Sunday, February 14, 2010

Fleurs du mal

The police investigation into the Col. Russell Williams affair continues. Meanwhile the media are conducting one of their own. And we wonder, and speculate.

In our hubris we dare to imagine that we can make sense of the universe and our place in it, and know who and what we are. And then someone like Col. Williams--innocent, of course, until proven guilty--comes along to shatter our illusions, by making a nonsense of our attempts to understand.

The media, and many of us who are spectators, are presently engaged in a kind of frantic biography. It is a futile and self-destructing exercise. Biography is a form of fiction. The facts that one finds in a biography may be empirically verifiable, but the narrative itself is a lie.

There are, as we know, conflicting biographies of the same person. What facts are included in a biography--and how many myriads more are excluded? Can we ever have access to enough of them? Which are salient? In a science biography, do a botanist's lousy table manners have significance?

This, of course, is the problem of history. History doesn't reveal a single, unitary "past": it is a form of storytelling. So why do we want to tell a story about Col. Williams? And what shape does it take?

Can that story--or stories--include only one man, entire of himself? I think most of us recognize that such a notion is nonsensical. To be intelligible, the narrative(s) must, of necessity, include his upbringing, his friends and associates, his daily life, his surroundings, his reading and ruminations, his observations, his impulses. But the latter can be only poorly translated, if at all, into language and narrative and explanation. And too much will always be missing, in any case, to make the project forensically useful.

The attempts to piece together a biographical account--Col. Williams' early life, his change of name, his parents' marital difficulties, his hobbies, his schooling, his aloofness and his self-evident capacities--reflect our common fear. We want to find the mark of Cain, uncover the sign that identifies the monsters among us, so that we can breathe a little easier as we perform the play called "society," one that requires of us a fundamental, necessary trust.

And so, as I write this, people are scrambling for an explanation, clues, a key. Because it is too terrible to contemplate that, if he is guilty, there might be no explanation at all.

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