English teachers like me love to compare literature to real life situations. What else are we to do with that liberal arts education that so many nowadays think of as worthless?
So as I followed news reports of former Mayor Ray Nagin’s slow demise, I was struck by how often he was described as boastful, arrogant and non-apologetic, even as his gloomy destiny became obvious. These character traits get many classic figures in literature in trouble, and they often attract fates much worse than federal prisons that offer basketball and tennis as pastimes.
Of Nagin’s sins, his prideful attitude apparently had as much to do with his fall from grace as the public corruption that actually brought about his 10-year prison sentence. His more or less passive collusion with public bribery seems to be the basis of his insistence of innocence, and was the judge’s stated reason for giving him a relatively light sentence.
The deadly sin of pride, or hubris, gets Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in serious trouble. He is so full of himself that when he comes upon a chariot at a crossroads that refuses to yield to him, he kills its driver and entourage in perhaps the first recorded example of road rage. Similar aggressive cockiness appears in a Naginism posted on NOLA.com. “If somebody approach me wrong,” Nagin says, “I’m just gonna cold cock ’em.”
Oedipus’ version of strike first, ask questions later, turns out really poorly. He finds out later that the slain driver was his biological father. That patricide leaves a widow, and that brings Oedipus to an incestuous marriage with his real mother. When the blind seer Tiresias tells Oedipus that his own sins have brought a plague to his kingdom, Oedipus, believing himself sinless, throws the man out in a rage of self-righteousness and accuses another of betrayal.
Unlike Nagin, though, Oedipus redeems himself by showing remorse. He stabs his eyes out with his mother/wife’s brooch when he realizes what he has done.
Oedipus is an authority figure who faces his misdeeds. Once he discovers how blind he’d been to his own faults he literally blinds himself to match his failings. Nagin, on the other hand, never budged in his insistence that he did no wrong, even as the evidence stood taller than he himself does.
Nagin’s fictional mirror is also similar to Edgar Allan Poe’s character Fortunato, whose boastful pride leads him to being buried alive in The Cask of Amontillado.
In that short story, Fortunato, a man of means and prestige, insults an acquaintance who belongs to an ancient but declining European family long committed to vengeful actions. Montresor, Fortunato’s murderer, is a clever, patient, possibly insane fellow whose ability to carry out the perfect crime hinges on Fortunato reacting to Montresor’s trap in his usual incautious, prideful manner.
This plot even happens during Carnival. As appropriate as the setting is for this contemporary New Orleans comparison, the timing is no coincidence in the fiction itself. Montresor intentionally chooses to stalk his prey on a day of drinking and costuming. Clad in the Fool’s garb – and a comic fool he turns out to be – Fortunato stumbles to his death with a man hidden from public view by cloak and mask.
Montresor relates how he withstood the “thousand injuries” from Fortunato without ever showing offense or giving him any reason to doubt his good will. Therefore, when Montresor tells Fortunato that he has purchased a barrel of Amontillado, a rare Spanish sherry, Fortunato follows his murderer into an underground vault without hesitancy. Montresor uses Fortunato’s inflated ego against him by pretending that he could get another expert, Luchresi, to vouch for the wine’s authenticity if Fortunato isn’t able to do so.
Drunk with self-love, Fortunato calls Luchresi an “ignoramus” and at one point implies Montresor isn’t important enough to be a Mason – “of the brotherhood” – as he is. Even after that insult, the Fool follows Montresor deeper into his catacombs. Not even the multitude of skeletons lining Montresor’s vaults deters Fortunato’s quest to prove superiority.
If he’d been sober, Fortunato may have suspected foul play, but between his gluttonous drinking and his drunken ego, he doesn’t flinch when Montresor tells him that his family motto is “Nemo me impune lacessit,” Latin for “No one attacks me with impunity.”
Not long after, Montresor chains the real ignoramus to a niche in a wall and bricks him in. He leaves Fortunato to suffocate in a standing-room-only, walled up cell. Even then, Fortunato doesn’t make apologies.
Just like Fortunato, Nagin is headed for a cell. Just like Fortunato, he has fallen from a man beloved to one victimized by his own self-image. His public show of casting out corruption in his first term in office backfired on him in the second. Just like Oedipus, he cast out villains in a great show of sanctimony only to be revealed as a villain himself.
His willingness to accept expensive favors from contractors seeking business with City Hall, and his insistence to the public that those favors weren’t bribes shows blindness on par with Oedipus.
Federal prosecutors have sent many power-blind local politicians to prison when they abuse their offices for personal gain. Even if Nagin doesn’t know his literature, the convictions of former Gov. Edwin Edwards and former U.S. Representative William Jefferson should have been lessons enough.
Fortunately for Nagin, he can appeal the jury and judge’s decisions. If that fails, his prison sentence has a check out date. With good behavior he will be free in less than a decade. Fortunato wasn’t so fortunate.