The Long Revenge of Zobel Blake
Pessimism distilled: Happiness is possible, but evil; unhappiness is likely, but futile.—Zobel Blake (1867)
Very little is known of the bastard called Zobel Blake. We know he is the only person of record, bastard or otherwise, ever to be called by that name, and that his primary claim to historical significance lies in the fact that he was the very last man to languish to his death in an American debtors' prison. That such a distinction should befall an otherwise obscure man is not surprising; that this notable death took place in New Orleans, however, in the year 1867, more than two decades after debtors' prisons had been formally abolished both by the U.S. Congress and by the state of Louisiana, might well wrinkle one's brow.
Most of what we do know about Zobel Blake, as well as about the strange circumstances of his lonely demise, comes to us from three textual sources. Each of these sources contains a mystery.
First, there are the extant records from one Provisional New Orleans Jail for Debtors, where, if those papers are to be believed, Zobel Blake remained in captivity for the final five years of his life. This untimely jail was in all likelihood established by the fat-faced and grimly mustachioed [End Page 215] Benjamin Butler, that notorious but efficient Union major general, after his capture of the city in 1862. Butler, who was despised and known to be corrupt by the local citizenry, was surely not above such a tactic. Indeed, more than one historian has recently theorized that the most reviled of Butler's decrees, the infamous General Order No. 28—which declared that any local woman who insulted or showed contempt for a Union soldier would be "regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation"—was itself but a ruse, a public diversion from the setting up of the jail, a move that appears to have been carried out in secret.1
Butler, who tacitly regarded every Southern man as being already in debt to the Union, likely intended to use the jail as a means of extorting money from local merchants; indeed, most of the shop owners and tradesmen who found themselves incarcerated there—having promptly paid their ransoms, or so we presume—were freed shortly thereafter. To the best of our knowledge, only the shadowy Zobel Blake stayed a prisoner for any considerable length of time. Whether he had been a target of extortion and had simply refused to play ball, or else actually had debts he could not pay, we do not know.
We know only that Blake, already an old man by that point (his age is listed as eighty in one of the prison records, though that was probably only a guess), came to be imprisoned in the jail in the autumn of 1862, and remained there for the duration of the war, finally perishing—long the only prisoner—in September of 1867. Here, then, is our first mystery: how and why did the prison continue to operate, not only for two full years after the war had come to a close but also with General "Beast" Butler—who'd been rebuked and recalled by the end of 1862—already long gone? Did the private owner of the estate on which the jail had been installed bear some secret malice for Zobel Blake? What forces conspired to keep Blake locked away, and why?
Our second source may be found among the appendices to Senta Heinrich's nearly forgotten, though still not fully discredited, philosophical biography, Kant's Muse. The book caused something of an academic stir when it was first published in 1978, as it proffered the thesis that the chaste sage of Königsberg, at some point between the writing of the first and the third Critiques, did in fact have an illicit sexual relationship with one Gertrude Zobel, a local tea merchant. In appendix 2 to this now unjustly obscure masterwork, Heinrich performs a meticulous, if also admittedly speculative, genealogy of the Zobel family, and concludes that Gertrude, Kant's supposed lover, in turn bore an illegitimate son, [End Page 216] Bjarne, who at the age of sixteen appears to have ruthlessly plundered the coffers of his mother's tea shop before absconding to America. There, for reasons that can only be surmised, the Christian name and surname were switched, with "Bjarne" eventually mutating into "Blake" as he traveled south and into Louisiana. The mystery here is nothing other than Heinrich's thesis itself: Could it be that Zobel Blake, the last man to die in an American debtors' prison, was in fact Bjarne Zobel, the bastard child of Immanuel Kant?
Our third and most voluminous source consists of the diaries and notebooks kept by Zobel Blake himself while in captivity. These handwritten pocket diaries—fifty-nine of them, each with fifty-nine leaves, and which are archived by, and may be inspected with permission from, the Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane University—are positively mad and dreamlike, full of abstract, ponderous sentences that often switch from English to German halfway through, and whose dialectical method, if one were pressed to categorize it, could only be described as a sort of mystical syllogistic: an attempt to reach higher truth by first descending into the emptiness of pure thought, and by finding there, using only the writer's own resources and enthusiasm, the secret links that lie hidden between seemingly unconnected, unrelated ideas. Blake's style of thinking could almost be called a metaphorical one—X figuratively is akin to Y and so at some deeper level it is Y—except for the fact that his metaphors frequently turn literal, as in this all-but -nonsensical passage:
NIGHT is the cooling and quieting and turning-inward of NATURE, and thus it is nature's thought, and our dreams, too, are but the reflections of nature, nature thinking within us and through us, which is why dreams often seem they are the thoughts of someone else, and why night also has the feel of not being wholly our own human domain but rather the domain of the inhuman, of what remains hidden from us, forbidding and monstrous. The night enters into Man like a shade in his sleep, setting his thoughts aside and supplying its own, making him a vessel of grander reason. Sleep is the thinking of nature in Man, wrongly called dreams; rather it is true and brutal SCIENCE itself, the highest science of which any mind is capable. Night is thinking; sleep and dreaming are the truest science.(Book 37, p. 21)
The notebooks say surprisingly little about what were doubtless the dire conditions of Blake's confinement. In several passages they do indicate, however, that Blake was tortured by his jailers in at least one critical respect: they routinely denied him water, giving him only just [End Page 217] enough to survive. We do not know why his jailers committed this bit of cruelty; in only a single, brief passage does Blake offer his own hypothesis:
I am kept parch'd, ich glaube, so that my voice remains weak, and so that I may not cry out to the people in the streets for help. This vindicates me, for it is clear my captors know they are unjust in holding me here. And yet I also admit in my solitude that those who pass by my cell have no ears for a withering voice such as mine.(Book 49, p. 30)
Although Blake speculates little about those who kept him locked up, or about their possible motives for torturing him, he does meditate a great deal upon the awful experience of thirst, which was the consequence of that torture. In several dark, almost incoherent passages, Blake writes about thirst and water as though they themselves were two inscrutable, opposed gods, warring madly for his soul.
Water—cold Christ of my thoughts!—purify me, cleanse me of this hot hell which fumes so wickedly in my mouth, its crucible.(Book 53, p. 3)
There are other mysteries. The most perplexing one—and one that will preoccupy us here—is this: at some point not long after he was incarcerated, Blake, doubtless while he remained confined to his cell, somehow received into his possession a copy of Darwin's recently published On the Origin of Species. How Blake managed to get his hands on what was still a rather obscure British work (not published in New York until 1860) is unknown. It is unlikely that Blake's torturers would have obliged him in this respect. (Then again, they do appear to have permitted him the luxury of quills and ink and the stack of pocket diaries, unless Blake somehow managed to keep them a secret for all of those five years.) Certainly Blake makes no reference, in any of his fifty-nine notebooks, to having access to any other volumes in his cell; Darwin appears to have been his only literary companion. But, however this enigmatic stroke of luck came about, it can certainly be inferred, from the extensive quotations from On the Origin of Species found in Blake's own writings, and from the evolution-oriented ideas that appear especially in the later notebooks, that Blake was quite taken with Darwin, and died still inspired by the question of what biological history might have to tell us about the nature of humanity. In one of his final entries, Blake writes: [End Page 218]
LIFE—that general breathing mass, that changing frothing ocean—has a history; though the necessity of thirst and other bodily immediacies prevents the human animal, otherwise poised to glimpse it, from perceiving that history directly. But this just means that our corporeal being interferes with our perception of true TIME. Wir sehen einfach nicht. . . . Indeed, the PRESENT itself, what we believe to be the present, where we think we exist, where we long to exist, where we hope to rejoice, is itself but a VEIL thrown over true time, and is but an illusion of our biology.(Book 59, p. 2)
One hundred and forty-six years after Zobel Blake's death—also in the city of New Orleans—a well-dressed, tenured professor of philosophical aesthetics, the slender Dr. Gerald Levine, whose white hair stuck firm to the top of his head but flapped outward like wings from the sides, was busy humiliating his star pupil, Kleo Adler. The student's black eyes glistened wet beneath the downy amber brows Gerald secretly loved; she gritted her teeth and tried hard not to frown.
The two had been arguing—in full view of members of the seminar on Heidegger that had just ended—over a possible definition of art, which Kleo had proposed as "any work fashioned by a human, a paramount purpose of which is to communicate nondiscursive, nonconceptual meaning." The virtue of the definition, Kleo had insisted, lay in its ability to subsume all manner of familiar artworks (paintings, music, poetry, etc.) while excluding from its ambit not only such well-designed objects as spoons or wallpaper (whose primary purpose was not communicative at all) but also works that, at least in their ordinary uses, are indeed communicative but remain primarily discursive in nature (e.g., textbooks, newspapers, road signs).
Professor Levine had scoffed at so toothless and broad a category. "Well, one obvious problem with your definition, young lady, is that it would include such absurdities as pornography. After all, pornography consists in the communication of nondiscursive erotic meaning, yes? Surely you don't mean to include Brazzers.com in your definition of art, do you?" The onlookers tittered at this (even graduate students cannot help but find it funny when their professors reveal they are human). "The paramount purpose of pornography," Levine continued in his usual, quasi-Kantian vein, "is to induce an interested and physiological [End Page 219] state of sexual arousal. Surely that effect upon the viewer is nondiscursive, nonconceptual, as you say—but is it art? Nonsense!"
The renewed laughter of her fellow students burned Kleo's cheeks. Only three seconds passed, however, before she thought up an apt response: "Well, why should pornography be excluded from art anyway? Are you saying any work that overtly attempts to induce a physiological state is by definition not art? What about an artist who, for whatever reason, decides to create an artwork designed to stimulate our experience of, say, thirst? Would such a work be disqualified a priori from being art just because its aim is to induce a physiological state?" Kleo did not say this out loud, however. Instead, after two more seconds had elapsed—the precise amount of time it took her to spin on her heels and begin walking away—she devised a plan of revenge. Why merely theorize about it? Why not just make the art on my own? Then I'll have the thing itself, unassailable proof I'm right, and Gerald, that white-haired bastard, can choke on it. I'll make the old fool pay for this.
Thus did Kleo Adler commence her long quest for revenge. Indeed, as we shall shortly see, this quest would go on for several years before reaching its fulfillment. The question, then, is straightaway to be expected: why, after so insignificant a slight as the one suffered in that quick exchange with Gerald Levine, would Kleo—who was not an especially vengeful person, and whose pale, oval face and rare black eyes were gentle, softly gleaming things—go to such great lengths for satisfaction? The answer, as is often the case with interesting questions, is neither simple nor singular.
One possible response, for example, would be to say that she did so because she believed truly in her thesis and felt a visceral need to defend it, even ruthlessly, like a person of faith, against so impolite a rebuke. But then again it was also because, for reasons Kleo could not yet put into words, she had become aware that attempting a life in academia had been a mistake, and part of her longed to suppress all evidence of that blunder.
Also because earlier that same day the lovely Ela Ruby had sighed sweetly before telling her, while the two lay on quickly cooling bedsheets, that Kleo was the strongest woman she had ever known, and Kleo wanted very much for this to be true. Also because Kleo's mother had once admonished her to be wary of father figures, had even repeated this [End Page 220] advice when close to death (and only half-delirious from the cancer in her brain); Kleo never forgot those words and was now reluctant to feel any great esteem for men such as Gerald Levine. Also because Kleo had grown weary enough of the Heidegger seminar—all that hemming and hawing, all of Heidegger's preparing for thought—that she now craved concrete action, a plan with a foreseeable outcome and an enemy to vanquish; yes, an action was what was needed, not another day brooding on it: she would stake her claim, bring something real into the world. Also because she sensed Gerald Levine's lust for her and resented it. Also because there was an irresistible pleasure in making a respectable, old, white man pay dearly for a transgression he couldn't even see he had committed. Also because her university department had long since been possessed by the spirit of revenge, by the practiced identification of microaggressions and the growing drive to repay them in kind (those student-led demands for "justice," growing more vociferous and more nebulous with each passing year, had already become routine by then). Also because one can rarely predict when pride will get the better of one, and the Adlers were an especially proud people, had always been that way, all the way back to the pre-Israel days when the clean-shaven Elias Adler, Zionist patriarch of the newly American family, debated in the public spaces of Brooklyn with an air of inexplicable authority against bearded rabbis and gentiles alike. Also because revenge, like love, is opportunistic, and will settle for a paltry object if no better one can be found. Also because sometimes the jaws of a decision clamp down and no amount of prudence will pry them open again. Also because there was something surreal and discomfiting about the laughter of Kleo's peers that day, laughter that had swept over her face like hot steam and made her cheeks red with self-awareness. Also because the half-conscious part of Kleo's mind that believed her to be invincible had been exerting a larger-than-usual influence upon her conscious thought in the days leading up to this moment (though of course that influence itself had remained distinctly unconscious, like a ghost that had been affecting her waking life by whispering to her in her sleep). Also because there was something reproachful in the way Gerald Levine spoke to her just then, and also something about his glum face and the way his mouth stayed open after he finished his sentences, which reminded her of her father, who almost never came around any longer and whom she now comfortably despised.
And yet, having said all this, we should now also insist upon the opposite, and declare that, in fact, there was only one reason she did [End Page 221] it. Kleo herself, as we shall see, came upon this idea only after she was fully inside the wicked business—only after it was too late, as it were, to alter her course.
Of course, one does not just decide to be an artist, and Kleo quickly found that her own artistic talents were more akin to those of a curator than to those of a painter or poet. This only emboldened her. Why just one artwork, anyway? Why not a slew of them? She proceeded to conceive a whole installation of artworks—paintings, photographs, texts, performance pieces—that would come together under her direction, to be solicited from new and established artists alike, and which collectively would be entitled Drought (a reference—or so people would think—to the dire weather patterns developing in California and other places in the world where water was becoming scarce). The instructions she would give to the artists would be sparse but precise: "Create an artwork that will make the audience feel thirsty. It makes no difference what the artwork represents, but this must be your paramount aim. I want you to make the audience crave—need—a cold, quenching drink."
Three years passed—Kleo had long since abandoned her dissertation, though her papers now began to appear in some of the good academic journals—and word of the project had spread wide. More than a handful of well-known artists, some of whom bore a special wish to remain politically current, had been seduced into contributing pieces to the installation (what more environmentally urgent topic could there be, after all, than the worsening drought?). Kapono Chanthavong, for example, the famed painter/cartoonist from Laos who had survived two assassination attempts after his notorious Prophet Rushdie series, submitted several paintings of mournful, gasping faces with cracked and foamy lips and tongues extending out into dusty, red, Martian air. Lucinda Barret, the controversial photographer (who thankfully had no interest in her own children as subjects any longer), offered a series of vivid black-and-white photographs of her newest favorite model grimacing while a bucket of sand was poured into his mouth. Other artists contributed sculptures and video animations of people in bliss as they slaked their thirsts with giant, iconic bottles of Coke or with plump, crystal-blue water drops that burst obscenely upon their outstretched tongues. [End Page 222]
Even the celebrated performance artist Sandy Shortgrave agreed to be part of the installation, and came up with the idea of sitting in a chair and refusing to drink any fluids for days until she fell unconscious. More than that: a glass of ice water would be placed in front of Shortgrave, fully within her reach, to be replenished or replaced any time the ice melted, for the entire ordeal. Passersby would be encouraged to take her photograph and even to try goading her into drinking the water. Kleo Adler herself proposed what would prove to be the performance's cruelest detail (Shortgrave angrily agreed to it, unable to shrink from the challenge): the temperature throughout the installation would be set extremely high, with artificial humidity pumped in. How perfect it would be: Shortgrave would be sweating and miserable, and the audience, too, would be uncomfortable and damp as they passed her and as they walked through the rest of the installation hall, itself enclosed and tunnel-like, a veritable haunted house of thirst-inspiring art. All the better for when the onlookers finally exited the installation and emerged blissfully into an air-conditioned room where a team of waiters stood ready in front of a vast wooden table, whereupon, glistening in the light, hundreds of pitchers of ice water had been prepared for their pleasure.
The purpose of the water supplied to the audience at the end, as Kleo would happily explain to anyone who asked, was to make the audience not only better experience their thirst but also better enjoy the slaking of their thirst. "The water at the end is the most critical part of Drought," Kleo confided to her assistant after the project had already gained irresistible momentum. "The audience must never forget, for the rest of their lives, that glass of water. I want them all to have an enhanced experience of the enjoyment of water. I want it to be orgasmic."
That finishing touch of the installation did not come to Kleo, however, until she discovered, rather by accident, the mad notebooks of Zobel Blake. Sandy Shortgrave's idea of just sitting there and waiting for thirst to overcome her had inspired Kleo to research the image: had anyone else ever deliberately tried or represented such a thing, say, in a novel or a poem or a painting? Had there been famous figures who simply sat and waited for thirst to destroy them? Through her research Kleo eventually landed upon that strange, unfortunate soul with the unusual first name of Zobel, who, in a series of mad writings that were half philosophy and half dream—and were written while the author [End Page 223] slowly dehydrated to death in a debtors' prison!—had set down the following dark fragment:
It is of no small importance that, but for some external influence or affliction, if you simply set yourself down and wait, what will kill you is THIRST. Thirst is the first killer, the swiftest; it is the DEATH that is closest to us. It is the death that is closest to me.(Book 57, p. 29)
Kleo gleefully took up this fragment as an epigraph for Drought. She inscribed it in deep red, not unlike a warning, just over the installation's exit doors so that you could not help but read it as you took your leave from that heated tunnel. "Drought and thirst are but words for death," Kleo liked to say then; "and like death they're always just around the corner. When you're thirsty you're dying. No one knew this better than poor, old Zobel Blake."
Kleo gradually became obsessed with the mystery of Zobel Blake, and her obsession only redoubled once she learned that this obscure man might in fact have been Kant's bastard son. It was perfect, irresistible: to humiliate not only Gerald Levine but also his favorite philosopher in one glorious stroke! Yes, Kleo would scrawl Zobel Blake's writings all over the walls of the installation; she would include references to Senta Heinrich's thesis in the program for Drought; she would make Blake the undersong of the whole piece. "It will be exquisite," she said to herself again and again as she planned. "I'll make that pompous ass Levine choke for sure."
Here are some of the other passages from Zobel Blake's diaries that pleased Kleo the most, and which she ended up reproducing, in heavy red letters, upon the installation walls:
The critical imperfection of all higher animal life (all of it, including especially the human variety) is that it adapts quickly to good fortune, and then wearies of it. Discontent is the underlying law of all mammalian existence. Probably during some remote, prehistoric time such a quality had supplied this class of life with an evolutionary advantage: our inconsolable, hirsute ancestors, unhappy with the conditions in which they found themselves, strove for ever superior ones and so survived better than their competitors. But, as a result of that ancient success, and thanks to the triumphant yet unsatisfiable trait that spurred it, the [End Page 224] modern house cat now only sniffs at its dinner and expects its luxurious seclusion as a matter of course; the human heir to a fortune behaves as though the contents of his newly fattened bank account had always been his, and smiles at less than before. The warmest, keenest love feels to us but normal after a year. What prospect, then, given this, our blood-borne curse, do we reasonably have for lasting happiness?
For indeed UNHAPPINESS is akin to THIRST. Like thirst, it is never less than a barely repressed state, one whose possibility is never more than a few hours away, and which we manage to stave off only for the time being. Unhappiness returns to us with the same certitude, the same dumb regularity, as thirst itself. Warum muss ich das sagen? Because unhappiness, like thirst, follows closely on the heels of inaction. If you do nothing, if you take no action to thwart it, you will become unhappy, just as if you do nothing to slake your thirst that thirst will consume you. Both thirst and unhappiness, those lurking fates, are accordingly matters of our own Constitution. They are our natural states, perhaps our most natural.
But then, if all one has to do, in order for unhappiness and thirst to reassert themselves and reclaim us, is precisely NOTHING; if we need only wait and they will come, then what does that make of HAPPINESS? Is happiness but a temporary quenching? A mere postponement of what is deeper and more true? Some even lesser, fleeting thing?
Or is happiness rather akin to the nothing-god, WATER?(Book 59, p. 27)
Everywhere around us, the incomprehensible success of life: trees, squirrels, grass; mad flapping birds, silver and red hordes of sea life; the flat infinity of insects and the even lesser mites which outnumber them a trillion to one; whole classes of secret writhing bits we've only begun to observe . . . we look to these, and to the nature of our own bodies, for our philosophy, because organic life, that inconsolable fluke of matter, that most improbable thing which exists anyway, is the highest point of success in all the frozen universe.
BUT—that WATER, an empty limpid substance, a raw molecule which on its face has nothing to recommend it over any other one, practically a nothingness, should be relied upon so desperately by that same flourishing life which outstrips all else in all the galaxies in all the realms of TIME—that is its absurdity, that is the absurdity of water.
Not the absurdity of LIFE, mind you; the value of life is inherent and of the spirit. Nein, es ist WASSER which [is] the absurd thing, since the value it possesses is contingent and external to itself and greatly exceeds, in a way that objectively can be called COMIC, the flimsiness of its being.(Book 59, p. 30) [End Page 225]
WATER, that flimsy thing, that nothingness, which, with respect to life, is also the outward form of necessity itself.(Book 59, p. 31)
Water: the humiliation of all life. Does our happiness—fleeting, wicked thing that it is—humiliate us any less?(Book 59, p. 32)
Drought opened in New York City in January 2015, and was met with acclaim. Sandy Shortgrave lasted almost one hundred hours before leaping from her chair and screaming in horror at some unspeakable, febrile vision. She was whisked to Mount Sinai Hospital for rehydration. For a few weeks, Kleo Adler was the talk of the New York art scene; though it was not until a bitterly cold day in March, during an NYU panel discussion on the topic of her installation, that she was finally able to announce, with a wide grin across her unblushing face, that Drought would be going on tour. The tour would start in Los Angeles and would end in New Orleans.2
There—in Louisiana—Kleo Adler would have her revenge.
Naturally, Dr. Gerald Levine introduced her at the reception for the opening of Drought in New Orleans. Innocent of any knowledge of Kleo's plans, and quite confident that his own teachings had set Kleo on the path to artistic stardom, he beamed with pride during his remarks.
While watching him speak—and then even more so when, after finally uttering her name with a stately emphasis upon the "l" in both "Kleo" and "Adler," he finally fell silent and took his seat without once raising his eyes—Kleo Adler became possessed by the notion that, were she inclined to do so, she could probably physically overpower him. She was strong and young enough; he was old and thin and frail. Probably she could murder him with her bare hands. His mouth hung open and empty as if to dare her.
Kleo's face grew hot; she was barely aware of the applause.
Minutes later, Kleo's speech was in full swing. "And of course the entire installation stands as a refutation of that older, aesthetic philosophy—let's be generous and call it quaintly Kantian—which holds that all art must necessarily appeal to the higher cognitive faculties if it is to be worthy of the name." [End Page 226]
When Kleo pronounced the phrase "quaintly Kantian"—already some laughter bubbled up from the audience—the old man who had introduced her with such glowing praise began to twitch and squint, as though the words had clapped him on the neck. Kleo took note of this; it was just the sort of sign she had hoped to detect. He knew she was talking about him, and so did the keener members of the audience, she was sure of it. Her revenge was there for the taking. Her face cooled. A feeling came over her of such completeness and of such glee that she had to struggle to keep from smiling.
Kleo continued speaking while surreptitiously scanning the text of her speech, her eye stopping for a fraction of a second upon one of the colder, sharper daggers she had prepared: ". . . a doctrine of doddering fools who quite frankly shouldn't be permitted to teach the arts any longer." Oh yes, she thought; that one will hurt especially.
When she finally reached that brutal line in her speech—Gerald Levine was already smoldering—she paused. Two full seconds elapsed before she continued with the sentence as it was written.
Those two seconds of silence were no hesitation of mercy, nor did they betray a failure of nerve. As it happens, something from one of Zobel Blake's notebooks had flashed up into Kleo's mind at just that moment—something about how our happiness humiliates us—and this flash was the thing that made her waver. She had, until now, thought that the great object of fascination for Zobel Blake was the sheer strangeness of his experience of thirst; but no: the thing that had most tortured him, Kleo suddenly realized as she stood at the podium of her perfect triumph, was nothing other than the idea of happiness. The inhumanity of it; the unnaturalness. Happiness—Blake's watery and elusive nothing-god—was the true, tantalizing object of his madness. And now, it seemed, of hers.
For Kleo had always presumed that her own motive in all this—in putting Drought together in the first place—had been vengeance, but no: she now saw that revenge is never a motive; it's just something you do, like paying a check. Her motive, if she even had one—she had to admit it—was nothing other than what Kant himself had called Selbstliebe, or more simply the desire for happiness. That inescapable want, that impulse we all share with psychopaths and holy men and chimpanzees alike. This whole, long-planned bit of vengeance—and perhaps [End Page 227] everything Kleo had ever done, would ever do, in her life—was only a means to that same, simplest of ends.
But there was more (the light speed of thought, after all, is faster than time). On the heels of the epiphany just described, she had a sudden sense of the pitiful evil of this, her present happiness, and not only because it was rooted in a paltry and inexplicable revenge (aimed at a relic of a man!), but also because happiness as such was evil, because no one can be happy—at least not for any serious length of time—who also cares especially much about the suffering of others. Suffering is everywhere in the world, after all; it's all around us, all of the time. And thus it's only thanks to our dark skill of being indifferent to it—in remaining indifferent, that is, to the whole rest of the race—that lasting joy is even possible for us in the first place. All joy participates, to some larger or lesser degree, in this forcible shrinking-away from the greater world.
Kleo, who now blushed again and fidgeted and even raised her voice as if to block out the look of anguish on Gerald Levine's face, was all at once struck by this moral fact. She grasped it suddenly, there at the podium while she spoke. She felt the palpable, sticky reality of it, as though it had just then materialized in her mouth, not unlike the sentence from Zobel Blake's final notebook which, in a fine flourish she'd carefully prepared, she had just then begun to recite: "To be alive in this grand time of decline, as this nation goes haltingly asunder, and yet to be careless, to smile and stroll and be sure of having one's thirst quenched—there is beauty and bliss in the placid souls who possess such assurance, though no human-made science will ever fathom how that improbable peace was got in the first place. . ."
It even occurred to Kleo that Auden—her favorite poet, a figure who never failed to pop into her mind at revelatory moments—surely had not gone far enough when, in his famous précis of Brueghel's Fall of Icarus, he mused that suffering takes place while others are eating or "walking dully along." No, much more than that: suffering happens while others—few though they may be—are quite well pleased with themselves, are at peace with the whole world just as it is, even with all of its horrors, and would not have it any other way. The happy, those diabolical ones; they exist somehow.
Kleo Adler continued with her speech, furtively pressing her teeth together and trying hard not to frown. At times she swallowed audibly. [End Page 228]
1. At the very least, if any official order or proclamation announcing the prison had been issued, then we no longer have the text of it; moreover, little agreement exists among historians regarding the exact location of the jail, though recent scholarship suggests that Butler must have seized a wing of a freshly built, cornstalk-fence-enclosed villa on Fourth Street for the purpose.
2. Sandy Shortgrave never repeated her nearly mortal performance, of course. Instead, during the tour, a video recording of what took place in New York was displayed. [End Page 229]