- Forgive Us Our Debts
Criticizing debtors’ prisons in 1758, Samuel Johnson cast a skeptical eye on the grievances of creditors. The smug and benighted might believe that every “deficiency of payment is a crime of the debtor,” Johnson wrote. “But the truth is that the creditor always shares the act, and often more than not shares the guilt, of improper trust”; the debtor’s “rashness and imprudence” are complemented by the creditor’s “fraud and avarice.” Inasmuch as Margaret Atwood’s [End Page xciii] diffuse Payback has a single guiding idea, it is one that resonates with Johnson’s: debtor and creditor are kindred spirits, the pronounced deficiencies of the one are mirrored in the covert shortcomings of the other. Drawing on texts ranging from the four-thousand-year-old Code of Hammurabi to Washington Irving’s tales to reports from the behavioral sciences, Atwood limns what she calls the “debtor/creditor twinship, considered in its broadest aspect.” The results are illuminating speculations strung in a sometimes frazzled web of argument.
Despite being released amid the recession, with tales of creditors’ “fraud and avarice” much in the air, Payback makes only passing references to the credit bubble. Instead Atwood focuses on debt as an ancient, if not primordial, condition, located at the “nexus where money, story, and religious belief intersect, often with explosive force.” Early in the book she probes the persistent association of debt with moral dereliction. Examining the alternate renderings of the Lord’s Prayer, Atwood notes that the Anglican version reads, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us,” whereas the King James Bible uses “debt” for “trespasses” and “debtors” for “those that trespass.” For that matter in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, the same word denotes both “debt” and “sin.” Atwood finds grounds here for believing that Jesus encouraged forgiveness of financial debts as well as of more conventionally understood sins. He would have known that such clemency accorded with Mosaic law. As Deuteronomy states, after seven years, “Every creditor that lendeth ought unto his neighbor shall release it because it is called the Lord’s release.” In the type of reversal that Atwood relishes, debt does not just mar the debtor but can, if sustained for too long, rebound against the creditor and make him trespass against divine will.
In her most acute chapter Atwood forges a link between revenge and the creditor-debtor dynamic. Revenge arises from the obsessive conviction that you have been stripped of something that can be restored only through harming the responsible party. Atwood declares that revenge follows from a “psychic debt, a wound to the soul.” She delves into the root meaning of revenge, tracing it back to the Latin vindicare, “to emancipate.” Atwood argues that “to revenge yourself upon someone is to reliberate yourself. What holds you in thrall? Your obsession with your own hatred of the other.” The revenger is thus whipsawed between two roles. On the one hand he is an aggrieved creditor: someone who has conferred something—passively or purposefully—upon another without just recompense. On the other hand he also is a debtor by virtue of the fact that he seeks above all to return something (misery, dishonor) to another; like all debtors, he is defined by his need to pay back. The chapter makes a neat companion piece to Atwood’s “Hairball,” a bitterly satiric short story in which an ovarian cyst figures centrally in a grotesque act of revenge.
The question remains, however, of how to account for our propensity to put ourselves in hock. Debt lodges the debtor, Atwood suggests, in a story line of struggle, studded with easily measured setbacks and advances, culminating [End Page xciv] in redemption or collapse. Thus debt may satisfy a craving for a life lived in accordance with a recognizable narrative structure. This is a tantalizing surmise, yet the author lets it languish. Atwood turns instead to an experiment in which rats, deprived of toys and companions, repeatedly electrocute themselves. Apparently rats will do anything to...