Thursday, May 29, 2014

Able-bodied but mentally disabled?

by Nick van der Leek

Is Oscar mentally fit to appear in court?  We know his heroism is based on his physicality, particularly his physical fitness.  His identity is formed around the idea of speed, the “fastest man with no legs.” But if fitness is quintessential to qualifying for an Olympic games, which Oscar has done on several occasions, does mental fitness play any role whatsoever?  And during Oscar’s career, was his mental fitness ever really tested?
Let’s take a look at his backstory, for some answers.
Invitation in 2007 – then cancelled
The first breakthrough, curiously enough, is a non-event.  The IAAF invites Pistorius in 2005 to compete with able-bodied athletes at a IAAF Grand Prix in Helsinki Finland.  Pistorius passes this up due to school commitments, perhaps to maintain his mental fitness in the classroom.  Two years later in Sheffield, in 2007, Pistorius competes with able-bodied runners, comes seventh, but is disqualified for running outside his lane (wet conditions may have played a role).  But looking closer, there’s more to this event than meets the eye.
On March 26, 2007 the IAAF amends its competition rules to ban “any technical device that incorporates spring, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.”  The amendment, the IAAF says, is not aimed specifically at Pistorius.  Even so the IAAF undertakes to monitor Pistorius during track events, even using high-definition cameras. One of the events they monitor is the 400 metre event in Sheffied, where Pistorius places last.
Aiming for China
Digging down, it’s quickly evident the conscious determination – and focus – involved in Pistorius’ attempt to make the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  Let’s take it step by step.
In November 2007 Pistorius travels to Cologne Sports University to participate in a series of scientific tests.  Dr. Peter Brüggemann, the university’s Professor of Biomechanics works under the auspices of Mr. Ellio Locatelli, a man charged with the IAAF’s technical issues. After two days of exhaustive testing, Brüggemann reports to the IAAF that Pistorius’ limbs use 25% less energy than able-bodied athletes.  Brüggemann adds that less vertical energy is applied, further reducing mechanical energy by almost a third.
A month later, in an interview with Die Welt newspaper, Brüggemann says Pistorius’ artificial limbs give him “considerable advantages” and “I did not expect it [the advantage] to be so clear.” From these findings the IAAF rules in mid January 2008 that Pistorius cannot compete against able-bodied athletes in IAAF competitions, including the Summer Olympics.
How does Pistorius respond? He calls the decision of the IAAF “highly subjective” and “premature”.  And, rather than accepting the decision, Pistorius travels to the USA to test “additional variables”.
Consider the scenario here.  A disabled person, argues to be allowed to be seen as an able-bodied athlete, based on sound reasoning.  In other words, science.  Pistorius takes his carefully collected biomechanical measurements  to Switzerland, and in Lausanne appeals the IAAF’s decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. 
The variables Pistorius emphasises include:
-       Brüggemann tests were only at full-speed when Pistorius was running in a straight line
-       Brüggemann did not test the disadvantages, such as at the start and taking both turns in the 400 metre event.
-       Pistorius claims the disadvantages exactly cancel out any advantages, meaning overall he has no “net advantage” over able-bodied athletes.
Curiously, in a TV interview Pistorius gave whilst still at school, he was recorded saying if it wasn’t for his prosthetics he would never be an Olympian.  Other tests have subsequently shown, based on his physiology, had Pistorius had normal legs, he would be no better than an average college athlete.  Pistorius’ aware of the high stakes (Olympics, world records, fame and sponsorship money) seems rather less humble in his approach to participation a few years later.
Even so, Pistorius’ reasoning is so effective and convincing the Swiss Court upholds Pistorius’ appeal, and the IAAF’s decision is revoked with immediate effect. This is a crucial turns point in Pistorius’ life and career.  It’s mid-may 2008. With the summer games less than two months away, Pistorius says, “My focus throughout this appeal has been to ensure that disabled athletes be given the chance to compete and compete fairly with able-bodied athletes. In response to the announcement, I look forward to continuing my quest to qualify for the Olympics.”
And his studies?  He has enrolled for a B.Comm, but he’s making more than enough money in his career. In the following month, a June 2008 interview for his University's website, Pistorius jokes: "I won't graduate soon. With all the training I have had to cut down on my subjects. Hopefully I'll finish by the time I'm 30!"
At this point Pistorius’ focus was on getting to the Olympics. In order to qualify, Pistorius will have to run 45.55 seconds (the Olympic “A” standard time) and 45.95 seconds (the “B” qualifying time).  Qualification is restricted to a maximum of the fastest three athletes who achieve the “A” time per country, or to be selected as the fourth member of a relay squad (ie without needing to qualify).
But Pistorius says: "If I make the team I don't want to be the reserve for the relay, I want to be in the top four. I want to bring something to the race and make the relay stronger." South Africa’s athletics federation make a special exception for Pistorius, delaying the announcement of the team until July 17, to give him a chance.
IAAF vs Pistorius
In July, running in Milan, Pistorius only manages a time of 47.78 seconds.  Nine days later, in Rome, Pistorius finishes sixth, but his time (46.62) is still outside the B qualifying time. Four days later the IAAF say they would prefer it if South Africa’s Olympic Committee not select Pistorius for the 4x 400 metres relay team “for reasons of safety”.
Pistorius calls this the “last desperate attempt” by the IAAF to prevent him from competing. The irony of course is that the IAAF originally invited Pistorius to compete in the first place, but having tested the fairness of their decision, changed their minds.  Pistorius is now insisting not only on his right to compete alongside other athletes (in separate lanes), but running with them in the pack. 
If one remembers the “variables” Pistorius highlighted in his appeal, that running corners and initial acceleration were disadvantageous; one can immediately see the opportunism and lack of consistency in his reasoning.  In this sense, by participating alongside several relay teams, Pistorius stands a good chance of disrupting the performances of other athletes. But how does Pistorius respond?  He threatens legal action if the IAAF do not confirm it had no objections to his participation in the relay.
The IAAF are cowed by this threat, and the publicity surrounding it and immediately release this statement: "The IAAF fully respects the recent CAS decision regarding the eligibility of Oscar Pistorius to compete in IAAF competitions, and certainly has no wish to influence the South African Olympic Committee, who has full authority to select a men's 4x400m relay team for the Beijing Olympics.”
In the end, Pistorius fails to qualify for the 400 metres.  He manages a personal best on July 16, at the Spitzen Leichtathletik meeting, but his 46.25 seconds still falls short of the official qualifying time by 0.7 seconds. South Africa’s Athletics federation subsequently announces their 4 x 400 metres relay team. All four runners on the South African team have better times.
First Amputee?
Interestingly, another South African athlete (a swimmer), Natalie du Toit, becomes the first amputee to qualify for the Summer Olympics.  It is often incorrectly stated that Pistorius was the first amputee, but Du Toit is in fact the first.
Responding to a hypothetical (“would he accept a wild card entry to the Olympics”), Pistorius reasons as follows:  "I do not believe that I would accept. If I have to take part in the Beijing Games I should do it because I qualified." Pistorius is quick to place the setback in perspective.  “Sprinters,” he says, “usually reach their peak between 26 and 29. I will be 25 in London and I'll also have two, three years' preparation.”
Interestingly, by September, Pistorius time in the 400 metres is even slower. 47.49 seconds is a paralympic world record, but still well outside the Olympic qualifying time.


In 2011 Pistorius is beaten for the first time by America’s Jerome Singleton, during an international track event in New Zealand. Pistorius subsequently wins the 400 metres in 47.28 seconds. In summer of 2011 Pistorius posts three times under 46 seconds, all in able-bodied races. In July he runs an incredible 45.07 seconds. Given the gulf between 45.07 seconds and 47.28 seconds, times set five months apart in the same year, an inescapable question arises: is Pistorius adapting his athletic performances?  Slower times against fellow Paralympians, faster efforts against able-bodied athletes? 
In August 2011 Pistorius travels to Daegu, South Korea, where he will have another chance to run in a relay with able-bodied athletes.  Guess what happens?  During the heats Pistorius runs the opening leg in a race that breaks the South African record. Even so, Pistorius is dropped from his own team for running the slowest split (46.20) “for safety reasons” according to ASA’s statement.
He tweets  at the time "Haven't been included in final. Pretty gutted." And later, commenting on the team’s performance in the final, “Was really hard watching, knowing I deserved to be part of it."  In an interview afterwards he said, “I was unbelievably chuffed to have broken the South African record, and hopefully my name will stay on that for a long time to come."
But should it?  Should a relay record be allowed to stand if one or more of the athletes uses prosthetics?  Even if it does, how does that reflect on the abilities of the other athletes on the team who contributed to the record?  This evidently didn’t concern SASCOC,  because in July 2012 they announce Pistorius included in two London Olympic events, the 400 and 4x 400 metre relay races.
Pistorius subsequently becomes the first amputee runner (but not first amputee) to compete at an Olympic Games. Interestingly his time in the 400 metre heats is 45.44, just inside the Olympic qualifying time, but in the semifinal, he finishes last in 46.54 seconds (a time outside the Olympic qualifying time).
Ironically enough, having elected to allow Pistorius to run the relay’s third leg (“safety reasons” notwithstanding) , the second South African runner falls resulting in a last place finish.  Nevertheless, the team appeals and are passed into the final by default.  The Kenyan athlete, Vincent Kiilu who caused Mogwane to fall, is influential in this decision.
This time Pistorius runs last in a time of 45.9 seconds (in other words, slower than the Olympic qualifying time).  The team finishes second last.
At the Paralympics Alan Oliveira of Brazil defeats Pistorius in the 200 metres.  Pistorius immediately complains about the length of Oliveira’s blades. Pistorius later apologises for his outburst, but not for the content of his complaint. The IPC confirms Pistorius had complained six weeks before the event.  Even so, all athletes in the final are tested and measured and the IPC confirms Oliveira’s blades are indeed proportional to his body.
In sum, Pistorius’ narrative shows an insistence to be made the exception to rules, and unfortunately – perhaps due to sympathy, or compassion – Pistorius is allowed time and again to have his way when common sense ought to have dictated otherwise. Incredibly, Pistorius flouted the rules and wishes not only of South Africa’s athletics federation, but also the IAAF, a body that had originally extended him an invitation.  As the narrative demonstrates, Pistorius went so far as to threaten legal action against the IAAF if his wishes weren’t abided by, which signals a very high level of personal entitlement, and possibly greed. This same sense of entitlement is clearly evident in his strident attempts to participate in the relay event.
What’s craziest of all is this guy built a fortune on courting the media and building a brand on sponsorships worth millions.  He was so careful in his tailoring of his image he goes so far as to dictate what his girlfriends should do in public.  What they should wear, how they should introduce him, not to chew gum. 

Given Pistorius’ record at pleading his own case, can one really be expected to believe – on a murder charge – he has suddenly lost the ability to assuage right from wrong?  That his anxiety makes him dysfunctional?  That if he knows how to market and sell his brand to sports corporation his knowledge of reasonable conduct is otherwise defective? Has his own defense forgotten their man who is too disabled for flight is has been claiming the right to run alongside able-bodied athletes his whole adult life.  He was the star of the London Summer Olympic Games, and South Africa’s flag bearer? Craziest of all is the guy who wants, more than anything, to be seen as able bodied, having killed his girlfriend, turns to mental disability as his defence.

A Blast From the Past - thanks for the kind words Vincent Mather (whoever you are)

Guess what happens when you google your own name...and randomly google someone elses?  You come up on a character talking smack about you.  Of course, they don't do it to your face, their contempt is apparently too they sneak around and post things here and there. Very dignified.  Very clever.  The unfortunate thing is this sort of thing once it's up on the net it's like carved in stone.  So if you were a douche then it's like a monument - Vincent - you've erected to your own doucheness.  Bravo.

If you follow the link above you'll see I copied the clever role play repartee Vincent has put together on the blog MushyPeasonToast (which today documents Laurian Clemence's own babies death, Mushy is consistent if nothing else, and certainly consistent when it comes to tastelessness).  But without further ado, Vincent, over to you.  This is you quoting yourself, quoting me.  When, circa 2006?  And today, you're who?  Just Vincent Maher the Chief Product Officer at Mxit, who loves techno, gaming and playing Go. Oh. 

Vincent Maher said... Here's what Nick says to me one night (just before I got up and walked away):
Nick: Isn't it weird that we have to sleep. It's like pressing the reset button.
Vincent: Uhuh...
Nick: And it's all because the earth rotates.
Vincent: Uhuh...
Nick: I mean, if the world stopped turning we wouldn't have to sleep
Vincent: I need to go get another beer [walks off determined never to speak to him again]

 Then... I got cornered in the food line.

 >>>I see based on this very current tweetpic (and great subject matter, very wholesome eating), 'the food line' is still a top priority to you Vince (and your mugshot confirms that too, btw)<<<

Nick: So you're a programmer right?
Vincent: Er, yeah among other things [I wonder what planet this guy has been on since he got here]
Nick: So I figured out how to solve the Internet.
Vincent: Really?
Nick: Yeah, like you how on TV the adverts pop up without you asking them to?
Vincent: Er... yeah, I know what TV is
Nick: Okay well I figured it out. You put this revolving cube on the Internet that rotates with text on it, big enough for people to read
Vincent: Errr.... errr....

>>>here Vincent skips some crucial backstory but nevermind<<<

Nick: So do you want to build this thing?
Vincent: Errr...
 Nick: You don't seem very taken with the idea
Vincent: Look, I am quite busy so I won't have the time

 So here goes, and this is in my personal capacity:
Dear Nick, I have met many people like you who talk more shit that you listen. When you tell people stories that are obviously impossible, when you speak with authority about stuff you clearly don't understand, people don't want to hang around with you. Fuck off.

 Vincent. 10:13 am

Ok. So that's the end of Vincent's comment.  I have met many people like you who talk more shit that you listen. Dude, I don't even understand what you're saying. I don't quite get what your 'fuck you' is about either?  'Fuck you'....for...because you were irritated and found some discussion below you?  But look, listen...good luck with the programming techno job thing at Mxit.  And keep supersizing.


Vincent Maher

Jun 2 (4 days ago)
to meSteffiJess
Hi Nick

Good to hear from you again.  As requested, I apologise.  No hard feelings?

Kind regards,

Vincent Maher | Chief Product Officer - Mxit 
T: +27 21 888 7000   M: +27 82 998 5412   Mxit: vincentmaher
Get Mxit on your phone: or SMS ‘mxit’ to 44541
"Accidents don't happen to people who take accidents as a personal insult" - Don Corleone

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sometimes it's better to think *in* the box. Just make sure you're a cat that can fit into yours! [VIDEO]

South Africa is going viral [VIDEO]

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Look Up > Live Life! [VIDEO]

Death In A Toilet - by Nick van der Leek

If you were after a pleasant read, best to skip this piece of writing altogether.  The intention is to take a long hard look at the cold, hard truth.  To examine death, and the cosmic ash of nothing it represents. Still here?  You’ve been warned.

One day you will die.  Everybody you see around you will soon be dead too.  Some sooner than others.  It’s 2014 now. By 2100 virtually everyone you know, and you, won’t be up here living and breathing, you’ll be down there rotting and feeding worms. 

It seems very unfair doesn’t it? Or is it completely fair.  Is it just life?  What after all is unfair, we get life, we lose it. What’s unfair? Well, just this:

"To have emerged from nothing; to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feeling; an excruciating yearning for life and self-expression. And with all this; yet to die. Human beings find themselves in quite the predicament. With our minds we have the capacity to ponder the infinite, seemingly capable of anything, yet we're housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping, decaying body. We are godly, yet creaturely." 
That quote comes from the award-winning 2006 documentary Flight From Death narrated by Gabriel Byrne. 

Since we need to make provisions for human nature, its sensitivities and proclivities, let’s turn the conversation now to the dead.  The dead who have no rights.  Let’s be voyeurs, and so, face away from looking at (or dealing with) ourselves.

Poor Reeva Steenkamp.  What were those final moments like?  Can we dare imagine?  At one point in the Oscar Trial we came close.  When an old grey man with a funny name (“Vollie”) played model for us behind that door.  I don’t understand why the prosecution didn’t get someone who looked like Reeva, to model exactly how and where she would have been wounded through that door, and how she would have fallen.  Instead, we have to imagine.

We have to imagine we are her at 3am in Johannesberg, with chicken stir fry in our stomach, on a warm evening in February, staring at a door, shouting at the wooden surface, at someone without proper legs or feet on the other side.  We know now that Reeva would not live to fight another day.  But did she?  A witness suggests that from the escalating pitch of her screams, Reeva knew what was coming.  What do you do when you know you are about to die?  Beyond the fear, what is there to say or do?

Unfortunately, even after 4 bullets ripped through that door, it wasn’t over for her.  The pain would have come as a shock.  But as she lay, her broken body, her strong beautiful body draped over a toilet, her precious blood flowing out of her head (where the worst bullet had penetrated her) she may have pondered the tragedy of living.  For such a beauty to find herself in such an ugly place. Why? She may have felt her killer pick her up, and stabs of pain as he struggled, and moved her.  Unable to blink, or speak or breathe, the exquisite sharpness of the painful fire was slowly subsiding.  But no pain would mean death.  Did she wish for it? Did she wish for the dream that was slipping so quickly away from her, to linger, for just one moment more?  Did she wish for a chance to finish her life’s work? A chance to speak to Gina.  To say goodbye to June, and dad.  No-.

And a year later her mother would drive to court, and on the way, the bitter realisation would hit her.  Reeva isn’t here.  The streets are going on without her. They will always go on without her.  They seem to have forgotten her already.  My daughter made this place her home, but now that I’m here, searching for her, she’s gone.  And I couldn’t protect her. 

Oscar may be aware of the profound simplicity of death.  That the dead can’t be brought back. They are mute forever.  They can’t testify on their own behalf.  They can’t contradict what is said, but neither can what was done that caused a death be contradicted.  Death is final.  We can speak on their behalf, we can argue for or against their rights, but they remain silent.  They remain missing.  They consent in their silence to our dignified responses and our ignorance.  And what we finally see when someone very close to us dies is really the spirit of ourselves trying to live in a vacuum.  It is a doomed reflection. It is a lost voice, crying, unconsolable, in the wilderness.  Time does heal wounds, but not in the way we think.  Time erases our memories.  In the end, all we remember is what we say we remember.  Do we really remember faces, the sound of someone’s voice, a moment? 

So what is the point of living if it ends like this?  Indeed, this is a question asked by every dying person, and the odd existentialist.  Memento mori is Latin.  It means 'remember that you will die'. But what should we remember, and why? What is the point of the mountains of dead creatures for each human life?  How many chickens, and lambs, and pigs, and bulls and fish have we torn to pieces with our teeth? How many voiceless lives have we gulped down, laughing, tasting more the wine or the cola than the oysters, or the snails, the prawns or the mussels.  How high is that mountain of dead prey that we ate without thinking? That we took pleasure in eating, rather than because we were hungry.  That we doused in sauces and spices in order to overlook the underlying inanimate, authentic flesh.  Is that what life is for, in all its forms, mouths connected with pipes to anuses, tearing at living things and pumping their digested remains out in stinking piles?
Is the world anything better than a toilet, with a locked door?  Because make no mistake, once you’re in it, there’s no way out.  Whether you’re safely in God’s Book of Life or not, your body will fail and rot and disappear.  And then what?  Who will we be then?  Will it even matter that we lived?

What we fear most of course is what happened to Reeva, and the Steenkamps of Griekwastad.  A nameless, faceless death.  Only the killers know the real reasons, and the real sights and sounds of what they did, how they did what they did, and why they did what they did.  But it makes one wonder.  If murderers must live a lie (despite their obvious crimes) in the hopes that society may forgive them, what about the rest of us?  Given how we live our lives, and the mountains of death we leave in our wake, do we not also live a lie?  The lie that we live is the shared pretence that everything is normal, and everything is the way it should be.  (Except, everyone is going to die). Is death the way it should be?  If we say that, are we being honest?
All of us are guilty.  Guilty of what?  Of being alive.  We’re guilty by association.  We’re guilty of all we do (and don’t do) with our lives.  We’re guilty of months, years, wasted on meaningless distraction.  We’re guilty of mindless materialism, and social bankruptcy.  We’re guilty of not listening, and not caring.  We’re guilty of laziness.  We’re guilty of wasting vast swaths of time, and wasting the time and lives of other people. We’re guilty because we cling to the mistakes of yesterday more than we do to the hopes and dreams of tomorrow.  And all the while, the present just slips from our grasp.  Like a candle flame brushing a fingertip, so quick we hardly feel it.

So what should we do?  Bemoan death?  Celebrate death as the ultimate measurement of a well-lived life?  Alan Harrington suggests there is a window in that toilet.  There is a way out that does not involve bullets and a locked door, or blood dripping onto the toilet tiles, or a life needlessly flushed away.  What is it?  What if we could engineer salvation?  What if we could hold off death?

“The beautiful device of tragedy ending in helplessness,” says Harrington, “has become outmoded in our absurd time, [it is] no longer desirable and not to be glamorized. The art that embellishes death with visual beauty and celebrates it in music belongs to other centuries. Anything that celebrates or bemoans our helplessness has gone as far as it can. We are done teaching accommodation to death and granting it static finality as the 'human condition.”
Really?  Because if we take Harrington seriously we have to turn our backs on Christianity and the crucifixion.  Why?  Because both glamorise and celebrate death.  Surely, death is natural, and part of God’s plan for us.  Surely, if death is natural and life after death part of a divine plan, cheating death is the real abomination.

Except cheating death is what religions and miracles specialise in.  Lazarous did, and he was a hero.  Jesus did, and became God, and saviour to billions.  You can’t get more heroic than that.  And so isn’t this the final question we face.  To be truly heroic, can we transcend our own mortality.? In this life, on this planet, in this Solar System?  Surely the question is, should we or shouldn’t we?  Or is death in a toilet the least – and most – we should expect from our lives?
Note: Nick van der Leek is a freelance photojournalist.  

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Oscar Pistorius and Our Denial

Reading Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer prizewinning book* I found my thoughts turning again and again to Oscar Pistorius. Becker’s book is a great book to take on a quest, a quest to find the answers and solutions to the existential “why?” of life and death. Why did Reeva die? Who is the real Oscar? Is he a real hero?

Becker, quoting William James, writes about mankind’s common instinct for reality, and calls the world “a theatre for heroism”. That’s exactly what Oscar was doing, he had made the world literally his theatre, and he was playing the hero. But was he a hero, and if he was, when did that change? Did it change when he fired those four shots? Or did it change before that? Or was Oscar never a real hero to begin with? In the Pretoria Court this Monday, the stage is set for a different kind of theatre. Tragedy. The Destruction of Beauty, and Truth. The Fall of the Hero. And perhaps most important, Denial. Denial of death, denial of who we are, denial of truth. In this South Africans are supremely culpable, for we have much to deny, and much to answer for.

Gareth Cliff recently chided people “(especially pious people)” because they “keep telling me not to judge.” Writing on his personal website, Cliff observed that “Judging is what got us to this point in our evolution. You judge the distance between the sabre-tooth tiger and the tree, and you make a dash for it. You judge that the ledge is too high to jump off of, and you survive. You judge another person’s trustworthiness and you either do business with them or you don’t. When people tell you not to judge, they usually mean you shouldn’t criticise them or their decisions – or a situation where they have the opposite opinion to yours.”

What does Becker say about this? “The great characteristic of our time is that we know everything important about human nature that there is to know. Yet never has there been an age in which so little knowledge is securely possessed, so little part of the common understanding.” Becker goes on to describe how specialisation makes us experts at one thing, and idiots at everything else. How many people today can fix their cars, change a light bulb, or repair a piece of broken furniture? How many people are experts in their office cubicles, but their general knowledge is entirely absent. Becker says “imbecility” is the result of both specialisation and “mountains of fact”. With all the information at our disposal, what do we do with this wealth? Can we even recognise the truth? Or common sense? Or do we need armies of experts and consultants to tell us what we ought to know intuitively?

 “Is a man,” Becker asks, “an animal who seeks...heroic transcendence of his fate?” We see that transcendence in Oscar, would wanted to rise above his leglessness. But who is the Oscar we see then in court? Who is that mewling boy-man? Becker writes that “mental illness is a way of talking about people who have lost reflects the failure of heroism.” Doesn’t it!

 Becker also provides another surprising insight into Oscar’s mindset when he says “fear of life leads to an excessive fear of death.” Is that what Oscar suffered from? He tries to persuade us, after all, that this was the reason he shot Reeva. He suffered from an excessive fear of death. He felt vulnerable. He was anxious about crime and intruders.

But in the testimonies we heard in court, Oscar was certainly living it up. He was one side of the world, then another. He was in fast boats, fast cars, often with people. He was eating in restaurants, at weddings and awards. In fact, with Oscar, the opposite was probably true, his fearlessness to live probably made him blasé about the possibility – and the reality – of death.

 Killing Reeva may have seemed a simple idea to him at the time. But death is quite different to what he may have thought. The cerebral idea of death on the one hand, and the torn tissue, reek of blood, and most of all the indifference and sheer banality of a corpse on the other, are utterly at odds. And somewhere in this is a lesson. Many of those obsessively watching the Oscar Trial will say they are realists. And that through reality we can make a better world. But what do those same people do but simply watch, observe, interpret and comment on an unfolding spectacle. They are merely an audience taking in a theatre. Becker reckons “the person who prides himself on being a ‘hard-headed realist’ and refrains from hopeful action is really abdicating the human task.”

 If one looks at a crime, and testimony, and Rieff talking about “character as the restrictive shaping of possibility” the thought does surface that character is the very thing under scrutiny here, isn’t it? If we consider the way in which Oscar has ‘shaped the possibilities’ in this trial, the most paramount of them that he screams like a woman, we do have to examine (or ‘judge’ as Gareth Cliff might say) Oscar’s character. What sort of person shoots four bullets into a closed door at the slightest provocation (based on his version, a window sliding open)? What sort of person shifts versions of the truth to suit themselves? What is narcissism, and if one wakes up and finds themselves to be a narcissist, how can you ‘get over yourself’, so to speak? What process is there to be better listeners, better sons and lovers, more understanding, more connected to other absent fathers and each other?

 When Becker talks about the enemy of mankind he means “basic repression, the denial of the throbbing physical life and spectre of death.” It makes one wonder, in Oscar’s repression of events (he disassociates when it comes to Reeva, he obfuscates) do we recognise that basic repression, that basic and base deceit in ourselves? Do we see our own cowardice to be truthful? Despite our efforts to be heroes, to transcend our fates, we can’t be honest about who we actually are... When Becker describes “the ideal human character” he says this can only be achieved “from a perspective of absolute transcendence.” For a moment Oscar represented both. The ideal human character and absolute transcendence. But were they both really real? Was he ever an ideal human character? Was his transcendence ever absolute?

If we fail to recognise fraud in others, is it because we can’t face it in ourselves? One must realise that in Oscar’s case, his own body is his betrayal. His parents have abandoned him (in terms of death, absence and neglect). Schizophrenia is inevitable when one walks the world with such vulnerability, such a combination of a doting then a dead parent, only to emerge and portray oneself as a conquering hero. Becker writes that such a person “lives reflexively towards [others and] comes to be controlled by them...” In fact the risk one might disappear is so great, “he has to suck in an entire human being to keep from disappearing...” Is this what Oscar did with Reeva? And found it wasn’t working?

Here Becker cites Freud, talking of “narcissistic neurosis” and says “the ballooning of the self in fantasy [or perhaps celebrity], the complete megalomanic self-inflation as a last defense, [is] an attempt at utter symbolic power in the absence of lived [or real] physical power.” The scale of this theatre reminds me of something Churchill said, although its meaning has changed to something rather more ominous with time. You’ve heard it before: Never was so much owed by so many to so few. What does this amorphism say about our enslavement to celebrity? What does it say about the cult of celebrity, and our values? 

Despite our over-indebtedness, despite our quotidian debts, we still worship heroes who already have it all. We want our presidents and priests, our heroes and icons to be above us. But what about Mandela, who came from the rural soils, and the pedestrian brevity and humility of prison? Why must our heroes be better and brighter and taller than us? Why can’t they be us? And when our heroes turn out to be counterfeit, why can we not even bear to watch? An ex-girlfriend of mine’s father was brutally murdered when she was a young woman. Today, about twenty years later, she is a wonderful woman, and mother, and a very giving person. One might suspect, since her father was a white man in a rural area, and her murderers were three black men, she might be a racist, but she isn’t. But she won’t watch the Oscar trial.

 Another woman’s mother was gang-raped and murdered, and she is a functional, strong and happy person today. She’s not interested in the Oscar Trial either. To her the orgy of attention on this case reminds her of the gross neglect the justice system gave her family. Quite frankly, when I think about it, I am reminded of my own experiences in South Africa’s police stations and court rooms and they were all pretty horrible. This was police corruption, intimidation and justice denied in full focus. Do I want to think about it? No, I do not. Yet some of us are voyeurs in this theatre. Obsessively so.

 Becker is correct when he says “we don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives.” Becker goes on to discuss the trauma of emergence. It’s a trauma we all endure, and some spend a lifetime wrestling with. As children we all go through it. It is a fear of standing alone, as Becker says, “helpless and afraid”. Then Becker notes that a child’s character is essentially based on using the power of others, the support of things and the ideas of his culture, to banish from his awareness the actual fact of his natural impotence...not just to avoid death...but impotence to stand alone.” We get an uneasy impression from this. If this is a child, what is a man? Man, says Becker, is a lie. All of us are.

“[Man] lives by lying to himself about himself and about his world...and a vital lie.” Freud says it differently: “[The] great cause of much psychological illness is the fear of knowledge of oneself – of one’s emotions, impulses, memories...” Think of Oscar unable to remember, vomiting, wailing... On the other hand, what we admire most is the courage to face death. Becker reminds us that “everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible.” Becker believes if everyone admitted honestly their urge – or desire – to be, or to remain a hero, “it would be a devastating release of truth.”

Imagine Gerrie Nel or Barry Roux asking Oscar, “Why is it important that you be found not guilty?” Imagine if Oscar answered that honestly. His answer would touch on his image in the world as a hero, and his ability to make money from the commercialisation of that heroic image. Man’s tragic destiny, says Becker, is we must justify ourselves, and we do so “desperately”. We do so in order to justify ourselves as objects of “primary value”. We must show that we count, and also that we count more than anyone else. This urge to heroism is natural, and in Becker’s view, it’s what society is made of. It’s the fabric of who we are and the society we collectively stitch together.

Becker describes the whole thing as a “symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behaviour.” Despite writing his brave and important book in 1974, here Becker seems to be describing Facebook (more than 30 years before it came on the scene).

In Oscar we see ourselves. The hero and the fraud, the conquering champion and the blathering child. We see the peacock and the victim, pride juxtaposed with pathetic wretchedness. Above all we see the meaning – and the meaninglessness – of the entire human drama. It is a theatre we can ignore, but it’s one we’re fated to live in, whether we choose to or not. The horror of this story is that we watched a man fashion something out of nothing for the Life Force. This is the most we can do with our lives. In Oscar we see the terrifying possibility where that object – fashioned out of nothing – is an insignificant lie. It is terrifying precisely because it reflects that lie at us, and asks us who we are, and what object we are fashioning ourselves into, and what will it mean when it’s dropped into the confusion. Do our lives ultimately mean anything? Are our lives anything more than a lie?

*The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker.

Read More:
Recidivist Acts: Oscar Pistorius and the crime that shocked the world
Reeva Steenkamp - in her own words
Speculations on what REALLY happened
An Easter Statement Analysis on Oscar Pistorius - Additional Inconsistencies