The Ethics of Self-Destruction in Clay’s Ark

This is somewhat tangential, and focuses mainly on Clay’s Ark, but it’s something I had been thinking of as we spoke in class about Clay’s Ark, and something that Brendan’s post makes me question even more. It seems that the class largely came to the decision that Blake’s goal to get to a hospital and find a cure to the infection is misguided, arrogant, and unrealistic. Believing this, we can empathize even more so with Eli, and his goal to contain the infection as much as possible. In the climax of the novel, Blake causes the epidemic, infecting a truck driver, and it seems to the reader that Eli was right. I think that Butler constructs this ending to push the reader to begrudgingly side with Eli over Blake, even as we have seen Eli go to inhumane extremes to contain the virus. First of all, the thought comes to Eli’s own mind in one of the earliest sections, “Past #5.” After he wakes up in Meda’s home, already somewhat resigned to the fact that he probably accidentally infected one of his caregivers already, the thought comes to mind that he turn himself in to a hospital or authority. Eli, himself, considers taking the same risk that Blake would later take, the difference being that Eli still thinks about it at a later stage in the transition to a fully bonded-clayark infection. His internal monologue pushes back, “To give himself up would be an act of self-destruction. He would be confined, isolated. He would be prevented from doing the one thing he must do: seeking new hosts (481).” Eli’s clayark infection has bonded with his cells, and physically won’t let him self-destruct in this way, even though, as Brendan pointed out in his blog post, self-destruction seems like the most ethical thing to do in a framework that can only be sustained by nonconsensual infection and violence.
Eli, far along on his transition was not able to self-destruct. The infection wouldn’t let him, and as a reader I was willing to accept that, once infected, the clayark would simply not allow a character to turn themself in to a hospital or self-destruct in any way. As usual, Butler thinks of this and sets a trap. Andrew Zeriam, even after being infected with the clayark, is able to commit suicide in that crucial period of time in which the transition and the bonding of cells is incomplete. Eli himself is shocked at this successful suicide. Seemingly viewing Zeriam’s self-destruction as a victory of sorts, he notes, “Zeriam made it. He almost failed, almost survived (572).” Eli’s notion that self-destruction is impossible is pushed back. Perhaps, an infected human is capable of giving themself up to a hospital in that crucial transitional period.
Understanding this brief window in which self-destruction is capable, Blake’s goal to reach a hospital before the transformation is complete seems possible. Based on what we know as readers, this is not any more misguided or arrogant than Zeriam’s successful attempt to commit suicide. We know that infected clayarks already suppress their urges enough to go into town for supplies, using the precaution of “town gloves (502)” Blake doesn’t achieve is goal, and ends up starting the epidemic, but I still think that the decision he makes to try and find a cure is the most ethical one an infected human can make.
Altogether, I enjoyed the novel, I even admire Eli’s morality despite all of the violence he causes. I am open to a meditation on the benefits the clayark infection gives humans, and I love the way Keira’s character is so easily able to empathize with the infected without the prejudice other characters seem to enter the relationship with. I don’t think that the infection is inherently a bad thing for humanity. My problem comes from non-consensually kidnapping and infecting human beings. In that problem, I agree with Brendan that self-destruction may be the most ethical decision, as difficult as that is. Blake’s attempt to reach a hospital, even at the risk of becoming a quarantined test subject, is more ethical than Eli’s containment strategy.

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