Where Have You Gone, Jolie Mary Jo?
Our Nation Turns Its Second Thoughts to You
September 01, 2009
The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even . . . .
"The Blessed Damozel," Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1846)
In the immediate aftermath of the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy, it was widely reported that Google and other search engines saw a spike in inquiries for variants, often misspelled variants, on "Chappaquiddick" and "Mary Jo Kopechne." Much of that traffic was presumably driven by the zany-maniac crowd who so enjoy misrepresenting themselves as conservatives, for whom it is essential that any prominent highly-liberal Democrat be painted as the very spawn of Satan -- a purpose for which the awful events of July 18, 1969, are too useful to ignore -- but some of that traffic at least must have derived from the conundrum of reconciling the praise heaped upon the late Senator in so many eulogies with the ignominy that more typically befalls those who abandon young women to die slowly in submerged automobiles.
It was already well known before last week that the Senator was dying, but I had the impression that there was every reason to believe that the actual end would not come for some weeks or even months. When I picked up the morning paper and saw his death headlined, it caught me by surprise. And, perhaps out of that surprise, very nearly my first thought was:
"Well, I imagine he and Mary Jo are knocking one back together even now in some heavenly saloon."
Which is not a bad image, if you're of a mind to believe in a beneficent and particularly forgiving Providence.
Matt Welch is rightly perturbed with those who would suggest that Ms. Kopechne's wildly unnecessary death is somehow justified or even rewarded by the subsequent forty years of Kennedy's senatorial career.
[T]he sentiment [that Kopechne's death was somehow 'worth it'] is a timely reminder of the seductive awfulness of political ideologies everywhere and always. The ends are always worth a few strangled means, especially to those wielding or sympathizing with power. If you're openly musing whether the unwilling, unjust sacrifice of an innocent is worth a broad set of alleged legislative improvements, you're not asking a morally challenging question, you're answering it.
As Exhibits "A" and "B," he points to a Huffington Post piece by Melissa Lafsky and to a Guardian essay by Joyce Carol Oates. Lafsky's column is, to this reader, pretty ghastly in any number of ways. Badly written, for a start. Oates' ruminations are more worthy of consideration, not only because she is a vastly better writer and thinker than Lafsky, but also because Oates places the question in a more adult and serious frame. Oates fictionalized the events at Chappaquiddick, from the point of view of the victim, in her 1993 novel, Black Water, and it is clear she has thought longer and harder about them than the general run of online commentators (present company included). As a novelist, Oates inevitably sees Kennedy and Chappaquiddick as having literary parallels:
One is led to think of Tom and Daisy Buchanan of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, rich individuals accustomed to behaving carelessly and allowing others to clean up after them. It is often in instances of the 'fortunate fall,' think of Joseph Conrad's anti-hero/hero Lord Jim as a classic literary analogy, that innocent individuals figure almost as ritual sacrifices is another aspect of the phenomenon.
* * *
The poet John Berryman once wondered: 'Is wickedness soluble in art?' One might rephrase, in a vocabulary more suitable for our politicized era: 'Is wickedness soluble in good deeds?''
This paradox lies at the heart of so much of public life: individuals of dubious character and cruel deeds may redeem themselves in selfless actions. Fidelity to a personal code of morality would seem to fade in significance as the public sphere, like an enormous sun, blinds us to all else.One could wish (I could wish) that the parallels to Kennedy's life post-Chappaquiddick were not so much to be found in American literature as in the Russian novelists. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are full of sinners and criminals whose later actions redeem them. The Russian literary way, however, was to require that the sinner be brought low first, that he feel in a direct, personal, public way, often in Siberia, the full weight of the wrong that's been done before, at last, finding the way to a better and more laudable life.
I do not doubt that Senator Kennedy had many painful periods of personal introspection over what he did and failed to do that night, but position and privilege allowed him to evade the consequences that would be expected to be inflicted on most of his fellow mortals. Even those who are more admiring of the Senator than I will ever be might admit that his later accomplishments, no matter how otherwise admirable -- I leave it to the sympathetic reader to select his or her personal favorite -- are tainted at least slightly by what Auden wrote of, in a much different context, concerning this day seventy years ago:
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Top: Head study for The Blessed Damozel, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1876), via The Rossetti Archive.
Bottom: The infamous 1973 National Lampoon Volkswagen ad parody, previously mentioned here in early 2005. Created only five years after the incident, this seems driven less by any hostility to Kennedy than by the fondness for poor taste and macabre humor typical of the Golden Age of the Lampoon. Sadly, most reproductions of this appear on the sites of zealots of questionable probity, i.e., the aforementioned zany-maniac crowd. This copy comes via the more apolitical Photobucket.