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Real anguish for a life made mythic

By Gail Caldwell, Globe Staff, 07/24/99

He was forced into valor before he could comprehend the word, a 3-year-old saluting his father's casket in what had to be one of the saddest farewells in history. No one should have to be so brave so young, and, just as important, nobody's young bravery should be subject to so much public scrutiny. But John F. Kennedy Jr.'s life had the makings and the lure of myth from the moment that tragic gesture of a child was captured on film - giving us an image from Nov. 25, 1963, that came to signify not only the death of American idealism but the innocence that had to witness its demise.

Now, like Icarus descending, the boy has fallen from the sky. The hearts broken by a president's assassination nearly 36 years ago in Dallas have felt the tug of memory this week like an old soldier's war wounds, and that return to sorrow explains some of the country's current outpouring of grief. If John Fitzgerald Kennedy had to die at the perilously early age of 46, how could the gods have let the son - still so young and unafraid - fly so close to the sun? There is a cruelty inherent in any child's death, but when the loss of the father has already taken on the proportions of classical sacrifice, the loss of the child may simply seem too much to bear.

And yet many of the most private and wrenching aspects of the plane accident have been blurred or obscured from the moment the first camera began rolling and the first commentator started waxing eloquent. If in 1963 we were a nation unified by television - by its ability to bring us that unforgettable funeral cortege, that riderless black horse - we were also still enamored of the magical powers of a new, untarnished medium. Celebrity belonged to movie stars and stateliness to presidents, and movie stars hadn't yet decided to become presidents. But one dark, unavoidable legacy of the Kennedy years was the mixing of fame and nobility, with the alchemy of TV confusing the two and suggesting that one ensured the other.

The ensuing age of media-delivered luminaries has brought with it artificial star power as well as artificial intimacy. The great paradox here, which both Marshall McLuhan and Sigmund Freud might have enjoyed, is that the less real these targets of our affection are - the more counterfeit the contract of familiarity, in other words - the more exalted they become.

For better or worse, image has become the dominant lexicon of the techno-visual modern age, assuring us with telephoto lenses and high-pixel reproductions that we actually know the subject whose profile is illuminated in our living rooms. With his gorgeous looks and equally gorgeous bride, John F. Kennedy Jr. was lionized beyond measure by the media and the crowds, too often for reasons that had little to do with who he was. And the truth is that most of us don't know who Kennedy really was, any more than we know Peter Jennings or Madonna. What we do know, or can surmise, is that he was a good enough man to endure with grace the glare of the spotlights, put there by his family's fame and the myths that fed and interpreted it.

Which is finally not a story about celebrity at all, but about a life lived beyond and in spite of it. This unequivocal fact is part of what makes the public display of mourning - the mountains of tributes and dashed-dreams canonization, all of it playing endlessly to the cameras - seem troublingly misdirected. But the effusion of anguish we're seeing is certainly real enough, even if one views it as displaced personal sorrow or a collective brush fire of sentiment, its flames encouraged by ceaseless media heat.

The Greeks had a word for this state of public emotion; they called it catharsis, and they saw it best released within the transcendent confines of a work of art - ''Agamemnon,'' say, or ''Electra.'' Our own analogue in the modern age often takes the form of a tribute to the war dead: How many of us have wept at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, not because we lost someone whose name is on the wall, but because the losses themselves seem mythic and unknowable? John F. Kennedy Jr. never asked for the role of fallen hero, but the suffering his family has endured over the past 30 years has assumed the dimensions of ancient tragedy, and it's little wonder that our response would be in kind. In this age of diminishing returns, he became something closer to fiction than reality: a protagonist turned prince overnight by death, an innocent child of Daedalus, plunging toward the sea.

The families and friends who buried John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and Lauren Bessette have now entered that long, private corridor that is grief itself, a timeless place with its own laws, where no outsider can tell you how you feel or how soon it will end. Like Shakespeare's Constance, who in ''King John'' holds close the memory of her dead son by the process of mourning him, these people have ''reason to be fond of grief.'' The rest of us - today, in this instance, neither so burdened nor so singled out - should honor the living and the dead by not presuming to claim their agony as our own.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 07/24/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.


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