One of the things a good book does is to show you patterns which you start seeing everywhere. David Graeber’s Debt is one of those books. Right now I’m enjoying listing to the Moby Dick Big Read in which:
David Cameron, Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry and Simon Callow jump aboard ambitious project to broadcast Herman Melville’s classic novel in its entirety – 135 chapters over 135 days
As I discussed in my last post, one of the central arguments in Debt is the constant tension between debt as a finite, calculable thing as defined by money (and backed by the authority of the state), and debt as an infinite moral obligation which can never be repaid. This tension is central to Moby Dick. Here, for instance, is a passage about captain Ahab from the end of Chapter 41:
They were bent on profitable cruises, the profit to be counted down in dollars from the mint. He was intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge.
Or, in Ahab’s own words from Chapter 36:
If money’s to be the measurer, man, and the accountants have computed their great counting-house the globe, by girdling it with guineas, one to every three parts of an inch; then, let me tell thee, that my vengeance will fetch a great premium here!”
And here is David Graeber:
On the one hand, one presents whale teeth or brass rods because the murderer’s kin recognize they owe a life to the victim’s family. On the other, whale teeth or brass rods are in no sense, and can never be, compensation for the loss of a murdered relative. Certainly no one presenting such compensation would ever be foolish enough to suggest that any amount of money could possibly be the “equivalent” to the value of someone’s father, sister, or child.
Of course, Ahab might do well to take heed from what Graeber says next, which is that a revenge killing “won’t really compensate for the victim’s grief and pain either.”
Speaking of the literary aspects of debt (and revenge), I see that Graeber makes mention in several places of Margaret Atwood’s book, Payback which came out in 2008. I haven’t read that yet, but it has been on my list for a while. I see that it is also available as a series of podcasts and a documentary film.