Nelson Mandela 1918-2013

I did not want to write anything for an epitaph, because I am overwhelmed with the feeling that any such epitaph ultimately becomes an expression of reflected glory: this man was so good, and aren’t I good for mourning him? This is not skepticism of other epitaphs, and an attempt to position myself as superior to others; it is skepticism only of myself. It was also for simple selfish reasons: writing now exhausts me. This life exhausts me. I think I already attempted a postscript on that time, “Angola, Namibia, South Africa, and a Tea Party Leader”, an attempt at journalism, and that anything here now would be writerly: a necessary expression of loss for a very essential man, in words of occasionally surprising choice and placement. I searched casually through Zadie Smith’s Changing my Mind, certain that she had written something that I could excerpt here, but found nothing on the man.

Mandela became a symbol, an abstraction, entirely separate and apart from the life lived. Marilyn Monroe has become a shorthand for beauty; Nelson Mandela became a shorthand for peace. That he was such a resonant symbol will be a paradox to be decrypted by others, because we live in an age which celebrates violence, where the act of violence is found and celebrated, with some justification discovered afterwards. Violence is celebrated, and so is strength. John F. Kennedy is strong. Ronald Reagan is strong. George W. Bush is strong. For the past few years, Mandela had become very weak, through illness and old age, and that gave him even more convenience as a symbol, a man who became a sacred stone for any politico who was there by his beside: this man was so good, and aren’t I good for standing next to him? I do not mourn the symbol. He was not an exhibit in a museum. He was not a butterfly pinned to an index card. He was a man who used the essence of his life to bring a measure of greater justice to this world. He fought for this with and without violence. Nelson Mandela wanted peace, he did not wish for violence in and of itself, he did not wish for strength in and of itself, but he knew any peace that left the apartheid regime intact would be a worthless one. Nelson Mandela was a boxer, and boxing is an art that is sometimes watched only for its brutality. Nelson Mandela was a fighter. And I mourn that man.

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