This year's Massey Lectures are about debt and are delivered by Margaret Atwood. This post is an attempt at a more eloquent way of saying "Worst. Massey Lectures. Ever."
With the Masseys, you have a tradition of experts being invited to deliver a series of lectures about the stuff they really know about. Examples from my own bookshelf include Martin Luther King Jr. about the civil rights movement (1967), Noam Chomsky about controlling dissent in democratic societies (1988), and Stephen Lewis about AIDS in Africa (2005).
And now Margaret Atwood on...debt? I have read the first three lectures and it doesn't work.
To top things off, I got excited when I saw that the second lecture mentioned Systems of Survival
by Jane Jacobs. My hopes were quickly dashed as Atwood completely misinterpreted what Jacobs wrote, and then went off on this incorrect bearing for half of the lecture. It's downright embarrassing. It's like she read Jacobs' book years ago and didn't bother to go back to make sure her memories of it were correct.
She makes attempts at joking, which seem very out of place in such lectures. Even then, they might have worked had they actually been funny. The jokes feel like padding; they're that unnecessary. An example (p. 57), in which she mentions Emile Zola's novel, Germinal
You'll be pleased to learn that there's a famous riot scene in which the wives and daughters get their full revenge, and the genital organs of the store owner are skewered on a stick that's carried in triumphant procession through the streets - a crude form of entertainment, granted, but there was no TV then.
Was it really necessary to add that last bit? It's lazy, it's not funny, and it adds nothing to the lecture at all.
The jokes, while irritating, aren't as insulting as some of the other bits. In the third lecture, "Debt as Plot", she suggests that we are tempted to go into debt because it keeps the excitement in our lives:
Could it be that some people get into debt because, like speeding on a motorbike, it adds an adrenaline 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 hydro and the bank's threatening to foreclose, at least you can't complain of ennui.
That makes for great storytelling but it adds nothing to the understanding of causes and effects of debt. Margaret Atwood may be able to laugh off debt by saying that her father had to pawn his fountain pen back in the late 1930s; the rest of us wouldn't mind a bit more insight from someone with an understanding of the causes and effects of the current financial meltdown (and many of us have more harrowing family stories of the great depression than having a family member *gasp* pawning a fountain pen).
In the past, the Massey Lectures have been given by experts sharing their knowledge about a topic. This year, Margaret Atwood is learning about debt on the spot. Her intro says it all:
The motive for this book is curiosity - mine - and my hope is that the writing of it will allow me to explore a subject I know little about, but which for this reason intrigues me. That subject is debt.
Given the current economic situation, I can't think of a better topic to address in this year's Masseys. I also can't think of a worse person to broach that subject than Margaret Atwood.