I’ve been reading around in Greek literature for a psychology class. I keep bumping into works that seems to still resonate in our language and culture, and not only during the Olympic season: Hubris, Nemesis, and Hamartia. All have currency in our language except hamartia, which means falling short. In his Poetics, Aristotle defined hamartia as a “fatal flaw” brought about by ignorance or a mistake. I don’t think the eight badminton players booted out of the Olympics for cheating can hide behind the idea of hamartia, perhaps because hundreds of millions of people worldwide were watching their comic and slow-motion antics in real time. At this time, their motivations seem closer to mendacity.
It would be tempting to transition now to the story of the New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, who admitted to fabricating quotes for Imagine, a book about Bob Dylan, but Aristotle would probably not approve of a predictable commentary, already abundant on the web. Most writers and editors have fallen short at one time or the other. I did when I was a new and young editor of Bicycling magazine. By virtue of an advertising and promotion deal with Olympic sponsor, the Southland Corporation/7-Eleven stores, Bicycling had a closer relationship with the 1984 Los Angeles Games than would usually be the case. It was a very good event for cycling as Americans won nine medals. This narrative was later tarnished when we learned that some cycling team members had “blood doped” to increase red cell counts. It was Sports Illustrated, the Rolling Stone, and others that made this story public. Bicycling was too cozy with the sponsor, the cycling federation, and the good news Olympics. My editor, who was at the Games, was slow to bring this to my attention and I was slow to act on editorial and management issues. I fell short of the mark.
Like most Americans, I have followed the Penn State scandal with horror and sadness. I learned the other day that the football stadium in Happy Valley seats more than 106,000 fans or around three times the population of State College, where the university is located. It is now easy to see this as a massively grotesque and symbolic overhang, representing the collective Football Hubris that was in plain sight. But that was not my opinion on numerous trips to State College to visit family and friends and work on projects with PSU professors. I bought into the official narrative.
Jack McCallum is one of my favorite Sports Illustrated writers. McCallum wrote a piece about Coach Jerry Sandusky after his curtain call as coach before a game against Michigan State, November 13, 1999. He would then move on to the Second Mile charity. McCallum wrote: “If Sandusky did not have such a human side, there would be temptations around Happy Valley to canonize him. Saint Sandusky, leader of linebackers, molder of men.”
In fairness to McCallum, he was quick to write on November 8, 2011, after the scandal broke: “Jerry Sandusky fooled a lot of people over the years-including me.” He recalled that Sandusky didn’t seem at all joyful about what he was doing. Penn State might have been on the moon. It was a “perfect place for a predator like Sandusky.” The author was not the only one to feel like a “jerk” after the truth came to light.
Everyone associated with this scandal seems to have fallen short in one way or another. McCallum’s narrative is actually far less extravagant than some of the pieces coming out of the Philadelphia newspapers at the time, though it’s clear that the mention of sainthood sticks in the writer’s craw.
As writers we live in a hyperbolic world and are tempted, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, to draw large and startling figures, an observation she offered with her usual pinch of irony. I’ve read with interest and sadness the saga about the Vogue article by Joan Juliet Buck published in March, 2011, about Asma al-Assad, wife of the President of Syria. The Daily Beast and Newsweek have done a masterful job on this story.
This would not have been such a big story if the Arab Spring and government retributions had not begun in early 2011. The public response was withering. Vogue pulled the story, entitled “A Rose in the Desert,” from its web site, fired Buck and offered an apology.
Mrs. Assad probably would not have been the subject of the Vogue “Power Issue” if she wasn’t very attractive, born and educated in England, and according to French Elle in 2009, one of the best-dressed women in the world. Paris Match suggested she was an “element of light in a country full of shadowy zones.” The PR firm behind the Vogue story said that the President “speaks English and his wife is hot.” She was ripe for celebrity treatment.
Author Buck claims that Mrs. Assad duped her, presumably expecting the focus of the interview to be more about Syrian culture, antiquities and museums than politics. Joan Buck does note in her article some of the darkness of the regime, such as a prison on wheels, but the article overall suggests, in Tina Brown’s words, that the author drank “the Vogue Kool-Aid.” In my time at Hachette, then publisher of Elle, I had an occasional whiff of that wine.
James Hillman, one the most interesting psychologists and philosophers of the last fifty years, published an essay, “Aphrodite’s Justice,” shortly before his death in 2011, about the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. In his view, we cannot separate beauty from morality, “since beauty works as a calling to better things, pulling at the heart to love, to the mind to imagine more vividly.”
Aphrodite is not only just another pretty face. Nemesis is part of her constellation and stands ready with a kind of righteous anger, to return order to the cosmos.