With grateful acknowledgement to Brandon Watson for the idea and all his good offices. If it's clever it's his, probably verbatim; if it's not, it's mine.
My Dinner With Rene
In the five years that she had lived at Stillwater, Melly had never been back to her family’s home in Baton Rouge. There were no shortage of opportunities to take the trip, a scant hour’s drive. Sophia and then Olivia had come and gone frequently between Stillwater and college; Esther made regular jaunts up to the city to shop or visit or network; Richard sometimes found it necessary to go to meetings in Baton Rouge and would willingly have given Melly a ride. But Melly was a homebody, and her home was Stillwater. When she thought back to her time at the cramped, dingy house in Baton Rouge, she remembered her father, beer can always in hand, shouting at her mother, shouting at her brothers, shouting at her when there was no one else around to take the brunt of his petty irritations. She remembered boisterous Andre and Raymond always in fights in school and on the street, and Marc teasing viciously. Fiery Leonie, always outraged at the appalling state of the house, trying harder to keep some order in the house than any little girl should be expected to do. Spoiled Marie-Helene, Jean Arceneaux’s baby girl, who at the age of two already knew that her tears and smiles ruled the house. Her mother, indolent beyond the weariness of her days, parked of an evening in front of the TV, remote from the cares and the annoyances of her demanding brood. And Melly remembered pain, always pain: days spent in weak and aching immobility on the battered couch, deriving what relief she could from the laboring air conditioner perched precariously in the porch window, the faded pattern of the peeling wallpaper seared into her retinas, so that she saw it even with her eyes closed, the sickening smells of old carpet and mouldering wood and stale white bread and warm American cheese and sugary kool-aid all mingling together. Her walker, now neatly folded away in a corner of her room, bore mute testament to the days of struggling to move and to breathe.
But Melly had an essentially hopeful nature. She would not dwell on memories of misery when she might recall the happier times when Jean Arceneaux was overseas and the rest of the family lived in the cottage at Stillwater and she, for the first time, was strong and could run and play and be normal. For years she had treasured these memories, doling them out to herself alone in her room at night, savoring and reliving each family game and in-joke. When she had felt slighted or neglected at Stillwater, she would wrap herself in the remembered warmth of her big raucous family. When she felt insignificant as the youngest in the big house, she would sit quietly and call to mind the status conferred by being the oldest daughter in the cottage, of being able to boss even three older brothers, of cooking when her mother was tired, of being petite mere to the babies. Only Malcolm, Melly’s confidant, knew much about this hidden life of hers, but though he enjoyed hearing her reminisce, he could only relate to her family as an outsider. And now here was Rene to refresh and restock her memory, to reaffirm the fraternal bonds that had been forged and strengthened in youthful adversity and sweetened with affection, ready in true impetuous fashion to dive back into their shared world and dredge up a treasure trove of Arceneaux Greatest Hits.
“You remember when Raymond ate all the peanuts and threw up and then he couldn’t look at a peanut for years afterward?”
“You remember when Andre ate Leonie’s leftover steak from the restaurant and she yelled at him all weekend?”
“You remember all those cartoons we used to watch after school?”
“You remember how we always used to eat macaroni and cheese from a box with boiled hot dogs sliced up in it?”
“You remember when Mama tried to make us all learn French from PawPaw but he only taught us to cuss?”
“I remember,” said Rene, settling on the wicker loveseat on the back porch outside the kitchen wing, his iced tea at his elbow, “when Mama first taught you to sew. You were such a tiny little thing, sitting up straight on that chair, making your stitches all even and nice.”
“Not all that even and nice,” Melly objected, curling up next to him like a contented kitten. “I bet they were all over the place. I’d be embarrassed for anyone to see any of my first sewing projects.”
Malcolm stuck his head out of the porch door. “I still have a little beanbag you gave me for Christmas when you were ten,” he said. “How about I bring it down so we can all examine the quality of your handiwork under a magnifying glass?”
“No!” Melly emitted a cry somewhere between a shriek and a laugh. “Don’t you dare!”
“Rene,” said Malcolm, scrutinizing him with solemn disapproval, “Why are you drinking sweet tea after 1 pm?”
“‘Cause you didn’t bring me a beer, bro.”
“I’ll fix that right now.”
“Get one for yourself too.” Rene could be magnanimous with another man’s beer.
“And for me,” said Ian, coming up the porch stairs. As Malcolm disappeared back into the house, Ian settled down in a rocker near Melly and gave her a friendly nod. She stifled a sigh. It was like him to turn up just when she was having such a pleasant time, and now he was going to intrude on her conversation and be his usual inappropriate self.
Ian, however, greeted everyone respectfully and was soon listening attentively to Rene and Malcolm talking shop about philosophy and teaching. It was a world he was not unfamiliar with, having lived so many years in his uncle’s milieu, but once Rene was given to understand that Mr. Winter was actually the nephew of Carson Winter, America’s #1 best-selling philosopher, Ian suddenly found himself subject to such a barrage of questioning that he was forced with a laugh to plead innocent to the charge of even paying attention to a great deal of what his uncle wrote.
“I admire your outspokenness, though,” he told Rene. “Most of my uncle’s lackeys seem to be completely overawed by him, or else they’re appalling sycophants, and it gets boring after a while.”
“Hell, I’d tell him to his face that he’s full of shit,” said Rene. “It’s nothing he don’t already know.”
“Your brother has all sorts of gumption,” Ian observed to Melly. “He ought to go a long way on the force of his personality alone.”
“Some people call him a character,” she answered. “But that makes it sound like he’s putting on an act, and he'd never do that.”
She listened, rapt, as Malcolm and Rene batted some question back and forth, unraveling strand after strand of caveat and objection to expose the core of truth, then winding it up again with layers of nuance. She watched them, and Ian watched her. Her love for her brother was a living thing, so potent that it seemed to infuse her entire being with purpose.
Had his sister ever loved him like that? He cast his mind back over the years. He and Alys had always had fun together. Certainly she was proud of his accomplishments. Their relationship had never been strained or angry; he had never understood his friends who always claimed to be at odds with their sisters. Until now, he would have said that they were about as happy together as siblings could be. It seemed, however, that there were dimensions to brotherhood that he had not even imagined — however glad Alys might have been to see him, he clearly did not inspire the kind of revelatory joy that Rene did in Melly. The effect Rene had on Melly was not to change her into someone new, but to make her own personality blossom out more fully.
Ian had seen many women who craved his company and attention. He had known women to tremble at his touch. He had inspired in the fairer sex sensations of lust, of pleasure, of satisfaction, but now, reflecting on Melly’s delight in her brother and observing her pure devotion to him, he wondered if any woman had ever really been “in love” with him. The disconcerting awareness of having been tried and found wanting settled upon him like melancholia. What a feat it would be to inspire that kind of love in some woman! No — what a triumph it would be to inspire that kind of love in Melly, to know that he alone could awaken such a deep and unknown desire! It would be a fresh experience for him to be loved by such a woman: sweet, innocent, wholesome. He would protect her from the world and its ugliness, and she, she would inspire him, be his muse. If he could only win her love, everything else would be easy. Then, surely, virtue or whatever would come as instinctively to him as it did to her. Her love would impel him to greater heights of creativity. His chaotic imagination, unable to settle down, leaped from fancy to fancy as he sat and nodded gravely at Rene’s impassioned arguments and admired the constancy of Melly’s attention.
Strolling back that evening toward the larger cottage, Ian paused in his turn behind Rene’s car in sheer astonishment that anyone could fit so much opinion in so small a trunk.
“Anything that is not nailed down is mine. Anything I can pry loose is not nailed down,” he murmured, and snorted in involuntary agreement.
Everyone at Stillwater was in a heightened state of anticipation on Thursday, the day of the Winters’ dinner. One of the chief attractions of the fete was the escape it offered from the Stillwater Fellowship Ball mania. Esther was in her element, which is to say that she was making everyone miserable by completely reorganizing life at Stillwater to fit her master plan. She had temporarily cleared out her office in order to restore it to the way it might have looked in the days when John Spencer sat in there totting up accounts. All the newfangled technology and excess furniture had been carted back to the housekeeping wing, where it had been stored in Richard’s office.
“It’s only for a few days, Richard!” she assured him breezily, as the workmen settled a big metal file cabinet in front of his window and began stacking boxes of books on top of it. “I can’t really think you’re getting any work done with all this commotion anyway.”
“No, I’m not,” he replied in the too-clear voice of one resolutely not grinding his teeth.
“And that’s where the last of the old diaries is!” Esther reached out to take the aged volume. “Now that I do need in John Spencer’s office — it really sets just the right historical tone.”
Richard slapped his own hand down on the book, millimeters away from her outstretched fingers.
“I’m reading this,” he said firmly. “It’s only for a few days. I’ll put it back before the ball.”
“Well,” said Esther, flummoxed by this unexpected counter, “see that you do. I’ve promised people that John Spencer’s diaries will be on display.”
She turned to go. Richard let her get out the door.
“Oh, Esther,” he called, “have you ever read John Spencer’s diaries?”
“Read them?” Her head appeared in the doorway, exasperated by this foolishness. “Of course not. If I read every old book in this house, I’d never get anything done.”
Richard merely inclined his head. Esther was mollified.
“But I’m glad you’re enjoying them,” she went on. “I’ve always said there’s nothing like rediscovering family history.”
“I do believe you’re right,” said Richard to the empty doorway, with an enigmatic grin. “I think we might just try a little historical accuracy this year.”
Esther had heard a rumor — more than a rumor; she had talked to the manager of the local Chinese place — that Alys had actually ordered dinner instead of cooking it herself. She repeated this tale to Cheryl Spencer with dire satisfaction.
“Oh, that’s nice,” said Cheryl, immersed in chatting online with a fellow fancier from the Pug Owners board, “because I ordered up a dozen of those cupcakes — you know, the ones that they decorate up to look like Pugsy — and I was afraid that Alys might be offended that I hadn’t baked them myself.”
Thursday evening Cheryl and Richard crossed the yard to the larger cottage and, like all pilgrims before them, paid homage to Rene’s car. Richard had already read all the bumper stickers several times as his office window faced the yard, but Cheryl had to stop and read each one aloud.
“He who lets slip the dogs of war had better be ready to clean up the shit,” she pronounced methodically, and paused to mull over this sentiment. “He who lets slip the dogs of war had better be ready…”
A smile spread across her face.
“…Had better be ready to clean up…”
She dissolved into giggles and clutched Richard’s arm for support, and he patted her hands affectionately as they continued on the cottage.
It was almost impossible for anything associated with Alys not to be charming. The party was no exception. Esther’s dire predictions were realized: the dinner was indeed catered, and delicious. There had been no point in trying to squeeze everyone around the card-sized kitchen table, so Alys had artfully arranged her guests in the living room, grouping a few on the settee here and a few near the old fireplace there. Richard, Cheryl, and Esther had been given the honor of the table, now tucked neatly into the far corner of the cozy living room. Malcolm and Rene had been ensconced across the room in a pair of arm chairs on either side of the hearth, and Melly was maneuvered to the settee, where she was gently but firmly wedged between Ian and Alys. Malcolm eyed the seat next to Alys enviously, Melly eyed the seat next to Rene enviously, and Richard eyed the seat next to anyone but Esther enviously, but there was no denying the aesthetic effect of the groupings.
Richard was not immune to the charms of a well-made dinner party, but his evening’s pleasure was considerably dampened by Esther’s insistence on talking about Stillwater’s future both as a social force and as a business entity. The business world had sharpened his instincts for power plays, and Esther was running through all the classic tactics of exerting control. And for what? She had always been given carte blanche to conduct affairs and the Fellowship ball as she chose. Unbeknownst to Esther, however, was the fact that Richard was already privy to the secret of the new and expensive custom crown for the Queen, and it was his informed speculation that Esther was trying to prepare him for the revelation. He was ready for it. He was also ready to be somewhere else. If he’d had his druthers, he would have taken the place next to Rene — that looked like where all the fun was going to be. People were fuel for Rene’s high-octane personality, and tonight he was firing on all cylinders.
Alys had placed Rene in the armchair nearest her, and now she draped an elbow over the arm of the settee as she made conversation with him.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you,” she said. “What does ‘Goaks Tigers’ mean?”
“Nothing so far as I know,” said Rene, raising an eyebrow, a morsel of General Tsao’s Chicken dangling from his chopsticks. “What’s the context?”
“The back of your car.”
“I think Alys is referring to your bumper sticker, Mr. Arcenoax,” said Malcolm, his voice as serious as he could keep it, “the one that says, ‘Geaux Tigers’.”
Alys laughed ruefully. “‘Go Tigers’. Of course, I should have guessed from the LSU colors. And your name is spelled that way too, then, I take it. But it’s not my fault! I never saw it written down, and anyway, I took German in college.”
“Good cajun name calls for a good cajun spelling,” allowed Rene amiably.
“And how would you have spelled Arceneaux?” Malcolm leaned toward Alys.
“A-R-…” She broke off and narrowed her eyes at him playfully, the amethysts dangling from her ears throwing shards of violet light on her cheeks as she shook her head. “Oh no you don’t get me to incriminate myself that way. I plead the fifth.”
“Maybe Melly would spell it for us,” suggested Ian mildly.
Melly, sitting demurely next to him, did not immediately answer. Of all the things that Alys had taken into effect when planning her party — the candles, the vintage plates, the linen napkins, the lacquered chopsticks ordered from a boutique in Shanghai — one thing that she had not considered, perhaps understandably, was that Melly had never eaten Chinese food before. She was having a rather hard time of it, trying to manage her plate in one hand and the recalcitrant chopsticks in the other. Under the circumstances, spelling even a word as familiar as her own last name was trying. However, Ian had asked politely, and there was no call to be rude.
“A-R-C-E-N-E-A-U-X,” she said. He kept looking at her as if he expected something, so she added, “My pawpaw told me that it’s one of the oldest names in Louisiana. It shows up all the way back on the first census.”
This set Rene off on a lively discussion of the history of Louisiana and the Cajuns. Melly was more than happy to give him her share of the spotlight, especially since she hoped it would deflect attention from her and her clumsy chopstick handling. She glanced around. Esther was wielding her chopsticks like a pointer as she lectured Richard on how much he might profit from a little Buddhist meditation. Alys was delicately nabbing individual grains of rice. Ian was, of course, was as proficient as if he’d used chopsticks every meal of his life. Malcolm was slow and steady, but effective, and Rene was shoveling up Happy Family and Vegetable Delight at such a rate that it was a wonder he could talk at all. Somehow her chopsticks were the only ones that wouldn’t cooperate, no matter how she held them. Her small sigh caught Malcolm’s attention.
“Melly, you’ve barely touched your food,” he said. “You’ll never able to dance all Saturday night if you don’t eat up now.”
“Do you not like Chinese?” asked Ian. “I’m sorry; we would have planned something else if we’d known.”
“No, I like it,” she said hastily, horrified to be thought a picky eater. “It’s just that I can’t… I mean, my chopsticks don’t seem…” She felt unable to state the problem without turning her inability to use the chopsticks into an implied criticism of the Winters and their party planning prowess.
Malcolm understood immediately. “Let me get you a fork,” he said, rising from his armchair. But Ian, always quick with a solution, had a better plan.
“Here, Melly, I’ll show you how to hold your chopsticks. It’s simple actually, if you’ll let me arrange your hand the right way…”
“I don’t know,” she said, twisting so that her plate was between them. “I think a fork might be easier. It’s too hard to use the chopsticks and hold the plate at the same time. Maybe if I was at the table…”
“What if y’all come and sit at the table, and I’ll move over there?” Richard offered with alacrity, getting up without waiting for an answer. Such a perfect opportunity to escape Esther might not come again all evening. “Cheryl would like some help too, and I can’t seem to show her how it’s done.”
“I don’t think I’ve eaten a bite,” Cheryl said as complacently as if she starved every day. “I just don’t see how y’all do it. I can’t make heads or tails of these things.”
“I’d be delighted,” said Ian. Before she could protest, Melly found herself being steered by Ian to the table, where he settled between her and Cheryl. The company was rearranging itself: since he was already up, Malcolm took advantage of the depleted population of the settee to relocate over next to Alys; Richard claimed Malcolm’s empty armchair, nodded contentedly to Rene, and the two of them began discussing Rene’s studies. Everyone was where they wanted to be, reflected Melly, except her.
The shake-up was certainly fine with Esther. Talking to Richard was like talking to a brick wall, but Ian was young and urbane and sympathetic and would be sure to appreciate that it would be both good business and good karma to open Stillwater to groups that might want to meditate in lovely surroundings.
“Aren’t you just so inspired by the Dalai Lama?” she asked. “Really, the best place to meditate would be at his feet, but since so many people can’t do that, we need to bring it to them. The big front rooms would be perfect for that — there’s so much history there. You get a real sense of the cyclical nature of being. And then we could provide a Chinese dinner afterwards to add a touch of authenticity.”
“Well,” said Ian diplomatically, “I’m told that real Chinese food isn’t really that similar to what’s served in America. Mrs. Spencer, here, keep this bottom chopstick still, and pinch with the top one. That’s right.”
“That doesn’t even follow.” Rene, up refilling his plate, had no intention of letting error go unchallenged. “The Dalai Lama lives in Tibet, not China.”
Esther dismissed this with a wave.
“Well, for spiritual purposes, it’s almost the same.”
“It’s nothing like the same thing,” Rene said. Malcolm was trying hard to suppress a grin. “And if I were you, I wouldn’t say so to either the Tibetans or the Chinese. Those are fighting words, and you’d get a fight, too.”
“I’m a pacifist,” said Esther primly. “We talked all about the Buddha and peace at the meditation center. I just don’t believe in senseless violence.”
“So you’re not a pacifist, then?”
“What do you mean?”
“You said you were against senseless violence, which means you can’t be a pacifist.”
“I would think that being against senseless violence is the very definition of pacifism,” said Alys, who was enjoying watching Malcolm enjoying watching Rene schooling Esther.
“Then you’d be wrong,” said Rene. “A pacifist is against violence, period.”
“Well, that’s what I said,” protested Esther. “You’re twisting my words.”
“You said you don’t believe in senseless violence.” Rene pounced, his eyes glowing with the joy of the easy kill. “Which implies that you believe that there is some violence which is not senseless, which is, in fact, sensible. But don’t worry. You’re in good company with the Buddha. He’s the original advocate of the gentle murder paradox.”
“There’s no such thing,” declared Esther, unsure whether Rene was joking or serious, and trying to decide which was more offensive.
Ian looked up from murmuring instructions to Melly. “Actually, I’ve heard my uncle mention it. Melly, relax your hand a little bit. There, see? You’ve got it.”
“I bet you have,” said Rene. “Oprah doesn’t care if some philosopher claims he’s demolished deontic logic. But when the headline reads “Columbia Prof endorses cannibalism”, well, laissez les bon temps rouler, cher!”
“But what is the gentle murder paradox?” Richard asked.
Rene settled back in his chair with a grin and took up his chopsticks.
“All right,” he drawled. Melly smiled at the familiar phrase. How many times had she heard him arguing some point with her brothers, or her father, or her grandfather, each of them punctuating every line in cajun fashion: “Aw-rite, I tell you what….” or “Aw-rite, you son of a…!”
“All right, let’s start at the beginning. Here’s something we can all agree on without too much fuss: it’s obligatory that, say, Richard not murder Esther.”
General nods from the company; this was apparently acceptable to all.
“And here’s another statement: it’s obligatory that, if Richard murder Esther, he do so gently. Y'all agree? If someone commits a murder, he should be obliged to murder gently?”
Again, nods all around, except from Melly, though it was hard to say whether her furrowed brow was for the argument or her chopsticks.
“All right, say Richard does murder Esther. We’ve already established that if he murders her, he’s obliged to murder gently. And if we rearrange that statement, we can say that if he murders her gently, it follow that he murders her. Agreed? All right, if murdering necessarily follows from murdering gently, then if it’s obligatory to murder gently, it necessarily follows that it’s obligatory to murder. And if something is obligatory, then its opposite is not obligatory. So: it’s obligatory that Richard murder Esther, and it’s obligatory that he not murder her. That’s the gentle murder paradox.”
There was a silence, broken only by the cheerful clicking of Cheryl’s chopsticks. Rene set to wolfing down his food.
Then, from several people at once: “What?”
“No one ever makes an argument like that in real life,” said Esther. “It’s ridiculous.”
“Is it?” asked Rene, looking up from his plate. “My first week at St. Mary’s College, I went to an orientation meeting where the RD said, ‘You all know you shouldn’t have sex before marriage, but if you do, you should wear a condom.’ I knew a couple of guys down the hall who came down with VD before Thanksgiving break.”
Alys snorted. “That was dumb.”
“But they shouldn’t have thought, ‘It’s okay to… to do that’ in general,” said Melly seriously, fighting through a blush. “They should have thought, ‘This person thinks it okay to do that.’”
“Nice distinction, Melly,” said Malcolm. He had suddenly remembered trying to convince her over the summer that he was obliged not to take part in the ill-advised filming, but that if he did take part, he would be obliged to make sure Dick and company didn’t go too far.
“I think you’ve got it right,” Ian agreed. “Of course it’s only that person’s opinion. He’s just another blowhard in a position of authority, trying to tell everyone what it’s okay to think.”
“Kinda like your uncle, actually,” Rene commented.
“But wait, does Carson Winter seriously believe that people should be cannibals?” Richard didn’t know when he’d had such an entertaining evening, and he blessed the day when Stillwater money had sent Rene up to college — it was doubtful the Fellowship Fund would ever again see such a glorious return. Rene was, as usual, as punchy as a Jack-in-the-box: you never knew where he would hit next, and you just hoped it wasn’t you.
“Serious, my foot. Not about anything but publicity,” Rene said scornfully. “He holds that morality is just a construct, and that all ethics are situational. Cannibalism is just a flashy way of making the point.”
“So what’s the argument he makes in his book?”
Rene sighed, but it was the sigh of the glowering bull pawing the earth as he lined up the red flag. “All right, so he says that cannibals ought to cook and eat people in ways that cause the least possible amount of suffering.”
“I don’t see what’s so controversial about that,” said Esther. She seemed convinced that somehow she could show Rene up on his own turf if she just objected to everything he said. “Less suffering is always better. We spent the whole weekend at the meditation center talking about compassion.”
Cheryl was ready to contribute to the conversation. “Do you know that in some places they eat dogs?” she asked the room at large. “I think someone should write a book about that.”
“Now,” continued Rene, giving no sign of having heard either of them, “suppose we’re cannibals.”
“But we aren’t cannibals,” Melly objected.
“But it’s so much fun to pretend!” Alys exclaimed.
“I don’t think it’s fun to pretend to be a cannibal,” said Melly.
“No, Melly’s right. We don’t have to put ourselves into it right now,” said Rene. “Suppose that Boudreaux and Thibodeaux are cannibals. Winter says — and this is a lot like the gentle murder paradox — that they’re in fact obligated to kill humans in ways that cause the least amount of suffering, even if they’re just going to make them into gumbo. Agreed?”
“Yes,” said Alys.
“No,” Melly insisted. “They shouldn’t be eating people at all.”
Alys laughed her silvery laugh. “Melly, if you keep protesting we’re going to be stuck talking about cannibalism all night. Let Rene get through his argument.”
“It’s your uncle’s argument, not Rene’s,” Malcolm reminded her. Alys laughed at him too, and in the process somehow wound up on the other side of the settee, out of reach of his arm draped across the back.
“Well, you’ll recognize this part,” said Rene, who, having taken the diversion as a chance to scoop up as much food as he could, was discoursing around a large mouthful of Pepper Beef. “If Boudreaux and Thibodeaux, being cannibals, are obligated to make their human roux in ways that cause the least suffering, then they’re obligated to cook and eat people at all. However, since you and I aren’t cannibals, we don’t have an obligation to cause the least suffering while cooking up Boudreaux and Thibodeaux. So there’s no one obligation that applies to everyone, says Winter, because obligations are conditional, and since y'all can stack up conditions until next Sunday, no obligations are general, and therefore, no moral principles are general.”
“Well, it’s good to know that even cajuns have standards,” said Esther.
“I don’t even understand what you’re talking about,” Cheryl commented, “but I think it’s just nasty.”
“Does he really say that in his book?” asked Alys. “I’m just asking! I mean, it’s not as if I was ever going to read it.”
“Now you don’t have to,” said Esther. “Rene’s just summarized it for you.”
Richard suddenly broke into one of his rare smiles. “Oh, I think there’s a great deal of value in hearing something directly from the source.”
Melly was tapping her chopstick absently against her plate, a slight frown creasing her forehead. Ian leaned over, took the chopstick from her, and laid it on the table.
“You’ve been quiet for a moment, Melly. What’s your opinion?”
“I think it’s all wrong right from the get-go. Just because there have been cannibals in the past doesn’t mean that people have to be cannibals. It only means that some people have done bad things.”
“But don’t you think that the people who are cannibals have an obligation to at least minimize the suffering they cause?
Melly was stubborn. “They have an obligation not to eat people in the first place.”
Ian smiled. “But then they wouldn’t be cannibals.”
“So much the better.”
Alys uncurled her legs from beneath her and stretched a foot languidly. “Oh God, don’t we all have an obligation to talk about something over dinner other than Uncle Jerk’s theory of cannibalism?”
But Rene’s hair wasn’t ready to settle down yet. “Obligation, exactly! Cannibalism isn’t even the point. Your Uncle Jerk just wants to get rid of obligation all together by making it self-contradictory. If obligation theory requires people to do something as dumb-ass as eat people, then it obviously doesn’t work. He’s setting it up so that it’s no more outrageous to come up with obligations for cannibals — while still assuming they’ll remain cannibals — as it to come up with obligations for guests while they’re at dinner. He wants to make obligations no more than manners, which change according whatever situation you’re in.”
“That’s a problem, I guess,” said Ian slowly, “but then, how do you address it? I can sense that the gentle murder paradox on display here is manipulative, and for the record, I don’t have any interest in eating people, but it does make a certain amount of sense when you break it down. My uncle obviously thinks it’s fairly unassailable.”
“Pshaw. He’s too smart for that,” Rene answered. “He just thinks it’s useful for confusing people.”
“But you’re pretty confident that he’s wrong. How do you answer him?” Unlike Alys, Ian maintained a certain respect for his uncle, and had been used to taking his ethical dictums as givens — partly because they allowed him to do basically as he pleased, and partly because it saved him the bother of having to develop his own moral code. However, he had always moved in circles in which, like him or no, Carson Winter had been accorded a certain amount of intellectual stature. Rene’s obvious contempt for and complete dismissal of his thought was a delicious novelty, and Ian wanted to encourage it, both for the sake of something new, and because it seemed that the only sure way to Melly was through her adoration for Rene.
Rene laid down his plate on the coffee table and leaned his elbows on his knees. “The paradox sounds plausible, doesn’t it? It’s very easy to accept that it’s better to kill someone gently than to kill them not-gently, and it seems like that’s a reasonable obligation, given that we know murder happens every day. But what we’re dealing with here is two different kinds of obligation lumped together under one term. We know there’s a way the world ought to work. There’s a certain standard — there are things that ought to be true. It ought to be true that Boudreaux and Thibodeaux never murder anyone. But y'all know that’s not the way the world does work, in practice. Our actions often deviate from the standard of how the world ought to be. Given that, we try to minimize the slippage from that standard by creating preventative obligations: if Boudreaux and Thibodeaux are going to kill people anyway — who knows? Maybe they’re really hungry out there on the bayou — at least we should insist that they correct for that by being obligated to cause the least amount of suffering possible, to try and bring their actions back closer to the standard of how the world ought to be, or at least keep things from getting worse. So you could say that they have a standard-based obligation not to murder, and a preventative or corrective obligation to murder gently.”
Alys and Ian were impressed.
“That makes a lot of sense,” said Alys, twisting her earring meditatively. “I wish I could listen to you talking to Uncle Carson. Maybe he’d be clearer and less condescending with someone like you to straighten him out. So that’s it, then — that there’s two different standards of obligation, and that’s why the paradox actually works?”
“No, I said that’s why the paradox seems plausible,” said Rene. “I don’t think there’s ever any obligation to sin.”
Ian acknowledged this closing statement with an admiring nod.
“You know, Rene, you should really be writing your own books,” he said. His tone of sincere admiration was rewarded with a quick glance and grateful smile from Melly.
Esther rose from her place and began collecting empty plates. Rene had held the room hostage quite long enough, and she’d had about her fill of his arrogance, lecturing the whole room as if it the Spencers hadn’t sent him to college in the first place. “Thank you, Rene. That was very interesting. I have to say, I did think philosophers talked about important topics like Plato and Descartes and Enlightenment. All this talk about cannibalism and gentle murder just seems so trivial.”
Melly’s cheeks glowed as if she’d been slapped, and Richard raised his eyebrows, but Rene was unfazed.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” he said cheerfully. “You should hear us when we get going on the difference between a brain in a vat and a zombie brain in a vat.”
Alys, however, was as usual aware of the social undercurrents and had no intention of letting Esther play doyenne at her dinner party. She turned to Rene with an air of delightful innocence and prompted, “But what does the Buddha have to do with gentle murder?”
The sound of running water in the kitchen quieted almost imperceptibly as Rene told the story of how the Buddha had been a captain on a ship on which traveled five hundred merchants and one villain determined to kill and rob them all. The Buddha, being made aware of this in a dream, pondered what he should do. If the robber were to kill the merchants, he would certainly suffer the torments of hell for eons, and if the merchants found out about it, they would kill the robber and themselves burn in hell for eons. To prevent either of these dreadful occurrences, the Buddha instead killed the robber out of compassion, to keep him or the merchants from going to hell.
“Killed him gently, too,” Rene concluded. “That’s what the story says.”
Esther, now standing in the doorway with a dripping plate, was almost speechless. “And just where did you hear this? It’s practically slander!”
“The Upayakaushalya Sutra.”
Someone in the room gave a cough that sounded suspiciously like a suppressed snicker.
Cheryl sat back with a satisfied sigh, declared the meal to have been just yummy, and asked why Esther didn’t bring in the cupcakes. Esther seized the opportunity to regain control of the room. It was high time that they discussed the last details for the Ball on Saturday. That was one affair that no one could meddle with. She had almost everything tied up — really, the only uncertain element was that Richard didn’t know about the new crown for the Stillwater Fellowship Queen, and she was going to take care of that tonight. A man with his retiring nature was best presented with innovations with an audience.
“Alys and I have something we want to show you!” she announced, making a sign to the surprised Alys. “I think y'all are all going to be impressed with the newest element of the Stillwater Fellowship Ball. It’s been carefully designed to acknowledge Stillwater’s cultural preeminence — present and future! — while paying homage to our rich and historic past. I know everyone is going to be as pleased as I was by the talent and vision that Alys has displayed in crafting a new heirloom for our house.”
The room was hushed with anticipation as Alys carried in a small box. She knelt to place it on the coffee table and, as heads crowded near, drew out a graceful tiara, breath-taking in its artistry. The filigree work was set with such lustrous opals as to leave the beholder in pleasant confusion as to whether the metal or the gem were imparting its radiance to the other. Somehow, in the twisted trails of silver, Alys had managed to suggest the tracery of the distinctive Corinthian capitals that surmounted Stillwater’s every column and pilaster. Drawn by its beauty, everyone in the room pressed around the table in awed contemplation of the new creation. This was, indeed, a crown for Stillwater’s queen — it belonged to the house as surely as did the silver doorknobs and and the plaster medallions.
Richard Spencer gently accepted the tiara from Alys and studied it carefully. The light of the opals kindled an echoing glow in his eyes as he gazed at the circle of cold lace in his hand. At last he looked up at Esther, standing above the crowded heads.
“I hope you’ll think it was worth every penny, Richard,” said Esther, her voice almost harsh in her moment of triumph.
“Indeed I do,” said Richard softly. “Indeed I do. I think it’s worthy of reviving a bit of our rich and historic past.” He turned his gaze back to the tiara. “I wonder… Can any of you ladies tell me how John Spencer chose from his daughters the first Stillwater Queen?”
There was a silence for a moment. Alys, quickest with an rejoinder and least inclined to be caught up by her own handiwork, was the first to speak.
“Surely,” she laughed, “he must have respected the time-honored tradition of picking the prettiest girl.”
“Cheryl, my love, do you know?” Richard held the crown out to her.
“I didn’t even know John Spencer had daughters,” Cheryl said simply, preferring to look rather than touch.
“Esther, surely you must know.” His tone acknowledged her supremacy in matters of the Ball.
“It was the oldest, of course,” she answered, a bit impatient at this strange whim of his. “That’s how it’s always been. It’s a matter of precedence.”
Still Richard sat, turning the tiara this way and that to catch the light. Finally he looked at Melly, small and quiet, as always drinking in beauty in a wordless reverence.
“Melly, you haven’t given me your answer.”
Reluctantly she tore her gaze from the shimmering object to look at him.
“It was the youngest,” she said slowly, but with quiet certainty. “He asked the girls what kind of capitals were on the porch columns, and only the youngest answered correctly.”
“How do you know that?” Esther demanded.
“I read it in John Spencer’s journals,” she replied.
“Melly is right,” Richard said. “Only the youngest could answer a question about Stillwater, and so the youngest was named Queen,” He lifted the fragile tiara and placed it gently on Melly’s smooth dark hair. “And now I name Melly the Queen of the Stillwater Fellowship Ball.”
In the general acclaim that followed this announcement — cheers from Rene, hugs from Cheryl, warm congratulations from Ian and Alys, and Malcolm’s arm around a radiant, sobbing Melly — Richard took in both the happy scene and Esther’s pure astonishment, too new for anger, and remembered with satisfaction a bumper sticker he’d noticed on Rene’s car: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.