Margaret Atwood, I mean. Her latest book is due this month and as usual, she has her finger unflinchingly on the pulse. This one’s called Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth and it talks about the phenomenon of borrowing and owing as a cultural issue. She weaves in Faustus, Scrooge and Eric Berne to link the US economic crisis with primal human urges to get right now and pay later. She also looks at how Faustus is a generous guy, why we love the reformed Scrooge (“because, true to the laws of wish-fulfilment, which always involve a free lunch or a get-out-of-jail card, he embodies both sides of the equation”) and why we choose to go into debt — as a life script, or even as a ‘fix’.
From the Livemint extract:
In our minds — as reflected in our language — debt is a mental or spiritual non-place, like the Hell described by Christopher Marlowe’s Mephistopheles when Faust asks him why he’s not in Hell but right there in the same room as Faust. “Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it,” says Mephistopheles. He carries Hell around with him like a private climate: He’s in it and it’s in him. Substitute “debt” and you can see that, in the way we talk about it, debt is the same kind of placeless place. “Why, this is Debt, nor am I out of it,” the beleaguered debtor might similarly declaim.
Which makes the whole idea of debt — especially massive and hopeless debt — sound brave and noble and interesting rather than merely squalid, and gives it a larger-than-life tragic air. Could it be that some people get into debt because, like speeding on a motorbike, it adds an adrenalin hit to their otherwise humdrum lives?
When the bailiffs are knocking at the door and the lights go off because you didn’t pay the water bill and the bank’s threatening to foreclose, at least you can’t complain of ennui.
It’s interesting that the passage from Dr Faustus always made me think of ‘guilt’ as akin to Hell. And debt and guilt are very closely linked, aren’t they?
What’s she also saying here is that debt is, in its own way, exciting. It gives us ‘something to think about’. And it’s probably true. How many joyful evenings in how many households have been spent discussing when the EMI on the car will be over so that the money can then be used for the EMI on a new car?
I’m one of those people who hate handling money. Don’t get me wrong. I love many of the things it can assure — certain kinds of freedom, travel, fast-speed Internet, books — but prefer to never actually have to think about it. Which means, perhaps, that this is a particular type of excitement I don’t have the stomach for. Perhaps, the fear and guilt squelch out the adrenalin. Which I why I strike big blows against feminism sometimes and let A handle the bank work. Or maybe I’m just being a clever feminist (“It’s a dirty job and someone’s got to do it,” as I rub my hands together wickedly.)
In other news, I had four glorious days away from all this vulgar talk of money last week. I was in Pondicherry and besides eating, drinking, walking, mooning at the sea, eating, drinking, I concentrated on spending the little money I have in Pondicherry’s quaint, expensive ’boutiques’ (nothing is just a ‘shop’ anymore, apparently). I like to buy heaps of seemingly small, cheap things rather than big, costly things because this allows me to feel all non-materialistic and virtuous. As a result, I have come back with many aromatic candles and enough incense for three medium-sized temples. Pictures soon. Of the place, not the incense.