This is the last time we saw him alive, an average size man with a microphone, gazing out from the screen, meeting our eyes, but unable to recognise them, to help and to comfort because he is only a photographed figure and cannot see beyond the flat world which contains him. He is alive because he moves and because he speaks, because he was alive when the film was taken; but also dead–photographed people always are, already a memory.
As I struggle to hold back tears I keep reminding myself that these pages are a revindication of decency at the expense of cruelty and chance. The main theme is not political nor is it an outspoken criticism of totalitarianism but rather the beating of a man’s loving heart–and it is for the sake of this theme that I wrote this and it should be read.
Ricardo Ortega was pronounced clinically dead on March 7, 2004. It was supposed to have been his last afternoon as himself, as Auden said of the day Yeats died: “he became his admirers”. He became a memory; disappeared into his name. It is one of the mysteries of death that it should seem to make so little difference to all but those close to the person. What has changed? There will be no more reports, interviews, books, jokes, walks, talks from that source. But what if the life and its memory we lost is already deep and rich, enough for our lifetime? What more do we want? Most will not be able to meet the person, the reporter, the journalist, the foreign correspondent they probably should not have met anyway. Such deaths are like the deaths of acquaintances we have not seen for ages, would never have seen again. A scarcely perceptible shift in what was already an absence. Except for us, in Spain, this man was ours. This person was not a person for us, not merely a reputation either. His name stood for habits of decency, ways of looking and thinking; they altered the colour of mind of those who watched and listened to him. This life of his cannot be changed by his death. Time in this context is a matter not of the clock but of chance and temperature.
I start with these mementoes because I am about to talk about what was to become a short while later, a fictional and a metaphorical death, and I want to give physical death its due–a mark of piety towards what is actually irreplaceable, untransferable in those lives now gone.
Like the rest of us, people die at least twice. Once physically, once notionally; when the heart stops and when forgetting begins. The lucky ones, the great ones, are those whose second death is decently, perhaps indefinitely postponed. But I want to shield Ricardo from this untimely, terrible death which momentarily was forced on him by his executioners. I will weave him into this essay, thus his death could only be unmasked as a fiction, as a fragment of faith. Death reveals that there has been no life, only a dream of life.
It is possible to see people as neither dead nor alive, neither a second self nor a textual performance, but as mere paper. Sheets of paper are often what we mean by the person, and all we mean, or in any case, can mean. I guess the ruffians missed the joke and as a result Ricardo Ortega… lived. The joke I mean refers to the life of honorable, dignified journalism, their independent career in the world, their ability to stand up for themselves, cause trouble. And it also reminds us of our muddle, of our eagerness to leap from text to the man, to forget the works for the person, thereby courting a kind death of the text, as if only the personal mattered to us.
We always remember such events, but I intend to construct them obliquely, as a form of duelling with history: let this essaic memorial be an answer to what Ricardo Ortega’s family couldn’t bear to think of.
To write is not to be absent but to become absent; to be someone and then go away, leaving traces. The text, any text, is a will, we are present at its reading. The will is where the dead are most alive; a functional autobiography, immortality secured in the quarrels of others.
If we think of people as desired and reconstructed, we are reminding ourselves of their human history and their personal style. Style in most cases is going to be an act, a perceived public performance. So the subject of a memorial would be the person we create from our listening to the man, a critical analysis although not (we hope) a falsehood. The very notion of the mask implies the face. The metaphor of the second self is an attempt to take us away from all this, to bury the person in mystery, and leave the bad guys only with the words. But I also think that we have to be prepared for the ghosts, for the unruliness of the mystery.
Some deaths are mere slips or illusions. Do we need conclusive evidence that Ricardo Ortega existed? Do we need conclusive evidence that he was who he was? We don’t doubt our own sense of our existence, but I clearly feel that we need to prove our past to others, since our earlier life, must seem unreal to them, a fancy, a legend. The evidence for this past’s reality is the fondness and specificity of the text itself: conclusive. But the near-death of Ricardo Ortega, his rescue at the hands of memory and patience, are alarming brushes with the brutal violence of history, reminders of the appalling variety of ways in which real lives can be lost.
Perhaps a real life is not an existence, however solid and undeniable, but the best or most memorable moments of a existence, instants of exaltation or insight, timed when the self is most itself: real life rather than mere living.
Perhaps now we can approach one of the most subtle suggestions of the writer–what is real is the life we lead when we lose ourselves, when we abandon or are driven from the rational fiction of our identity; when we fall in love, and especially when we fall deeply, hopelessly, brutally, stupidly in love.
There is another possibility: that the real life of a Spanish journalist, as of anyone who has succumbed to what I call the “strange habit of human death”, is just the life we shall never see again, the life that was once secret and is now lost. Memory in this sense is not a quest for truth but a refusal of death. The refusal is vain in the literal sense, since nothing will bring this person back. Beyond all easy spiritualism, the dead do speak, they counsel us through memory, through our late but often luminous understanding of what they would have said.
For Ricardo to live, the real has to be refracted. The inevitable refraction is a disappointment to our dream of an uncomplicated, unmediated truth, an easily accessible real life, but there is no opposition between reality and refraction.
Ricardo Ortega, a Spanish journalist with Antena 3TV, of course, is a metaphor for fear, an image of the reason Aristide cannot return to Haiti. There is superstition in such abstinence, but there is also an understanding that language, like love and like death, alters us and affirms us, clings to us and explores us; that it involves the irrevocable, and makes us who we are.
My refracting images, a promise of connection with a scared child of a slained man, itself a small monument to the fragility of hope and loyalty, was a feat of generous imagination, a willingness to learn whatever love teaches, and a reminder of the deep and often grotesque indirection of oracles. They don’t speak, as Heraclitus said, they give signs. What the small child has learned through the magic of turning back the clock is that the soul is but a manner of being–not a constant state–that any soul may be yours if you find and follow its undulations.
These thematic designs should be the true purpose of autobiography. My thematic design–stands a pattern of redemption of loss, and perhaps the only redemption of loss there is. Loss is irredeemable, it goes on and on, an endlessly discomposed face in the mirror.
We, the people of Spain, didn’t love Ricardo Ortega in order to lose him, any more than Aristide loved his country because he had lost it. But WE both loved them most deeply in our loss.
You may feel that there is an implication that loss may actually be sought, although not perversely, not for its own sake. A loss is a reality displaced; reality is a rehearsal for dream. Regret is a fulfilment rather than an accident.
Happiness and harm, at this level, are only stories, a matter of guesses and wishes; and both are easily contradicted by actuality at any given moment. Doom and harm, by the way, are ways of making things ethically sound, of making them match our supposedly sensible assessment.
Biography…one’s memory…it is a rescue of the real from the uses the imagination might find for it. If we ask about the purpose of a biography, we can also ask about its audience. There is an intimacy here, but it is the intimacy of a text, of reading, you can share my feelings as long as you don’t invade them.
Ricardo’s life was not a masterpiece but it may have been something more precious…
Time and space–the tricks of the damage-strewn world, the pile of debris we call history; but they also represent his successes. They are his successes. Like Time they sustain the magic that makes it vanish.
DANIEL ESTULIN is a political commentator living in Madrid, author of four books on communication skills. He can be reached at: email@example.com