April Fools’ Day was April 1, of course; on April 7, Tiger Woods plans to return from his four-month hiatus to play in the Masters Golf Tournament. What’s been completely absent from coverage of Tiger Woods’s self-destruction is even the slightest recognition that for all of us the force for good can convert so easily into the force for ill, that our deepest strength is indivisible from our most embarrassing weakness, that what makes us great will inevitably get us in terrible trouble. Everyone’s ambition is underwritten by a tragic flaw. Whoever is a master is also, I promise you, a fool.
We are deeply divided animals: we are drawn to the creation of our own demise. And the more righteous our self-presentation, the more deeply we yearn to transgress, to fall, to fail. Tiger Woods needed to demolish the perfect marble statue he’d made of himself: that image of perfect rectitude. We are shocked — shocked — that his furious will to dominate his opponents on the golf course also manifested in an insatiable desire to humiliate innumerable sexual partners, but we all contrive different, wonderfully idiosyncratic, and revealing ways to remain blind to our own blindnesses: Richard Nixon had to undo himself, because — as hard as he worked to get there — he didn’t believe he belonged there. Bill Clinton’s fatal charm was/is his charming fatality: his magnetism is his doom; they’re the same trait. Someone once said to me about Clinton, “By all accounts he could have been, should have been, one of the great presidents of the 20th century, so it’s such a shame that — ” No. No. No. There’s no “if only” in human nature; it’s all one brutal feedback loop. In short, what animates us inevitably ails us. Obama’s lifelong devotion to mediating between two sides renders him a likable but rather diffident leader.
When our difficult heroes self-destruct — all real heroes are, by definition, difficult — watch us retreat and reassure ourselves that it’s safer here close to shore, where we live. We distance ourselves from the disaster, but we gawk in glee (no less assiduously than anyone else have I studied Tiger’s sexts to and from Josyln James). We want the good in our heroes, the gift in them, not the nastiness, or so we pretend. Publicly, we tsk-tsk, chastising their transgressions. Secretly, we thrill to their violations, their (psychic or physical) violence, because through them we vicariously renew our acquaintance with our own shadow side. By detaching, though, before freefall, we preserve our distance from death and stave off any serious knowledge about the exact ratio in ourselves of angel to animal, of master and fool.
In college, when I read Greek tragedies and commentaries upon them, I would think, rather blithely, “Well, that tragic flaw thing is nicely symmetrical: Whatever makes Oedipus heroic is also — ” What did I know then? Nothing. I didn’t feel in my bones as I do now that what powers our drive assures our downfall, that our birth date is our death sentence. You’re fated to kill your dad and marry your mom, so they send you away. You live with your new mom and dad, find out about the curse, run off and kill your real dad, marry your real mom. It was a setup. You had to test it. Even though you knew it would cost you your eyes, you had to do it. You had to push ahead. You had to prove who you are.