We want to have things expected of us

I READ A NOVEL! Something other than The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology. WOO freaking HOO. And it was great! It feels kinda weird to write a blog post that isn’t about the OHPT, but here we are. Happy almost-2021.

So just prior to the intensity of my recent “final ethics paper + final French exam + end-of-year proposals for work + move apartments + finish Christmas THINGS” week of FUN in mid-December (I am still so, so tired), I read The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab. I thoroughly enjoyed being transported to and caught up in 18th century France, and enjoyed several of the characters and scenes. But, as per my usual, the narrative bits weren’t what truly fascinated me. What has kept the novel fresh in my mind over a month later is the striking ethical insight Schwab presents in the novel.

I mean, are you really that surprised? By the way, spoilers ahead.

The novel revolves around the main character, Addie LaRue, accidentally making a deal with the devil and the long-term consequences of this deal. In the deal she gains immortality, at the cost of being remembered by no one. From the moment of the deal on, folks are only aware of her and know of her existence when she is in their line of sight. (Real presence, anyone?!) This includes even those who knew her prior, with a rather heart-breaking scene seeing her parents and realizing they see her as a complete, rather annoying or stressful, stranger.

The consequence is that Addie can’t live a normal life. She can’t get a job, because people forget her (and thus forget they hired her). She can’t rent an apartment or buy a home, because no one remembers her (thus they don’t remember they rented or sold to her). She can’t develop relationships that last longer than a single interaction; heaven forbid she get up from the dinner table to use the restroom in the middle of a date.

Addie is thoroughly isolated, even while having countless social interactions. One understanding of personhood (thus as way to help explain moral responsibility across time) involves history — the person is the entity that connects some/her past, present, and future acts, across time. But as Saul Kripke argued, part of that history is in the memory (cultural, historical, or, in this case, personal) where this history is stored. (The connection to Kripke is made even more fascinating when we learn Addie is physically incapable of saying her name to people — as if saying the name at all would establish a history connected to her personhood that she has given up.) We can only connect people with their past, present, and future “self” if we are able to remember them as that connecting point across time, across our own memory time. Addie is not experienced as a full person. She never has a chance to establish the past history in the memory of those she meets that make her future make any sense or be real to those she meets. Her future, her existence and reality as a person with a remembered or known history, is only real to her. In a deep sense, she is only real to herself.

How painful it must be to be constitutively unmemorable.

In lacking recognized personhood, Addie inhabits a very different ethical life from those around her. Because no one will remember her, even after a moment of her being out of sight, she does not have sustained communal or relational ethical accountability. She can steal in plain sight as long as she makes it around the corner before being apprehended. She can make any hurtful comment she wants and as soon as she’s out of sight, the hurtful act is forgotten. (It’s unclear whether the hurt itself is no longer felt — would the author say that effect lingers even if the harm itself is forgotten??) But if we include moral accountability as part of the ethical life, Addie’s inability to be remembered severely limits her opportunity to participate in ethical relationships.

Back to the story. Three hundred years pass, and finally she meets someone who is able to remember her. Henry. As it turns out, however, he has also made a deal with the devil. In exchange for one year of his life (though this is not made clear at the time of his deal — the deal is with the devil, after all), Henry is deeply loved and found to be “enough” by everyone who meets him. He is immediately and thoroughly accepted by everyone he meets personally and professionally.

Henry’s ethical dilemma is similar to that of Addie’s. He is remembered, but not as he actually is. He never experiences moral accountability because no one ever finds fault in him. He could steal something and the victim would still find him completely loveable and acceptable. The point of moral accountability is that we are able to censure people, to find them at fault and to feel negative reactive attitudes, such as blame or anger, towards them. That option is not available to those in a relationship with Henry. His deal with the devil cut off the possibility of censure. His deal has made only the positive set of reactive attitudes towards Henry possible. He cannot experience true accountability because those around him are not able to feel the emotions that result in appropriate censure of (and communicative blame for) any of his hurtful, harmful deeds.

Addie and Henry find comfort and love in each other in their relative isolations and recognitions, but both live under a cloud of pain and struggle, a sense of longing for a solid, secure, enduring sense of self as reflected in the eyes of all those around them. They want to be known for who they are: Addie wants to be remembered and to be able to speak her name to others; Henry realizes that to be loved under enchantment by everyone means to be really loved by no one.

I keep thinking about how in their deals with the devil, both Addie and Henry gave up moral accountability. Both gave up the option of having anything expected of them. Addie exists under only very limited moral accountability: bounded only by her ability to get out of eyesight. Henry can be as rude as he wants to anyone knowing they are bound to love him anyway, outside their own will. Neither is truly accountable to those around them because no one can access or know their real, historical, wonderful, flawed selves.

To be “with” other people, to be known and seen by them as whole, agential, responsible, worthy people, is to be expected of. We give children and animals a pass for certain behaviors; not to have moral accountability suggests that we are deficient or incomplete as full-capacity humans in some way. To not be held accountable also means no one cares about us enough (or is able to care about us enough) to expect good from us. Not to be “expected of” by anyone means we are not full or whole, nor respected. We are not seen as people with a will, with a historical personhood that extends into the future, with the potential to truly hurt or benefit others. Both Addie and Henry realize it’s an empty and lonely thing to not live as beholden to some moral expectations, not realizing that’s what they gave up in their deals (and Schwab didn’t necessarily make this element explicit — this is a lot of my own overlay).

Addie and Henry could not have good expected of them in their relationships — Addie because no one remembered her (she was a non-entity) and Henry because he was presumed to be good no matter what (he also was a non-entity). No one could truly expect good of either of them. People forget Addie too quickly; people are too enchanted to expect good of Henry (they assumed he already was good without his having to demonstrate it).

I think this is quite a profound insight into the ethical life as we experience (and want to experience) it. We want to be capable of good in our relationships, but we also want good to be expected of us. That’s what it means to feel human, to feel real, to feel seen. We want to feel seen as capable of harm because otherwise what do our choices to do good mean?! If we aren’t seen as capable of harm, then we aren’t truly seen as choosing good for others, as choosing their well-being. We want people to see that we are capable of doing harm, but expect us (trust us, even) to do good in the future as the self connected to our past and present selves.

If no one expects anything of us, situating us firmly in situations where both good and harm are possible, then who are we?

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