A Beautiful Monster: The Fascination with Oscar Pistorius

Mar 18, 2013 - by Binoy Kampmark - 0 Comments

"I am the bullet in the chamber.  Just do it".-- Nike sports advertisement featuring Oscar Pistorius

Oscar Pistorius’s rise to world fame was as unlikely as his arrest for the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

By Binoy Kampmark

It remains to be seen whether this will become a crime of its own singular description, or yet another point of comparison in terms of previous acts of brutality.  Will it be deemed South Africa’s O.J. Simpson trial, with its lashings of bloodlust voyeurism that finds form in evidence, exposures, and innuendo?  The suggestions are that this has already begun, despite the fact that the trial is scheduled to start on June 4. The alleged murder of the model and self-appointed spokeswoman against domestic violence Reeva Steenkamp by the Parlympian Oscar Pistorius is something the analysts and commentators find magnetic. More than bullets were fired the day Steenkamp was killed behind the locked door of the Blade Runner’s bathroom.

 Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius

What stands out here is that Pistorius betrayed the image he was bestowed with.  Some of this was his doing, others distinctly not.  The evolution of a cult figure involves tweaking and adjustments.  The processes behind that are not always clear.  A series of catalysts are required, and adulation can rapidly turn to loathing.  He, for instance, became the defiant model on the sporting field, and invariably off it.  He was superhuman, yet not human in attempting to deal with his physical limitations.  For the first time in Olympic history a sporting personality competed against full bodied athletes on their own terms after a battle against officialdom.  This was muscle against adversity, physical triumph as a moral value. 

Pistorius, who told arriving police he shot Steenkamp suspecting an intruder, has fed an insatiable appetite for public consumption and media frenzy.  Pistorius is no longer an accused so much as a freak being, a cipher for anxiety, frontier mentalities and sanguinary lust.  He overcame disability, but did so mechanically through the use of “blades.”  He showed a history of previous violence.  He had a liking for military gear and fantasies of confronting intruders.  He has now been deemed capable of anything, and shooting Steenkamp may end up being an all out symbol of national psychoses, an act undertaken as a violent, anti-social impulse in a violent, anti-social community. If that be the song of the land, then sing it.

The Superhero

Oscar Pistorius

Pistorius became a talismanic athlete, a meritocrat of sorts.  Clare Forrester, writing in the Jamaica Observer (February 27, 2013), gives a sense of that levelling, and ultimately transcending power.  “Here was the supreme poster child for courage and determination, whom Grenada’s 400 metres gold medallist at the London 2012 Olympics Kirani James described as “special although he had finished last.”  But in so doing, he did not merely become the man who triumphed on the field but off it. He was the person who challenged the ruling by the International Association of Athletics that he could not run with other athletes on the basis that his Flex-Foot Cheetah prosthetic legs gave him an unfair competitive advantage.  It was a statement against physical segregation in the sport.  It was also a stance that got the scientists chatting.  He became more than the model athlete, but a model person, the odds in the lottery of life overcome with mind numbing determination. 

It was not merely that he was fast, but he was the world’s fastest double amputee, speedy despite that impediment.  Accounts of his early years seem in awe, as if bearing witness to the exploits of a divine: unable to walk as an infant, born without fibulas, legs amputated below the knee when he was a mere 11 months old, and competing at 12 with other boys in rugby (Scientific American, Jul 24, 2012). In a cover story, the New York Times Magazine described him as “The Fastest Man on No Legs.”  The aura of immortality was stretched even further by suggestions by a German team in 2007 that Pistorius used 25 percent less energy than natural runners.  Blame it, it seemed, on Össur, the Icelandic company behind the prosthetic.  Hilmar Janusson, executive vice president of research and development at the company, certainly did his bit to add to the reputation.  “When the user is running, the prosthesis’s J curve is compressed at impact, storing energy and absorbing high levels of stress that would otherwise be absorbed by a runner’s ankle, knee, hip and lower back.”

The debate about the physicality of Pistorius, its potent power, even its dangers, a mixture of machine and man, of prosthetic being and superhuman effort, was well in place before the killing of Steenkamp.  He troubled the scientists, the sports officials, the administrators and he startled his fellow sporting personalities.  A star-studded scientific team investigated this seemingly astonishing physical anomaly.  Peter Weyand, a physiologist at Southern Methodist University, Rodger Kram from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Hugh Heer, himself a double amputee and known biophysicist, “measured Pistorius’s oxygen consumption, his leg movements, the forces he exerted on the ground and his endurance” (Scientific American, July 24, 2012).  The Journal of Applied Physiology published their findings, noting that Pistorius was “physiologically similar but mechanically dissimilar.”  Here was a beautiful monster at work.

The public comments to the article in the Scientific American are also revealing.  Should a sports person, in fact, have an advantage in becoming prosthetic in competition?  What is deemed a disadvantage – amputation – is superseded by mechanical improvements. One blog post wonders whether the Pistorius precedent is an unhealthy one, effectively encouraging athletes to amputate themselves and become “blade runners” where physical exertion was reduced by virtue of technological trickery. “I would not like to be discouraging, but artificial legs would seem to not have a place in the world’s top physical competition” (Post on July 24, 2012).

He was, in effect, of this world, and yet of some other.  He was “Blade Runner,” a creature of scientific, if not pure mythology, a term of reference that was itself suggestive: Was Pistorius himself a reminder of a dystopian robotic tradition, one that was half expecting Rick Deckard to turn up and “retire” him?

Doing no right

Pistorius found himself in the company of dethroned demigods.  Lance Armstrong, who at one point was not only considered invincible but squeaky clean, found his own character diminished after allegations of dope taking prior to his victories at the Tour de France. His stoic front of denial seemed like an affirmation of innocence rather than concealment of guilt, for a time.  But resistance receded, and mortality was admitted.  The condition of deposing the idealized seemed ubiquitous – the voice behind the children’s series “Sesame Street,” Elmo, was accused of sexual misconduct.  Saints were being scratched and found to be sinners.  The Brown Daily Herald (February 25, 2013) put it in a trite fashion.  “When we create these superhuman personas – whether athletes, musicians or the like – we lose sight of the realities of being a person with both strengths and flaws.”  Avoid, advised the news outlet, any form of deification.

From here on in, Pistorius could do no right. He broke an unspoken social contract.  He has become stuck in a nightmarish morality tale, unleashing interpretations like abundant puss from a boil.  The Daily Mail, the UK’s top muck machine after Rupert Murdoch’s unscrupulous The Sun, reported that a herbal remedy in tablet form was found in the bedroom of the accused containing 23 ingredients, among them “pig testicles, pig heart, pig embryo and pig adrenal gland, cortisone, ginseng and other botanicals.”  The QMI Agency ran with the headline, “Substance found in Oscar Pistorius home contained pig testicles.” The resume of Pistorius the demon figure expands.  He is suggestively half-human, ingesting substances that would boost performance, transforming him into a sexually rapacious creature and narcissistic sports star.

A striking parallel to this is O.J., America’s own celebrated satyr, a vicious channelling for primal violence, the mad man who can do no right. He overdosed on cocaine, claimed an article for the National Inquirer, and abused his girlfriend Christie Prody.  He might have been acquitted, but that is a mere technicality.  He has fed a collection of perceptions. 

The cover of Time, almost crude in its suggestiveness, brings about this transformation in full.  From “man to superman to gun man” it suggests, showing a less than human Pistorius, legs absent yet entirely capable on his prosthetic supports, a menacingly strong torso taut at the ready, a monstrosity that may kill, necessarily or otherwise.  The athlete would not be out of place in Greek mythology, a centaur, a Lapinth perhaps chiselled on a metope of the Parthenon and then carted off to the British Museum.  This is the true mythologising of violence, and Time does its best, through the piece by Alex Perry, to draw out the figures of rape and murder in South Africa, a land populated by such beasts of violence. 

Two separate surveys of the rural Eastern Cape are cited by Perry, revealing that 27.6 percent of men surveyed admitted to being rapists, with 46.3 percent of victims being under 16.  For those interested, figures on abuse of other age groups are also documented.  “What really distinguishes South Africa from its peers in this league of violence is not how the violence rises with inequality nor its sexual nature – both typical of place with high crime – but its pervasiveness and persistence.”  This is South Africa as a sick patient, one howling for help, but like Pistorius, a centaur run wild, a society exceptional for its violent proclivities.

The latest news on his state of mind has also fed the idea of the doomed character struck down by the Gods.  Mike Azzie, a friend of the athlete, claimed on the BBC3 documentary Oscar Pistorius: What Really Happened? that the man is “on the verge of suicide.” He is now moving into that other facet of transformation – into the world of the mad. “He has no confidence in his tone of voice and he is just a man that is almost like someone that is walking around in circles and doesn’t know where he is going.”  This does not dent his confidence, if the documentary is credible in any sense.  To a senior officer who explained to Pistorius on being arrested that he “could go to jail for a very long time,” his reply was dismissive.  “I’ll survive. I always win.”

At the end of the article printed in The Australian describing Pistorius’s alleged mental state are a series of numbers for those with “depression” (contact Beyond Blue); those with “emotional difficulties” (contact Lifeline); and those with what can only be presumed to be mixture of them (SANE).  From deification, Pistorius has become a case study in mental ruination, the violently mad. 

Domestic violence

Another suggestion in the Pistorius affair, pitches Jina Moore in The Atlantic (March 1, 2013), is that of domestic violence with its accompanying apologetics.  For Moore, this is less cultural than individual, a context lost in the broader picture of the man and his times.  She implies that grand narratives may not have a place in dealing with Pistorius.  She is not sure, but she suggests it.  It’s the man’s problem, and violence is to be found less in a milieu than it is to be found in Homo sapiens, or at least this male specimen.  Where, she complains, was the domestic violence specialist in Perry’s story for Time?

In this view, Moore pinches a thread that has grown in the literature on domestic violence, taking issue with readings such as those of Michel Foucault of the Pierre Riviere case.  The bone of contention here is whether such violence can be given the collective brush.  In Riviere’s case, a 20-year-old Normandy peasant slaughtered his mother, sister and little brother with a pruning hook in June 1835.  His father was spared, largely because the killings were done to liberate him.  “I have just delivered my father from all his tribulations. I know that they will put me to death, but no matter.”  His death sentence was commuted by the King, largely due to the intervention of Parisian psychiatrists. 

The impressions the killer left about his mother were vicious.  His parents lived apart. The elder Riviere was considered of “mild and peaceable disposition” while his mother was considered oppressive and manipulative.  He feared that French society had fallen into the hands of women since the Revolution. He was plagued by nightmares of incest.  In the events of such killings, suggested Foucault, one could not neglect the sensationalist criminal literature of the time, nor the state of the medical profession in treating the “mentally ill” with their competing “discourses.” 

Fellow participants in the famous seminar Foucault convened on the subject of Riviere’s killings, published in I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother (1975), had their own take about the violence.  Jean-Pierre Peter and Jeanne Favret praised Riviere as a rebellious figure who revolted against the exigencies of peasant life yet demanding the state kill him justly “and not let him rot.”  This was crime as justified transgression, an act on the part of the socially invisible.  That he should be denied death because of faulty “psychiatry” lay in the false promise of bourgeois humanism.

Not so, claimed subsequent critics, who could detect a more than lurking sexist undertone, a praise of domestic murder.  Could the case have simply been one of standard domestic violence turned murderous?  Julie Marcus scolds Foucault for ignoring gender in the case, discounting the killer’s fears of female incest and female animals.  For Marcus, Riviere was effectively a mother-hating killer.  The Pistorius example may nod at something in that direction, if one is to take Moore’s position.  His past has been dug up; his behavior has been seen in light of other celebrities who have succumbed to gendered brutality.  His copy book is blotted.

Students of women’s studies have certainly found the Pistorius case befuddling.  Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, professor of women’s studies and English at Emory University, saw Pistorius lumped in with other unsavory company, a reverse pantheon of the fallen: Mike Tyson, Charlie Sheen, Kobe Bryant, Mel Gibson, Jovan Belcher “and perhaps most controversially of all, O J Simpson… As our collective image of him shifts from admired athlete to girlfriend killer, something important has been lost” (Al Jazeera, March 14, 2013). 

Garland-Thompson’s legitimate and well spotted fear is that the contagion of violence, the suggestion of angst-driven misogyny, might be linked to the anger, the frustrations, the limitations of one with disability, be it mental or physical. 

What is revealing about Garland-Thompson is that the law does not so much matter less than the issue of “identification.”  Referring back to the O J Simpson trial, she was reminded of the reactions of her own class when raising the case.  Some supported a verdict of guilty against Simpson on the basis of history’s injustices against women.  Others in turn supported a verdict of not guilty on the basis of black injustices in the country.  With such perceptions, facts recede into a dim distance.  One is guilty or innocent less on evidence than on identity.

Frontier themes

Pistorius seen as a collective expression of violence, the internalised fears of a race on the run, has been a popular theme.  The Economist editorialised (October 7, 1995) in sharp fashion on the Simpson trial, using a title that might as well apply to South Africa, albeit with qualification.  “Two nations, divisible,” it suggested. Themes of division for the paper were based on growing polarization.  Was Steenkamp a victim of South Africa’s own polarized communities, the collateral sacrifice in a terrified, gated community?

Pistorius’s justification was one of self-defense, making the home seem a vicious, internalised frontier needing an aggressively vigilant regime of protection.  If the authorities of the day don’t fulfil that role, private citizens will.  “Nothing like getting home to hear the washing machine on and thinking it’s an intruder to go into full combat recon mode into the pantry,” posted Pistorius on Twitter in November.  The Afrikaners find themselves in electrified gated communities conducting a war with the natives in manner both metaphorical and actual. This is a conflict which has never stopped since the Boers settled.

The views of Pistorius’s father, Henke, were a perfect illustration of that sentiment.  Evading matters directly concerning the case of his own son, he preferred to place the blame on the shoulders of the ANC government.  A spotlight was shone on the vast array of arms owned by the Pistorius family.   “Some of the guns are for hunting and some are for protection: the hand guns.  It speaks to the ANC government. Look at white crime levels, why protection is so poor in this country.”  According to the Afrikaans-language newspaper Beeld, Henke, Oscar’s grandfather Hendrik, and his uncles Arnold, Theo and Leo owned an impressive collection of 55 shotguns and handguns between them (Telegraph, March 4, 2013).  ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu retorted accordingly, rejecting “with contempt” the claim that the government was indifferent in protecting the white population.  “Not only is this statement devoid of truth, it is also racist. It is sad that he has chosen to politicize this tragic incident that is still fresh in the minds of those affected and the public.”

Crime rates, it might be argued, were kept artificially low during the era of apartheid, when the white regime patrolled white areas with keen scrutiny.  Segregation may have been formally repudiated under the South African Constitution, but the instinctive reactions of division have not.  Official political statistics show a fall in crime in South Africa by 31.8 percent from 2004-5 to 2011-12, with the murder rate dropping by 27.6 percent (BBC News, March 5, 2013). 

It is ironically fitting then that the killing should happen against one from the same community, notably soon after the victim Steenkamp would tweet that she “woke up in a happy safe home this morning.  Not everyone did.  Speak out against the rape of individuals.”  (This tweet, incidentally, riled Moore, who considered it the myopic twaddle of a confused individual ignorant of sexual assault.) 

In South Africa, discussion around Pistorius’s alleged wrong doing have assumed the form of a parable.  “He will have to live with his conscience,” advanced Steenkamp’s father, Barry.  “But if he is telling the truth, I might perhaps be able to forgive him one day.  However, if it didn’t happen as he tells it, he must suffer.  And he will suffer; only he knows” (Sunday Times, February 24, 2013). But the Pistorius affair reveals that the ingredients for his downfall were already present.  Despite being a double amputee, he was a superhuman creature, a variant of primitive mythology and science fiction.  He was all powerful, yet prone to weakness. He was violent and to be feared. He was courageous but ultimately weakened by misogyny.  And finally, he became a victim, even before the court has judged his innocence, of cultural interpretations.   

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