What we owe: Revisiting Margaret Atwood's 'Payback'

Margaret Atwood is revered for novels that seem to predict dark societal shifts, from reproductive controls, to prisons for profit. It’s no different with her nonfiction. This episode revisits her influential 2008 Massey Lectures, Payback.

The celebrated writer's 2008 CBC Massey Lectures are as timely as ever

Margaret Atwood explores cultural and historical ideas around debt and ownership in "Payback" — as relevant and as witty now as in her 2008 CBC Massey Lectures. (Alastair Grant/AP)

*Originally published on September 25, 2019.

One of Margaret Atwood's earliest novels was entitled Lady Oracle, but it's the author herself who is often credited with the oracular power to see into the future. Dystopias in The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake have come to seem like predictions of social and political realities.

The award-winning author was right on the money with her 2008 CBC Massey Lectures Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, written just before the global financial crisis, and delivered as the world banking system was melting down. 

As timely as ever, Payback has just been reissued by House of Anansi with a new introduction by Atwood.

Debt as Fear and Desire

Margaret Atwood was not writing directly about international finance and subprime mortgages. Instead, her lectures explore "debt as a human construct — thus an imaginative construct — and how this construct mirrors and magnifies both voracious human desire and ferocious human fear." 

Writing Down Debt

Whether it is owing money, happiness, or one's very soul, Atwood points to the way debt and ownership are depicted in works from the Bible, to Dickens' A Christmas Carol, to Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe. 

Far from cold calculations, debt as a motif in stories inspires heated emotions and moral arguments, as well as complex views of sin.

Debt and the Natural World

Like humans, primates also have notions of fairness and compensation. Atwood references an experiment in which capuchin monkeys were trained by scientists to trade pebbles for slices of cucumber.

"Then they gave one of the monkeys a grape. And the majority of the monkeys got so angry if one of them was given a grape for no reason, that some of them stopped eating. It was a monkey picket line."

Margaret Atwood finishes her lectures with a satirical look at a modern-day corporate Scrooge, a figure happy — like many — to borrow endlessly and mindlessly against the limited resources of the natural world. 

As a visiting Spirit of Earth Day Past reminds him: "All Wealth comes from Nature. Without it, there wouldn't be any economics. The primary wealth is food, not money."

And with that, Margaret Atwood again anticipates the near-future, with a message that might well speak to our own era of UN Climate Summits, national elections, and anger about what kind of future debts the young have inherited from older generations.

** This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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