Posing questions with a hammer: Pistorius as Hamlet

At the mere mention or sight of ‘what he has done’ Oscar Pistorius cries, retches or wails. This signifies what? We might take his emotional distress as signs of his emotional truthfulness. He submits this evidence of his emotional pain to counter the reasoned argument of the prosecution. ‘I suffer thus because I killed Reeva in error.’ There’s no arguing with emotion. Is there? Well, yes, there is.

The authenticity of emotions can be evaluated and tested. The sounds a person makes are evidence of the quality and nature of the emotions that lie within. The sound of a crystal wine glass when lightly struck testifies to the quality of the glass. A wolf knows much about a rival pack from their barks and howls—their age, gender, health and intentions. Like breathing itself, a scream or a cry connect the inside to the outside. Actual talking is overrated.

This is why the testimony of neighbors that they heard a blood-curdling scream of a woman in fear of her life is so damaging to Pistorius. That kind of scream cannot be simulated or mistaken. Nor can it be forgotten. It tells us that the person knows she is about to die. It was the very last act in Reeva  Steenkamp’s short life and it may be what condemns him.

There is something odd about his emotional outbursts. He emotes like a small boy who knows he’s in big trouble and fears the punishment he’ll receive when his father comes home. He squeals like a stuck pig. It’s full throttle, every time, all the time. He responds thus, not to any actual pain, but at the sight of the stick with which he is about to be stuck. The pig cries out in self-pity; the crying and wailing of Pistorius have the same ring.

Pistorius’ emotional outbursts conceal just as they reveal. While all this emotion is coming out, we cannot see in. His face crumples, his eyes narrow, he bends forward, as if in pain, his hands cover his face. It is next to impossible for us to see his actual inner emotional self. It seems in bad taste to even look at him. When he’s not emoting he conceals his inner thoughts and feelings with a protective stare.

But if we could, what would be expect to see? A young man kills his girl friend in the mistaken belief that she is a dangerous intruder. It was a disaster. It is a tragedy. Both were victims of the law of unintended consequences. Would we not expect a man who has experienced a tragedy to look tragic? Would we not expect to see an inner flicker of tragedy’s terrible wisdom, that there are forces greater than ourselves and that we are not the masters of our future?

It’s not as if this sort of thing has not happened before. Tragedy has been a theme in literature since the time of the ancient Greeks. Pistorius is in good company. Humans kill other humans in error on a regular basis. Sometimes they destroy entire societies with only a ‘oops’.

Need we look any further than Hamlet?

Hamlet kills Polonius, father of Ophelia and Laertes, by mistake. Ophelia is driven mad by Hamlet’s rejection of her (‘Before you tumbled me, you promised me to wed’) and by his murder of her father. She drowns herself on Valentine’s day. Oblivious to how his actions might have contributed to her death, at her funeral Hamlet throws herself into her grave, holds her in his arms and (much like Pistorius) insists ‘I loved Ophelia!’ An enraged Laertes invites Hamlet to some sword play. During a break, Laertes hands Hamlet a poisoned chalice from which he drinks. In error his mother, the Queen, also drinks from it and they both die. In fact, quite a lot of people die.

Horatio sums it up:

And let me speak to (th’) yet unknowing world

Of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,

Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,

Of deaths put on by cunning and (forced) cause,

And, in this upshot, purposes mistook

Fall’n on th’ iinventors’ heads. All this can I

Truly deliver.

Hamlet avoided responsibility by simulating madness. ‘I essentially am not in madness, But mad in craft.’ (III. iv. 187-8.) To this day, he’s regarded as some kind of heroic victim, while Ophelia is remembered as some kind of overly emotional female.

Pistorius attempts to avoid responsibility for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp by simulating distraught innocence. This is ‘deep acting’ in support of the Pistorius brand. This is much more than pretending. He’s fooling himself as he attempts to fool us.

How can we know what is true and what is false about what happened that night when Pistorius is the only witness? I think Nietzsche’s words on how to philosophize with a hammer are helpful:

‘To pose questions with a hammer, and listen to the sound it makes. That which would like to stay silent has to become audible’ (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols).

That’s what chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel is doing. Posing questions of Pistorius as if with a hammer, rendering audible ‘that which would like to stay silent’.



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