Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011, part 2: Eleanor Arnason

Debt and Violence
by Eleanor Arnason

I saw only a handful of movies in 2011. My favorite was Thor, a Marvel superhero action flick directed by Kenneth Branagh. The movie was visually spectacular. Asgard, home of the gods, looked like a 1940s vision of the distant future. Jotenheim, realm of the frost giants, was dark, icy and eerie, made more creepy by the giants, who are tall and lean and green and wander around almost naked in a place that is obviously very cold. The third location in the movie -- small town New Mexico in the present -- looked suitably down-home and ordinary.

The plot had to be simple, to leave room for all the action. Thor, heir to Odin, the ruler of Asgard, is an immature, arrogant golden boy, who decides to pick a fight with the frost giants , after his father had forbidden this. Odin has to rescue him. As punishment for ending the long peace with the frost giants, Odin strips Thor of his magical powers and exiles him to Earth, where he has to learn how to be a decent human being.

Of course he succeeds and regains his magical powers when he is willing to sacrifice his life to the save the people in the small New Mexico town. There are problems you cannot solve with violence, something his father Odin -- the Allfather -- already knows.

The second half of the plot is about Loki, Thor’s brother, a trickster god who double crosses every one in the course of the movie, including himself. He lurks around like Iago, setting up the quarrel between Thor and Odin, then -- when Odin falls into a coma-like sleep -- seizes the throne of Asgard for himself. The guy playing Loki, Tom Hiddleston, is terrific. I don’t know if he has ever played Iago. He should. If this sounds weird -- what do you mean, saying an action flick actor should play Shakespeare? -- Hiddleston is a Shakespearean actor, as is Anthony Hopkins, who plays Odin. Kenneth Branagh, as we all know, is a Shakespearean actor and director. The movie feels like Shakespeare to me: high energy, over-the-top Shakespeare, which is the kind of Shakespeare Branagh did in Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing.

Loki is given better motivation than Iago. He adores his father Odin and has always wanted to be first with him, but Thor is the golden boy, the hero and charmer. So, envy and frustrated love. It leads him in the end to murder and attempted genocide. He decides to destroy Jotunheim and kill all the frost giants, in order to win Odin’s love.

Around the time I saw Thor, I also saw the new Metropolitan Opera production of Siegfried in a High Definition broadcast into a local movie theater. Thor reminds me of the Ring Cycle. Both have the Allfather, played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie and Bryn Terfel in the opera. Both have adolescent jerk heroes, though Thor is far more likable than the awful Siegfried . Both are over-the-top retellings of Norse myth, with all the lack of subtlety and nuance that is characteristic of myth. The special effects in Thor are better. I thought the dragon in Siegfried was pathetic. Both carry you away. With Siegfried it’s the music. With Thor, it’s the special effects and action. I don’t remember what the score sounded like.

What else is there to say? Thor is an antiwar movie, which is refreshing in the period when the US is in more wars than I can count. It’s a movie in praise of decency and loyalty and uncomplicated love. Thor, with all his failings, is a loyal friend and a loving member of his family. Over the course of the movie, he learns to be decent and genuinely brave. (It’s difficult for a superhero to be brave. He is always protected by his super powers.) Loki is destroyed by envy and twisted love, though he’s coming back for The Avengers. I look forward to seeing Hiddleston again. I doubt that he can be as good with another director. The key to this movie is Branagh.

Two final comments. I haven’t said whether or not Thor is a good movie. I don’t know. But I loved it. And remember that Thor is a Marvel superhero action flick. If you don’t like this kind of movie, you will hate it.

The most recent book I finished is Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber, an anthropologist, anarchist and political activist. Graeber did some of the preplanning for Occupy Wall Street.

It’s hard for me to talk about this book, because I’m not sure I understand it, even after reading it through twice. Graeber is writing a history of debt, beginning with what anthropological studies have told us, then moving to the very oldest written records, those of ancient Mesopotamia. According to him, tribal and small town societies have debt before they have money, because barter doesn’t work very well. How do you buy ten nails, when all you have to sell is a cow, worth far more than than the nails? According to economic theory, you invent money, tokens which enable you to split the value of the cow, without actually cutting the cow into pieces.

According to Graeber, you owe the blacksmith for the nails, and sooner or later he needs something that you have. In a small community, it is possible to keep track of who owes whom.

This system breaks down when you are dealing with strangers, but most people through most of history have not dealt much with strangers. Money in many tribal societies is -- per Graeber -- ceremonial, used to pay for marriages, funerals, and fines, not to buy a handful of nails. It is not an early form of our money, but something else.

Where does money as we know it come from? Graeber thinks it comes from war and pillage. Precious metals, which tended to be made into ornaments for kings and temples, were stolen and broken down, and these fragments became money. In a society damaged by war, he further argues, people are no longer dealing with neighbors and longtime trading partners. They are dealing with strangers, who may become dangerous at any moment. No loans are extended. Instead, it’s cash on the barrel, and this means you need cash.

He then moves on to the ancient Middle East, which left us lots of business records on clay tablets. Here he draws on the writing of Michael Hudson, an economist I read on line. I usually call him Michael “The Babylonians did it better” Hudson. According to Hudson, debt was a recurrent problem in ancient society. Farmers would borrow in bad years and then be unable to pay their debts off. In the end, they lost their livestock and land and were forced to sell their families into slavery. Finally, they themselves became slaves. So every thirty years or so, the kings of Mesopotamia declared debt forgiveness. The clay tablets recording debts were broken. People enslaved by debt were freed, and land was returned to its original owners. It was the Jubilee, done so the kingdoms would have free citizens to pay taxes and be soldiers and so all the wealth in society would not end in a few, far-too-powerful hands.

The only debts which were not forgiven were commercial debts, the deals between merchants, because trade was seen as different. Among other things, the profits on long-distance trading could be very high, which made it far easier to pay off a loan. Merchant loans were serious investments, not predatory, pawn-shop loans to people who’d hit hard times.

According to Graeber, the class struggles of the Greece and Rome were always struggles between debtors and creditors over debt forgiveness. In the end, the creditors won and accumulated debt destroyed the Roman Empire.

From this point Graeber moves into what he calls the Axial Age, when the civilizations of the ancient world broke apart, leading to the Middle Ages, though the nature of the Middle Ages varied from place to place. Because he is trying to cover so much history, I found him hard to follow. (I was also baffled by the fact that he mostly ignored the New World.)

The book becomes a broad survey of Old World history up to modern times: the conquest of the New World, the African slave trade, the rise of capitalism Through it all, Graeber emphasizes the problem of debt, which reemerges over and over, leading to peasant revolutions. In Europe, these were mostly suppressed. In China, they sometimes led to new dynasties or to the breakup of the empire, at least for a while. I will have to read the book a third time to understand its later sections.

All I can do is summarize the parts of the book I think I understand:

1. It isn’t exchange that produces money as we know it, it’s war and pillage.

2. Debt is a constant problem in human societies. If it isn’t solved by debt forgiveness, it leads to various kinds of violence: rebellion, civil war, slavery, social collapse.

3. It is violence of various kinds -- especially war and slavery -- that turns everything into a commodity and makes money pervasive.

All of the above turns the pleasant, civilized just-so stories about the rise of capitalism into something awful. Capitalism is not a rational marketplace, where most people come out okay, it is sustained pillage and slavery.

Very interesting. Debt is worth reading. But if you want something that’s easy to understand, watch Thor.

Both Debt and Thor argue for a world (and universe) at peace. This is probably a coincidence, though -- in our current world, strangled by debt and violence -- maybe not.

Eleanor Arnason has written several novels and many short stories. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People (2001), won the James Tiptree Jr. award for gender-bending science fiction and the Mythopoeic Society Award for adult fantasy. Her fifth novel, Ring of Swords (1995), won a Minnesota Book Award.
Aqueduct Press published her Lydia Duluth adventure, Tomb of the Fathers, last year, and her collection, Ordinary People, in 2005.

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