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The Institute of Misanthropy
by Chris Massie
He hated the word, “rehabilitation.” He hated what it implied about the natural state of mankind. It suggested that all depravities were a divergence, that human beings were happy and healthy in some original sense. Philosophically, biologically, sociologically, he considered this proposition untenable.
Nor did he wish for the fallacy to be true. The thought of a world in which the goals of “rehabilitation” were attained universally brought a sneer to his lips; it conjured a vision of utterly vacuous tedium. People holding hands, walking in green fields among the daisies. How lovely, until you observe that no one is smiling; everyone is expressionless, for, in this happy and healthy society, the meadow signifies nothing—not an escape from conflict and drudgery, not a reprieve from worry and fear—but a mundane aspect of daily existence, partaken of equally by the King, the Queen, and all of their people, who are not people so much as cylindrical blobs, without an edge to their bodies or minds.
He smiled to himself as it occurred to him that this was the sort of idea that led his detractors, of whom there were thousands—probably hundreds of thousands, if you counted everyone who had, at some point or other, spoken aloud a bit of slander against him—yes, it was precisely the sort of idea that led all those morons to call him a “misanthrope.” His eyes shining with gleeful contempt for his foes, whose numbers he hoped to eventually grow into the billions—billions of impotent enemies: the thought made him shudder with pleasure—he finally arrived at a wickedly mischievous concept.
The phrase, “Institute of Misanthropy,” came to him, as if the devil had whispered it in his ear. Of course, he rejected the implication; he held that his opponents, not he, were the ones who hated humanity, or who only loved it in its lamest forms, as evinced by their desire to change the rest into something it wasn’t and never could be. Meanwhile, they claimed to love the whole, which he never did, because, unlike his detractors, he wasn’t a hypocrite. Yes, he admitted to hating the pious and solemn; yes, the people he loved were widely regarded as villains and crooks. Yet even the pious and solemn could not deny the humanity of villains and crooks, thus they would have to accept that The Institute of Misanthropy was a philanthropic organization.
Grinning shamelessly now, he paced up and down the deck of his yacht, twirling the right side of the belt of his bathrobe. He would write to his assistant that evening and tell him to get to work on a mission statement. There was no need to shroud the project in euphemism, no need to account for the sensitivities of hypothetical donors. To ensure that the Institute stayed true to his vision, he would fund the whole thing by himself. He started to craft a list of “core principles” to guide his subordinate: the Institute would “support rascals who run afoul of conventional ethics.” It would “offer safe harbor to rebels resisting repression.”
He came to a stop, and tied, tightened, and knotted his belt. Placing one hand on his hip, he wrapped the other around his chin. He narrowed his eyes in contemplation of what “support” and “safe harbor” entailed: money, of course, but how much? And how would he determine which “rascals” and “rebels” deserved it? The standard, he decided, would be his sense of humor; he would fund a rapscallion to the extent that he found his escapades funny.
But though this partial solution set his feet in motion again, it did not impede the arousal of a series of other niggling questions. For instance, if the witty action by which the beneficiary qualified for organizational funding lost him his livelihood, how far would the Institute go to support him? Would it grant him a pension for the rest of his life? Or would the funds be conditional on the continuance of amusing activities? How would the Institute verify that the alleged activities were not merely convincingly crafted satirical fictions? And, even if it could be confirmed that the recipients had really done all the things that they claimed, how could he know if their actions reflected their genuine impulses? He didn’t want the Institute to be a treasury for unscrupulous artists. Or did this distinction not matter?
Such questions were better answered on a case-by-case basis. But a “case-by-case basis” would require extensive manpower and diligent investigation. Maybe, he thought, in a last flash of optimism, he could put recipients rendered indigent by their transgressions to institutional use. He could hire them to probe applications and claims. Then again, such a system would leave him dependent on the fidelity of individuals already proven untrustworthy. So, to avoid being swindled, he would have to place them under the scrutiny of an additional layer of bureaucrats. At the top of this wobbly structure would be a figurehead reminiscent of a Chief of Police, a sickening notion that grew more repugnant when he realized that he would also be called on to pass moral judgment. Even for him, there was a limit beyond which misbehavior—however ingenious in its conception, however precise in its execution—became no longer funny. He could not imagine a less pleasant method of spending his time than by defining where this boundary stood.
Nursing a vague sense of frustration, he looked out over the deck, onto the slopes of the Riviera. Just ashore, a fisherman stood on a rock, casting his line into the gently flickering sea. This reminded him of what Justin had told him that morning, that the trawler had caught an especially magnificent lobster, which the cook would serve him for dinner. But he suddenly felt an enormous appetite coming, a craving that could only be sated by this colossal crustacean.
“Justin!” he called to his valet, who promptly appeared. “Let the cook know that I want the lobster for lunch.”
Once Justin had gone, the billionaire started to ponder what kind of wine would pair best with his main course. This, it occurred to him, was a question the valet should have asked and, the longer he thought of it, the more clearly it seemed that there had been a certain impertinence in the man’s disposition. Apparently, Justin did not approve of his decision to eat the lobster for lunch, or perhaps the request for lunch before noon was the aspect of the command he deemed distasteful. Alas, how unlucky for Justin that he served such a master; how bittersweet it would be if he were replaced by a valet agnostic on issues related to lunch. The thought of asking Justin’s potential replacements their views on when lunch should be eaten sowed the seed of a laugh in the billionaire’s larynx, until something about the scenario recalled his abortive idea.
What a loss for mankind that the Institute of Misanthropy would never exist. The situation fit the classical definition of tragedy: the elements that comprised a sublime possibility had conspired to render its realization impossible. But though at first his heart sank for the profligate supplicants who would languish unserved, a feeling of satisfaction came over him as he realized the irony of their unfortunate fates. For even those miscreants who qualified for Institute funding would soon tire of living under its supervision. Meanwhile, those who obeyed its terms of support would expose themselves as something other than genuine miscreants. A genuine miscreant never abided by any parameters; he always strove to subvert them. Thus, the defining feature of a person deserving of organizational backing would be his determination to squander it.
Delighted by the insurmountable nature of this contradiction, the billionaire threw himself on the white daybed and gazed up at the sky. An object glistened in his peripheral vision: a little gold bell on the table, which he had stopped using, having discerned that his servant preferred to be summoned by name. But now it called to him as a kind of North Star and he rolled in its direction, onto his belly then onto his back, three hundred and sixty degrees—a rather athletic maneuver, it struck him, after he popped to his feet. He bent over and dinged it (then dinged it again for good measure). He straightened, adopting a lordly position with his left wrist inverted and pressed to his waist and his right hand affixed to his hip. He stood with his right leg slightly bent and turned out, so that, when Justin entered, he was greeted by a large fragment of his boss’ pale inner thigh.
“Justin,” the billionaire said in a magisterial tone, “I have reached an important decision.”
He paused, hoping that Justin would think he was about to be punished. But the valet was infuriatingly stoic even in insolence and showed no sign of nervousness now.
“I’ve passed the morning in contemplation of a group of people very dear to my heart,” he explained. “Though at first I intended to help them, it has come to my attention, through rigorous logic and great deductive exertion, that they cannot be helped. But just because they cannot be helped does not mean that they don’t deserve to be toasted. And just because I have no guests does not mean that I should not give them their toast. That there won’t be any witnesses, that my words of praise won’t even be spoken aloud will not make them any less meaningful. So, though you may think it unorthodox, I hereby instruct you to bring out a bottle of the rarest, most irreplaceable vintage of Dom Perignon so that I can pay tribute to the inimitable, the indispensable, the maligned and malicious scum of the earth.”
Two minutes later, Justin returned with a 1959 bottle that the billionaire had purchased at auction. There, a fierce competition had pushed him to pay a sum he preferred to forget. Even as he repeatedly lifted his paddle, unable to bear the prospect of letting his obstinate challenger win, he knew that the numbers being barked out were obscenities. Now, seeing the rip-off sticking its neck out of the bucket of ice, all he could think of was how stupid it was that people used price as a proxy for quality when the best bottles were sold under conditions designed to trigger inflation.
The memory served as yet another reminder of the great injustice of fabulous wealth. First, you realize that only the best is worth having and then that nothing worth having is worth what it costs. A day rarely passed when he wasn’t the target of some cleverly euphemized scam, to the point that he now found himself dreaming up scams for himself to get caught in!
The Institute of Misanthropy was just such a scam, a trap he was lucky to have escaped via the power of his own reason. If anything was to be celebrated, it was that he had not dedicated a penny to helping a class of people whom he acknowledged were “scum.” And yet, to consume this irreplaceable bottle, even to mark the evasion of an especially potent self-fired bullet, would be to exalt the very trap he was relieved to have dodged.
Better to smash the damn bottle in protest, he thought. Better to shove it into a cannon and launch it into the sea.
“Shall I pop it?” asked Justin.
“No.” The billionaire scowled, wagging his finger, then pointed it at the door. “Put the champagne in the fridge.”
“But your lobster is ready.”
“Put it back in the fridge.”
“But what will you drink with your meal?”
“A glass of water will do.”
“Sparkling?” Justin insinuated.
“Frankly, I’d rather have flat.”
And so, the billionaire sat there, picking reluctantly at his spectacular shellfish, ruing the whimsy that had wasted his morning, wondering how he could salvage what had once been a promising day.
Chris Massie makes his living as a fact-checker for Esquire. Since his working hours are consumed by the rigorous appraisal of facts, he prefers to think about fiction in his spare time. This is his first published story.