Eliot the King

A defense of hubris.

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I can’t stop thinking that Eliot Spitzer’s downfall is extraordinary in its Oedipal dimensions. I don’t mean this in the Freudian sense, but in the classical. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex a man, Oedipus, attempts to engineer his own fate in the face of a terrible prophecy. In the end, Oedipus comes to realize that his own actions, meant to liberate him from this course of fate, have been the agents of its realization. He declares:

No human hand but mine has done this deed.

What need for me to see,

When nothing’s left that’s sweet to look upon?

It has been noted again and again in the Spitzer story that ironies abound, multiplying quicker than they can be sorted out. This is a man who seemingly went out of his way to commit a crime that A) he would eventually get caught doing and, B) that he would have no defense against when caught. As a prosecutor Spitzer made enemies — lifelong abiding enemies in the banking world, the Republican political establishment, and organized crime. He then frequented a call girl service (which he had to know was likely tied to organized crime), used bank transfers to pay for it, and crossed state lines in the process. He was tempting fate, surely. More like sticking his finger in its eye. (Speaking of eyes, it must be noted here that Oedipus ends up blinding himself. Spitzer, meanwhile, hands his governorship over to the blind David Paterson.) If this is not hubris, the tragic flaw of arrogance, what is? Let us not forget, further, that Spitzer is a man who chose to define himself, and his political career, in opposition to corruption and to hypocrisy.

But it gets more intriguing. Spitzer was actually the one who, as attorney general forced banks, to track and report exactly the kind of sneaky wire transfers that he was using to pay for his prostitutes. An aggressive opponent of prostitution rings when he was a prosecutor, he advocated for tougher penalties against Johns while governor. All of this while looking into the private lives and financial dealings of powerful political enemies like New York State Senate leader Joe Bruno in the attempt to bring them down.

It is as if he was stalking himself, setting himself up, maneuvering to destroy himself all this time. The terrible realization for Oedipus is that he is, in fact, the criminal that he had been looking for all along and the cause of the plague at Thebes. It is his own crime that is ruining the city and his destruction as king the only thing that will save it. But it is central to the structure of the Oedipus story that he doesn’t learn this until the end. That is what makes Oedipus a tragic figure. The workings of fate are too large. They are not in any one man’s control. In the hubris of attempting to control the uncontrollable, Oedipus’ seemingly free acts are shown to have been destined all along.

That is also why Oedipus remains something of a sympathetic figure. He tried to eke out a little space for human freedom and is punished heinously for it. He butted his head against the dictates of fate and destiny. His failure is a failure that one can understand. Condemned pointlessly by a prophecy before his birth, he attempts to assert himself as a man in charge of his own affairs.

And that is what is so striking about the Spitzer affair. Even in his downfall, he has maintained an odd sense of control. The entire issue is Spitzer. Everyone else is merely an agent in a story that he determined. He made himself great, arranged himself in an impossible situation, and then worked the levers of his own demise. That is an extraordinary hubris, a hubris that tops Oedipus in spades. He is a fully conscious actor in the affair all the way through. In fact, he was the only one with full information, full knowledge, from beginning to end. The more one ponders it, the more colossal seems the chutzpah. None of it happens, nothing in the story can take place without Eliot Spitzer pulling the strings. A spectacular rise, and then a spectacular fall. Was he duped? Was he tricked? Can he ever bemoan his sad fate or the workings of chance? Absolutely not. Chance played no part in it. He destroyed himself. And in so doing, he managed to erase chance from the picture. Fate had no say in the matter. Only Eliot Spitzer did.

In the end, he is as doomed as Oedipus. But in a funny way he has achieved something that Oedipus never could. Eliot Spitzer, the kid from New York, managed to pull one over on Fate. He marched himself up the mountain and then over the cliff, too gloriously arrogant to let any other man or force into the picture. The Greeks never thought it was possible but I believe a man like Sophocles would have appreciated the accomplishment. Hubris, alive and well in the 21st century. • 13 March 2008

 

 

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

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