Talk about impeccable timing.
When the 2008 Massey Lecture Series was being planned three years ago, Margaret Atwood was slated to be the 2009 featured speaker and to promote her new novel this fall.
However, her publisher House of Anansi Press decided to push the release of the book back by a year, so as to avoid competing with the United States presidential election that is dominating most North American media. At their request, Atwood took on the lectures a year early and completed the textual companion Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. No one could have predicted that the topic would turn out to be so timely and play out against such a riveting backdrop.
While she does not claim to be psychic, this is the second uncanny coincidence that has befallen Atwood’s career in less than a decade. Her 2003 work of fiction Oryx and Crake about a global pandemic was released just as Toronto was being gripped with panic over the SARS outbreak.
Currently, Atwood is crossing Canada to present a series of lectures on the topic of debt and its role in society. As the slowdown of the world economy continues to weigh heavily on public consciousness, Atwood has once again struck a timely chord with Canadians. Her sold-out tour is a testament to her relevance.
Arguably the nation’s most famous author and an international literary star, Atwood has won the Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Governor General’s Literary Award on more than one occasion. She is an accomplished author, poet, and essayist who’s known to state her opinion on current topics and political situations without hesitation.
Recently, she blasted the Harper government over its planned cuts to culture. She followed up with a blistering op-ed in the Globe and Mail earlier this month, agreeing with controversial Labrador and Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams that it is “anything but Harper majority time.”
During the Montreal leg of the Massey lecture, held yesterday evening at the Centaur Theatre, Atwood tackled the dark side of debt: what happens when debts remain outstanding and, either because a debtor does not have the money or because the debt is a matter of honour, result in a creditor seeking revenge.
While she did treat the audience to some much needed comedic relief throughout her lecture, Atwood did not sugar coat the seriousness of unpaid debt. She discussed the options debtors have to avoid payment, killing the creditor being one she advises attendees not to try at their local bank despite that option’s extensive use throughout history. She also focused on the morality of borrowing and lending.
She also reviewed the tenuous agreement between citizens and the government regrading taxes being paid with the understanding that services will be rendered.
“There are two kinds of tax systems,” she said, “the kind that are resented and the kind that are really resented.” The kind that are really resented are those that have historically led to rebellions or even revolutions. “Debt can change history,” she explained.
Atwood also discussed the role that debt plays in war. A hush came over the audience as she mused about what would have happened following 9/11 if the Bush Administration had simply forgiven the terrorist acts instead of embarking on an enormously expensive war (both monetarily and morally) that contributed to the United States’ now catastrophic debt. She admitted that it would not have had a “snowball’s chance in hell of happening, but imagine how different the world would be.”
Her point echoed in the room: sometimes a debt, even one that demands to be repaid in blood, is best forgiven.
First created in 1961, the Massey Lectures were conceived as a forum to present important contemporary issues by Canada’s greatest thinkers while also honouring the country’s first Canadian-born Governor General, Vincent Massey.
This year’s Massey lectures will be broadcast on the CBC radio show “Ideas” on Nov. 10 and will be available for purchase at www.cbc.ca.