The fake sign language interpreter at Mandela's memorial is an irresistible metaphor for our times

The moment we forget our buffoonery, we invite the gods to slap us down


There was something of Zelig – Woody Allen’s nobody who turns up at every event in recent history – about the deaf sign-language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, who, in the view of experts and amateurs alike, talked “gibberish” with his hands. I didn’t watch the service on television, having had enough of all the easily bought, hushed-tone reverence – which is not the same as having had enough of Mandela – but it was plain enough on YouTube, from his frozen eyes and inexpressive jazz hands, that he wasn’t doing the business. He has since blamed it on schizophrenia. Which could have been Zelig’s defence as well.

Leaving aside the insult to the deaf, however, you have to admire him. Though he has apparently performed this function for the ANC before – could it be that there is something they don’t want the deaf to know? – it still takes courage to appear before the world quite so ill-equipped for what you are employed to do. Yes, I know Cameron was there as well, but that’s somehow different.

I’d be surprised, anyway, if a film starring Tom Hanks as a sign-language interpreter who doesn’t know how to hand-sign isn’t already in production. If I were not otherwise engaged I’d be working on the novel. It’s an irresistible metaphor for our times: you and I unable to communicate except through a mediator who, out of whatever motive, passes gobbledegook between us. Another word for this is television.

But there’s something else about this fiasco that strikes me. It pertains to the event. I don’t say the occasion was fatally marred by the farcical, for all that the crowd booed Jacob Zuma, the audio systems failed (so it wasn’t only the deaf who missed out), and the attention of the world’s press was distracted by the Danish Prime Minister’s “selfie” – a marvellous act of solipsistic bathos in the midst of this celebration of selflessness, the fact of Helle Thorning-Schmidt being married to Neil Kinnock’s son somehow compounding the absurdity. And I certainly don’t mean that a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in particular was bound to breed indignities. But the moment we forget our innate buffoonery and elevate men to the status of gods, we invite the gods to slap us down. If we want to make ourselves laughing stocks we have only to overreach.

This isn’t a piece about Mandela. The world doesn’t need another one of those. But view him how you like, he was a flesh and blood man, not a deity. Believers will have to forgive me when I say the same about Jesus. It does neither a disservice to keep the supernatural out of their achievements. Goodness is harder for men than it is for gods. It’s the admixture of the ordinary and the exceptional, reminding us of how much there always is to overcome, that makes us respect them. The sight of Mandela laughing with the Spice Girls is one I would expunge from my memory if I could, but whether he posed with them in hard-nosed compliance to the realpolitik of the trashy world we live in, or because he had the bad taste actually to like the Spice Girls, such worldliness throws his real virtues into relief. Were he alive today, Jesus would surely pose with Tulisa on his way to chasing the money-changers from the City.

We deify at our peril. “There was no one like Lawrence before or since,” wrote the art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan of D H Lawrence. “His genius lay in his capacity for being ...” Let’s stop it there. I yield to no one in my admiration for Lawrence’s work, but when I hear of his, or anyone else’s, “capacity for being” I’m with the gods of mischief on Parnassus. Quietly they wait, and then when death strikes those we aggrandise, so do they. And if not at the moment of death itself, then at a memorial service or an exhumation.

Lawrence’s remains were exhumed in 1935, five years after his death. What happened to them is uncertain, but there’s no dignity however the tale’s told. One version has them incinerated in Marseille, and the ashes handed over to Captain Angelo Ravagli, the one-time lover of Lawrence’s wife. Whether you believe that Ravagli transported them to Taos in New Mexico, where devotees were waiting to receive them, or dumped them outside Marseille to avoid transportation costs, finally posting over some other ashes altogether, depends on how demeaning you want this story to be.

Some ashes turn up in New Mexico, anyway, where, according to one account, they fall into the hands of the poet Witter Bynner who drinks them in his cocktails in the hope of imbibing Lawrence’s “capacity for being”. Otherwise they get finally to Taos and become objects of fierce contention between Mabel Dodge Luhan and Lawrence’s widow, Frieda, the latter finally carting them off in a wheelbarrow of wet cement, into which she drops ash from her own cigarette, saying something along the lines of “let’s see the bastards try to nick them now”. And this to the remains of a man whose personal symbol was the phoenix.

The great Roman soldier and lover Antony – a man forever writing his own epitaph – fares little better at Shakespeare’s hands. Imagining how he will be disgraced by Caesar if he’s captured, he begs those who think him godlike to finish him off in the grand manner, but they are unobliging. “The star is fall’n.” “And time is at his period,” proclaim a couple of poetically minded soldiers, contemplating the mess Antony has made of killing himself. Having delivered the eulogy they scarper. Denied a heroic finish, Antony is carted wounded around the stage before being heaved up for a final kiss from Cleopatra. It lacks only a sign-language interpreter to explain it all in “gibberish”.

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