Eula Biss is most recently the author of On Immunity: An Inoculation, which was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by The New York Times Book Review. Her second book, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 2010. Her first book, The Balloonists, was published by Hanging Loose Press in 2002. Her writing has been supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, an NEA Literature Fellowship, and a Jaffe Writers’ Award. She holds a BA in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and a MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. Her essays have recently appeared in The Believer, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine.
From “White Debt”
The word for debt in German also means guilt. A friend who used to live in Munich mentioned this to me recently. I took note because I’m newly in debt, quite a lot of it, from buying a house. So far, my debt is surprisingly comfortable, and that’s one quality of debt that I’ve been pondering lately — how easy it can be.
I had very little furniture for the first few months in my new house and no money left to buy any. But then I took out a loan against my down payment, and now I have a dining-room table, six chairs and a piano. While I was in the bank signing the paperwork that would allow me to spend money I hadn’t yet earned, I thought of Eddie Murphy’s skit in which he goes undercover as a white person and discovers that white people at banks give away money to other white people free. It’s true, I thought to myself in awe when I saw the ease with which I was granted another loan, though I understood — and, when my mortgage was sold to another lender, was further reminded — that the money was not being given to me free. I was, and am, paying for it. But that detail, like my debt, is easily forgotten.
‘‘Only something that continues to hurt stays in the memory,’’ Nietzsche observes in ‘‘On the Genealogy of Morality.’’ My student-loan debt doesn’t hurt, though it hasn’t seemed to have gotten any smaller over the past decade, and I’ve managed to forget it so thoroughly that I recently told someone that I’d never been in debt until I bought a house. Creditors of antiquity, Nietzsche writes, tried to encourage a debtor’s memory by taking as collateral his freedom, wife, life or even, as in Egypt, his afterlife. Legal documents outlined exactly how much of the body of the debtor that the creditor could cut off for unpaid debts. Consider the odd logic, Nietzsche suggests, of a system in which a creditor is repaid not with money or goods but with the pleasure of seeing the debtor’s body punished. ‘‘The pleasure,’’ he writes, ‘‘of having the right to exercise power over the powerless.’’
The power to punish, Nietzsche notes, can enhance your sense of social status, increasing the pleasure of cruelty. Reading this, I recall a white Texas trooper’s encounter with the black woman he pulled over for failure to signal a lane change. As the traffic stop became a confrontation that ended with Sandra Bland face down on the side of the road, she asked Brian Encinia, over and over, whether what he was doing made him feel good. ‘‘You feelin’ good about yourself?’’ she asked. ‘‘Don’t it make you feel good, Officer Encinia?’’ After asking the same question Nietzsche asked, the question of why justice would take this form, she came to the same conclusion.
- “On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss review.” The Guardian. 24 July 2015.
- “On Immunity: An Inocuation.” NY Times Book Review. 30 September 2014.
- “Sentimental Medicine” by Eula Biss. Harpers. January 2013.
Seminar with John Freeman | February 26, 2019
Reading with John Freeman | February 26, 2019