Letters Column in January 2012: “The Right-Hand Door”

“The rules are simple,” the monster says. “[Jane] is willing to forgive. Simply come up to this podium, and say, ‘It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.’ Then turn, and walk through the door on the right, and begin your new life as an employee of a new, brighter, more loving Earth Division. Or walk through the door to the left, and continue your life as normal.”

The rules are displayed on the screen.

A hand raises. The monster points.

This is a Vice-President in Charge of Sales. His name is Miles, for what it matters. “This is a game, right? I mean, you’re not bloody serious. We’re not going to—I mean, it’s fucking crazy.”

The hero kills a Vice-President in Charge of Sales. His name was Miles.

The monster clears his throat.

“It is juvenile,” he says. “In the literal sense. I’ve sold you all out, and that puts each and every one of you at the mercy of a child. She’s about six years old, and each of you has collaborated, directly or ex post facto, in torturing her. If you refuse to play in her little tea party, I won’t save you, because that’s not in my interest. You can repent in jest, treating it as a game, but I imagine that something horrible would come out from under your bed and devour you in the night. It’s up to you. Leave through the left, or leave through the right.”

The monster turns off his laptop. “That’s all.”
The Fable of the Lamb

The monster may think Jane’s not being totes fair to Central, but the crew of Hitherby Dragons has resolved to be nice to you this year!

There should be many more, if shorter, Hitherby Dragons entries per week this year. 3-10x, depending on where my pace settles in.

Starting . . .

Now!

**

a) Yeah, I think I have to give up my insistance on not particularly liking Vincent after this one.
— Xavid, on Vincent and the Devil

That can happen!

Young Vincent is actually pretty sympathetic, anyway. I mean, he was a good kid, and totally salvageable. He could have been saved if he’d gotten out of there. He could have been saved if Iphigenia had been able to see how wrong what was happening to her was. I mean, heck, in general if the kids who were suffering at Central weren’t so monstered-over themselves into believing that it was OK, then the various hangers-on like Vincent might have had a chance.

By the time he was an adult all I can really give him is “he could have turned right. He could have taken the right-hand door.”

I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that he was fundamentally bad. I don’t think he was. I think he deserved more chances to turn away. I think it’s unfair that there are people who could be saved if they let go of their stupid ideas who only get one or two chances to do so before they die. It’s unfair because letting go of stupid ideas isn’t easy. It’s one of the hardest things there is! And I think it’s a damnable shame that some people finish their lives as small and evil and rotten. I think that’s even worse than people having to suffer, although I could be wrong there, that could be my mirror neurons overacting like we talked about yesterday. But still!

It seems like—

One time, see, a friend of mine was really upset at the absence of justice in the world. He was afraid of an ending for things that didn’t include reincarnation or a Hell or anything like that, an ending that was just life stopping, because then there would be people who would live out their lives doing awful things and having a good time and they’d die well-fed, comfortable, accomplished, and even happy, and that’s the end.

And I realized that I wouldn’t want to be one of those people.

I mean, seriously: how small a life is that? How shallow? How poor, to live unable to recognize the wrongness of others’ suffering? How weak and pale the flame that burns in a wicked person’s heart! How pointless, how shallow, how lost! The comforts of their body and their self-righteousness are as the comforts of an ant whose hive is well. Even the guilt and shame of not doing more, even the pain of sometimes being wrong, of knowing that you have sometimes been and done wrong—how much better those things are than being a fucking bastard, because if you’re wrong sometimes, if you’re guilty sometimes, if you’re a screwed-up failure for how you’ve handled other people and their inner worlds sometimes, at least you get to live in a world where other people matter, and that’s the best part of this whole existencing!

It has to suck to be evil. It has to be the worst thing ever. It has to be like . . . like those days when life is just a fog, when I’m so tired and messed up and undercaffeinated or undermedicated (speaking of which, that’s been straightened out! as of yesterday morning.)—

like those days when life is just a fog, when I’m so tired and messed up and undercaffeinated or undermedicated or confused or whatever that I go to think about what something means, what I should do, and I can’t because there’s just a yawning void and a white mist inside my head. Being Stalin must have felt all very well and good to Stalin, but how much better to be a Solzeineitzyn!

Although really you want to have all the pieces of Maslowe’s hierarchy, you understand; what’s ideal is having food and shelter and love and purpose and self-esteem and the ability to value others and take responsibility for your actions and embrace the awareness of your own faults and fallibility.

Is all that stuff on his hierarchy? It probably should be.

But Vincent could have turned right.

He could have!

He really could. It is thing that it is possible for a person in this world to do.

b) My obsessive name cross-referencing requires me to say that the dates work out for Derek the Zoo Keeper to be the Derek that played basketball with Max that one time.
— Xavid, on Vincent and the Devil

Hahaha! Awesome. So mote it be, at least on a tentative basis.

c) Vincent mostly strikes me as very aware of his situation but nevertheless unable to figure out what to do about it.
— Xavid, on Vincent and the Devil

The sad truth is that he was dead as soon as he took the door on the left; I’m not actually sure he could have made things come out any differently at Elm Hill. He is, perhaps, an object lesson to the effect that “try to kill your boss” is not the correct answer to “I am collaborating with wicked folk, and do not know how to escape.”

It’s a common mistake! You understand. You see men doing it with rape culture—some of them handle the awfulness of it by deciding it’s not awful, and then there’s the ones who make Vincent’s mistake there, handling it by vociferously explaining how they’ll totally kill or would totally like to anyway kill anyone they see out there doing all that sexual assault. But that’s not really something you do for the victims. Ineffectual rage at the abusers you’ve found yourself unwillingly collaborating with is something you do to help feel good about yourself.

Vincent doesn’t have any particular right to kill Melanie, and “think really hard about killing Melanie and then realize that that’s not in the cards” is the closest he comes to taking positive action in the siege.

He could probably have just walked away. I don’t know if that would have been good. It would have saved his life, probably, and so on some level I must think that’s what he should have done. I would have been OK with that, you know? If he’d walked away, he could have come back in fifteen years as a sort of hero. Or figured out weeks later that he should tell the hero about what was happening at Elm Hill. Or called the cops, not that that would have helped.

He was too compromised to try to throw in with Liril and Micah without a plan. I mean, it would be a nice fantasy at best: at some point in this long period of collaboration, you’ll throw off your disguise and reveal you’re really on the side of right, and have been all along! That wasn’t collaborating in torturing children, that was lulling suspicions! Dun-dun-DUN!

But the world doesn’t work like that.

I’m sorry for people like Vincent that they don’t get more real chances. It can be hard to spot your chance at salvation when it comes. His came.

He took the door on the left.

5 thoughts on “Letters Column in January 2012: “The Right-Hand Door”

  1. “Being Stalin must have felt all very well and good to Stalin, but how much better to be a Solzeineitzyn!”

    Well… Solzheneitzyn was an extremely talented person. It’s sort of easy to reject evil if you got to be a really great writer by doing so.

    There’s a chapter in one of the later Gulag Archepelago books called “The White Kitten”. I can’t even remember whether I’ve commented on it here or not. Maybe so, because there’s something about a white kitten that sounds Hitherby-ish. At any rate, it’s about this guy, a noted athlete, who resolves to escape from the Gulag. He decides that he’s going to do whatever he has to. And he does escape, temporarily; he’s walking along a Russian river and sees a couple of peasants traveling on a sort of houseboat. And they’ve seen him. And he basically realizes that they”re going to turn him in and get him recaptured and sent back to starvation and torture unless he kills them and takes their houseboat, in which case he has a good chance of really escaping.

    And he’s nerving himself up to do it, and looking at their piled-up household belongings, and a white kitten looks out at him from the pile. And he looks at the kitten and just can’t do it. So he’s recaptured, tortured, etc. And he never really accepts this choice. Later on, after the USSR falls, he gets sick and tells his friends that before he dies he’s going to take some of those bureaucrats who made the Gulag system with him but he doesn’t; his cancer progresses too quickly and he just dies.

    There’s something about that story that fascinates me. The person in it acts pretty much as a saint would act, but out of a kind of weakness. He’d really like to be some kind of hero who kills his way through monsters and bystanders, but somehow he can’t bring himself to do it. I mean, you can pitch his unwillingness to kill as moral strength if you’d rather, but he himself never seems to be able to come to terms with it that way.

    Maybe Vincent’s problem isn’t that he wasn’t strong enough to reject Central, but that he wasn’t weak enough. If he’d been a horrible coward and just said “Oh, wow, this job suddenly got really deadly now that a hero killed half my coworkers, I’m going to run away and never come back” — maybe he would have ended up a better person, in some sense. Hidden, and gotten a low-level job in a company that wasn’t a front like Central, and later in life made guilty efforts to support save-the-chidlren charitable organizations. Resistance to evil is often pitched as needing strength, or as something like gives you a corresponding clarity, or something, but maybe … sometimes it doesn’t.

  2. Part of me wants to reject the door thing as a meaningful choice. If, for the majority of people, having the hero there determines whether or not they’ll repent, then either most of the repentings are meaningless, Jacob-style, or the situation seems like some sort of magical brainwashing ritual. (Which I guess would be pretty standard for the Monster…)

    (It would have been cool to see a legit non-Vincent-like innocent/repentant person go left, like we have the example of Jacob going right without repenting. But there’s not room for such a person in this story, and I’m having trouble coming up with a motivation I like, beyond a morality that holds that what the Hero and Monster are doing is a wrong that must be opposed.)

  3. “I think it’s unfair that there are people who could be saved if they let go of their stupid ideas who only get one or two chances to do so before they die. It’s unfair because letting go of stupid ideas isn’t easy. It’s one of the hardest things there is! ”

    I think this is an interesting statement, because of what it says about certain kinds of victims, too. Victims of domestic violence are often clinging to a stupid idea. I can change him. I deserve this. Whatever.

    It makes me wonder what ‘being saved’ means.

    And it makes me think about the differences between victims who have a door they can walk through to avoid being victimized, and, I dunno, people who think they’re victims so they can avoid taking responsibility. It’s all stupid ideas…

  4. rpulchasky, that story of the athlete puts me in mind of It’s Only Wounds; this sounds like the difference between a promise from weakness and a promise from strength. That is, if I were in his situation, I might be able to make a conscious choice to say “I would rather be recaptured and tortured and sent back to the gulag, than kill these people”, and I might be able to hang on to that choice as a way to preserve my “self”, in the darkness afterwards. But if I merely couldn’t bring myself to do what I wanted to do, if I failed to resolve the conflict in myself during the time in which I had a the ability to make a meaningful choice, and time moved on, then I would be haunted by it forever.

    Or at least, that’s my intuition, here in my comfortable life, but gods only know what would happen if I were actually in such a situation. But in other areas of my life, I’ve seen a difference in choices made freely versus choices forced by necessity, of actions made ahead of events versus actions forced because events moved too quickly. (It’s also, more or less, how not to get put into a joint lock.) So maybe it would be true in this sense, too.

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