I don’t have much new to say about the tragic death of Aaron Swartz. Like many, I was deeply affected despite only a glancing personal acquaintance with him. He seemed to embody the aspirations of a whole class of people, someone who combined intelligence with energy, compassion, and engagement, and (most miraculously) was effective at it. The untimely death of someone so seemingly blessed seems to require an almost mythic explanation. He is Youth and Genius, crushed with an indifferent brutality by the Combine, the Man, the System he wanted to change.
I distrust such capitalized stories about what are after all real individual people, not cosmic forces. But in this case the match between reality and grand narrative is too strong to ignore. It might explain why so many people who barely knew Aaron (myself included) feel so affected, because this incident resonates at frequencies that are deep within us all.
Did he know he was enacting this sort of grand tragedy? I don’t see any indication of that. That in itself is affecting, the thought that this brilliant polymathic youth was not aware that he was unleashing vast destructive forces against himself.
As readers know, I’ve got an obsession with the idea of agency. As soon as this story broke, people were arguing about who to blame for this tragedy: was it the prosecutor’s fault? Or was it “depression”, the catch-all explanation of our age? The mythic perspective undermines all that talk. Tragic protagonists like Oedipus and Macbeth are the agents of their own destruction, and yet they aren’t. They are pawns of fate, drawn to their doom by forces stronger than they are. Blame is an inadequate concept, a petty local view of a grand cosmic process.
I distrust such grand narratives but find myself drawn to them nonetheless. While Aaron’s family and friends mourn him as an individual, the rest of us can’t help view his story through the lens of myth. So in that spirit:
Somewhat inspired by this post by the blogger formerly known as IOZ, who has resurfaced with a new site.