Howard Jacobson: Even the wicked can show some dignity, no matter how much we try to deprive them of it

It was written across Saddam's face when he declined the black hood and accepted the noose
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My subject today is the aesthetics of downfall. I state it baldly so there will be no confusion: my subject is not Iraq, not American foreign policy, not Blair's long silence in the matter of Saddam Hussein's execution, not politics at all except in so far as the political, too, is subject to aesthetics.

From the moment Saddam Hussein was captured in his dirt hole our perception of him changed. What we saw was suddenly not what we had seen before. First, the beard. Wild, matted, shot with grey - a tramp's or hermit's beard. The hair, too, overgrown and frantic. And the black, distracted eyebrows. We cannot help ourselves - we attach the idea of sorrow to dishevelment of this sort. Only something beyond the bounds of ordinary suffering and loss - some unendurable disappointment, some unimaginable grief - explains it. Of course we knew what actually explained it in this instance, but associations are associations - let the facts speak of a deposed tyrant and braggart unearthed where he'd gone to ground, what the aesthetics told us was that a man had become a frightened animal. And by the perverse logic of our sympathies, we find the first shoots of nobility in that.

The more the American's revelled in Saddam's humiliation, the more surely they set in train the process of his ennoblement. Photographs were flashed around the world of a young American soldier dragging Saddam out. "Ladies and gentlemen, we got him!" Paul Bremer, then the US administrator, proclaimed. Caught, the man who had once commanded great armies and erected palaces on a whim, caught in a mud and brick cellar, like a rat in a rat hole. The next day we saw film of American doctors pulling open the dictator's mouth - an old lion who had lost his authority, his dignity and his bite. E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma, as Tosca exults over the body of Baron Scarpia. And before him all Rome trembled.

But never forget that Scarpia looks different to us the moment Tosca stabs him. This is the irony of the avenger's kiss - il bacio di Tosca - that it immediately makes a man again of a monster.

And Saddam had this public relations advantage over Scarpia: he went on living. As a victim of what could easily be shown to be chaotic justice he went on living and expostulating, and grew by the day more handsome. Civilian clothes suited him better than military. He had always looked an oaf in his khaki beret - a comic opera dictator, too sleek, too oiled, an at-someone-else's-say-so autocrat, a parvenu in the international aristocracy of despots. But in the white shirt and long black coat of the scholarly recluse, he appeared to be in another kind of conversation with humanity. He looked forever haggard, which does more for the grandeur of the human countenance than looking forever pleased. A sense of outrage lined his face in a way that the exercise of power never had. In a word, his appearance gave the impression of a man whom circumstances had made contemplative. Whether he grew more serious in fact, we will probably never know. But he looked more serious.

The which being the case, his execution, however it was conducted, was never going to satisfy that part of us that wants to revel unreservedly in the downfall of a brute. A leader article in this newspaper last week pondered the mistakes which had allowed a tyrant to be martyred. Myself, I believe the aesthetic trajectory of downfall makes such an outcome inevitable.

Partly it is to be accounted for by the inconstancy of our more bloodthirsty ambitions in the face of their fruition. "My rage is gone, / And I am struck with sorrow," proclaims Aufidius, the second after cutting Coriolanus to pieces. This is the emptiness audiences often feel at the end of tragedy, on discovering that the appropriate distribution of punishment and reward isn't pleasing after all.

But it is also to be explained by the awe in which, whatever the surrounding carnage, we still hold the final moments of an individual life, as the dying enters what Dickens called "the dread solemnity of the sages and the patriarchs". However much we may wish to deny the wicked the solemnity they share with the virtuous, it will have its way with them. It was written across Saddam Hussein's face when he declined the black hood and accepted the noose. Never mind how we interpret his actions - whether we call it heroism or defiance, or imagine that we saw in his eyes the fear which the victims of his terror dearly wanted to see - the spectacle of him confronting the final seconds of his life was dreadful, in the solemn sense.

That it was dreadful in other senses - that it was made a spectacle at all - is no less a question of aesthetics. The jeering of the guards, the filming of the execution by mobile phone, the distribution of the video across the internet, bore not upon the justice or timing of the event, but its appearance. This is the aspect brutality wears in a technological age. Never mind that Saddam would doubtless have enjoyed and circulated the video had it shown George Bush or Tony Blair on the gallows. Aesthetics are not personal. Saddam Hussein at that moment was not personal; he was something other than the sum total of his achievements and his crimes. The circumstances of his fate, brewing from the moment he was hauled haggard and handsome from his rat hole, raised him.

"He nothing common did or mean / Upon that memorable Scene." The words are the poet Marvell's. The memorable scene is the execution of Charles I. On that occasion, too, the guards "Did clap their bloody hands". So ill-behaviour goes with the event. You cannot, in such an hour, still the years of pent-up rage. All that's changed are the mobile phones.

Marvell's King submits to his execution with more grace than the conditions of Saddam's could ever have allowed - bowing "his comely Head, / Down as upon a bed". It is beyond us to speak with such lyricism of Saddam Hussein. But a similar lesson is to be learnt from both falls from eminence and power. Defeat becomes a man. As arbiters of the lives of others, we strut like clowns. Let our own lives hang suddenly by a thread, and we become, in our demeanour, as angels or philosophers. Whatever our past crimes and buffooneries, in our fall the dread solemnity of the sages and the patriarchs claims us.