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  • The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strained
  • Mladen Dolar

The most famous debt ever in the history of debt—the history famously stretching back five thousand years, if we are to follow David Graeber—is the loan of three thousand ducats accorded by Shylock to Antonio, the merchant of Venice, the debt to be collected in three months, and "in a merry sport," as Shylock adds as if an afterthought, "let the forfeit / Be nominated for an equal pound / Of your fair flesh to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth met" (1.3.145-8). This notorious merry addition first of all sets up an equivalence which goes straight to the essence of debt: one owes in flesh. One always owes in flesh. It is never just the question of an economic relation, the money lent to be repaid at a specific later time, honoring the contract implied in debt, with interest or not—and here one should add that Shylock, otherwise a notorious usurer, the proverbial usurer (who even legitimizes his usury by a complicated biblical reference to Jacob and Laban), engages in this debt as the odd one out: he doesn't demand any interests, merely the penalty should the debt not be repaid in good time. He grants this as a special favor, a special treatment reserved for his alter ego, his privileged enemy, his bosom fiend, and by this special clause aimed personally at Antonio, the vintage Christian merchant, he as if off-handedly discloses a hidden universal condition of debt, concealed and obfuscated in the merely economic transaction. One always pawns a pound of flesh when contracting a debt. Not that this is some murky secret; after all, it was implicitly around since the foundations of the [End Page 9] Roman law, since the Twelve (or originally ten) tables, the first document of Roman law (dating back to 450 BCE), where it is stated (in one of the traditional versions) "Qui non habet in aere, luat in corpore," "He who hasn't got in coinage shall pay in flesh."

Marx comments on this briefly in a footnote in the Capital, saying that the Roman patricians who lent money to plebeian debtors regarded the debtors' 'flesh and blood' as 'their money': "Hence, the law of the Ten Tables, which is worthy of Shylock, [das Shylocksche Gesetz; it is Marx who includes Shylock in the fundamental 'table of the law']. Linguet's1 theory that the patrician creditors from time to time prepared banquets of debtors' flesh on the other side of the Tiber remains as doubtful as Daumer's theory about the Lord's Supper."2 So Shylock is there from the outset, already inscribed in the Ten tables, to the point that quite literally the creditors were supposedly entitled to organize cannibalistic feasts with the debtors' flesh—Marx cautiously leaves undecided whether this is based in fact or has the status of a "structurally necessary rumor" or of a prerequisite fantasy, the necessary fantasy of the cannibalism of the law that haunts the law since its inception.3 If the debtor can't pay back, after the confiscation of all his property, then his body is the ultimate pledge, at the mercy of the creditor who can do anything he wishes with it—submit it to slavery, sexual abuse, torture, he can slice it up and finally eat it if he so chooses. Nietzsche evokes the supposition that the creditor is compensated at least by the enjoyment of seeing the other suffer and of having the other completely at his mercy. The debtor who can't repay the debt is the figure of homo sacer who can be tortured and killed with impunity. One ultimately always owes in flesh.4

Marx, in a strange and vertiginous short-cut evokes in the same breath Georg Friedrich Daumer, a German historian,5 with his hypothesis that the holy communion was originally not merely metaphorically but quite literally [End Page 10] cannibalistic, the pound of flesh thus standing at the core of the Christian covenant. The implication of this remark made in passing is a staggering inversion, for what is being consumed...


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