The Warren Report appears, as if it were the last chorus of a tragedy by Euripides: “Many things the gods achieve beyond our judgement. What we thought is not confirmed, what we thought not, god contrives. And so it happens in this story.” In the fading light, the Report sums up: “Out of these and many other factors which may have molded the character of Lee Harvey Oswald there emerged a man capable of assassinating President Kennedy.”
From the shades of their anxious, detested obscurity, the calamity brought forth to view some of the most disquieting people we have ever encountered. We are given lives and desires we would not willingly have confronted, and we have seen a sort of nakedness we were not eager to acknowledge.
Oswald: There is about him a special invisibility, a peculiar opacity. Those few persons who remain in doubt about his guilt are perhaps reinforced by the impenetrability of this disturbing figure. He does not seem equal in mania or in tenacity of Idea to the catastrophic deed. He had made the most dramatic and awful efforts at self-definition but even so he remains buried, unyielding. He is pale, rancorous, with a special sullen yearning whose dimensions are impossible to measure. Odd words occur to those who remember him: he is all smirks and mutterings, silences and unsociable shrugs. We see him nearly always in some mood of strained, self-conscious chagrin. Not laughter or joking; only sulky refusals or arguments.
Oswald is a ghostly anachronism in a cast of characters completely caught up in the lusts of the 1960s. How hard it is to believe he was born in 1939, that he had just barely turned twenty-four when he died. Most of all he is a Depression figure; unemployment, despair, scarcity follow him about. The tone of his aspirations, the very notes of his formulations ring out dimly from another decade. He says he thinks of his mother and brother only as “workers.” The boom, the Eisenhower era, do not seem to have touched him. The arguments of the Thirties interest him much more deeply than Civil Rights, that great cause of his generation. He is hostile to society, but the beatnik “revolt,” centering as it does on personal relations, has nothing to say to him. His sensibility is metallic, he walks about, borne down by the iron of his backward-looking temperament. He arises as if from a troubled sleep of a decade or two. He lived in Texas, an open highway, and could not drive a car. Only his interest in Cuba connects him with the present, and even there, as always, we find obfuscation, peculiarity, invisibility.
In many ways, Oswald’s early years are the most easily understood because they come to us through our seers who foretell the future and interpret the past: the social workers and psychiatrists. Oswald with their help takes shape; he is like many another whose biography we read in the daily press. He is fatherless, underprivileged …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.