Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Utilitarian and the Devil: A Parable for the Dead

One day, the Utilitarian got out some candles, noxious herbs, bread, sour wine, and some blood, took off his clothes, and summoned the Devil. The Devil appeared in the the palpable dark punctually, just as the last incanted word left the Utilitarian’s lips. He was dressed in a traditional suit, black and dark red. The air around him was musty, smokey, and with that hint of rotten eggs and chocolate just burnt too far to be pleasant. The Devil had the smile of a man who knows he’s won, but patient for the game to play out. He didn’t hide it, and he and the Utilitarian both knew the Utilitarian was outmatched. It made the Devil’s cheeks a little warmer red, and the The Utilitarian even more wan than usual. The Utilitarian, suddenly aware in the presence of the highest of angels that he was totally nude, shivered and crouched. The Devil grinned just a bit too far for his face, and exhaled. His breath was like the warmth of brick fireplace to the cold Utilitarian. The Devil’s breath was a little too close, inviting, but uncomfortable like a winter’s morning when the cold has bit your bones and you think you’ll crawl into the fire so you can at least die warm.

“Yes?” said the Devil, in a growl that rumbled up to a hiss on the note of his curiosity, “What…. would you like… from me?”

The Utilitarian stood dumbstruck for a moment, staring with his lips slightly more apart, seeming to get even paler. He remembered himself, snapped his lips together, and tried to bring his shoulders square with the Devil’s. “I’d… I’d like to sell my soul,” the Utilitarian said, gaining back some of his lost strength as he went.

The Devil reached into a nonexistent coat pocket and pulled out a full clipboard, quill pen resting at the top, and took it in hand. “Excellent!” he declared. “What shall it be? Money, sex? To be the most famous of philosophers, respected and beloved of Mankind? Or perhaps something more prosaic, in keeping with your demeanor. Peace on Earth, perhaps? Please, my dear Utilitarian, don’t keep me waiting!” As the Devil spoke his smile never retreated an inch from his ears. He took up the quill pen in a position of mock preparedness, while the Utilitarian caught his breath again, and cleared his throat.

“I will sell my soul to you in exchange for passage to Heaven for 10,000 unworthy souls.”

The Devil’s smile shrank to a dot of a mouth, and he narrowed his eyes. Now, it is said that an unstained soul (which The Utilitarian had) smells ever so much sweeter to Hell than its sullied cousins. This is not untrue, but 10,000 was a lot of unworthy souls. They were perhaps not so tantalizing, but they were the Devil’s fair and square, and there were 10,000 of them. On the other hand… he slapped his pen down on the clipboard and both vanished in a flash of fire. The Devil stared at an imaginary point across the basement’s width. To the Utilitarian, he seemed to be thinking, but it was terrible to watch the Devil think, and it made him shake again. The Devil looked back at the Utilitarian, meeting him in the eyes. “It may not be mine to give. I shall make inquiries.”

With that, the Devil was gone, along with the summoning circle and its creepy paraphernalia. All that was left was some misplaced wax and the cold, naked Utilitarian.

Months passed without word from the Devil. The Utilitarian lived an ascetic life, balanced with charity and good works, in anticipation of the Devil’s return. He wanted nothing to sully the value of his soul. He remembered the Devil’s smile at him, and he knew the Devil would somehow find a way to pay.

The decades came and went, and the Utilitarian remained a blameless champion of the suffering. He fed the hungry and found great pleasure in it. He reached out to the mad especially, and sheltered them from the world when they couldn’t shelter themselves from the beasts of their minds. He came to enjoy his work, and his enjoyment only made his good work better. As he slowly shrank into a stooped old man, he barely thought about the Devil anymore. He had come to love his life for the joy of the service. He was no longer holding his soul virtuous for the sake of good value, but had become that value itself.

But one morning, as the Utilitarian was getting out of bed, he heard a caller knocking. It was the Devil again, just as he had been, as if he’d just stepped out for a cigarette. “Are you still interested?” asked the Devil.

“My soul for 10,000 unworthy?” asked the Utilitarian. The Devil nodded once. “Then,” continued the Utilitarian, “I am still interested.”

“Well, then. Let’s seal the deal over a game of chess, and drink some tea!” said the Devil, happily producing a kettle and game board from nothing and nowhere. The Devil set out the board and patted his stomach unconsciously. He gestured for the Utilitarian to sit in his own seat while he poured tea in two abruptly existent cups on the table. Content, he seated himself behind black, and the Utilitarian took the first move.

“You’ve done well for yourself,” said the Devil as he made his move, “You’re well on the way to sainthood.”

“Nonsense. The mutterings of committees, talking about my death,” said the old Utilitarian, waving his hand dismissively in the air.

The Devil laughed, and went on, “I have rather better sources than you on these matters.” The Utilitarian looked abashed, and made his next move. They went on for while longer, chatting, playing chess, and drinking tea, until the Devil paused, stealing the Utilitarian’s attention away from the game.

“You know, people get it all wrong,” said the Devil, leaning back from the game, tea in hand. “I don’t want good men to join me so I can torture them for all eternity, or eat them, or whatever people think I do. It’s just that the evil deceased can be so boorish. Black hearted men don’t suddenly get easy to live with just because they’re dead. Whereas you, sir, are simply good company to all comers, even myself. I know from your life that you are not only kind, but enjoy being so. That you laugh in equal parts to your tears, that you think, and are willing to share your thoughts. Why on Earth would I not want such company for my duties in Hell?” He waved his hand gently around the bare room, as if impressed with its lavishness.

The Devil looked down, losing the Utilitarian’s eyes, and continued. “With that I must remind you of the terms of our deal and see if you agree. In exchange for your one, unblemished soul descending to the depths of Hell to be by my side for eternity, 10,000 souls marked for me by the unworthiness of their lives shall instead walk the road to Heaven, to dwell forever?”

“It is obviously better that this should be,” said the Utilitarian, “And whatever waits for me in Hell, the knowledge that 10,000 can rise towards bliss will be an eternal comfort.”

“Yes, that will be true. But my, shall we say, counterpart, wanted the deal repeated to you as his condition, to give you time to consider what you are asking for.”

“The math is simple. 10,000 will always be more than one,” said the Utilitarian.

The Devil put out his hand, and as the Utilitarian shook it he felt the whole of the small house shift, and begin to sink into the ground. The Devil went on unperturbed. “10,000 and one are not as uneven as you think,” he told the Utilitarian magnanimously, clasping his extra hand over the Utilitarian’s. “I’d wager Hell is nearly as improved by your grace today as Heaven has been diminished by it.”

Why I disagree with Wesley Yang’s conclusion

Rodin's Fallen Caryatid, still crushed by her stone.

Wesley Yang wrote about Aaron in New York Magazine with sensitivity, complexity, and pathos. He laid out parts of the story like puzzle pieces. But then, I believe, he built the wrong image. He built an easier image than belonged there.

I’ve talked to very few journalists since Aaron died, compared to how many tried to talk to me. Mostly those who caught me in New York before I left America, those who got to me through friends, those who were lucky enough to find me when I could talk.

One of them was Yang. I told him (as I told all the journalists I spoke to) that this was a very hard and complex story, that I wouldn’t want to be writing it. Then again, I said, I wouldn’t want to be me even more. I spoke to Yang as I packed to leave America, as I was moving and sorting, falling in and out of silences the day after I’d eulogized him in Cooper Union. I was puffy with crying. I was the strange kind of empty and full that only comes with grief. I spoke of our lives together. I told him things that were not to be published. I asked for quote approval, and he promised it to me.

Yang did not do wrong by me. Many of the moments of his piece were lovely, and he danced up to the ambivalence of Aaron’s legacy in a way few writers thus far have. But in the end he shied away from the terrible lessons of Aaron’s death. He shied away from the what the insanity of the last month has pointed to; in the end, I think, he made this story smaller and easier than it is.

“It cannot serve society’s purpose to make a felon and an inmate out of so gifted and well-meaning a person as Aaron Swartz, and thus he was a victim of a grave injustice. But it bears remembering that the greater injustice was done to Aaron Swartz by the man who killed him.”

The greater injustice: it’s a beautiful sentence, but one that belittles the soul of civilized life.

To put this on Aaron is to say he was too weak, too fragile for our society. He should have been stronger, it’s what society requires. But Aaron would have (rightly) pointed out how meager and mean such a society is, how it’s the job of everyone to demand a better society. “A felon and an inmate” is the lesser of injustice that Yang describes. It’s a way of blaming Aaron for not being able to endure an unbearable weight, the cruelty of a violent system disconnected from justice. Living through this investigation was hell. It is the stuff of hell, of destruction, before you even get to the deeper hell of our private slave labor prison system. You have no idea how you’d react if this has never happened to you. Not Yang, not Heymann or Ortiz. Perhaps me, because I’ve been in the range of damage, more than once. But even then I’m not sure.

We are not the mythical Hollywood Spartans Aaron and I laughed at together many years ago after watching 300. We were slowly, reluctantly, falling in love after both of us had rejected dayjob life at Wired. That night we were both amused and just a little bit horrified that this primitive notion of what makes virtue; that the heroes of this story would have killed us both as children. Aaron and I were part of a culture that prides itself on not slaughtering deformed or sickly children, or leaving unwanted babies to die of exposure. Instead we were the people that could go to the moon and builds ADA ramps. We hold people like Stephen Hawking up as paragons, not of their virtues, but ours. We contend that we live better and more wisely for keeping brilliant minds in useful arts and sciences not only alive, but offering a place where they can thrive and enrich us all.

And we are lying.

Yang blames Aaron for not going to high school, for not learning to do pointless things because he was told to by men with power over him. I have sympathy for Aaron here, I didn’t finish high school either. I have what Yang points to as Aaron’s fatal flaw: and inability to accept doing pointless things to get by. My mom used to get so angry at me, and yell “You can’t have your cake and eat it too!” I would say to her in my calm and infuriating way, “What’s the point of having cake if you can’t eat it?”

It is not as Yang seems to imply the snowball effect of a simple lack of discipline. I can endure things, as could Aaron. Both of us were strong in many ways, and could endure violence from our minds and bodies which few people will ever have to experience, for years. We’d both endured the placelessness of rejecting the system, the self doubt, the terrible judgement and disappointment of others. I’d love to say I helped guide him, but he did at least as much for me as I did for him. We laughed about how bad we looked on paper, two high school dropouts with shitty employment histories. But he told me I was amazing, that I could do what I wanted with my life. I told him he was stronger than he knew.

In our culture, this strength is not enough. One must be born without blemish, and be strong and brilliant on top of that. Yang is critical of Aaron’s inability to endure pointless things thrust on him by corrupt power structures. I share this quality with Aaron, so I am left asking myself, why am I alive? I believe it is for two reasons: I was born a woman, and I was born poor. To be either in America teaches you something quickly that Aaron never learned. It teaches you that you are prey. I have the instincts of a prey animal: avoid detection, flee from violent people, hide, wait, use all available resources for my advantage. Aaron and I were both fragile, but he believed that we still lived in a society that valued something other than might and force. I have no such illusions.

Yang had all these puzzle pieces, and tried, understandably to say something about Aaron, but instead he accidentally said about America, something more important than Aaron’s death. He said that we are social Darwinists now. That our values are that if you are weak in body or spirit, that if you are poor, or even just unlucky, you deserve to die. What Yang shows in his account of Aaron is that we are a lesser place and a lesser civilization than we’d hoped for.

Photo from Flickr, by rocor


-Let's say for the sake
	of argument
-that only 90% of everything sucks.
-For every ten blooms of Queen Anne's lace,
-one is the wide circle of snowy fractals that
	floats beside the road like an ethereal crown.
-For every ten New England trees in fall,
-One burns redder than the imagination
	through the all the fibers of its leaves
-For every ten songs, one makes you jump and twitch and smile in your bus seat,
	then look up to see if anyone noticed.
-For every ten kisses, one gets you into terrible trouble.
-So then which line of this poem
-is the good one?