the fundamental ridiculousness of the self-help idea of “owing it to yourself”(Atwood p.153), since it casts you as your 'own creditor and debtor rolled into one'. Elsewhere, she memorably describes Hell as being “like an infernal maxed-out credit card that multiplies the charges endlessly”(Atwood p.109).
And the topic itself is so endlessly interesting that it is hard not to be carried along. Although Atwood doesn't make a big show of the fact, many of her discussions are highly relevant to current events. She probes the relationship between debt and evil, for example, with a brilliant account of the various Devil-as-creditor characters in literature. The most famous is, of course, Mephistopheles, and Atwood, with her usual erudition, describes not just the Marlowe and Goethe versions of the Faust myth but also a less celebrated 19th-century retelling by Washington Irving. What emerges is how malleable the legend is, how easily it can be re-cast according to the values of any era - including our own. It wouldn't require too much of a leap, for example, to see the modern-day sub-prime creditor as yet another Mephistopheles, tempting us with gaudy fantasies of earthly riches. Unlike his predecessors, though, this Mephistopheles wouldn't be interested in your soul: he'd be after your house.
Atwood's discussion of the connection between evil and debt leads, in turn, to another pertinent question - that of blame. Who, she asks, bears most of the blame for debt: the lender or the debtor? As she points out, in different times and in different places the balance has shifted. The idea that being in debt is sinful has deep roots in Christianity - as indicated by the existence of debtors' prisons. But Atwood points out that moneylender have most often been made scapegoats for financial turmoil, and it is by no means only the Jews who have suffered in this respect. This is something that we should bear in mind before we become too pious in our condemnation of City bankers.
Atwood rounds things off by moving from finance into more wishy-washy territory. She ends the book with a modern-day retelling of Scrooge, which concludes with a banal vision of ecological redemption. It is by no means the highlight of the book but that doesn't mean its message has no value. At a time when so many of us are mired in debts of the financial variety it is worth remembering that it is the other, non-financial debts that we owe - to the planet, and to each other - that may prove most important.
Posted October 22, 2011
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