In Debt to Atwood

From a review of Margaret Atwood’s book “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, at BLOG THIS:

The economy is on a lot of people’s minds as Canadian newspapers warn of recession and the United States deals with its subprime mortgage problem. And so this might be the perfect time to read Margaret Atwood’s new book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Consisting of five essays, each presented during this year’s Massey Lectures, Atwood provides a discursive overview of the history of debt, lending and borrowing, fairness, and its related concepts.

[…]

In the end Atwood resolves the mystery of debt, saying everything must in the end come from Nature. Everything, Atwood says, is either taken or traded. The goods to be traded must first be taken from somewhere; and the goods taken can only come from Nature. Atwood describes a scenario starring a revamped version of Scrooge, named “Scrooge Nouveau”, and set in a world of rapidly depleting resources. It is a world in which its most intelligent inhabitants (that’s us, by the way) have consumed goods beyond their needs at costs exceeding their means. We have, that is, purchased large parts of our globe on credit with high interest rates that we must one day face. Atwood’s implied imperative throughout the text: we’d be better off if we recognized this now and worked to strike a genuine balance between our only creditor, Nature, and its debtor, us.

Read the whole thing here

And from Salon‘s review:

Oh, sure, anyone can come up with a good aphorism or two, but I can’t think of anyone who has explained the subprime mortgage crisis quite as cogently as Atwood: “Some large financial institutions peddled mortgages to people who could not possibly make the monthly rates and then put this snake-oil debt into cardboard boxes with impressive labels on them and sold them to institutions and hedge funds that thought they were worth something.”

The whole thing is here

Canada’s Poet (Woman, Feminist, Novelist, Essayist, Speechifier…)

Night Poem

There is nothing to be afraid of,
it is only the wind
changing to the east, it is only
your father the thunder
your mother the rain

In this country of water
with its beige moon damp as a mushroom,
its drowned stumps and long birds
that swim, where the moss grows
on all sides of the trees
and your shadow is not your shadow
but your reflection,

your true parents disappear
when the curtain covers your door.
We are the others,
the ones from under the lake
who stand silently beside your bed
with our heads of darkness.
We have come to cover you
with red wool,
with our tears and distant whipers.

You rock in the rain’s arms
the chilly ark of your sleep,
while we wait, your night
father and mother
with our cold hands and dead flashlight,
knowing we are only
the wavering shadows thrown
by one candle, in this echo
you will hear twenty years later.

Margaret Atwood

Atwood, on being a poet:

I’m supposed to be talking in a vaguely autobiographical way about the connection between life and poetry, or at least between my life and my poetry. I recently read an account of a study which intends to show how writers of a certain age — my age, roughly — attempt to “seize control” of the stories of their own lives by deviously concocting their own biographies. However, it’s a feature of our age that if you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography — but if you write your biography, it’s equally assumed you’re lying your head off.

This last may be true, at any rate of poets: Plato said that poets should be excluded from the ideal republic because they are such liars. I am a poet, and I affirm that this is true. About no subject are poets tempted to lie so much as about their own lives; I know one of them who has floated at least five versions of his autobiography, none of them true. I of course — being also a novelist — am a much more truthful person than that. But since poets lie, how can you believe me?

Here then is the official version of my life as a poet:

I was once a snub-nosed blonde. My name was Betty. I had a perky personality and was a cheerleader for the college football team. My favourite colour was pink. Then I became a poet. My hair darkened overnight, my nose lengthened, I gave up football for the cello, my real name disappeared and was replaced by one that had a chance of being taken seriously by the literati, and my clothes changed colour in the closet, all by themselves, from pink to black. I stopped humming the songs from Oklahoma and began quoting Kirkegaard. And not only that — all of my high heeled shoes lost their heels, and were magically transformed into sandals. Needless to say, my many boyfriends took one look at this and ran screaming from the scene as if their toenails were on fire. New ones replaced them; they all had beards.

Believe it or not, there is an element of truth in this story. It’s the bit about the name, which was not Betty but something equally non-poetic, and with the same number of letters. It’s also the bit about the boyfriends. But meanwhile, here is the real truth:

I became a poet at the age of sixteen. I did not intend to do it. It was not my fault.

More at Canadian Poets

Atwood at The Poetry Archive, including audio of Atwood reading several poems – I confess, I adore her voice – yes, adore!

Atwood at poets.org

“Margaret Atwood’s Hands”  by George Bowering at Studies in Canadian Literature

Margaret Atwood’s Poetry at luminarium.org

Atwood’s poem “Variations on the Word ‘Sleep’” with comments, at The Wondering Minstrels (love this site)

O.W. Toad Margaret Atwood Reference Site

Canadian Woman Poet

A Boat

Evening comes on and the hills thicken;
red and yellow bleaching out of the leaves.
The chill pines grow their shadows.

Below them the water stills itself,
a sunset shivering in it.
One more going down to join the others.

Now the lake expands
and closes in, both.

The blackness that keeps itself
under the surface in daytime
emerges from it like mist
or as mist.

Distance vanishes, the absence
of distance pushes against the eyes.

There is no seeing the lake,
only the outlines of the hills
which are almost identical,

familiar to me as sleep,
shores unfolding upon shores
in their contours of slowed breathing.

It is touch I go by,
the boat like a hand feeling
through shoals and among
dead trees, over the boulders
lifting unseen, layer
on layer of drowned time falling away.

This is how I learned to steer
through darkness by no stars.

To be lost is only a failure of memory.

Margaret Atwood

Oryx, Crake and the Growing Prison Population

George Monbiot searches for the reason that rates of imprisonment just keep going up in England and Wales while crime rates continue to fall.  One of the causes, he suspects, is growing economic disparity:

“I can’t prove this, and it is hard to see how anyone could do so. But my untested hypothesis runs as follows: the greater the wealth accrued by the top echelons, the more ferociously they demand protection from the rest of society. They have more to lose from crime and less to lose from punishment, which is less likely to strike the richer you become.

The people who help to generate the public demand for long prison terms (newspaper proprietors and editors) and the people who mete it out (judges and magistrates) are drawn overwhelmingly from the property-owning classes. “Those who have built large fortunes,” Max Hastings, who was once the editor of the Daily Telegraph, wrote of his former employer Conrad Black, “seldom lose their nervousness that some ill-wisher will find means to take their money away from them.”

Money breeds paranoia, and paranoia keeps people in prison.”

I think a lot about Sci Fi dystopias these days.  Oryx and Crake especially.  It’s not that I always want to think about it.  I can’t help it.

The world that Margaret Atwood described in the novel is so compelling partly because it is so well imagined but finally, because the imagination actually doesn’t have to work as hard as I wish.  As any good dystopic writer will do, Atwood picks up on the most negative aspects of life in a Western corporate capitalist democracy and exaggerates them, but in so doing, is only illustrating the logical result if these characteristics continue to grow in infuence, unchecked.

So, in the world of Oryx and Crake, the world is, finally, defined by huge and overwhelming disparities between rich and poor.  Societies like this are notoriously unstable.  France before the revolution; Russia before the Bolsheviks; the US during the Depression and so on.  So in the O & C world, the powerful rich have taken action against the poor, finding technological means to ensure their own security whilst, of course, also shutting down the  possiblity of social mobility. 

Fear of “outsiders” , the new untouchables, the have-nots, is rampant and profound.  Understandably so.  Million of people are cut off from the means to a decent life while others live off “the fat of the land” (it’s a metaphor – really, there’s not much fat land left); those who are shut out devise ever more desperate ways of trying to break in while the insiders obssess over how to keep them out.  And inevitably, on ways to de-humanize and demonize anyone who wants simply to eat.  In this world, stealing bread is, as always, a crime.  But the worst crime is trying (or succeeding) to break in to the world of the “haves”.

I’m not a pessimist.  I think good dystopic novels can function as canaries down the mind shaft, warnings of the logical result of contemporay political, social and economic decision making.  Far from causing depression, they can represent their own small call to action.  When I think of the numbers of people imprisoned in Western “democracies”, our growing fear of and punitive actions against “illegal aliens” (even that word “aliens” puts me in mind of the “outsiders” in O & C), food supply crises, impenetrable digitized fences, identity cards, impending environmental catastrophe and, of course,  intransigent economic inequality, I’m inclined to believe the canaries are dying in flocks.  Exploitive global corporations and the governments they have all but bought have no interest in changing this situation in favour of “others”.  It will have to be movements of people at “the bottom”, and close by, forcing change, bottom to top: trickle up, but a trickle is likely not powerful enough to get the job done.