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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

coriolan - polemos vs. polis

Cavell is a pretty fine reader of Shakespeare, and he tosses out some great bon mots in his discussion of the plays. For instance, this, which begins the essay on The Winter’s Tale in the lectures, In quest of the ordinary. Cavell is giving a philosophical defense of romanticism, and he moves from considering a poem by Wordsworth to the play:

Apart form any more general indebtedness of the romantics to Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale is particularly apt in relation to the romatic themses I have emphasized of reawakening or revival, beginning with the figure of the six year old boy of Wordsworth’s Intimatins Ode and the ode’s idea of the adult’s world as “remains”, as of corpses. In my precedeing lecture I associate this figure, especially in view of his difficulties over remembering, with Freud’s report of a phobia in a five year old boy, partly simply to commemorate Freud’s acknowledgement that he was preceded in his perceptions by the poets, more specifically because of Freud’s consequent perception, in this case, of adult human life struggling toward happiness from within its own ‘debris’.

That last sentence tells me so much about psychoanalysis that … it puts the fear of God in me. As in, where to start?

So I quite respect Cavell’s decision not to give a political reading of Coriolanus, but a psychoanalytic one. In his view, there is a core of baffled narcissism at the heart of Coriolanus. To make that view work, he takes Coriolanus’ relationship to his mother as central to the play, and the images of “feeding upon oneself” and other metaphors of cannibalism as the metaphoric of a narcissistic meltdown, essentially determining Coriolanus’ failure. Yet I think that there is a false distinction at work, here, separating the two domains, as though the self and the family could be walled off from the dynamics of the polis and, to my mind most particularly, polemos.

So, I’m going to leave that as something to return to – and no doubt I will forget it.

I want to look at Coriolanus in terms of war, politics and exile. It is striking to me how much more ‘likeable’ Coriolanus is in the scene in which he actually bids farewell to Rome – his speeches remind me very much of another battle hardened man taking grief in stride: the Earl of Kent. When Kent, over Gloucester’s objections, is put in the stocks, this is what he says:

“Glou. I am sorry for thee, friend. 'Tis the Duke's pleasure,
Whose disposition, all the world well knows,
Will not be rubb'd nor stopp'd. I'll entreat for thee.
Kent. Pray do not, sir. I have watch'd and travell'd hard.
Some time I shall sleep out, the rest I'll whistle.
A good man's fortune may grow out at heels.
Give you good morrow!
Glou. The Duke 's to blame in this; 'twill be ill taken.

This is very like Coriolanus at the gates of Rome.

“My (sometime) Generall,
I haue seene the Sterne, and thou hast oft beheld
Heart-hardning spectacles. Tell these sad women,
Tis fond to waile ineuitable strokes,
As 'tis to laugh at 'em.”

What hangs over him at this point – what hangs over the play itself – is a double act of banishment. Coriolanus has been banished from Rome – but he himself has “banished’ Rome, in an act that, to my mind, raises up all kinds of questions the relationship between war and the city:

“Corio. You common cry of Curs, whose breath I hate,
As reeke a'th' rotten Fennes: whose Loues I prize,
As the dead Carkasses of vnburied men,
That do corrupt my Ayre: I banish you,
And heere remaine with your vncertaintie.
Let euery feeble Rumor shake your hearts:
Your Enemies, with nodding of their Plumes
Fan you into dispaire: Haue the power still
To banish your Defenders, till at length
Your ignorance (which findes not till it feeles,
Making but reseruation of your selues,
Still your owne Foes) deliuer you
As most abated Captiues, to some Nation
That wonne you without blowes, despising
For you the City. Thus I turne my backe;
There is a world elsewhere.”

Well, I’ll take this up tomorrow if I can. These are hasty days, as I finish up my affairs before taking my big trip. There is a world elsewhere.

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