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Federal NDP Leader Jack Layton died Monday morning, Aug. 22, 2011 after a battle with cancer. Layton speaks with the media follwing Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Federal NDP Leader Jack Layton died Monday morning, Aug. 22, 2011 after a battle with cancer. Layton speaks with the media follwing Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Politics

Why did Layton's final act rivet us so? It followed a classical arc Add to ...

The word catastrophe, derived from Greek, translates roughly as “an overturning.” Classical drama often ends with it, typically with the death of the hero.

The path of Jack Layton’s recent life perfectly traces that Aristotelian arc, climbing to the hubristic heights of his party’s performance in the 2011 federal election (winning 103 seats and becoming the official Opposition) to the astonishing climax: his July 25 announcement of a second cancer diagnosis. We all know the tragic denouement.

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To this ancient theatrical template, the remarkable outpouring of grief and affection that marked his passing this week surely owes tribute. It was a rare kind of national catharsis, releasing emotions suppressed while we watched his gutsy, cane-aided assault on the old architecture of Canadian politics and his all-too-swift decline.

When it comes to leaders, Canadians are a myth-challenged people. Both Tommy Douglas, an earlier apostle of New Democratic ideals, and Pierre Trudeau did become subjects of TV mini-series, but who would dare dramatize the lives of Joe Clark, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper or even Jean Chrétien? Political gamesmanship? Of course. But hardly the stuff of high drama.

Is Heroism Lite the implicit corollary of peace, order and good government? Does our Canadian recipe require a measure of blandness? Certainly we have it in spades, another reason, perhaps, why Mr. Layton’s unambiguous display of passion touched something deeper within.

Reconstructed for the stage, the Layton saga might begin with his coronation as New Democratic Party leader in 2003. Initially, he is not been expected to win: rough around the edges, it is said, and a little too combative, the legacy of his confrontational years on Toronto City Council. He parlays his first ballot victory into steady increases in electoral support, almost tripling (by 2008) the party’s seats in the House of Commons.

But what is heroism without adversity? In 2010, the first alarm – a diagnosis of prostate cancer. He would beat it, he vowed, as his father did. And for a time, it seemed that he had. Then, in 2011, another ominous intimation – a left hip fracture and subsequent surgery, more evidence that life is what happens when you make other plans.

He exploits it – could you blame him? – brandishing the cane, a weapon as much as a crutch. Denying the active rebellion in his blood, he hobbles across the country, keeping the campaign’s punishing pace like a marathon runner. A hero of the old kind, defined by greatness. Plucky Jack. Committed Jack. Smart, courageous and, most of all, authentic Jack.

There is no drama worthy of the name without surprise. Again, Mr. Layton delivers. To his message of change – more correctly, the possibility of change – Quebeckers respond most enthusiastically. On election night, the NDP captures an unthinkable 59 of 75 seats, decimating the Bloc Quebecois, presumed voice of the province’s federal interests. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff had counselled Canadians to “rise up.” And they had – only not for him. Mr. Harper wins his long-coveted majority. Upon Mr. Layton, engineer of an historic rewiring of the country’s political circuitry, something else is conferred – honour.

Against all odds, Mr. Layton scales – cane in hand – his enormous summit. Just as the dramatic formula demands, Fate intervenes, not benign. This is peripateia, the abrupt reversal of fortune.

Six weeks after the election, in late June, pain returns, accompanied by stiffness, sweating, weight loss, the body’s determined insurrection. Tests confirm the family’s worst fears, metastasis to one or more vital organs. Aeschylus said “man must suffer to be wise.” Mr. Layton was nothing if not wise.

He now enters the ultimate war zone. Compared with this, politics is child’s play. And, after disclosure of the news, we all become reluctant spectators, horrified, because we know how the drama must end. We aren’t given the details. They were irrelevant. He wastes before our eyes.

In the Aristotelian odeon, the hero’s fall is greased by hamartia. The term defies easy interpretation. It can mean moral sin or lapse of judgment. It can also mean an error made in ignorance – of the kind that Jack Layton arguably made when he willed his failing body from one raucous campaign rally to the next.

Or maybe he knew precisely the risk he was taking and, consummate competitor that he was, carried on.

Attention paid, our catharsis follows. Tears, eulogies, the comforting trappings of a state funeral, accompanied by music, which, as Mr. Layton would have insisted, will be not only funereal. This solace, too, is an essential component of the tragic cycle, a social cleansing of bottled sorrow, fear and anger, directed at the callous or absent gods. The farewell is thus as much about us as him, a ritual purgation helping us to accept what cannot be understood, a blind grasp at straws of wisdom.

In the meantime, more than a call to hope, his deathbed injunction to Canadians, Mr. Layton has bequeathed a greater gift – an extraordinary Moment and, perhaps, an enduring myth.

Editor's note: an earlier online version of this article incorrectly stated the number of seats won by the NDP in the 2011 federal election. The correct number is 103.

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