Eliot Spitzer. Margaret Seltzer. Misha Defonseca. The 2008 University of Memphis men's basketball team. What's been absent from the coverage of these recent examples of self-destruction is even the slightest recognition that for all of us the force for good can convert so frighteningly easily into the force for ill, that our deepest strength is indivisible from our most embarrassing weakness, that what makes us great will inexorably get us in terrible trouble. Everyone's ambition is underwritten by a tragic flaw.
We are deeply divided animals, and we are drawn to the creation of our own demise. Freud: "What lives, wants to die again. Originating in dust, it wants to be dust again. Not only the life-drive is in them, but the death-drive as well." Kundera: "Anyone whose goal is 'something higher' must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves."
And the more righteous our self-presentation, the more deeply we yearn to transgress, to fall, to fail. Because being bad is more interesting/exciting/erotic than being good. Even little children, especially little children, know this: When my daughter, Natalie, was 3, she was friends with two girls, sisters age 3 and 4. The older girl, Julia, ran away from her mother, for which she was reprimanded. The younger girl, Emily, asked why and was told that running away was bad. "I wanna do it," Emily said.
Eliot Spitzer needed to demolish the perfect marble statue (that extreme moral rectitude) he'd made of himself. The "memoirist" Margaret Seltzer wanted so badly not to be the person she was (upper-middle-class girl from the Valley) that she imagined herself all the way into strangers' lives, and cared so much about bringing attention to those lives that she phrased it as memoir, because very few people care about novels anymore. Misha Defonseca, author of Surviving with Wolves—pretty much the same thing. The 2008 University of Memphis men's basketball team was so obsessed with denying that they couldn't shoot free throws that, of course, in the championship game, they couldn't shoot free throws.
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 recently 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: When W. was a young man, he said to Poppy, "Okay, then, let's go. Mano a mano. Right now." The war on terror is the not so indirect result.
In short, what animates us inevitably ails us. That fine edge gets harder and harder to maintain.
When our difficult heroes (and all real heroes are difficult) self-destruct, 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 (the cheers and champagne that spontaneously broke out on the floor of the NYSE when word came of Client Number 9). We want the good in them, 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 free fall, we preserve our distance from death, stave off any serious knowledge about the exact ratio in ourselves of angel to animal.
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.
David Shields's most recent book, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, was published by Knopf in February.