What Do We Owe?

An exploration of pacts with the Devil and other transactions

Margaret Atwood’s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth is a very provocative reconciliation of moral with financial indebtedness, and of the need to repay debts—especially when they have the character of penalties for previous misconduct—with severe consequences for not paying them back. She lays out a learned but never pedantic or turgid cultural history of the evolution of debt to trespass, to social thoughtlessness and selfishness. Despite the heavy moral content of her message, Ms. Atwood never ceases to be an elegant stylist with a fine sense of humour.

In these five Massey lectures, Ms. Atwood puts down the anthropological roots of a sense of fairness in matters of exchange, citing the bartering that goes on between chimpanzees and the concept of retribution for unfair trading even with subhuman but social animals in the most primitive conditions. She describes the tradeoff between material and moral success, especially in early religions. Debtors and creditors, as she states several times, are “joined at the hip,” and could not exist without each other. No one would lend if not reasonably confident of being repaid, and there would be no borrowers if there were no lenders.

The relationship of debt and sin naturally arises, and with it the concepts of the sale and redemption of valuables, including one’s soul. We scale determinedly, with Margaret Atwood deftly leading us, the sheer heights from the familiar pawnshop to Dr. Faustus and Ebenezer Scrooge. She represents Faustus’s pact with the Devil as “the first buy-now, pay-later scheme,” and claims that all such transactions are the forfeiture of something valuable, one’s soul or at least integrity and moral health for “a lot of glitzy but ultimately worthless, short-term junk.” But are they always trades of something higher and more valuable for something worthless? The Marlowe and Goethe versions of Faustus record the discreditable arrangements with the Devil, but they are not as reprehensible as the original disobedience to God of Adam and Eve, suborned by the same tempter, and with which sinfulness all Judeo-Christians are sullied. Cultural and social history are replete with sacrificial exchanges of, broadly speaking, one’s soul, or life itself, for good or noble things, not just the redemption of scoundrels such as Sidney Carton. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, many saints, and winners of medals for conspicuous valour in mortal combat have made pre-emptive moral first strikes against diabolical forces: the pre-redemption of what has not been pawned.

In her exploration of Faustus and Scrooge, Ms. Atwood presents them as “reverse images.” Faustus makes his bargain and is ultimately called on it, in a contractual framework. Scrooge, morbidly materialistic and a grasping miser, is cautioned by his late business partner in bad dreams, and emerges on Christmas morning with a new and more altruistic world view. This is interesting and diverting, but are they really reverse images, and so what if they are? Faustus was frightened of time and mortality, and had an underdeveloped or at least quite superable moral sensibility. But Scrooge was fearful of poverty, consumption, kind-heartedness and the unknown. He made no pact with anyone, but protected himself from his fears in the only way he knew. The vanity and moral cowardice of Faustus are quite distinguishable from the very different sin of avarice that afflicted Scrooge. But they both repented, sincerely—Scrooge successfully in terrestrial life because he had made no transaction with Satan.

Somewhere in the midst of this Ms. Atwood introduces The Merchant of Venice. It has never been clear to me whether that drama was anti-Semitic or an exposé of the evils of anti-Semitism. I have generally thought that Shakespeare presented a Jewish caricature, then reviled anti-Semitism and wholesomely allowed all the protagonists to keep their lives. I don’t believe that charging interest on debt ever passed out of fashion, or that only Jews provided credit, or that the medieval church went much beyond a largely ineffectual condemnation of usury. But I do not hold myself out as an authority on the Middle Ages, and I am not now in a place that facilitates the study of them.

Whatever their great talents, Marlowe and Dickens were not divines. Their presentations of the themes of excessive materialism and moral and physical cowardice are particularly vivid, but they are not Revelation or prophecy. In the spirit of the subject, and emboldened by Margaret Atwood’s charming reminiscences of a United Church, lower-middle-class upbringing in 1930s and ‘40s Toronto, I have a confession to make. I was brought up a few years later in the same city, in an episcopal but not very observant Protestantism, and apparently a somewhat more prosperous household. And I spontaneously conceived a considerable admiration for Scrooge’s partner, Jacob Marley, which I have never entirely lost. To me, his is one of the great cameo roles of cultural history, like one of the strangely inter-related fathers and mothers in the Ring Cycle, or Orson Welles’s portrayal of Louis XVIII in the film Waterloo. If we accept the context of pure arithmetical and unimaginative capitalism in which the fabled enterprise of Scrooge & Marley operated, then for Scrooge to protest to the chained and festooned ghost of his partner, who had admonished him to mend his ways, “You were a good man of business, Jacob” is a supreme accolade. Marley makes Scrooge seem like a hemophiliac bleeding heart, and he has always tantalized my imagination. What could he have done to have achieved such a status? Only Dickens knew.

Margaret Atwood holds that debt, and particularly the sinfulness of debt, became a “governing leitmotif of Western fiction” in the 19th century, citing Dickens, Zola, Flaubert, Thackeray and Edith Wharton. Debt played a part in the works she cites, but when I read them, many years ago, I never thought that debt was the principal message of Germinal, Madame Bovary, Vanity Fair or House of Mirth. No doubt, as Ms. Atwood says, debt greatly expanded in the capitalist industrial revolution of the 19th century, but it had not been such a rarity before. The Reformation was partly a response to the financial and other profligacy of the Roman Catholic church. She refers to the “occupation” of the monasteries by that very flamboyant religious leader, Henry VIII, but he seized the monasteries and their contents to pay for his wars in France. He apostatized to obtain a divorce, so he could marry a woman whom he later beheaded on a false charge of adultery, for failure to produce a male heir, although the heir Anne Boleyn did produce, Elizabeth I, was the greatest monarch in British history. Having received the title, “Defender of the Faith,” to which Ms. Atwood refers, from the Pope for a paper Erasmus wrote for the king, Henry ordered his puppet parliament to continue that title for him, even though the faith had changed. It survives yet, on the British and, the last I saw, even the Canadian coinage, although a plurality of Canadians are of the faith Henry deserted and ransacked. These things are complicated, and it is hazardous to over-simplify them.

Debt was a constant problem in all ancient civilizations, especially Rome, where the currency was constantly being debased and financial ethics were very deficient. One of the original triumvirs with Caesar and Pompey, Marcus Crassus, famously operated a private-sector fire department and not only extinguished fires when pre-paid to do so, but also assured a steadily growing cash flow by setting the fires prior to putting them out. The size of the money supply and of transactional activity certainly expanded with increased and more efficient commerce, but it is not clear that the social attitude to excessive debt, or the penalties for it, have changed much over the centuries.

Ms. Atwood traces the historic interchangeability of debts, trespasses and fines, especially in various translations of the Christian Lord’s Prayer. The episcopal Christian churches seem to prefer “trespasses,” as matters to be forgiven, and the non-conformist Protestant churches prefer “debts.” The Latin Roman liturgy debita nostradebitoribus nostris seems to confirm debts, and the French word amende is a fine that, if legitimate, is also a debt. But I don’t think it follows that financial debts are necessarily sins, which is why debt is ecclesiastically defined as moral as well as pecuniary. It is not and never was sinful to lend or borrow money if the purposes and terms were unexceptionable.

Even more imaginative is Ms. Atwood’s effort to stigmatize “mills” and “millers” by linking the “mills of God which grind slow but grind exceeding fine” to George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. Good try, Peggy, but no sale. There is no sinfulness intrinsic to an industrial mill, any more than to God’s mills for sifting human conduct. Blake’s infamous “dark, satanic mills” are sinful because they are dark and satanic, not because they are mills. If they had avoided child labour, paid fair wages, enjoyed reasonable working hours and conditions, had scrubbers on their smokestacks and treated their effluent thoroughly, they would still have been mills but would not have seemed diabolical even to Blake.

The next phase of this account is a lively treatment of debt collection and counter-collection techniques, from debtors’ prisons and the bondage of debtors and their families to physical extortion of payment, violence both ways between debtors and creditors, acts of heavy official repression and violent revolution by populations that consider themselves overtaxed (the famous riddles of Wat Tyler, the American and French revolutions, etc.). And then comes the payback that gives these lectures their title. As has been mentioned, everything Marlowe’s Faustus did, Scrooge did in reverse, but Marlowe and Dickens lived 300 years apart, and writers can shake up a plot in that time. Dickens was writing a Christmas story, but was he, as Margaret Atwood claims, writing of the rebirth of the Infant Jesus and of the baby Scrooge? I don’t want to be weighed in the balance and found wanting in Christmas cheer and fidelity, but I find this a high hurdle. Surely Dickens’s purpose was more basic and more earthbound than that: Marley liberates Scrooge from his paranoid avarice, and Scrooge finds that jollity and minor acts of charity are more fun.

Ms. Atwood treats us to a tour with the spirit of Earth Day Past, “a sententious girl, as such spirits tend to be,” first to Solon’s Athens and then to European society at the time of the Black Death, which she likens to a cat with a fur ball. (I believe that is technically called a phytobezoar.) Are we to take this as a feline payback or redemption, perhaps for the greedy apprehension of mice? The Black Death is a virus, punishing human excess and wastefulness, and Boccaccio’s Decameron and Albert Camus’s The Plague are invoked. Boccaccio might make it as divine punishment, but Camus’s plague was a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France. Is Margaret Atwood adopting the Pétainist line that Nazi occupation offered the redemption of France from its inter-war sins? Surely not, but if so, what was the Liberation?

In the last section of Payback, Scrooge is updated to a garish, oft-married parvenu, a caricature of the vulgar, modern, nouveau riche. The tour is a delight but again, at the risk of being a bit of a Marley, I think we have missed the nature of the real Scrooge. He was not immensely wealthy, nor was he a particularly creative or talented businessman. He was a chiseller, a miser, a cheapskate and a misanthrope. He was too nasty to pass as a curmudgeon, but a bit more “Bah! Humbug!” and he might have made it. He clung to every farthing, but he was not a great, daring capitalist. If he had been, he would have been more confident and indulgent, and self-indulgent. Scrooge McDuck, driving his bulldozer over his mountainous, warehoused pile of gold and silver coins, was immensely rich, but from Marlowe to Goethe and Dickens and on to Mr. McDuck is splendid but unrigorous; the cultural chain snaps.

The next spirit, a man-spirit of Earth Day Present, takes Scrooge Nouveau on to the delights and horrors of ecology and, we are told, he would remind us physically of Al Gore and the Prince of Wales. This seemed to me at first a send-up of the corn-fuelled automobile and other modern environmental excesses, but Margaret Atwood, the intrepid and knowledgeable ornithologist of Point Pelee, seems to be putting in an appearance to celebrate Scrooge Nouveau’s double apotheosis. She laments the ecological imbalance between debt and credit, between what people have taken from the world and not put back. The world’s wealthiest 25 million people have more resources than the poorest two billion.

This is a legitimate concern, but it will not provoke a revolution as Ms. Atwood suggests. Nor is it as much the fault of the International Monetary Fund as she says, inept though that organization has often been. The poor occasionally revolt, but never successfully. Only the middle and upper classes can do that. Louis XVI had 200,000 troops and agents collecting his salt tax, but Mirabeau, Marat, Danton and Robespierre, much less Napoleon, were not poor and were not much concerned for the poor. Rousseau was concerned for them, but he was not a revolutionary and died before the Revolution.

As for the American revolution, it was staged and led by a few continentalist lawyers, merchants and land owners. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton and the Adams were well-to-do, never spoke of the poor, and the Father of the Nation and the Champion of the Rights of Man could not quite bring themselves to emancipate their slaves in their lifetimes, although the Sage of Monticello was happy enough to procreate with them.

The best way of lifting up the world’s poor is the continued adoption of market economics in China, India and Brazil, which contain over 40 percent of the world’s population, and which have been enjoying annual economic growth rates of nearly 10 percent, pulling scores of millions of people upward out of poverty each year. This too is a revolution of sorts, but apparently not what the author has in mind.

The Spirit of Earth Day Future is a giant cockroach that shows Scrooge the coming spoliation of the world. All is chaos and misery, reminiscent of the Black Death. Scrooge Nouveau’s five wives are all peddling sexual favours in exchange for tinned sardines. Scrooge awakens and determines to fight the desolation portrayed by the Cockroach Spirit. The author then re-emerges and plays her green card, but can only give an ambivalent forecast as to which vision of the future will prevail. Payback is well written, even by Margaret Atwood’s very high standards, and is an etymological tour de force, although I don’t really see a straight line from the Egyptian Crocodile God to the Cockroach Spirit, and the economic-terrorists have oversold the green scare. But these are minor cavils; Payback is a stimulating, learned and stylish read from an eminent author writing from a heartfelt perspective.