Success, David wrote, is the best revenge and I have been successful.
She’d never been entirely sure what the cliché meant or what its relationship might be to that other cliché: revenge is a dish best eaten cold. But what she did see, as she sat across from him at lunch at an outdoor table in a Canberra restaurant on a chilly winter’s day, was that he either hadn’t had enough success or the cliché was rubbish, because he’d just finished telling her he didn’t believe in forgiveness and there were two people who’d done him wrong fifteen years ago and if he saw any opportunity to return the harm now, today, he would.
Who? she wanted to know, of course she wanted to know.
He hesitated. Then he muttered, lowering his head so his words were lost in his sweater. Like a humiliated schoolboy, she thought. Angry. Shamed. Wanting to hide himself from her gaze.
Who? she asked again.
He spoke two names she knew well, though she’d never met either of them.
Why? she asked
He muttered again, something about office space at work and how he’d been resented for taking up too much with a project and that had caused a feud.
Really? she asked, surprised that a dispute over office space could cause a depth and longevity of animosity such that fifteen years later, one of its participants harboured desires for revenge, and could not conceive of forgiveness, even as a generality.
Later, someone told her there was a whole lot more to it he wouldn’t want her to know, but by then they were no longer speaking and she didn’t much care.
On the way to lunch he’d shown her where he used to work. He’d taken her hand as they walked down the street and shown her, because he wanted her to know about him, to know his history and when later she’d remarked how awed she was by the human capacity for forgiveness he’d scoffed at her, and said he didn’t believe in it.
You don’t know my story, he told her indignantly when she looked at him, surprised by the vehemence with which he repudiated the notion. The aspects of himself he’d displayed for her thus far were gentle, caring, self-deprecating, tender, worshipful of her. This was a new turn.
If I could be inside you, he said, taking her hand across the table, I know it would take away all of the last seven years, which have been terrible.
She said nothing. There was nothing to say. She understood the yearning behind his words, but she recognised as well the false hope he harboured of release from his misery, amelioration of his hurts through losing himself in her body.
She didn’t tell him, but she knew it wasn’t like that. She didn’t tell him because she knew he wasn’t able to hear. She didn’t say, it’s not in me, what you long for. If you find it in yourself we can share it, but I can’t just give it to you.
Forgiveness, she thinks, is when you arrive at that point of neutrality in which there are no more emotions powerful enough to make you desire either love or revenge. Forgiveness is the dying of the energy of dark desire. Forgiveness is when you are at peace with a past situation, finally immune to its clamours and chaos.
In this sense, she thinks, forgiveness and revenge have much in common. Is there any greater revenge than disengagement from emotions previously aroused by another, whether love or hate? Is there any greater revenge than becoming impervious to another?
She knows she can’t tell him this. He’s closed to such notions, trapped in his grievances, his sense of injustice, his anger at wrong having been done to him. She sees discontent in his face, the way his lower lip juts out like that of a sulking child and she knows that now, were she to suggest his life might improve if he consider the possibility of forgiveness as revenge, he’d remove his hand from hers, close down, tell her she was being too philosophical, and that she didn’t understand.
So she says, nothing.
Later, she marvels at David’s capacity to bear grudges against others whilst simultaneously, and with focused intent, engaging in and plotting acts of betrayal that are almost inconceivable in their complexity, and the damage they will bring.
He tells her, when she says she doesn’t wish to begin a sexual relationship with a married man, that there is no sex in his life, and should his wife express a desire to resume that intimacy, though he doubts that will ever be the case, he will tell her he is no longer capable. That way, he says to his proposed lover, she will never have to share him or concern herself about his fidelity to her. He is hers, he says. His body is hers alone. His desire is only for her.
Do you realise, she says, that you are telling me more about your intimate life than you are telling your wife, and do you realise, she says, what that means?
He shrugs. Looks away. Says nothing for quite some time. Then he says, I have to fuck you. We have to fuck. I’ll regret it all my life if we don’t.
It’s a normal human impulse, is revenge. There’s nothing pathological about imaging a punishment commensurate with the crime committed against you. The problem is, in inflicting commensurate punishment you become an equal perpetrator. So what is to be done?
She doesn’t want to emulate him. Cart around bad feelings for years, primed to do harm if the opportunity arises. There’s got to be a better way.
She sees revenge as a creature of the moment, an urge, an emotion, a desire that once acknowledged, once permitted to fully experience its life, subsides. It may return, again and again and with every return demand acknowledgement, but it does not necessarily require action. This is the ideal. But who can always live up to the ideal?
Success, David wrote, is the best revenge. No, she thinks, you are quite wrong. Forgiveness is the best revenge. The end of all desire for another, good and bad. Gently leaving them to their fate, because their fate is no longer joined with yours. This is forgiveness. This is the best revenge. When you no longer need to flaunt even your success at them. This is the punishment commensurate with the crime. Freedom.
5 thoughts on “THIRTEEN: Revenge”
It’s good to see you dealing with your desire for revenge in this way. I reckon through your writing, you do what Freud talked about long ago, you ‘sublimate’ it and in so doing you transform it from the vengeful ugly cruelty that revenge can be – if enacted, certainly, but also in fantasy – into something the rest of us can enjoy too, and bask in the warmth of feeling we know this feeling well. We know what it’s like to feel wounded and we know what it’s like to have to deal with the aftermath in constructive rather than destructive ways. Otherwise, we become as bad as the person who caused our pain in the first place.
As ever, lovely haunting and resonant writing, Jennifer.
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I think it was Nietzsche who wrote about turning mud into gold? That alchemical process of which writing is but one expression.
I use music as well. Playing my piano.
Thank you, Elisabeth, for being a wise and beautiful reader.
Beautiful article Jennifer, one that I would dearly love to forward on to a grandchild who I feel is stuck in her life at the moment. If I send it to her I will risk once again her alienation, but she does so need to be able to forgive the people she feels have hurt her, so that she can move on with her life. Surely that would be the best gift a grandmother could give.
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It is the best gift a grandmother can give, Sandra.
Such gifts aren’t always welcome, but they can be given anyway, with love and hope.
I’m thrilled this piece makes you feel this way. A writer couldn’t ask for anything more. Thank you.
And maybe your granddaughter is ready to read it…
I’ve just forwarded your article on Jennifer so hope she will read it. Thanks for your words of encouragement :-))