“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

coriolanus

First, some LI stuff. LI is comin’ to NYC – due to the generosity of our far flung correspondent, Mr. T. – next week. And we are thinking of having a happy hour reception for our own self next Monday – which is Dec. 4th, I think - at either Sophie's (5th Street between Aves A and B) or 7B (corner of 7th St and Ave B). But we would like to know if any Gotham LI readers are interested in this, or if you all think that sounds infinitely tedious, the downing of the dominoes in that gray hour when the ball has lost its coherence, and the guests have drifted off to private parties, bearbaiting or bed. Anyway, write me at rgathman@netzero.net to tell me if you think this is a good idea. If I get some responses (and please, tell me which bar you think it should be), I’ll pick one of them and a time and inform you in an upcoming post. Oh, and of course, there will be an animated discussion of the Zizekian sublime and last year’s American idol finale…

Ho ho ho. I’m joking. I’M JOKING!

Okay, second. On to… Coriolanus.

Coriolanus is the most unloveable of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, and he casts an eagle’s cold shadow over the play. In the 30s, the play came in for a lot of attention from the likes of people like Wyndham Lewis, since there seemed to be such obvious hookups between Coriolanus and fascism – in an era when fascism still designated a tight bundle of material characteristics, instead of now, when fascism designates a loose set of unpleasant psychological attitudes. Among the material characteristics for English writers (not only Lewis, but, for example, Shaw) was the idea that politics ultimately boiled down to leadership.

However, Coriolanus acted, even then, as a counter-case to the cult of leadership – even if it did not lead one to a possible politics of non-leadership. Now, LI is obviously obsessed at the moment with the state, war, and the treadmill of production, and just as the jealous man sees the world in green and the man on the blue guitar sees the world in blue, LI sees the system of commodified violence, the epoch beginning with the mass death initiated in 1492, reaching its extreme limit in the death of the ocean and the theft of the atmosphere, those approaching norms of planetary mortality, in every raindrop that falls – so we are certainly going to import our obsessions into a play that seems to invite them.

We’ve been reading the play in conjunction with North’s translation of Plutarch’s life, and with Stanley Cavell’s essay, who does the wolf love? While Coriolanus might seem – fuck it, is – a bit of an illogical jump from our previous thread about Lenin and the percipient/agent dialectic, what can we say? LI has as little talent for staying on topic as a Mexican jumping bean. But one of the great things about obsession is that you don’t have to worry to much about staying on topic – you will inevitably find your way back to the topics of your particular cancer. You will inevitably bump against the shore you are seeking, which will, unexpectedly, appear in Shakespeare, or a news story, or a burst of static on the radio. This is a good thing, until it becomes a very bad thing.

So LI is going to do a post or two about Coriolanus. Here, let’s remind my readers of the plot and context of the thing. The events in the play are set at the beginning of the Roman Republic. The plebians have rebelled against the debt they have been forced into in order to feed themselves, and which they are desperately repaying by selling themselves and their families into bondage. The oligarchs, of course, then as now, are on the lender’s side. The rebellion finds expression in a threat to migrate from Rome, and the plebes even settle on a hill near Rome. They are persuaded to come back by an embassy from the oligarchs headed by Menenius, depicted by Shakespeare as one of those grand old pols: a drinker, close to the oligarch families but able to understand, if not approve, of the plebe culture. Think of a machine Democrat – or even one of the Longs. Earl Long, for instance. Menenius tells the plebes the ‘parable of the belly’ – which is basically the same in North’s Plutarch and in Shakespeare – and – as much by his willingness to talk to them at their own level as by the parable itself – wins them back to Rome. At this opportune time, the Volsces threaten the Roman state. Caius Martius (aka Coriolanus), who has been the most intransigent opponent of the plebes, and especially indignant at the creation of plebian offices, like the tribunes of the people, joins the Roman army and performs such heroic feats against the Volsces that he almost personally drives them back. According Coriolanus is heavily favored to become consul. However, in order to take that office, he must gain the voice of the people through the ritual forms – and in the process, Coriolanus shows himself so scornful of the people and the forms that he incites the popular will against him and is exiled from Rome. In exile, he joins the Volsces to get revenge on his native city – only to be greeted, at the gates, by his mother, who begs him to spare Rome. Coriolanus bows to his mother’s will, betrays the Volsces, and suffers for that betrayal.

Now, one interesting note about the above described plot. In Plutarch, the revolt of the plebes is described like this: “… it fortuned that there grew sedition in the city, because the Senate did favour the rich against the people, who did complain of the sore oppression of usurers, of whom they borrowed money. For those that had little, yet were spoiled of that little they had by their creditors, for lack of ability to pay the usury: who offered their goods to be sold to them that would give most. And such as had nothing left, their bodies were laid hold on, and they were made their bondmen, notwithstanding all the wounds and cuts they shewed, which they had received in many battles, fighting for defence of their country and commonwealth: of the which, the last war they made was against the Sabines, wherein they fought upon the promise the rich men had med them that from thenceforth they would intreat them more gently…” In a brilliant bit of the negation of the negation, Shakespeare inverts this (o black magic moment, that hath such monsters in it!) and makes it Coriolanus who has to show his wounds to the people in order to get their voice – a ritual he is unwilling, in the end, to go through with. So the people never really see his wounds – he is a wound tease – although the people (in the audience) have witnessed the getting of them. It is part of the unloveliness of Coriolanus that his attack on the people extents to an attack on the audience, of which it is a safe bet that 99 percent will not possess the bloodlines such as a Coriolanus would respect. Talk about putting a shark filled moat around identifying with the hero...

2 comments:

Derek said...

Hey, Roger. I'm looking forward to reading more of this digression on Coriolanus. I have piece coming out sometime in Rethinking Marxism on -- sorry to say -- Zizek, Hardt & Negri and Menenius' "parable of the belly." There's a draft of the paper online if you're masochist enough to want to take a look. http://www.appstate.edu/~stanovskydj/organizingmarx.html

I wish I was close enough to come have a beer with you on the 4th. I really miss doing that.

roger said...

Huh. I just put a comment here, and it seems to have vanished.

Anyway - Derek, I'll of course check it out. Say hi to Cynthia for me, too.

Re the big Z man - the rule is going to be that mention of Zizek or any word with two zz-s is cause for another round, I think.

Although I don't really know that much about Zizek, I am getting to the point where the Z bashing is making me sympathetic to the guy. Although I am always put off by the St. Paul thing. It's black magic for me!

Oh, and one more thing. If you didn't see it, Emrys got his name and picture in the NYT this Saturday. So cool! They seem to be fascinated by Emrys' interest in manners and rudeness.

Hope things are well.