What happens when a person becomes a figure? The word figure of course has many dimensions (ha.) but I tend to associate it with geometry and the endless parade of squares, rhombuses, pentagons, cones, and the like. They're always meant to express total abstract perfection, and thus nothing to be found in reality.
Last night, Gwen and I were talking about our habit of mythologizing historical figures. As time passes and the depth and texture of their inscape is lost, they became flattened and comply easily with our attempts to reinterpret them or pin adjectives and characteristics to their lapels such as they could not honestly have born in the company of those who knew them. The neuroses, the moral failings, the physical deformities, the social awkwardness, these are gone. We can only look through the catalog of their deeds and attempt to reconstruct them from letters, autobiographies, whatever other detritus they've left behind them.
Perhaps it is not so difficult as all that, though. The evidence is there, but it does not suit our narratives to heed it. After all, I think few people who've read anything of Rousseau would be loathe to acknowledge his profligacy and mishandling of his personal life, because it really doesn't matter in our grand story arcs. Rousseau was a man of ideas, but not an anchor in, say, our foundation myth. It matters more to us and to our understanding of our own national identity if the Founding Fathers kept slaves, were sadists or sociopaths, abused Native Americans and treaties made with them, consulted spirit mediums, murdered other men in the midst of duels, and so on. And that's it there: somehow, I've invested a bit of myself in these people and their stories. If it is somehow going to reflect on my character that I am identified as an American, then I am comforted by this correction fluid version of history. I'm much less concerned about Rousseau's family life or Kepler's neoplatonic obsession with numerical harmony, because it doesn't affect how I or others see myself.
To return to my original thought, it seems as if we've gotten to a place where we not only abstract from historical figures to get these perfectly outlined "figures," but we do the same thing to those who occupy public, visible roles in society. I'm not so sure that it was always this way. It's easy to read such categorizing into past language, it's true. However...
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) was a pivotal case in the Supreme Court's jurisprudence regarding slander and libel. I am led to believe, from my vague recollections of a constitutional law and political philosophy class, that prior to Sullivan everyone was roughly equal in the extent of the protection that they could expect to receive. If a newspaper reported falsely or something malicious were said, a mayor had just as much right as a blacksmith to protest. That's an odd way to set up a contrast--the presumably more powerful figure being brought up to equality with the humble blacksmith. But it fits, because in the unanimous decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the idea that people in visible, public roles were exempt from the protections against libel that had been historically excluded from freedom of speech.
This sets the stage for an interesting separation of self from role. There is the public figure, say, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. And then there is the man himself, a situated individual with parents, perhaps siblings, presumably wife and children, one would hope some friends, and so on, all enmeshing him in a web of relations and respecting of his personal quirks and characteristics.
But maybe I read too much into that decision. In spite of my initial skepticism, I have to remind myself that we all have our public and private selves. That some people's public selves are less constitutionally protected than others is not relevant, except perhaps in a debate about open political processes, which this is not.
Quite simply, I am struck by the immediate tidal wave of subdued and conflicted responses to Scalia's death, all of which seem to take the tone of: here is a man whom I have abhorred, and yet I respect that his family should grieve for him--let those who can, mourn his loss. Scalia has inspired both respect and hatred, the former for his incisive mind and careful argumentation, the latter for his predictably conservative stance, and so here he is, a divided man in death as in life. Is this really an honest division? I suppose I haven't answered the question, but I don't think I'm going to.