This is an extraordinary interview, and everyone should watch it. I have something important to tell humanity.
An Analysis of A Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Dedicated to Lux Interior (1948-2009)
What is one to say when the beloved dies? There is nothing to say. None of the platitudes of bereavement, none of the polite formulae seems adequate. My husband was sitting on that chair, alive, and now he is dead. “John was talking, then he wasn’t” (10). What else is there to say? There are no words that could properly express the banality of mortality.
A Year of Magical Thinking (2005) is Joan Didion’s attempt to craft a language that would make meaningful the death of her husband, John Greg Dunne. It is a language that, at times, seems almost glaciated. After all, she doesn’t offer any of the customary symptoms of bereavement (simulated tears, screaming, protests of denial, etc.). The social worker who ministers to Didion says of the author: “She’s a pretty cool customer” (15).
Didion: “I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?” (16).
Superficial readers, predictably, mistake her seeming sangfroid for indifference. Yet Didion is hardly apathetic. She takes words too seriously to lapse into maudlin kitsch. If she refuses sentimentalism, it is because she knows that the language of sentimentalism isn’t precise enough. If she refuses to be emotionally effusive, it is because she knows how easily an access of emotion–however genuine–can deteriorate into cliché. If she avoids hysteria, it is because she knows that abreaction is incommunicative. Her sentences are blissfully free of fossilized phrases, vapid slogans that could never do justice to the workings of grief.
Of course, the opposite reaction would bring about censure, as well. Had Didion expressed her grief in histrionic terms, American readers would have asked, rhetorically, “Why can’t she just get over it.” (I deliberately omitted the question mark.) The appropriate response to the death of the beloved is temperate mourning and cool-headedness: “Grieve for a month and then forget about the man with whom you spent nearly forty years of your life! Don’t talk about it anymore after that fixed period; we don’t want to hear about it.”
Philippe Aries in Western Attitudes Toward Death: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty. But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.”
In place of a tragedy, Didion gives us a sober account of bereavement. What is it like to be bereaved? You will never know until it happens to you. Didion discovers vortices everywhere–centers of gravitation that pull her toward the abyss left by her husband’s death. A new Alcestis, willing to die in the place of her husband, she calls forth his presence, and yet each of these pleas for his presence reinforces the perpetual silence that separates her from him. Self-pity, of course, is inescapable. She becomes “she-whose-husband-has-died.” She defines herself in relation to the absent beloved. When John was alive, she was a younger woman, since she saw herself exclusively through her husband’s eyes. Now that John is dead, she sees herself, for the first time since she was very young, through the eyes of others. Now that John is dead, she no longer knows who she is.
Every one of us is irreplaceable, which is why death is an irretrievable, irreversible, irrecoverable, infinite loss. When the beloved dies, an impassible divide is placed between the survivor and the absent beloved. Didion hears her husband’s voice, and yet this voice is really her own voice resonating within her–a voice that nonetheless makes her own voice possible. Nothing remains for the survivor to do but to turn the dead beloved into dead meat, to substitute for his living presence a tangible object (whether it is a photograph or any form of funerary architecture), to resign oneself to the dead beloved’s non-being. She must accept the transformation of being into nothingness, the movement from everything to nothing, the withering of fullness into boundless emptiness. Writing is one way to fashion an image of the dead man and thus bring to completion the work of mourning. The failure of objectification, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, will lead to melancholia, the infinitization of the Trauerarbeit.
Let them become the photograph on the table.
Let them become the name in the trust accounts.
Let go of them in the water (226).
This is minimalism, of course, but Joan Didion’s minimalism is minimalism in the genuine sense of the word, not the kind of infantilism that most other American writers practice today and which goes by the name of “minimalism.” They confuse scaled-down writing with simplicity; they externalize everything. They write their intentions explicitly on the surface of the page. Didion, on the other hand, attends to the cadences and pregnant silences inherent to the rhythms of speech. She is attuned to the interstices that punctuate articulated speech, that articulate speech, that make speech communicable. What is unsaid is weightier, for Didion, than what is said. She does not express matters directly; she indicates, she points. There is a kind of veering-away from naked being here, a swerving-away from the nullity of death. Joan Didion is far too dignified, far too noble to pretend to bring death to language.
Polyptoton: Not Cool: The Hipster Elite and Their [sic] War on You (Greg Gutfeld) by Joseph Suglia
Greg Gutfeld writes with all of the elegance of a demented leprechaun, with all of the sophistication of a gutbucket guitar. Gutfeld, a writer without a working gut-hammer, is gutted of all integrity. I have guttled down thousands of books in my life, but this is the only one that seems gutlessly written. To be charitable, perhaps Gutfeld has reserved his gutsiest staves for his television program. I found it difficult to gut it out and finish his book, which is a complete gutter ball.
SO LONG, PLANET EARTH!: An analysis of “Ode to the West Wind” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Bad news, humans! The Andromeda Galaxy is barreling toward the Milky Way, the sun of our solar system will explode, will extinguish itself, as all stars do, and, long before either of these things happen, most of the Planet Earth will become uninhabitably hot. All of the planets within our galaxy, with the exception of Earth, are unlivable, which means that the human species, if it is to survive at all, will have to trickle away the rest of its existence in spacecraft. Otherwise, we are hurtling toward our extinction and oblivion as if we were a suicide of lemmings.
Percy Bysshe Shelley saw all of this coming and wrote a poem about the destruction of our world, in the autumn of 1819, when the poet was twenty-seven, entitled “Ode to the West Wind.” It recalls an earlier poem by Albrecht von Haller entitled “Incomplete Poem on Eternity” (1736), which was quoted by Immanuel Kant in his youthful essay “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and of the Sublime” (1764). (It is not entirely certain whether Shelley read Kant, much less Haller. See Hugh Roberts’s article “Shelley among the Post-Kantians.”) Both poems—that of Shelley and that of Haller—are chillingly apocalyptic and yet also celebratory of the apocalypse, the coming of what Haller described as “the second nothingness” that will “bury” us all.
The ode is divided into five groups. Each group contains five stanzas. The first four stanzas in each group are three lines long; the last stanza of each group is a rhyming couplet. The entire poem is written in iambic pentameter: Each line has ten syllables; the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed. It begins thus:
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!
The West Wind is like an invisible exorcist that expels leaves in the way that an exorcist expels ghosts. Thus far, the poem seems to be nothing more than the description of a natural phenomenon that uses a supernatural simile: A natural phenomenon (the West Wind) is likened to a supernatural force (the enchanter) that drives away another supernatural force (ghosts). Until we read of the “pestilence-stricken multitudes” who are escorted to their mass-death. “Multitudes” evokes human beings, not leaves—sick human beings, poor human beings.
When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, England was horribly impoverished. It was a time of famine, grave poverty, and deep unemployment. Thanks to the Corn Laws of 1815, the import of corn was blocked and the multitudes were starving.
At this point, one of the meanings generated by the poem is clear: This is an ode that welcomes the death of humanity (as it was in the early nineteenth century) and the birth of a new humanity. The poem suggests that the Apocalypse might not be such a bad idea, after all. It is not a misanthropic poem, however, since Shelley is not opposed to humanity as such; indeed, he (the paper Shelley) affirms the advent of a better humanity. I hesitate to use the word nihilistic, since the poem is not absent of value. Value-building is all that the poem does. There is a value presented in the poem, and it is the value of preservative destruction: The westerly wind is named a “Wild Spirit,” at the close of the first section, and both a “destroyer” and a “preserver.” It is the unseen presence that destroys the immiserated multitudes and the regal chariot that bears the seeds of a new humanity to their wintry sleep, to be awakened by the Spring Wind. The West Wind, then, has two functions: to destroy lost contemporary humanity and to plant the seeds for a stronger future humanity.
At the close of the first stanza, as at the close of the second and the third, the narrator sounds a clarion call, a plangent summons to the West Wind (which is apostrophized by the familiar “Thou”): “oh, hear!”
Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!
The focus of the poem shifts from the ground to the sky. To be precise: The view of the poem moves from the leaves that are being dispersed, as rioters in a mob, to the clouds that are being dispelled by the aerial force of the West Wind. No longer does the poem look down upon the poverty-stricken multitudes; now, the poem looks up at the Castlereaghs and the Eldons. No love is shown for the upper classes, which are likened to a bacchante’s tresses.
It is important to place the poem in the age in which it was written. Shelley had already condemned the government of Lord Liverpool for butchering the British people at Peterloo, Manchester (16 August 1819), in a rage-incented and rage-incenting poem entitled “The Masque of Anarchy.” Shelley was no nihilistic, ennui-drowsy elitist wishing for the death of the poor and uneducated masses. The paper Shelley, at least, wishes for the West Wind to sweep away everyone and everything that currently exists, both low and high.
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!
The tyrannies of the world—the violently repressive British government among them—are overthrown by the annihilating gust. The great wind dreamed, and this is what it dreamed: The wind envisioned the “old palaces and towers” reflected in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. And these “old palaces and towers” were “all overgrown with azure moss and flowers.” Swathes of invasive vegetation colonize the city, which is transmuting into a jungle—an ever-growing, ever-flourishing, ever-blossoming jungle.
This is the last time that the prophet will summon the West Wind. Now, it is the prophet himself who will become the focus of the poem. I use the masculine pronoun because it is clear that the narrator is a he in the fourth section:
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
The prophet, far from exempting himself from the wind’s sweepings, calls to the wind to carry him along as if he were a leaf, a cloud, or a wave. At first, it seems as if the prophet were calling for his own self-negation, but then notice how he quickly calls himself a “comrade” of the wind in Stanza Three and then identifies himself with the wind in the second line of the couplet: “[o]ne too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.” One cannot escape the impression that the prophet sees himself as something more than a leaf, a cloud, or a wave. If anything, this is self-deification, the raising of the Self to the godhood. This is anthropotheism, similar to the anthropotheism that Feuerbach saw in Christianity: Christians attribute the best parts of themselves to God.
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Translation: Let my leaves emerge from the nothingness that the wind will leave in its wake. Let me be revivified after the wind’s many destructions and annihilations. Let my poems revitalize the dead Earth. Like any good Romantic figure, Shelley’s prophet desires to unify himself with nature, but this does not mean that he would be swallowed up by nature–it means, rather, that he would swallow nature, engulf nature, interiorize nature, transform nature into the Self: “Be thou me.” This is, again, not self-obliteration; it is anthropotheism, the aggressive self-assertion of the human will. The poet’s song will outlast the wind.
Concluding Unscientific Postscript. German Romanticism (of the Jena period) is nostalgic for the reunification of subject and object, self and world. English Romanticism seems to want the same thing, except, in the English Romantic imagination, the Self dominates Nature. It wants Nature to capitulate to the Self.
Compare Shelley with Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
Are not the mountains, waves, and skies, a part
Of me and of my soul, as I of them?
Dr. Joseph Suglia
My analysis was cited in Marco Caracciolo’s article “Narrative Space and Readers’ Responses to Stories: A Phenomenological Account,” Style. Vol. 47, No. 4, Narrative, Social Neuroscience, Plus Essays on Hecht’s Poetry, Hardy’s Fiction, and Kathy Acker (Winter 2013), pp. 425-444. Print.
An Analysis of THE ROAD (Cormac McCarthy) by Joseph Suglia
“When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it…”
—Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985) is something of an undergraduate exercise. It is a Faulknerian pastiche and, above all, hedonistic. Hedonism, as far as I’m concerned, is an enemy of art. Whereas Blood Meridian is verbally expansive, the language of McCarthy’s The Road (2006) is strictly delimited.
We follow a nameless father and son as they wander through a post-American void, a “blastosphere,” to use J.G. Ballard’s term. (Blastosphere = Not the blastula, but the “implicit shape of the way matter is perturbed by an explosion” (Will Self)). They scavenge for food and tools. They encounter those who seemingly show their seamiest impulses and who behave in an unseemly manner.
And yet I suspect that this is less a novel about a post-apocalyptic future than it is one about our atheological present. It is a theological allegory about a world from which the gods are manifestly absent. Eine gottesverlassene und gottesvergessene Welt.
We find grounds for this supposition in those passages in which the grey waste is described as “godless”  and “coldly secular”  and wastes of human flesh are named “creedless” .
“On this road there are no godspoke men” .
The worst thing that could be written about The Road is that it is a sappy religious allegory. Nabokov wrote of Faulkner’s Light in August:
“The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which also spoils Mauriac’s work.”
I would write of McCarthy’s The Road:
The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which does not pervade Faulkner’s work.
This does not mean that the book is unredeemable, however. What might have been a pedestrian trifle in the hands of a lesser writer has become something genuinely pedestrian with author McCarthy. The most distinctive feature of The Road is not the story that is told, but the manner in which McCarthy tells it: that is to say, the narrative. He writes so magically that a grey empty world is summoned forth vividly before our eyes.
It needs to be said and emphasized that McCarthy has almost completely superseded standard English punctuation in the writing of this novel. He strategically, willfully omits periods, commas, semicolons, and apostrophes throughout the work in order to equivocate, in order to multiply meanings, in order to enlarge the literary possibilities of language.
The relative absence of punctuation in the novel makes the words appear as if they were the things themselves. Of course, one could seize upon the conscious, literal meaning of the words. But does language not slip away from us? Are its meanings not dependent on the interpretive framework of the listener, of the reader? And is it not conceivable that the linguistic elisions reflect the consciousness of the central character?
Proper punctuation would disambiguate and thus flatten the sentences–sentences that are, liberated from such restrictions, both benign and lethal. We have before us a rhetorically complex novel, a work of literature that is rife with ambiguity.
And the non-punctuation makes us feel. If the “sentences” were punctuated in the traditional manner, we, as readers, would feel nothing. We would not feel, viscerally and viciously, the nightmarish world into which father and son have precipitated. We would not be infused with the chill of post-civilization.
The absence of standard punctuation in The Road is a fruitful, productive absence. It is a writerly, stylistic choice.
I hope I have persuaded my readers that McCarthy’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation is stylized. It most certainly is not unnecessary. One of the lessons that we can derive from the novels of McCarthy is how to apply typography in literary craftsmanship. Punctuation opens or closes the doors of meaning. Let me invent my own ambiguously commaless sentence for the purposes of elucidation. If I write, “I want to eat my parrot William,” this would seem to signify that I want to eat a parrot named William, a parrot that belongs to me. However, what happens if the comma is explicitly absent? Three contradictory interpretations are then possible: 1.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her, a parrot named William; 2.) The narrator, apparently, wants to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her and is addressing this remark to someone named William (“I want to eat my parrot, William”); 3.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat in general, and this comment is directed at his or her parrot, the name of which is William (“I want to eat, my parrot William”). Punctuation, depending on how it is used, can restrict or expand meaning. Commas articulate, determine meaning. The absence of a comma, on the other hand, opens up semantic possibilities inherent to language. Its absence opens the doors of ambiguity.
As I suggested above, McCarthy’s refusal to punctuate in the conventional manner is also intimately connected to the internal struggles of the main character and, perhaps, the psychology of the author. The narrator eschews commas because he fears death. I suspect that, similarly, McCarthy’s aversion to punctuation bespeaks a futile desire to escape his mortality–a charmingly fragile and recognizably human desire.
“[E]ver is no time at all” .
The ephemerality of the instant. Hence, the relative commalessness of McCarthy’s statements. A comma would pause an enunciation, rupture its continuity, the incessant flow of language, the drift of language into the future. What, after all, is a comma if not the graphic equivalent of a turn in breath, of an exhalation or an inhalation? Commas do not merely articulate a sentence. Commas stall, they defer, they postpone, they interrupt without stopping. A speaking that speaks ceaselessly, without commas, in order to outstrip the nightmare of history. McCarthy’s language moves forward endlessly, without giving readers a chance to catch their breath. This is a writing that is unidirectional and decidedly equivocal.
The thrusting momentum of McCarthy’s language fertilizes my suspicion that The Road is also a book about time. More precisely, a book about time’s three impossibilities: the impossibility of ridding oneself of the past completely, the impossibility of eternalizing the present, and the impossibility of encompassing the future.
The future is essentially unpredictable for the son, and the reader has no idea, at the novel’s close, what will become of him. Will the son survive? Will he be bred for cannibal meat, for anthropophagous delicacies? An infinitude of possibilities… And here we come to yet another strange intimacy between McCarthy’s singular style of punctuating and not punctuating and one of the leitmotifs of his novel: The eerily open-ended “conclusion” of THE ROAD is no conclusion at all, a conclusion without a period. And the novel lives on inside of the reader’s head and heart, growing within as if it were a vicious monster fungus.
An Analysis of MAO II (Don DeLillo) by Joseph Suglia
Exactly ten years before the terrorist assaults on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Don DeLillo’s Mao II (1991) compared the act of writing with the act of terrorism. As terrorists, writers once had the power to destabilize perceptions of the world. They unsettled one’s customary responses to things and opened up the possibility of new thoughts and impressions. By giving ordinary things extraordinary names, literary language had the power to radically transform one’s relationship to the world. Today, however, what could be more harmless than a novel? A novel is insignificant in comparison with the explosive force of terrorist initiatives. Literature is dead, and the news is the new means of perceptual disorganization.
The only way that literature can be effective in a culture of terror is by absorbing the gestures of terror. In DeLillo’s novel, literature, quite literally, terrorizes. Legendary novelist Bill Gray is blackmailed by a Maoist Lebanese political organization to act as its spokesperson. Although literature has lost its power to alter human perception, the image of the author exerts a certain authority. For this reason, Gray’s simulacrum will be used to promote the causes of Lebanese nationalism. The writer becomes a reporter, a mediator of images that stimulate fear.
As if to acknowledge that literature is absorbed by the culture of the image, Mao II takes the form of a “picture-book.” On the one hand, its various scenes have the “feel” of a documentary and resemble the news in printed form; there is, for example, an extraordinary “documentary”-like moment in which Brita and Karen watch Khomeini’s funeral on television and witness endless crowds simulating paroxysms of grief. On the other hand, each section of the book is segmented by actual photographs: masses of Chinese citizens gathered before Mao Zedong; a preordained marriage ceremony at Yankee stadium; a crowd of people crushed against a steel fence by the rampaging stampede at the 15 April 1989 soccer game in Sheffield, England; Khomeini’s portrait; children in the trenches of war-torn Beirut. All of this serves to reinforce the book’s thesis that the book is dead. Dead or swallowed by an infinite swarm of technically reproducible images.
The author of a novel about terrorism, Martin Amis incorrectly categorized Mao II as a “postmodernist” work. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the book traces the limits of postmodernism by opposing the transformation of words into images. The novel links the tyranny of images with the tyranny of terror–hence the title, which is taken from one of Andy Warhol’s mass-reproductions of Mao Zedong’s portrait. By aligning the order of images with the order of terror, the book condemns both. Of course, one of the characters, George Haddad, representative of the Lebanese terrorist group and Gray’s interlocutor, claims that terrorism has not been incorporated and subsumed by the culture of the image: “Only the terrorist stands outside” . By saying this, Hadded attempts to identify the terrorist with those who are outside of mainstream culture. But the exact opposite is the case–just because Haddad makes this claim does not mean that “DeLillo” agrees with him. Terrorists need technically reproducible images in order to terrorize. Without television and the massive circulation of sound-bytes and images that it empowers, the efforts of terrorism would be ineffective. By contrast, literature is, strictly speaking, invisible: it is constituted by hints, clues, gestures, and ambiguities. In a culture in which terror is spread through images, literature is doomed to failure: “What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous” . American culture is a culture that valorizes the obvious–and for this reason, terrorism, which exploits the obvious, has a firm hold on the American sensibility. Everything must be visualized, everything must be known, everything must be self-evident, everything must be confessed. There is no place for literary opacity in a culture that values transparency above all else: “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated” .
And yet terrorists are also incorporated. One must no longer imagine that terrorists are “Others” who infiltrate a domestic territory. Terrorists do not attack “us” by way of an intervention or an incursion from the outside. Terrorism, according to the logic of Mao II, inhabits the very culture that it pretends to assail. All writers are terrorists and “half murderers” –and Gray is no exception. As the other “dictators” mentioned in the novel–Khomeini, Mao, and Moon–Bill recedes into an exile that would precede his accession to power and intensify his influence. He disguises his past and changes his name (from “Willard Skansey, Jr.”) in order to de-expose himself. His openness–the media exposure to which he “submits”–is the most devious form of concealment.
How else can an author survive in a culture of terror except by immersing him-/herself in an ever-proliferating sea of images? Even before his “proselytization,” Gray allows himself to be photographed by the enigmatic Brita. As the subject of a photograph, he yearns to obtain power through inaccessibility: “The deeper I pass into death, the more powerful my picture becomes” . By retreating into the illuminated darkness of the image (like Pynchon, like Blanchot, like Salinger), the writer occupies a sacred space once reserved solely for godhood. Only when the subject is dead can his or her image have any meaning. Authors kill themselves by permitting themselves to be visualized. The photograph is the death mask of the author.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
THE POETRY OF CONSERVATISM: An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS (William Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Poverty and underdevelopment are not God-given but are man-made, and can be unmade by man.”
—“The Move Forward,” Christopher Hitchens, 21 June 1971
THE POETRY OF CONSERVATIVISM
If you would like to know where your friends stand politically, you could do no better than give them The Tragedy of Coriolanus (circa 1605-1608) to read, arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy but also his most politically reactionary play. If your friends side with Caius Martius Coriolanus, they are likely more conservative. If your friends side with the Roman crowd, they are likely more liberal.
The play is perhaps the prototypical poem of conservativism and even more politically conservative than The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which explains why the work is T.S. Eliot’s favorite play, why Hazlitt dislikes it so much, and why Brecht, the radical Marxist dramatist, turned Coriolanus into a fascist dictator in his 1951 reinterpretation of the tragedy. It does not explain, however, why Beethoven (a republican in the old sense of the word, someone who we would today call a liberal) wrote an overture in the general’s honor.
The most intelligent architects of modern political conservativism (including Hegel) are Machiavelli and Hobbes. One of the premises of modern political conservatism is an intuition that can be found in the writings of both Machiavelli and Hobbes: Do not trust the crowd, for the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious. If you trust in the crowd, you are likely a liberal. If you think that the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious, you are likely a conservative.
The rightist politics of The Tragedy of Coriolanus are evident from the very first scene on. It is a politics that is contemptuous of democracy.
STARVING THE POOR
When we first see him, Coriolanus is astride a horse, condemning the poor of Rome for demanding food to eat. He chastises the famishing wretches for having the temerity to beg for corn, for the criminal impertinence of demanding corn from the aristocracy. The crowd claims that the Roman nobility has more food than it could ever eat (“If they [the patricians] would yield us but the superfluity while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us [the poor] humanely” [I:i]); when he became consul, the real-world Coriolanus pledged to withhold food from the poor unless the rights of the poor were revoked. The most salient of these rights was the right to appeal to the tribunes, the representatives of the people—a right that was given to appease the people after the plebeian secession. The real-world Coriolanus loathed, more than anything, the system of tribunes, of the vocalizers (and influencers) of the popular will. Not only did the real-life Coriolanus deny the poor corn after he became consul, demanding the rescission of the rights of the poor—he demanded that their spokesmen be divested of power, as well.
The Tragedy of Coriolanus was composed at a time of grain shortage, when hunger in England reached near-famine levels. The insurrection of the Roman people does not recall Ancient Roman history at all; it recalls the Midlands Revolt of 1607, as well as the insurgencies and rebellions in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, and Warwickshire, which were fomented in response to insufficient harvests and the food-hoarding of the English aristocracy. There is even the appearance of English mills in the grain of the text (“’Tis south the city mills” [I:x])—as the 1878 Clarendon edition glosses, this refers to the mills of London, not those of Rome. As is always the case in Shakespeare, though the subject matter is historical, the play is presentist, not antiquarian: It is a work that concerns not Roman antiquity, properly, but the Elizabethan present in which Shakespeare is writing.
We are supposed to believe that the macerating poor have no right to ask for food, that they should starve to death rather than importune Coriolanus, who alone has the right to the things of necessity (food, shelter, clothing), to comfort, and to pleasure. He even makes fun of the words that they use (“an-hungry” is the demotic style, a low-class colloquialism): “[The poor] said they were an-hungry” [I:i]. The poor “sighed forth proverbs— / That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat, / That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not / Corn for the rich men only” [I:i]. These all might be platitudes, as Coriolanus points out (some of which were emblazoned on placards held aloft by the unruly crowd in Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 cinematic interpretation), but who has the right to tell the hungry that they are not hungry? And what arrogance it is to mock the hungry for articulating their hunger and for clamoring to satisfy their hunger! Coriolanus repudiates the poor for the need to put food in their stomachs. The brutality and factuality of hunger are undeniable. Coriolanus is saying, in essence, “I don’t want to hear about your hunger” with the same incensed dismissiveness and lofty indifference with which Chris Christie said that he doesn’t want to hear the New Jersey poor talk about raising the minimum wage (it has been raised twenty-five cents to a grudging $8.85 in the year in which I am revising this essay, 2019).
How dare the poor beg for bread! How dare they insist that their stomachs be filled! For their irreducibly human need to eat, the poor are called “dissentious rogues” [I:i]—rascally wretches and wretched beggars. The a priori assumption is as follows: The more the poor have, the less the nobility has. The less the poor have, the more the nobility has. The hungrier the poor are, the more prosperous the nobility. The humiliation and immiseration of the poor lead to the dignity and luxury of the rich: “The leanness that afflicts us [the poor, the miserable], the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularize their abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them” [I:i]. The starvation of the poor equals the elevation of the nobility, and the fetid, contaminating sewer water of the poor should never flow into a conflux with the pure waters of the nobility. Thus, Martius espouses an Ancient-Roman precursor of trickle-down economics: Feed the rich, and perhaps, someday, scraps shall fall from their table, scraps on which the poor may snack.
Martius has a granular understanding of the poor. He sees the poor as if they were so many grains of corn, so many motes, so many “fragments” [I:i]; he sees them not as individual totalities, but as disjointed pieces broken from the whole of the Roman commonality. He even welcomes crushing them in the war against the Volscians: “Then we shall ha’ means to vent / Our musty superfluity” [I:i]. They are either grains of corn or vermin verminizing England. For the crime of hunger, Martius expresses the wish that the poor be mass-exterminated in the Roman-Volscian war, as if they were rats: “The Volsces have much corn. Take these rats thither / To gnaw their garners” [I:i]. (Garners = granaries.) Send them to the wars! Coriolanus echoes exactly what the Roman poor say about the patricians—to the wealthy, the poor are either fodder for the war or starvelings: “If the wars eat us not up, they will” [I:i].
The play itself is on the side of Coriolanus, not on the side of the poor. Already, in the first scene, this is evident. To be clear to the point of bluntness: The play’s glorification of Coriolanus makes the tragedy a reactionary, rightist, ultraconservative work of dramatic literature. If I am wrong about this (and I am not), why are the poor not presented in a poetical manner? Only Coriolanus is enshrined with poetical loftiness and lyrical magnificence. The poor are not given a poetical voice. Only Coriolanus is given a poetical voice. The reason for this might be, as Hazlitt writes, that the principle of poetry is “everything by excess” and is therefore married with the language of power. Poetry is not about equality; it is about the contrast (the dissymmetry) between the low and the high. Poverty is not an easy subject for poetry, which is nothing without elevated moods and elevated language. It is, of course, possible to write a poem about food stamps, but it is not possible to write a good poem about food stamps without some poetical sublimation or fantastication. Hazlitt’s idea is that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is fascistic (though he does not use this word, writing, as he did, in 1816) because poetry is fascistic by its very essence. This would be to view the politics of the play through the speculum of poetry rather than to explain the poetry of the play through the speculum of politics.
THE INFANTICIDAL MOTHER
Coriolanus’s war-loving and war-mongering mother is living vicariously through her soldier-son. Volumnia, the bellicose mater, only becomes peace-loving when her son wages a war against her country, Rome [I will return to this point below].
The real mother of Coriolanus was named Veturia, and the real-world wife was named Volumnia. It is extraordinary to notice that Shakespeare gives the fictional mother the name of Coriolanus’s real-world wife.
Indeed, there is a disturbing sexuality between mother and son in the play. The mother says to Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife, in prose, “If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed, where he would show most love” [I:iii]. The mother is projecting herself, through the medium of the imagination, into the mind of Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife. But this is trifling chitchat when set against the epiphany: The mother is imagining what it would be like to have sex with her own son. Even more arrestingly shocking and shockingly arresting is the recognition: The mother would rather her son die in war than have sex with anyone (else?), as her succeeding remark makes clear. Asked the sensible question of what she would think if her son died in combat, the mother responds that “his good report” (the report of his war death) should have been her son: “I therein would have found issue” [I:iii]. “Issue” here is meant in the original sense of “offspring,” and the flabbergasting implication is that her son will only fulfill his human promise when pierced by the sharp end of the enemy’s sword. She continues: “Hear me profess sincerely: had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Martius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” [I:iii]. Not only is the mother introjecting herself, imaginarily, into the role of her son’s wife; she is declaring to this same wife that the mother would rather her son put his life at stake on the slaughterfield than enjoy the pleasures of the bed (“voluptuously surfeit out of action”). This implies, again, that she has imagined having sexual intercourse with her own son and that she is gleefully anticipating her son’s lethal besmearing. She would have him become a “thing of blood” [II:ii].
The mother’s dark romance with her son takes the form of violence and death. Volumnia salivatingly counts the scars that had been inflicted and inscribed on her son’s body at the expulsion of the Tarquins, cataloguing his wounds with malicious lust (“malicious,” “maliciously,” or “malice,” used eleven times in the text, is one of the most signifying words in the play): “There will be large cicatrices to show the people when he shall stand for his place. He received in the repulse of Tarquin seven hurts i’th’ body” [II:i]. She proudly numbers the sum of her son’s wounds at twenty-five—“He had, before this last expedition, twenty-five wounds upon him” [II:i]—and is gushingly elated to learn that the number has increased to twenty-seven. Menenius, the substitute father, is overjoyed to learn that his substitute son Coriolanus has been wounded in the Battle of Corioli. He is delighted to report that the surrogate son has been wounded “[i]’th’ shoulder and i’th’ left arm” [II:i].
Lawrence Olivier would giggle uncontrollably as he read the line in which Volumnia declares her willingness to perform six of Hercules’ labors (“If you had been the wife of Hercules, / Six of his labours you’d have done and saved / Your husband so much sweat” [IV:i]), but is it so difficult to conceive the woman hacking away with a sword at the Hydra? She is a militaristic machine, and, as I have argued, one who would rather see her only son killed on the slaughterfield than catch him in bed with a woman. War, or the vicarious experience of war, is motherly pleasure for Volumnia.
Ralph Fiennes was very wise to put Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) in a military uniform that vaguely resembles a uniform of the Yorkshire Regiment of the British Army in his film interpretation of the play. Her role as military commandant (for what else is she?) supersedes her role as a mother. She cares more about Martius’s military victories than about his well-being. No, worse than that: She is seized with a kind of bloodlust, and this is absolutely evident in the following lines: “[Blood] more becomes a man / Than gilt his trophy / The breasts of Hecuba / When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier / Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood / At Grecian sword contemning” [I:iii].
Martius fights for the mother, in the name of the mother. No wonder he is psychologically stultified—never developing into an adult with the consciousness of an adult, never loosening or severing dependency on the mother. No wonder he doesn’t know how to talk to the common people, no wonder he cares only for himself and for his mother (for the mother is the origin of his selfhood), no wonder he hoards the grain for himself and for his peers. His loyalty to his motherland is loyalty to his mother Volumnia.
Consider that Coriolanus is a mother-obsessed fascist, and this consideration gives one insight into the psychology of fascist consciousness: Overmothered mammothrepts become fascists (Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), anyone?). Martius was a fascist long before the word existed. For the word fascism comes from the Latin fascis, which means “bundle,” and under fascism, an entire society is bundled around a single authoritarian leader. Martius is bundled by the mother.
War is an industry. Beyond the psychodynamic dimensions of her relation to her son, does Volumnia not also have a financial interest in her son’s military victories? When Martius defeats the Volscians, the defeat of the Volscians benefits Rome. If Martius, now “Coriolanus,” as the Volscian general, were to defeat Rome, this would obviously erode the mother’s position of authority. We see, in the play, that familial relationships are also financial relationships. Volumnia has a relation to her son that reminds one of the financial and erotic interest that Donald Trump takes in his daughter Ivanka Trump. What benefits Rome benefits Volumnia. His victories against Volsci are her political and financial victories. Though she says that she would rather have the entire city perish than lose her son, could this be because Volumnia believes that the city will perish without her son?
KILLING MACHINE (NEARLY) BECOMES CONSUL
To say that Martius is a great soldier would be a gross understatement. He is an army-annihilating zombie, an anthropomorphic mega-drone, a super-tank in human form. He hospitalizes the best fighters and slaughters everyone else. His worthiest enemy, Aufidius, flees for his life, is driven away breathless by Martius five times [I:x]. Martius is pure lethality and neither Volsci nor Rome can win a war without him when he is on the other side.
Martius surges into Volsci and besieges the city of Corioli. The Roman senate and the Roman people are so impressed with the besiegement and with his military performance that they nominate Martius consul and rename him with the cognomen “Coriolanus,” named after the toponym “Corioli.” Thus begins the becoming-Volscian of Martius. The mother seems dismayed by the renaming of her Caius Martius: “‘Coriolanus’ must I call thee?” [II:i]. The re-nomination of Martius as “Coriolanus” marks the beginning of the veering-away from the mother, which will be short-lived.
The soldier soon proves to be an inept statesman—he shows such contempt for the plebeians that they reject him as consul, as his appointment is not confirmed, and expel him from the city of Rome.
The brutishness and arrogance of Coriolanus are fitting for a soldier, but less than fitting for a statesman. As I suggested above, he does not know how to speak to the commoners; he has no feeling for the commonal. He is the skillful military general who cannot function as a politician. He is reluctant to speak to the people after being nominated consul [II:ii], as he is reluctant to canvass them for votes [II:iii]; when he does address the people directly, it is almost always with disgust. Coriolanus’s language defeats him.
When Coriolanus declares, “I banish you” [III:iii] to the mob, it is as if he were a disgruntled ex-employee who, seconds after being fired, shouts at his employer: “You can’t fire me; I fire you!” A woman breaks up with her boyfriend. The erstwhile boyfriend shoots back: “You want to break up with me? I am breaking up with you!” Coriolanus is every bit as childish as the ex-employee and the rejectee—he is a child-adult or an adult-infant.
The Romans estrange Coriolanus, literally: They turn him into a stranger, a transformation which was presaged by his name change. When he is re-nominated “Coriolanus,” it is not long thereafter until the people of Rome see him as a foreigner, as though he were a resident of Corioli. The Romans see Coriolanus now as a foreigner, but are the Romans not foreigners to Coriolanus? Along the same lines: The Romans see the Volscians as foreigners, but are the Volscians not foreigners to the Romans? The Volscians have vanished into the abysses of history, but they were a formicine tribe that gathered south of Rome—“formicine” (ant-like) only because they dwelled upon the hills of what is now Southern Italy. When Coriolanus is repatriated to Volsci, why do we see this as a betrayal? Why are so many of us pious toward the country in which we were born? Why is Rome the home-space—especially considering that Coriolanus was a stranger in “his” own motherland? Why are the marshland people of Volsci the strangers? Why do the swamps and hills of Volsci form a shadowzone?
THE PRIVATE AND THE PUBLIC
Coriolanus is incapable of separating his public and private selves. (For a discussion of the separation of public and private selves in bourgeois society, see Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche.) As far as I can tell, he only gives one soliloquy, in the fourth scene of the first act (“You souls of geese / That bear the shapes of men…”)—this is the only time in the play when he is alone. Otherwise, he is forever enrounded by other people.
If Coriolanus does not understand the difference between the public and the private, this is likely because his mother never taught him the difference between the public and the private. Indeed, his mother nurtured him to become a soldier, thus confusing his familial and public roles. We see this confusion of roles clearly in the moving scene of reconciliation between mother and son. Martius’s tearful discourse with his own mother would have been more appropriate in private, not held before an audience of Volscian thugs. His exhibition gives Aufidius free hand to taunt him for being a mamma’s boy.
Coriolanus has the tendency to say whatever comes to his mind without filter. A particularly illustrative example of Coriolanus’s tendency to blurt things that should not be said in public: He asks the Roman senate to forgo the custom of requiring the nominee to the consulship to speak to the people. This is a custom, he says, that “might well / Be taken from the people” [II:ii]. Now, as the editors of the Arden edition point out, the outrageousness and inflammatoriness of this remark could be soothed somewhat if we imagine that he is addressing his remarks to Menenius. In Ralph Fiennes’ contemporization, a live microphone picks up Coriolanus’s careless remark—which should not have been heard by the people and certainly not by the tribunes. In the film, at least, he didn’t intend for anyone but Menenius to hear what he said.
The one exception to his ignorance of the distinction between the private and public spheres is when Coriolanus tells a citizen, from whom he would solicit votes, that he has “wounds to show [the citizen] which shall be [his] in private” [II:iii]. The crowd unjustly resents him for not displaying his stigmata in the agora (yes, I know this is a Greek and not a Latin term).
His public and private languages are mixed together, as Menenius acknowledges: Coriolanus is “ill-schooled / In bolted language. Meal and bran together / He knows without distinction” [III:i]. Coriolanus cannot disengage crass language (bran) from diplomatic language (meal); he cannot distinguish the crude from the pure. He speaks insultingly when the language of diplomacy would be more appropriate.
HIS LEAST FAVORITE WORDS
There are four words that “trigger” Coriolanus, and they are kindly, shall, traitor, and boy. When these words are said to him, in certain contexts, he loses his mind.
Lucius Sicinius Vellutus dispenses with personal pronouns when he gives Coriolanus a command: “It is a mind that shall remain a poison / Where it is, not poison any further” [III:i; emphasis mine].
Coriolanus’s response: “Mark you his absolute ‘shall’?” [III:i]. The shall is described by Coriolanus as coming from the “horn and noise o’th’ monster’s” [III:i], one of the vocalizers / influencers of the will-to-power of the people.
What incenses Coriolanus is the absolute, peremptory command of the people—the relativization of the desired absoluteness of his will-to-power. The nobility no longer has absolute authority if it shall submit to the will-to-power of the people. The shall announces the conflux of the plebeians and the patricians, or indeed the subordination of the patricians to the plebeians, which is exemplified by Coriolanus’s metaphor of the crows pecking the eagles: “Thus we debase / The nature of our seats… and bring in / The crows to peck the eagles” [III:i]. The crows raiding the eagles’ aeries are the poor and their tribunes; the eagles are the patricians.
When Sicinius calls Coriolanus a “traitor,” this incites from Coriolanus a torrent of insults, a full-throated denunciation of the people: “The fires i’th’ lowest hell fold in the people!” [III:iii]. One Word instigates the total denunciation of the people—and this means that One Word is what drives Coriolanus into / brings on the sentence of banishment, causes his expulsion from the city of Rome.
The third word, boy, spoken as a taunt by Aufidius, prompts a recognition of what Coriolanus is: an adult-infant. Insults only hurt us when we recognize them as truthful. Is it not thinkable, then, that Coriolanus is a boy?
HE LEAVES ROME
Coriolanus sallies forth from Rome and resituates himself in Antium, the capital of Volsci and home to Aufidius, leader of the Volscians. (Antium is present-day Anzio, a coastal city in the South of Italy.) He then does what anyone in his state would do: He joins the opposite side and fights against the civilization that nurtured him. Of course, this is a non sequitur: It doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to defection. It certainly doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to war against the country that banishes you.
I imagine that others might say that Coriolanus, chewing off the umbilicus, is developing into a full-blown individual. This, however, is doubtful, given that he becomes no one at all [I shall return to this point below].
Coriolanus seeks a “world elsewhere” [III:iii]: the other-world of Volsci, the very city against which he sallied as a general. In the introduction to the Arden edition of the play, Peter Holland makes the brilliant point that liminal spaces (such as the sea) are not enough for Coriolanus. The warrior must either have his way or defect to the other side—there is no medium, no middle ground for him. He wages a war against Rome after he doesn’t get what he wants, leading the Volscian army against Rome and its territories in a strike of vengeance. The Muttersohn becomes dragon: Initially, he goes alone to Antium, “[l]ike to a lonely dragon that his fen / Makes feared and talked of more than seen” [IV:i]. He approaches the dragon (Aufidius) and then becomes the dragon of the Volscians, “fight[ing] dragon-like” [IV:vii] against the land of his birth. Notice the draconic metaphor used by Menenius: “This Marcius is grown / from man to dragon: he has wings; he’s more than a / creeping thing” [V:iv].
THE RECONCILIATION WITH MOTHER ROME
Incubated by the mother, Caius Martius crawls out of the womb a super-soldier who single-handedly massacres entire populations, armies and civilians alike. Now, the mother-obsessed soldier turns against the motherland. This leads one to wonder: Is Coriolanus’s hatred for Rome not powered by an unconscious hatred for his mother? Is Coriolanus’s draconic attack on Rome not also a tacit attack on his mother? When disclaims Rome, is he not also disclaiming his mother?
Menenius, the substitute father, appeals to Coriolanus in vain. Only Coriolanus’s mother moves her son to give up his campaign of vengeance against Rome; he gives up his antipathy for Rome after the mother arrives and pleads with her son to stop fighting against the Roman people. She smothers the blaze of his hatred with her tears. Martius only knows two extremes, two antipodes: He is either mother’s infant, or he is a repatriated zombie who fights against his motherland.
Turning against the mother, Coriolanus was reduced to a “kind of nothing” [V:i], as Cominius identified him. When his mother (accompanied by his wife and his son) creeps into the enemy camp, there is an emotional spectacle in front of the dead-hearted army thugs; only then does he show human feeling. I consider this to be the most emotionally powerful scene in the whole of Shakespeare—someone who is a cipher, a zero, becomes human, even though he never becomes completely human. It is as if the mother is giving birth to him a second time—it is a palingenesis rather than a genesis.
In the real world, the mother’s intercession was an act for which the statue of Fortuna was established; the act was blessed by the memorial. The mother and the wife are memorialized for ending the siege on Rome: “The ladies have prevailed” [V:iv]; “Behold your patroness, the life of Rome!” [V:v]. And yet the reconciliation between Rome and Volsci was merely a surface reconciliation: The Volscians did later launch unsuccessful sallies against the Romans, all of which were squelched.
I hold that The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Measure for Measure, and Timon of Athens are among Shakespeare’s greatest accomplishments as a playwright. While these plays are by no means unknown, they are certainly much less known and celebrated than the overrated The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Particularly, I second T.S. Eliot’s opinion that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is immeasurably superior to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Of course, Hamlet will kill Claudius, usurper and parricide; there is no surprise in that. His vacillations are a mere plot contrivance to temporize until the inescapable killing of the stepfather; as I will argue in my essay on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the play is about the problem of free will, but this is not the right place to pursue this argument. Whereas the conflict in Hamlet is simple, the conflict within Coriolanus is much more complex. Coriolanus’s decisions to finesse a conciliation of the Volscians and a reconciliation of Volsci and Rome must be understood in psychodynamic terms as reconciliation with the mother and as the return to the uterus.
All seems well until Aufidius defames Coriolanus to the Volscians and takes away his “stolen name” [V:vi], stripping him of his cognomen. He instead refers to him by his birth name—Martius—thus symbolically reverting his opponent to his infant status. Martius is then hacked to death by Aufidius’s conspirators, a move which is itself a form of infantile regression.
The terrifying mob assault at the end of the play recalls the dismemberment of Pentheus beneath the talons of the crazed Maenads at the end of Euripedes’ Bacchae. Coriolanus is torn to pieces, ripped to shreds, by the blades of Aufidius’s assassins, while they chant, “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him!” [V:vi]. The mob cheers them on; the mob has not forgotten that Coriolanus has widowed and orphaned so many of them.
The climax is suggesting: If you try to eat the mob, then the mob will eat you. The mob wants to eat Coriolanus. And Coriolanus wants to eat the mob. That is to say: The rich are eating up the poor at the beginning of the play: “If the wars eat us [the poor] not up, they [the rich] will” [I:i]. Coriolanus is feasting upon the poor, consuming the poor, ingurgitating the poor, who will then be ejected from Coriolanus’s anus.
Two figures run throughout the play: the figure of eating-the-poor and the figure of being-eaten-by-the-poor. The second appears at the close of the play, wherein Martius is devoured by the mob. At the climax, it is indeed the poor who are devouring the rich. Both figures nourish my suspicion that politics is largely about food. Those who are more conservative want to hoard all the food for themselves; those who are more liberal want to distribute the food evenly. Coriolanus is keeping pace with his promise. Knifed as the mob shouts for his blood, Coriolanus is realizing the supreme desires of his mother which have always been his own.
Corregidora / Corrigenda
by Joseph Suglia
A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember. All of us have heard the words “Never forget!” in reference to the Shoah. Most are familiar with Kristallnacht, with the Names Project, also known as “the AIDS Quilt.” The March for Humanity memorializes the mass-murder of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. Every year, at this time in April, the Rwandan government urges its citizens to kwibuka—the Rwandan word for “to remember.” To kwibuka, to remember the countless Tutsis who were slaughtered in the massacre of 1994.
But how should one respond when genocide is misremembered? Is the misremembrance of genocide superior to the forgetting of genocide?
Which is worse, distortion or oblivion?
Is it worse to minimize, for example, the number of Armenians who were killed at the beginning of the twentieth century, or to forget that the genocide of Armenians ever occurred?
The most dominant medium of the twentieth century was the cinema, and the cinema still has the power to shape, and to misshape, collective memory.
Over the past seven years, a talentless hack filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino has manufactured films that I would not hesitate to describe as “genocide pornography.” That is to say, these are films that would turn genocide into an object of consumption, an object of enjoyment. These are also films that disfigure historical consciousness.
Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, the succeeding generation might believe that the Jews defeated the Nazis. Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, they might believe that Hitler was assassinated. They might believe that, in general, African slaves rose up and overcame their enslavers. They might believe that every African slave in antebellum America was a free agent. Not an insurrectionist like Nat Turner, but an action figure like Django.
But what if misremembrance were not a disfiguration or a distortion of memory? What if misremembrance plays a constitutive and formative role in memory itself?
Freudian psychoanalysis has something to say about the interpenetration of remembrance and misremembrance.
At the earliest stage of his career, between the years 1895 and 1897, Freud formulated what is called “seduction theory.” Seduction theory is based on the idea that sexual trauma is pathogenic—that is, that sexual abuse produces neuroses.
Freud rejected seduction theory in 1897, but this does not mean that he silenced the voices of abused children. From the beginning of his career until its end, Freud never ceased to emphasize that sexual trauma has pathological effects.
Why did Freud reject seduction theory? Because it was too linear, too simple, because it did not take into consideration the supremacy of the unconscious.
The memory of sexual trauma, Freud recognized, might be repressed, sublimated, externalized, transferred, reintrojected, reimagined, or fictionalized.
This does not mean that when children claim that they have been sexually abused, they are lying. It means, rather, that experiences of abuse pass through the imagination and the imagination passes through the unconscious. Seduction theory did not take the imagination—die Phantasie—into account and therefore had to be abandoned.
The unconscious, as Freud wrote to Wilhelm Fleiss, does not distinguish between fact and fantasy.
It is difficult for a victim of abuse to acknowledge his or her trauma directly, and Freud knew this. Sexual trauma, after it occurs, does not manifest itself directly or immediately, but epiphenomenally—that is to say, symptomatically. It shows itself in disguise. It dramatizes itself. It retraumatizes. It might be phantasmatically reconstituted.
From the Freudian standpoint, remembrance and misremembrance are not mutually exclusive.
There is a third form of misremembrance that I would like to pause over. It is the kind of anamnesis or déjà vu when an individual recollects not her own individual history, but the history of past generations, the history of her ancestors. Cultural memory, seen from this perspective, would be a form of misremembrance.
Such misremembrance could only be figured in art.
The literature of Gayl Jones reminds us that the remembrance of personal trauma always contains a cultural dimension, that all memory is misremembrance.
The past that you have experienced is not the past that you remember.
When I first heard the title of Jones’s first novel — Corregidora (published in 1975) — I thought it was “corrigenda.”
Corrigenda: a list of errors in a published manuscript.
* * * * *
At the novel’s opening, lounge singer Ursa Corregidora is shoved down a staircase by her husband, Mutt — a catastrophic blow that results in her infertility. After she renounces her husband, Ursa enters into a relationship with Tadpole, the owner of the Happy Café, the bar at which she performs. Like all of her significant relationships with men, this second relationship proves disastrous and is doomed to failure.
Every man in the novel, without exception, sees Ursa as a “hole” — that is, as a beguiling and visually appealing receptacle to be penetrated. The narrative suggests this on the figural level. A talented novelist, Jones weaves images of orifices throughout her text — tunnels that swallow and tighten around trains, lamellae such as nostrils, mouths, wounds, etc. Although one of Ursa’s “holes” is barren, another “hole” is bountifully “prosperous” — her mouth, from which the “blues” issue. A movement of sonic exteriorization corresponds to a counter-movement of physiological interiorization.
It is easy to be trapped by these more immediate, socio-sexual dimensions of the narrative. Corregidora might seem, prima facie, to be nothing more than another novel about a woman imprisoned in abusive and sadistic relationships with appropriative men. But the meanings of Corregidora are far more profound than this. A “transcendental” framework envelops the immediate narrative and casts it in relief, thereby enhancing its significance. We learn that Ursa is the great-granddaughter of Portuguese slave-trader and procurer Corregidora, who sired both Ursa’s mother and grandmother. Throughout the course of the novel, the men in Ursa’s life take on a resemblance to Corregidora — and this resemblance sheds light on both the sexual basis of racism and the tendency of some oppressed cultures to take on the traits of imperialist hegemonies. According to the logic of the novel, the children of slaves resemble either slaves or slave drivers. Even within communities born of slavery, the novel suggests, there persist relationships of enslavement. “How many generations had to bow to his genital fantasies?” Ursa asks at one point, referring to Corregidora the Enslaver. As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, Jones’s novel suggests, there will never be an end to this period of acquiescence; Corregidora will continue to achieve posthumous victories.
As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, the novel suggests, the enslavers will continue to achieve posthumous victorious.
As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, the novel suggests, the segregationists and the white supremacists will continue to achieve posthumous victories.
To return to the opening statement of this essay: A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember. Although her infertility robs Ursa of the ability to “make generations” — something that, she is taught, is the essence of being-woman — she can still “leave evidence,” can still attest to the historical memory of slavery. All documents that detailed Corregidora’s treatment of his slaves were seemingly destroyed, as if the abolition of slavery abolished memory itself. According to the injunction of the Corregidora women (Ursa’s ancestors), one must testify, one must re-member, one must “leave evidence.” And yet memory is precisely Ursa’s problem. Memory cripples her. Throughout the novel, Ursa struggles to overcome the trauma of her personal past. And this past — in particular, the survival in memory of her relationship with Mutt — belongs to the larger, communal past that is her filial legacy. Her consciousness is rigidified, frozen in the immemorial past of the Corregidora women. This “communal” past is doomed to repeat itself infinitely, thus suspending the presence of the present — and, in particular, Ursa’s individual experience of the present. Her individual experience of the present is indissociably married to her personal past, and her most intimate past is, at the same time, also the past of her community. The words that Ursa uses to describe her mother could also apply to Ursa herself: “It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong within her as her own private memory, or almost as strong.”
At the shocking and unforgettable close of the novel, the past and present coincide almost absolutely. When, after twenty-two years of estrangement, Ursa is reunited with her first husband, the historical memory of slavery is superimposed and mapped onto their relationship. Both Ursa and Mutt become allegorical figures, each representing slave and slaveholder, respectively. The present-past and the past-present reflect each other in an infinite mirror-play until they both become almost indistinguishable from each other.
At the juncture of both temporalities is an inversion of power relations that comes by way of a sex act. Ursa performs fellatio on her first husband. Oral sex replaces oral transmission. Here we have the perpetuation of a traumatic past, and yet it is a repetition with a difference. Fellatio is disempowering for the man upon whom it is performed; dangerously close to emasculation, it is experienced as “a moment of broken skin but not sexlessness, a moment just before sexlessness, a moment that stops just before sexlessness.” For the woman, by contrast, it might be an act vacant of all sensuality, one that is abstracted of all emotional cargo. Fellatio might infuse the performer with a feeling of power’s intensification; its objective might not be the enhancement of erotic pleasure, but of the pleasure that comes with the enhancement of one’s feeling of power.
By playing the role of the guardian of memory, Ursa dramatizes the intersection of her individual past with a communal past. The paralysis of historical consciousness sets in: “My veins are centuries meeting.”
End of quotation, and the end of the essay.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
GIRL GONE ROGUE: A review of GOING ROGUE: AN AMERICAN LIFE (Sarah Palin)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
The title of Sarah Palin’s martyrology, Going Rogue (2009), is richly significant. “Rogue” can mean “renegade” and thus point to Palin’s illusory departure from the ever-redefinable “political” and “media elites,” as well as from the McCain camp. Reactionary politicians, these days, like to style themselves as “mavericks”–when, in fact, they represent this country’s most powerful insiders. They endorse tax cuts for the affluent; they serve the gluttonies of the wealthiest financiers, corporate executive officers, and industrialists in America.
A slight logogriphic substitution would transform “rogue” into “rouge.” The title, then, could be rendered: The Reddening of Sarah Palin. (“Rouge,” in particular, recalls a shade of lipstick. Would “rouge” refer to the pig’s lipstick-smeared mouth?). Red, obviously, is the color of the Republican Party, but it is also the color of passion and evokes rage and lust. It is, as well, the color of fury, of blood, of rapine and viciousness. It is the color of ecclesiastics, of cardinals. In the iconography of National Socialism, black swastikas were emblazoned on red backgrounds.
This is a book that is drenched in red.
There is discussion of the animals Sarah Palin enjoys slaughtering, the caribou and moose she takes pleasure in shooting, the salmon she skins. A photograph of the Arctic Huntress beaming with the psychosexual thrill that comes from killing game, the bloodied corpse of a caribou under her heel. “I love meat… [I] especially love moose and caribou. I always remind people from outside our state that there’s plenty of room for all Alaska’s animals–right next to the mashed potatoes” [18-19]. Little commentary is required; what is said is clear. The only room for animals, even endangered animals, is inside of us. Kill animals and then interiorize them, kill animals that prey upon those other animals we want to interiorize: “[W]e had to control predators, such as wolves, that were decimating the moose and caribou herds that feed our communities” .
I wish someone would tell Sarah Palin that to decimate means “to kill every tenth being.”
Sarah Palin thinks that animals exist only in order to be devoured by human beings. That is their purpose, their end, their divinely ordained telos. As if it were a “red kite” , she tells us, her mind is connected by an invisible string to the mind of God. She has immediate access to the divine understanding: “If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?”
In other words,
1.) Animals can be meat–meat that is devoured by human beings.
2.) Therefore, animals exist only to be devoured by human beings.
We have here both a non sequitur and a teleological argument. It is equivalent to saying:
1.) The human hands may be used for strangulation.
2.) Therefore, the human hands exist only for the purpose of strangulation.
The color red may connote the blood of animals. It may also connote shame. One is reminded of the red face of the unnamed Alaskan politician who observes Sarah Palin with horror as she gleefully breastfeeds her daughter on a radio program: “I acted like I didn’t see the shocked look on the politician’s face as he turned red and pretended it didn’t bother him at all” . In a single image, the flocculent creaminess of lactate mingles with the blood that rises to the politician’s cheeks.
Red reappears when Sarah Palin douses herself, Countess Bathory style, in the blood of political martyrdom or of “the popular political blood sport called ‘the politics of personal destruction'” . Seldom has self-imposed victimhood been exploited so meretriciously as it is here. Sarah Palin bemoans the fact that she was “slapped with an ethics accusation” . And yet which “ethics accusation,” precisely? There are many. That she misappropriated her governorship for personal and political gain? That she used the Alaska Fund Trust to cadge gifts and benefits? She never tells us. She merely dismisses all ethical grievances as personal attacks issued by the monolithic Left: “One of the left’s favorite weapons is frivolous ethics complaints” .
Sarah Palin’s silence over her ethical misconduct is only one of the many silences that perforate Going Rogue. She never attempts to wash away the record of her ignorance of Africa, the Bush doctrine, or NAFTA. Certain things are so shameful that they cannot be erased with lies. Let me cite one more instance of this studied silence: As Mayor, our gentle authoress called for the banning of “objectionable” books from the Wasilla Public Library. She claims to have merely asked librarian Mary Ellen Emmons, “What’s the common policy on selecting new titles?” . And yet nowhere does Sarah Palin, meek and mild, mention that she fired Mary Ellen Emmons two days after this conversation took place. So many of this book’s pages are devoted to assaulting her critics (169 out of 234, by my count), but those criticisms for which she has no rejoinder, those words and actions that are truly indefensible and cannot be mangled, are consigned to a willful silence.
The name of whoever wrote this book is unknown, but it is attributed to a ventriloquist’s doll, a cue-card reader, a red harpy, a Venus in Carmine.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
by Joseph Suglia
The plural of haiku is haiku.
The frog leaps into the water:
My inexistent wife
Plays the flute.
The grapes dance;
The rats are in the barn
Eating the oats.