Blog Post

Eliot Rex

In Alex Gibney's documentary "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer," which is now available on Netflix's "instant queue," the ex-governor of New York at times refers to himself as the protagonist of a modern Greek tragedy, which caused me to puzzle over which tragic hero of classical antiquity would be his most fitting role model. While Gibney's investigative approach leaves little doubt that Spitzer's downfall was deliberately choreographed by powerful men whom he had crossed, his refusal of that narrative and insistence on his own responsibility argues eloquently for the title, Eiiot Rex.

Aristotle famously defined tragedy as being an imitation of an action of importance, containing incidents arousing pity and fear. The tragic protagonist is typically responsible for his own downfall through the infamous "tragic flaw," an oft-debated translation of the Greek hamartia, which can also mean merely a mistake. Aristotle's example of hamartia was from Sophocles' Oedipus, and it is in this character that we see how exact the analogy is, and what great literature can tell us about the fall of great men.

Oedipus's hamartia was hubris, which we also attribute to Spitzer. But like that of Oedipus, and unlike the way we use the term when we accuse him of simple arrogance, Mr. Spitzer's hubris involved being blind to how his own behavior and desires were implicated in the very fervor with which he sought to uphold the law.

Like Oedipus, who rose to power and declared he would stop at nothing to discover the murderer of Laius, the former king, Spitzer rose to power declaring he would steamroll over anyone standing in the way of his quest to clean up corruption. Oedipus drove his investigation to the exemplary instance of tragic irony, when his own fanatic efforts led to the public revelation that he was the guilty one he had been searching for all along. Spitzer's tragedy is likewise ironic, as even the software that federal agents used to discover the payments he made for sex was developed to aid his own earlier investigations into corruption and prostitution. And whereas Oedipus tore out his own eyes as a punishment for his blindness, Spitzer's self-punishment was to abdicate power to his lieutenant governor, a man whose own real blindness proved an all too adequate metaphor for the descent of New York's government into ever deeper pity and fear.  

If we follow the lessons that tragedy, literary and real, has to offer, we might learn something like this: that the greatest danger for "great" men—for men, in other words, like Spitzer, Ted Haggard (a conservative Evangelist preacher revealed to have frequented a male prostitute), and countless others like them—is to believe they embody the law they seek to enforce. In identifying too closely with the law they forget that the law's power always comes from elsewhere, and is not of their own making. Their total, fanatic dedication to that law seems to divide these great men into a part that prosecutes and punishes and another part that yearns to violate it, thus earning punishment at their own strict hands for the crime of merely being human.

William Egginton's picture

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches on Spanish and Latin American literature, literary theory, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), The Philosopher's Desire (2007), The Theater of Truth (2010), and In Defense of Religious Moderation (2011). He is also co-editor with Mike Sandbothe of The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy (2004), translator of Lisa Block de Behar's Borges, the Passion of an Endless Quotation (2003, 2nd edition 2014), and co-editor with David E. Johnson of Thinking With Borges (2009). His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).