Oscar Pistorius: No heroism within a tragedy, no catharsis... Nothing.
- Margie Orford
- Life, etc
- 15 Sep 2014 (South Africa)
Oscar Pistorius himself described his shooting of Reeva Steenkamp as a tragedy. But it was not a tragedy in the dramatic sense; it has not unfolded to the expected conclusion, and we are left without satisfying denouement or resolution.
Lethal domestic violence is too commonplace to be of national, let alone international interest, but celebrity elevated Oscar Pistorius above every other man who killed his girlfriend on that Valentine’s Day, and every other day before and after. However, the public and media obsession with Oscar Pistorius has meant that we have had no choice but to make meaning out of this fallen Olympian.
Pistorius claimed that the shooting of his beautiful girlfriend was “a tragic mistake”. If Reeva Steenkamp’s killing was a tragedy, how does Pistorius measure up to a tragic hero, those great flawed figures of ancient Greek literature and Shakespeare, who have shaped our imagination of the heroic, of hubris, of remorse and ultimately of a notion of justice that is larger than the measured assessment of fact and conjecture that defines the narrow justice of a court of law?
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, defined tragedy as “an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude…with the incident arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions”. Pity and fear there was in abundance, but little catharsis – the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.
The issues raised by this trial – the mass killing of women in South Africa by their intimate partners, the unresolved and paranoid fear of crime, the hubris of men acting without thinking – have been elided by the glitz and narcissism of celebrity culture and a world media feeding a seemingly endless hunger for the spectacle of a fallen icon. The fact that yet another woman was gunned down – in a bathroom, the most intimate and private of domestic spaces – has been buried by this tawdry case.
The great Greek tragic figures – Medea, Oedipus – ask us to imagine the terrible intimacies of anguish. To consider that when something truly wounds the communal imagination, only tragedy can distance it sufficiently to make it recognisable. A court must find a defendant guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. Literature has a different measure of a man and his actions, so let’s consider the trial as a long and protracted play – not a stretch of the imagination given the performances of Roux, Nel, Pistorius and Judge Mapisa in its closing act, and measure Pistorius – the fallen Olympian – against his own claim that the killing was tragic.
There was nothing heroic in his performance and, consequently, there has been no catharsis. The shooting or Reeva Steenkamp, whether it resulted from fear or from loathing, was a cowardly, hysterical act. Nothing in the spectacle of the trial could rescue that lethal moment from the shallows of banality. During the trial Pistorius failed miserably to salvage either innocence or dignity or manhood as he gave different accounts of why he fired those four shots through the locked bathroom door. His failure to take responsibility for the bullets he fired at such close range, his failure to take responsibility for Steenkamp’s death – even if it was an accident – meant that he lost the opportunity for heroism in the tragic sense. The great heroes of literature – Othello, Macbeth, Oedipus, Medea – become heroic in their final moments of insight into their own actions, into the hubris or rage or ambition or jealousy that drove them to act – and kill – in the way they did.
Another view of tragedy is that it is an action of consciousness that brings into the open the possibilities that people ordinarily will not let themselves admit. Socrates claimed that tragedy awakens the tyrannical part of the soul, what Freud called the Id, something best left to Itself – in its own dark place. The tyrant performs in waking life what others only do in their dreams, then tragedy does too much – by bringing tyrannical deeds before the waiting imagination. The killing of another person is the ultimate tyranny of one person over another. Oscar Pistorius’ actions – his deliberate fetching of a loaded gun and his four shots fired at point blank range into Reeva Steenkamp’s almost naked body, meant that this Id – of fear or of rage – came to be played out not on the analyst’s couch, but in front of all of us as a kind of macabre and deadly bedroom farce.
The state’s case of pre-meditated murder presented Pistorius as a latter-day Othello. A man driven by jealousy – a wounded narcissism – to kill his beloved Desdemona. Pistorius’ defence – that he did not know who he was killing – gives us the story of Oedipus who killed his own father without knowing who he was. That not knowing did not save Oedipus from the full culpability of that ‘tragic mistake’. A claim to ‘not know’ did not – in the moral sense - make Oscar Pistorius any less culpable. He refused to take responsibility. This was evident in his peculiar use of language. But even if he said that the “gun discharged itself”, it was Pistorius who fired the four bullets that killed Steenkamp. This was not something he could come close to admitting, despite Gerrie Nel’s eviscerating cross-examination. Instead his appearance in the dock was the antithesis of heroism – he cried, he prevaricated, he threw up into a green plastic bucket. That tipping moment – the moment that the watching world had waited for – that confessional moment of truth telling was lost. Pistorius was an unreliable, weaselly witness.
There was no mea culpa, no language, no consciousness, no manning-up, to use a less elevated phrase – which could have provided that cathartic moment of insight and responsibility and closure. The judge, in her detailed assessment of the trial, said that only Pistorius knew his state of mind that night. So, in the final reckoning, there has been no explanation as to why this particular man got up in the middle of the night and fired at a person behind a locked door.
In the final reckoning of this trial, it is clear that we will never know why this happened. That subverts the potential for catharsis. If that final moment of understanding had come, we would have had tragedy and Pistorius might have been able to be heroic, culpable, punished, but heroic. That fine tragic moment of insight and confession – the moments afforded us by Oedipus and Othello – allay our very real fears of violent intrusion. They also enable us to feel – in the moment of reckoning – pity for the tragic hero, those fallen Olympians who fascinate us because they are bigger than we are, because their ambitions are greater.
With Pistorius there has been none of that, and so we are left with the fears that haunt all of us – fears of the intimate anguish of the unpredictable and unknowable intrusion of violence. DM
This story first appeared in Sunday Times.
Margie Orford is a novelist and President of PEN South Africa. Her latest book is Water Music, published by Jonathan Ball.
Photo: South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius reacts to the verdict in his murder trial at the High Court in Pretoria, South Africa, 12 September 2014. Judge Thokozile Masipa found South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius not guilty of the murder of Reeva Steenkamp in February 2013 but guilty of calpable homicide. EPA/ALON SKUY / POOL