Feb 24, 2010

The questions implicit in an obit

Some of the obit writers seemed saddened by the obits they wrote for Alexander Haig. All of them lead with or played high up the lowest moment in the late man's life, the sound bite, the misstep, the mistake that was taken to illustrate something deeper, the famous ill-considered and not-thought-out line, and then seemed sorry that they had to do it. They seemed to want to say that wasn't really what he should be remembered for and wasn't really fair as a final epitaph, and yet, as Haig's most famous moment, as the thing he was known for, what were they going to do?

So they put it there -- "As of now, I am in control here, in the White House" -- and then they tried to pivot, to play it from where it was and use it as point for a fuller explanation. This is a problem not of the politics of obit writers nor of the American social custom of always saying nice things about the dead (even if the dead was a grasper and schemer and did seem to stage a sort of coup), but more of the limits and internal contradictions of the form of obit.

An obit has to do two things: It has to tell us why this person is famous, to put up there why we know this man and what he's meant as a public figure, what his function has been and how his name or face has been a cipher for something, and also it has to explain, to give us more, to tell us what we did not know and did not understand, to serve as a full or a fuller interpretation. There's a tension there though. The two don't always go in the same direction. Normally the obit writers try to construct a narrative that stretches from the one point to the larger point about the meaning of the deceased's life, so the story for Ted Kennedy goes from Chappaquidick to Liberal Lion who worked out his own redemption, or the story for George Wallace goes from standing in front of a school house door to wheel-chair bound apologies and failed, feeble attempts at redemption, but the strain is often evident in the stretching.

Those who are serving life sentences sometimes ask the question, how would you like to be judged based only on the worst thing you've ever done?

Of course, felons aren't the only ones who live with this sort of standard. Public life often works like that, and Ted Haggard and Jimmy Swaggart, Gary Hart and Richard Nixon all know this. And maybe that's how it should be. The predominate religious traditions in America believe in judgment. And redemption. Or at least the possibility of redemption, but also especially the need of it. The belief is that all of us will be judged for the worst thing we've done, and the worst thing we've thought, judged as harshly as if we'd killed children and raped God, blasphemed mothers and betrayed friends, judged like spiders by a God who gets angry at spiders, unless we somehow say the right words, find the right way to offer an apology. But of course even those who ascribe to the most fire-breathing tenets of American religion don't breath fire and often there's a confusion about when judgment comes and when grace comes, and in what measure.

These are the tensions raised by obits, the contradiction that sometimes makes us mad and sometimes saddens us. All of us, reading an obit, have to wrestle with or at least take an attitude towards the question Iggy Pop once asked in an interview: "If people don't forgive you for your problems, what the ... I mean ... what?"

These are the question implicit in an obit:

Do we believe in condemnation?

Do we believe in grace?

It what way and in what measure?

What do you say about Alexander Haig?