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 courage...it 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 character...is 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.
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