Monday, July 23, 2007

Death and Life

By Drew

I didn't note the passing last week of opera tenor Jerry Hadley, mostly because he was someone who was never completely on my radar. (Other than the fact that he shared the last name of our distinguisted managing editors, and I have been assured that he is no relation to the Hadleybloggers.) Sure, I noticed the story that he was suffering from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, that his odds of survival were remote, and that his life had been on a downward slide for some time.

Even at this point I'm not really writing about his career; rather, what caught my attention was the recent pair of posts by Terry Teachout on Hadley's life, career and death. In particular is this piece from today in which Teachout defends his frank appraisal on Hadley, which apparently upset quite a few people. (Teachout quotes one of Hadley's fans who "went so far as to call me 'disgusting' twice in the same e-mail, which I believe is a personal record.) Teachout's sin, sofar as one can call it that, is that he was honest in his appraisal of Hadley's career and decline:

". . . the reason for much of the anger can be summed up by a Latin tag: De mortuis nil nisi bonum. The wise man is slow to quarrel with proverbs, but I'm afraid I must trump that one with a snippet of Shakespeare. He that dies pays all debts--including the debt of discretion that is owed to him, insofar as it's ever owed to a public figure who voluntarily chooses his status. My own view of the matter is to be found in the published sayings of Nero Wolfe:

'Marko was himself headstrong, gullible, oversanguine, and naïve. He had--'

'For shame! He's dead, and you insult--'

'That will do!" he roared. It stopped her. He went down a few decibels. "You share the common fallacy, but I don't. I do not insult Marko. I pay him the tribute of speaking of him and feeling about him precisely as I did when he lived; the insult would be to smear his corpse with the honey excreted by my fear of death.' "

Ah, this is an interesting question. I've never believed in the practice of sanctifying the dead, of overlooking their faults and suddenly finding virtues where previously none had existed. We see it happen too many times, even with the walking dead such as Muhammad Ali - we forget that Ali was a lightning rod for controversy in his prime; and somehow that does him a disservice, for it removes any true meaning from his acts. Anyone can stand up for a fancy or a whim, but if you're going to take a controversial tack on something you'd better be prepared to suffer the consequences, which can add to their stature. (Ali was also a jerk at times, with his cruel taunting of opponents; and it's probably a good idea to recall that emotional episode from a few years back in which he was given a replacement for his lost 1956 Olympic gold medal, and recall that the reason it was lost was that he supposedly threw it in the Ohio River to express his disgust with America.)

But I digress. We were not talking about Muhammad Ali, not really; nor were we really speaking of Jerry Hadley, even though that's how I started things. No, we were talking about the dead, and our obligation to them. Having read both of Teachout's pieces (the other one is here), I can't fault him. He was, I thought, fair and honest, and related what could be cruel facts about Hadley's life without showing needless cruelty of his own.

But what gives me pause - not with Teachout, but with the subject he raises - is our own obligation to speak of the dead. It reminds us periously of detraction, that is, the act of revealing previously unknown faults or sins of another person to a third person. We find an even better definition in the Catholic Encyclopedia, which describes detraction as "the unjust damaging of another's good name by the revelation of some fault or crime of which that other is really guilty or at any rate is seriously believed to be guilty by the defamer."

Note that there is no distinction here made as to whether or not the charge is true - in fact, detraction specifically proceeds from the assumption that it is. (As opposed to calumny, which presupposes the charge is false.) So, even if the charge is true, one is under specific restrictions to be careful about it. (There are exceptions, of course; if you want to read more about it, go here.)

So anyway, the point of this is that we have to be careful of one's reputation in death, as we do in life. Remember the hubbub about CBS' Ronald Reagan movie of a few years ago, when so many people felt it an unwarranted attack on a man (still living at that time) incapable of defending himself? In our respect for the dead, we accord them the same dignity that they had in life. And perhaps, the eagarness with which a society that often degrades the living seeks to disparage the dead is doing just that.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. The passage of time and/or the increase of influence can make rosy that which was not-whether the person is still alive or deceased.

    When I hear of Ali, I think of George Foreman. Remember, how fearsome he was in his heyday of boxing? Now, he's a big huggy-bear (or, perhaps, he has cultivated an image to make us think he is) selling grills on TV. You don't hear a lot of people reflecting on how brutal he could be in the ring these days.

    Anyone can be a saint in the court of public opinion after they have died-I look at Boris Yeltsin as a recent example of the rose-colored glass approach to the recently deceased.


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