An Analysis of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (Shakespeare)

 

An Analysis of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

 

Nicht, dass gekämpft wird, ist das Tragische der Welt.  Sie selbst ist das Tragische.

—Christian Morgenstern, Stufen

 

Troilus and Cressida (circa 1603) does not seem to belong in the age in which it was written.  This disenchantingly sordid play belongs to modernity.  It demythologizes war, it demythologizes love, it demythologizes heroism, it demythologizes the supernatural.  The sour luridness of the play, its fetid atmosphere, is so suffocating that it has obscured its status as one of the greatest works that Shakespeare ever composed.

 

LOVE IS WAR / WAR IS LOVE

Seven years deep into the Trojan-Grecian War, the Grecians and the Trojans alike are wracked with fatigue, demoralized, and insensitive to rank (e.g. Achilles is so arrogant that he dallies in bed with his male lover Petroclus instead of strategizing with the general).  Shakespeare reminds us, again and again, the war is not the glorious campaign that it is in Homer.

There is in this play an erotics of war.  By this phrase, I do not intend that the play beautifies war; I mean that it eroticizes war by conflating the martial and the erotic.  There is in the play a kind of erotic bellicosity and bellicose eroticism.  We see this when Aeneas issues a challenge to the Greeks: Let one of them defend the wisdom, beauty, and faithfulness of their lady (Greece) against the superior wisdom, beauty, and faithfulness of Hector’s lady (Troy): “[Hector] hath a lady, wiser, fairer, truer, / Than ever Greek did compass in his arms” [I:iii].

The entire Trojan-Grecian War is based on one man’s libidinal desires: Paris’s lust for Helen, Menelaus’s stolen wife.  The play suggests this to us through its raisonneurs, Hector, Thersites, Cassandra, and Diomedes.  So much blood is spilled over a “whore and a cuckold” [II:iii], as the divine slave Thersites phrases it: “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion” [V:ii].  Blood and death eventuate from one man’s sexual itchings.

Of course, Paris says the opposite.  “Sir,” Paris says to his father, the King of Troy, “I propose not merely to myself / The pleasures that such a beauty [Helen] brings with it” [II:ii].  But who believes him?  “[Y]ou speak / Like one besotted on your own sweet delights” [Ibid.], Priam says of his son Paris.  And is it not true?  Paris believes that the capture of one woman, the woman for whom he lusts, is worth infinitely more than the lives of the hundreds of thousands of men who are canalized into the slaughterhouse of war.  He also believes that his own ecstatic transports are worth more than the sorrow of the men and women who will mourn over the dead.

It would be facile to say that the play is anti-war.  It is anti-war, but it is anti-love in the same measure.  Love leads inexorably to betrayal—or, at least, to the perception of betrayal.  It is never entirely clear whether Cressida betrays Troilus or Troilus betrays himself.  Young Troilus ends up hating the woman he once loved, which spurs him to hack away at the enemy.  Its disenchantment with love removes the play from peacenik causes.

In all love, there is war, but one could evaginate this proposition: In all love, there is war, and in all war, there is love.  Troilus and Cressida suggests the interpenetration of love and war in each scene.  Empedocles knew well that love and conflict, attraction and repulsion, Philia and Neikos, were intimately bound together, and we see this Empedoclean dialectic bodied forth in Shakespeare’s play.  War issues from love, as love is riven by war.

Before his love transforms into hatred, Troilus sees Cressida as a spoil of war, as booty that is worth fighting over.  His infatuation with Cressida is the economic infatuation of a war-profiteer.  He says of Cressida: “Her bed is India; there she lies, a pearl” [I:i].  She is an exotic land to be conquered.  Helen is first likened to semen-stained bedsheets, then also likened to a pearl.  Troilus says of Helen, “We turn not back the silks upon the merchant / When we have soiled them” [II:ii].  Then: “Why, she is a pearl / Whose price hath launched above a thousand ships” [Ibid.].  Troilus is likely a virgin—or one who has been revirginized in the Virgin Machine—and, like many virgins, conflates the ecstasy of love with the ecstasy of death: “What will it be, / When that the water’y palates taste indeed / Love’s thrice-reputed nectar?  Death, I fear me, / Swooning destruction, or some joy too fine, / Too subtle-potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness, / For the capacity of my ruder powers” [III:ii].  As Troilus reminds us earlier, there is a battle going on within the walls of Troy—it is a battle for Cressida’s desire.  “[P]ress it to death,” Pandarus says of the bed in which Troilus and Cressida will couple [III:ii].  Again and again, there is war-in-love and love-in-war.

The paradox of war-in-love and love-in-war can be seen in the antiphrasis of friendly enmity that runs throughout the play.  The warriors are friendly enemies and hostile friends.  Grecian embraces Trojan, as Trojan embraces Grecian.  The Trojan Hector embraces his Grecian cousin Ajax.  Ulysses and Troilus become Best Friends Forever, despite the fact that Ulysses is Grecian and Troilus belongs to the other side.  Enemies volley a fusillade of affectionate insults at one another.  They insult one another fondly.  Paris, overhearing Aeneas and Diomedes railing against each other lovingly, says that this is “the most despiteful’st gentle greeting, / The noblest hateful love, that e’er I heard of” [IV:i].  Diomedes, speaking to Paris, is never more admirable than when he condemns the unholy carnage of the war for the losses that it has inflicted on both sides.  “For every false drop in [Helen’s] bawdy veins,” Diomedes says to Paris, “A Grecian’s life has sunk; for every scruple / Of her contaminated carrion weight / A Trojan hath been slain” [IV:i].  The Grecian general Agamemnon gives Aeneas, emissary of the Trojan army, a feast and the “welcome of a noble foe” [I:iii].  Hector, on safe conduct, feasts with the Grecians, etc., etc.  Characters are friendlier to their enemies than they are to their friends; there are fractions within factions.  Enemies are loyal to one another with the piety of traitors.

 

PANDARUS THE INCOMPETENT MEDIATOR

Pandarus panders—as his name suggests, he is a pimp, a procurer.  He solicits his own niece Cressida to Troilus and seems to care more about the promise of Troilus’s erotic victory than he does about Cressida’s state of mind when Pandarus learns that Cressida has become a commodity that will be gifted to the Greeks in exchange for the enfranchisement of the prisoner Antenor.  This comes about thanks to the traitor Calchas, Cressida’s father, who is every bit of an agent of mediation, every bit of a “broker-lackey” [V:xi], as Pandarus is.  Calchas solicits his daughter Cressida, as Pandarus panders Cressida his niece.

Troilus cannot come to Cressida except by way of her uncle Pandarus.  This is yet another instantiation of what I have called elsewhere “the intervention of the third”: The one cannot relate to the other except by way of the mediator.  And yet, even though Pandarus is a mediator, he is a mediator who mediates nothing.  All of his intercessions, all of his intermediations, are in vain.

Whenever the two lovers meet, Pandarus is there, hovering in the background.  “So, so, rub on, and kiss the mistress,” he urges Troilus [III:ii].  “Have you not done talking yet?” [Ibid.], he says to the young lovers and “Go to, go to” [Ibid.], egging them on to put on a sex show while he slaveringly leers.  He is clearly prostituting his niece—presenting her as a “picture,” as a pornographic icon for his scopophilic pleasure: “Come, draw this curtain, and let’s see your picture” [III:ii].  Pandarus’s scopophilia extends so far that he projects himself through the medium of the imagination into his niece’s body.  “Well, Troilus, well, I would my heart were in her body” [I:ii], Pandarus says of his niece.

Shakespeare keeps reminding us, unto the final line of the play, that Pandarus is a syphilitic pimp.  “My business seethes,” he says to the subtly deprecating Servant [III:i]—but the Elizabethans knew what the word seethe connoted.  Shakespeare does not let us forget that seething connotes STDs and the sweating treatment that was used to cure them.  In the play’s last verse, Pandarus threatens to “bequeath [his] diseases” to the spectators [V:xi].  It is indeed a sodden and sordid play that ends with the imaginary transference of venereal diseases to the audience.

 

THE LOGIC OF EXCHANGEABILITY

Troilus and Cressida contains a logic of exchangeability: Characters are fungible, and they interchange with one another.  Paris substitutes for Menelaus as Helen’s new lover.  Cressida substitutes for Antenor (her transference to Grecians liberates the imprisoned Antenor), and Achilles is replaced by Ajax.  As Ulysses says, “Ajax employed plucks down Achilles’ plumes” [II:i].  Calchas and Ulysses are both agents who effect substitution.  Calchas solicits his daughter in exchange for Antenor; the ever-crafty Ulysses exchanges Ajax for Achilles.

Most interestingly, we see the logic of substitutability, of taking-one-for-another, in the romance between Troilus and Cressida.  Cressida is the replacement for Helen, as Troilus is the replacement for Menelaus, and Diomedes is the replacement for Paris.  Just as Menelaus was cuckolded by Paris, Troilus will be cuckolded by Diomedes.  One cuckold replaces another cuckold; one conflict replaces another conflict.  Here is the dreary repetition of war prompted by sexual jealousy.  The conflict between Troilus and Diomedes repeats the conflict between Paris and Menelaus—this suggests that erotically generated war will never cease.

When he lines up to Kiss the Girl with the rest of the Grecian army, Menelaus is the only suitor who is refused by Cressida.  Could this be because he is superannuated, irrelevant, having been replaced by a newer cuckold—namely, by Troilus?

Such is the cosmic irony of the play: The Trojans refuse to give up the Queen of the Greeks, Helen, but willingly give up Trojan-born Cressida.  Troilus presents specious arguments against giving back Helen to the Greeks, and yet his own beloved Cressida is given to the Greeks instead.  History is presented as a series of infinite permutations; the same elements are infinitely rearranged.

 

FAKE NEWS FROM TROY

Characters refer to themselves in the third person, a practice which is usually coincident with a beclouded mind.  “O foolish Cressid” [IV:ii], which Cressida says of herself, is one example of this.

Troilus, Cressida, and Pandarus historicize themselves—or are conscious of their being-in-history.  Troy claims to be as “true as Troilus”; Cressida says that she should be known as “false as Cressid” [III:ii], if she betrays Troilus.  Pandarus affirms, “Let all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers-between panders” [III:ii].  And this auto-reflexivity is unimpugnable: Literate people today do indeed associate faithful men with Troilus, faithless women with Cressida, and officious mediators with Pandarus.

When Achilles kills Hector, he does so by way of a trick.  He waits for Hector to unarm himself.  Achilles does not even kill Hector himself—he has his Myrmidons do the dirty work for him.  His Myrmidons ambush Hector when he is vulnerable.  The murder of Hector and the grotesque desecration of his carcass are recreant and dishonorable—and yet this is championed and broadcast as if it were the result of valor and fair play.

“On Myrmidons, and cry you all amain, / ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’”  The quotation marks are important.  This is an act of speech and an act of writing that will be transmitted to the ages—the news is fake, but the fake news will be memorialized.  All historical memory is fake news, Shakespeare appears to suggest.

The characters have historical consciousness—that is, they are conscious of their place in historical memory.  They anticipate their reception in the future.  They are conscious of their own status as representations in the future perfect; they are conscious of their readers and spectators.  They are conscious of their reverberations through the abysses of time.

 

DEMYTHOLOGIZING THE GODS AND THE HEROES

There is almost no supernaturalism at all in the play.  Whereas in Homer, the gods and goddesses, such as Athena and Aphrodite, intervene in human affairs and shape the Trojan-Athenian War, there are no gods in Troilus and Cressida.  The closest we, as readers, come to the supernatural is by way of the brief appearance of the Sagittary—who is half-horse, half-man—the only creature who could be described as mythopoeticized.  All of the other characters are human, all-too-human.

The play demythologizes both gods and heroes alike.

Most of the so-called Grecian and Trojan “heroes” are lazy, languid, lethargic, including Paris, who lounges about with his stolen mistress instead of battling against the enemy: “I would fain have armed today, but my Nell would not have it so” [III:i], he says to Pandarus.

Ajax, who is best known for having been bedeviled by Athena and bewitched into slaughtering sheep, is a “blockish” blockhead [I:iii].

Shakespeare’s Achilles is not the great warrior of the Illiad.  Shakespeare’s Achilles is a layabout, lying in bed with his ladyboy Petroclus, who is described by Thersites as Achilles’ “male varlet” and as his “masculine whore” [V:i].  In the first scene of the second act, Petroclus is characterized by Thersites as a “brach,” an obsolete word that means “bitch hound,” “fawning hanger-on,” “prostitute,” or “catamite.”

In Hellenic mythology, Cassandra was cursed with unbelievableness by Apollo for refusing his advances.  In Shakespeare, however, Cassandra is believed by Hector, at least.  He commends her “high strains / [o]f divination” as genuine signs of prophecy [II:ii].  Her ravings are dismissed by Troilus as “brain-sick raptures” [Ibid.]—but this is the imputation of pathology.  The point is not that Cassandra’s augury is pathologized by Troilus; the point is that she is not divinely sibylline.  There is no evidence that she was ever gifted with prophecy by Apollo or cursed with unbelievableness by Apollo.  Shakespeare breaks with the myth.

The general of the Greek army is openly slighted by Aeneas and Achilles, Menelaus is presented as a drowsy cuckold, and Helen, who hardly appears at all, appears as a non-entity.  Achilles and Petroclus mock their fellows in the Grecian army, “break[ing] scurril jests, [pageanting them] with ridiculous and awkward action—which, slanderer, [Achilles] imitation calls” [I:iii].  Thersites mocks everyone indiscriminately.  All of the great heroes of Greek mythology are subjected to deposition.

 

SPARAGMOS

Troilus and Cressida is a fractured, disjointed play. The failed romance between Troilus and Cressida, which is itself elliptical, is elliptically presented. Instead of a sustained, continuous presentation, the play appears as a series of vignettes or tableaux vivants.

Not merely is the form of the play fragmentary; the characters are fragmentary, as well.  Ajax is described by Alexander, Cressida’s man-in-waiting, as the agglomeration of scissile animal parts (he is of elephant, lion, and bear) [I:ii].  In the fifth scene of the fourth act, Ajax is characterized by his cousin Hector as the agglutination of fissile Grecian and Trojan parts.

And what of Cressida?  Who is Cressida, in herself?  The answer is that she is self-doubling.  At first, it might seem that either she dislikes Troilus or she is pretending to dislike him.  But this is a false dichotomy.  One of her selves likes Troilus; another one of her selves dislikes Troilus.  She has a fissiparous self—that is to say, she has a multiplicity of selves rather than a single self.  She is divided into a “kind of self” and another “unkind self” [III:ii], a self that is loyal to Troilus and a self that betrays Troilus.  She says to Troilus: “I have a kind of self resides with you, / But an unkind self that itself will leave / To be another’s fool” [Ibid.].

The self-duplication of Cressida prompts Troilus to say, “This is and is not Cressid” [V:ii], when he sights her at Diomedes’ camp.  One should observe her ambiguous conduct: She both gives and snatches back the sleeve that Troilus pledged to her—she is both faithless and faithful, both disloyal and loyal.

There is a misogynistic logic in Troilus’s thinking: If one woman is impure, he suggests, then all women are impure.  “Think, we had mothers” [V:ii], he says to Ulysses.  Since mothers are pure, he implies, and since mothers exist, how could any one woman be impure?  Epexegesis: It could not have been Cressida that he saw, since Cressida is a woman, and if the Being He Saw were a woman, this would impugn all womanhood.

As the play opens, Troilus urges the gods to reveal her selfsameness to him: “What Cressid is” [I:ii].  And yet Cressida is not One Thing, not a unified substance, not a substantialized, hypostatized self.  On the one hand, she is dedicated to Troilus.  On the other hand, she is doubtful of Troilus’s bedroom performance skills and seems hesitant to take things further with him: Men “swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform,” she says to Troilus [III:ii].

Cressida herself will be inaccessible, for she knows the finitude of male desire: Once a man gets what he wants, he doesn’t want it anymore.  Once a man gets the woman he wants, he doesn’t want her anymore.  Cressida says in the one scene in which she is alone: “Men prize the thing ungained more than it is” [I:ii].  She will be inaccessible, therefore; she will never be only One Thing.

Disenchanting love, disenchanting war, disenchanting heroism, disenchanting theophany, disenchanting the world of the supernatural—all of these forms of disenchantment make of Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare’s most curiously futuristic play.  It looks backward in order to look forward.

 

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

 

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Table of Contents: SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia

SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia

My novel TABLE 41

My Guide to English Usage

My YouTube Channel

Table of Contents

SQUIBS

A Wonderful Video for Wonderful People

I Renounce All My Early Books and Writings

Aphorisms on Art

Aphorisms on Consumerism and Genius

Aphorisms on Racism, Cultural Studies, and Kim Jong-un

Aphorisms on Libertarianism, Criticism, and Psychoanalysis

My Favorite Writers, My Favorite Music, My Favorite Films

The Most Important Video You Will Ever Watch

Three Aperçus: On DEADPOOL (2016), David Foster Wallace, and Beauty

Three Aperçus: THE NEON DEMON (2016) and Envy

Bob Dylan Is Overrated: On Bob Dylan Being Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016

The Red Pig Asian Kitchen: BANNED by Yelp

Happy Father’s Day: Or, Chopo Chicken: BANNED by Yelp

Analogy Blindness: I Invented a Linguistic Term

Polyptoton: Greg Gutfeld

Two Haiku

David Foster Wallace and Macaulay Culkin: Three Aperçus

On the Distinction between the flaneur and the boulevardier

Ordering a Pizza at the Standard Market Grill in Lincoln Park

Jimmy Carter

Emo Island [2005]

THE NIETZSCHE COMMENTARIES

HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN / MENSCHLICHES, ALLZUMENSCHLICHES

Was Nietzsche an Atheist?  Was Nietzsche a Misogynist?  Sam Harris’s Unspoken Indebtedness to Nietzsche

DAYBREAK / MORGENRÖTHE: GEDANKEN ÜBER DIE MORALISCHEN VORURTHEILE

THE GAY SCIENCE / DIE FRÖHLICHES WISSENSCHAFT

Schopenhauer and Nietzsche

What  Does This Mean?: “God is dead”

What Does This Mean?: “What does not kill me makes me stronger”

What Is the Eternal Recurrence of the Same?

What Is the Will-to-Power?

Was Nietzsche a Sexist?

Was Nietzsche a Fascist?

Was Nietzsche a Proto-Nazi?

OVERESTIMATING / UNDERESTIMATING SHAKESPEARE

VOLUME ONE: THE COMEDIES AND PROBLEM PLAYS

THE TEMPEST

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

AS YOU LIKE IT

Transgenderism in Shakespeare

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

Was Shakespeare a Sexist?

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL

THE WINTER’S TALE

VOLUME TWO: THE TRAGEDIES

THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE

Racism and Shakespeare: Was Shakespeare a Racist?

THE TRAGEDY OF JULIUS CAESAR

CAESAR ANTI-TRUMP

THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS

PHILIPPICS

When Did Writing Stop Having to Do with Writing?: Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE HOUSE OF LEAVES

Quentin Tarantino Is an Anti-Black Racist

California Über Alles: Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

Against “Bizarro” Fiction

On FIGHT CLUB by “Chuck” Palahniuk

On STRANGER THAN FICTION by “Chuck” Palahniuk

On RANT by “Chuck” Palahniuk

On SNUFF by “Chuck” Palahniuk

On TELL-ALL by “Chuck” Palahniuk

On DAMNED by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Fifty Shades of Error: “Chuck” Palahniuk’s BEAUTIFUL YOU

Slap Something Together: “Chuck” Palahniuk’s MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD

On ONLY REVOLUTIONS by Mark Z. Danielewski

On THE HISTORY OF LOVE by Nicole Krauss

On THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST by Mel Gibson

On THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

On EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED by Jonathan Safran Foer

On EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE by Jonathan Safran Foer

On EATING ANIMALS by Jonathan Safran Foer

Writing with Scissors: Jonathan Safran Foer’s TREE OF CODES

On CHRONIC CITY by Jonathan Lethem

On BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell

On OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell

On A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING by Dave Eggers

On YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND YOUR PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER? by Dave Eggers

On MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE, Volume One by Karl Ove Knausgaard

On MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE, Volume Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard

A Critique of David Foster Wallace, Part One: OBLIVION

A Critique of David Foster Wallace, Part Two: A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN

A Critique of David Foster Wallace, Part Three: BOTH FLESH AND NOT

A Critique of David Foster Wallace, Part Four: CONSIDER THE LOBSTER

A Critique of David Foster Wallace, Part Five: INFINITE JEST

On THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD by Mark Z. Danielewski

On FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

On WHY YOU SHOULD READ KAFKA BEFORE YOU WASTE YOUR LIFE by James Hawes

On THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold

On DERMAPHORIA by Craig Clevenger

On THE CONTORTIONIST’S HANDBOOK by Craig Clevenger

Girl Gone Rogue: Concerning Sarah Palin

MORE LITERARY AND CINEMATIC CRITICISM

Corregidora / Corrigenda

I Prefer Not to Misinterpret: Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

So Long, Planet Earth!: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”

Keats and the Power of the Negative: On “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

On “Eveline” by James Joyce

On “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence

Why I Can’t Stand Georges Bataille

On WOMEN by Charles Bukowski

On FAT GIRL / A MA SOEUR by Catherine Breillat

On NOSFERATU by Werner Herzog

On CORREGIDORA by Gayl Jones

On ROBERTE CE SOIR and THE REVOCATION OF THE EDICT OF NANTES by Pierre Klossowski

Escape from Utopia: Bret Easton Ellis

On GILES GOAT-BOY by John Barth

On LIPSTICK JUNGLE by Candace Bushnell

On IRREVERSIBLE by Gaspar Noe

On IN MEMORIAM TO IDENTITY by Kathy Acker

On O, DEMOCRACY! by Kathleen Rooney

On STUCK by Steve Balderson

On THE CASSEROLE CLUB by Steve Balderson

On THE YELLOW WALLPAPER by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Trace of the Father

On VICTOR/VICTORIA by Blake Edwards

On STEPS by Jerzy Kosinski

On EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES by Tom Robbins

On V. by Thomas Pynchon

On A SPY IN THE HOUSE OF LOVE by Anaïs Nin

On MAO II by Don DeLillo

On ROBINSON ALONE by Kathleen Rooney

Dennis Cooper and the Demystification of Love

On THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY by Erik Larson

On EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL by Werner Herzog

On CRASH by J.G. Ballard

On A YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion

 

 

 

Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS / An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS by Shakespeare / Shakespeare’s THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS: An Interpretation / Commentary on CORIOLANUS (Shakespeare) / Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS: An Analysis

 

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 (excepting 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 will be raised sixteen cents to a grudging $8.60 in the year in which I am composing this essay).

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, 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 him—they 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, 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 psychodynamics 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.

 

DISMEMBERMENT

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.

Joseph Suglia

 

Nietzsche’s THE GAY SCIENCE / An Analysis of Nietzsche’s THE GAY SCIENCE / Die fröhliche Wissenschaft / THE GAY SCIENCE by Friedrich Nietzsche / What does Nietzsche mean by “God is dead”? / What does this mean?: “What does not kill me makes me stronger” / Nietzsche and Schopenhauer / Was Nietzsche a proto-Nazi? / Was Nietzsche a fascist? / Was Nietzsche a misogynist? / Was Nietzsche a feminist? / Was Nietzsche a sexist? / What is the “Eternal Recurrence of the Same”? / What is the “will-to-power”? / Nietzsche and “The Will to Power” / Nietzsche and “The Eternal Recurrence of the Same” / Nietzsche and Buddhism / Nietzsche and Hinduism

On Nietzsche’s THE GAY SCIENCE

by Joseph Suglia

 

“At the beach and in the sand, small mussels are splashed about, into them we wriggle and see only wrigglers but never the waves and upsurge of beings!”

—Martin Heidegger, Black Notebooks, October 1931

 

FROM THE EARLY PERIOD TO THE MIDDLE PERIOD

 

The middle period of Nietzschean thought begins with The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft) (1882; 1887).  Its invigorated and invigorating philosophy was made possible by the largely destructive Human, All-Too-Human (1878; 1886) and Daybreak (1881; 1887), the two books that immediately preceded The Gay Science.  In Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche explodes the concept of the free will and reveals the obscene selfishness, the crass self-interestedness, that underlies all human conduct.  In Daybreak, Nietzsche argues that all morality is false—indeed, impossible—if we conceive of moral behavior as being voluntary or other-directed.

The foundation of Nietzschean thought could be represented by one word: ananke (the Greek word for necessity).

We do not control what we think; we do not control what we do.  The sources of thought and action never exist within the horizons of consciousness.  All human thought and activity are uncontrollable / involuntary—that is to say, necessary—and therefore there is no reason to celebrate anyone for his or her “heroism” or condemn anyone for his or her “immoral” behavior.  It makes no sense, therefore, to regret what one has said or done, as it makes no sense to regret what one has not said or not done.  We are free to choose only what necessity has chosen for us.  Persephone rolls the dice of fate in Hades; we are free to play along.

The Gay Science—and the gay science—is the passionate assumption of necessity, amor fati (“the love of fate”).  The gay science is gaiety at the meaningless mechanism which is the world.  Everything is necessary yet purposeless.

 

DIVORCING SCHOPENHAUER: WHAT IS THE “WILL-TO-POWER”?

 

The Gay Science marks a swerving-away from Nietzsche’s unofficial teacher Schopenhauer.  There were already indications of Nietzsche’s growing dissatisfaction with Schopenhauer in Human, All-Too-Human [cf. especially Paragraph Thirty-Nine], in which Nietzsche ridicules his master for believing that some “metaphysical need” is innate to human beings.  The “metaphysical need” comes after religion; religion is not responsive to a preexisting “metaphysical need.”  Nor, Nietzsche argues, does the human conscience imply human moral responsibility—this is a false inference on Schopenhauer’s part.  The human conscience is a hive of error.

The total break with Schopenhauer, again, is announced in the pages of The Gay Science.  I would direct the reader to Paragraph Ninety-Nine, where Nietzsche makes explicit statements against Schopenhauerian philosophy, as well as to the poem “Pessimisten-Arznei” and the 1887 Preface, where he describes pessimism in physiological terms as a sickness.  What Nietzsche writes is pellucid; little commentary from me is required.  Briefly: Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the One Will is indemonstrable (that all causes are manifestations of the One Will at one time and at one place); the idea that a genius is a timeless, subjectless, desubjectified subject of knowledge is ridiculous; there is no such thing as animal magnetism; pity is not separate from the selfishness of individualism, etc.

What I would like to focus on here is something that is less obvious: the way that Nietzsche subtilizes Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the Will.

As the title of Schopenhauer’s masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, suggests, the world has two valences.  The innermost core of the world is the Will: the throbbing, palpitating, blind, stupid vital force, the will-to-live, the impulse to perpetuate and to preserve humanity.  The Will is what makes one want to live, what keeps one alive, but more importantly, what makes us, usually inadvertently, continue the human species.  All that we do, whether we think we are doing so or not, is in the service of the life-will, of the enhancement and enlargement of life.

The fundamental trait of the Will is striving.  The exertions of the Will are geared toward one thing (not a “purpose” or “goal”): the reduplication of humanity.  While this might sound “heteronormative” or “heterosexist” (to use two fuzz words), it is not.  Schopenhauer is not implying that the Will is a libido that is geared toward sexual reproduction; the Will is not the Will-to-sexually-reproduce.  Childless farmers, non-procreative artists, the celibate, gays, lesbians, the transgender—all of these, too, dance the regimented, compulsory dance of life, creating conditions for future humanity.  Homosexuality, for example, is a necessary counteraction / has a necessary counteractive effect which serves the drive to revitalize the human species.

Life, then, has no “purpose” other than its own perpetuation and promotion.  Human beings are playthings of the will-to-live.  The will-to-live continues, despite the endless deaths of individuals (in a sense, there are no individuals, for Schopenhauer)—which is why suicide is both foolish and repulsive.  You can kill yourself, but you can’t kill life.  Individuality is subordinate to the push-to-keep-humanity-alive.  The gay science is consciousness of the thrustings, the wellings, and the swellings of the Will and of the purposelessness of existence (Nietzsche, in this regard, likens the Will to the Wave, der Wille to die Welle).

Human beings think that they are their own masters, when behind every gesture, action, and word is the ascendant urge to renew the human species.  As I explained above, in Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche destroyed the philosophical foundations of altruism and the free will; in Daybreak, he destroyed morality on the basis of the destructions of Human, All-Too-Human.  In The Gay Science, we learn what human acts and thoughts subserve.  We are marking time, marching in place, when we believe that we matter.

Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are one at this stage: Individuals who believe that they are masters of themselves are self-deceptive.  They are puppeteered by the Will (which Schopenhauer believes is the will-to-preservation; Nietzsche believes the Will is something else, as we shall see).  Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, however, differ in their attitudes toward the Will.  For Schopenhauer, life is tragedy (life is a business that cannot cover its own expenses; human beings arise only to be extinguished; the character of life is suffering).  Nietzsche does not deny any of this—far from it—but for him, life is a comedy, a comedy because it has no goal, and consciousness of the pointlessness of life is the gay science.  Why else would Nietzsche invite the Grillen to dance the dance of life?  Grillen: this interesting word means both “crickets” and “whimsical (often, bad) moods.”  We are invited to confront and absorb the negative in the dream-dance of life: hence, the frequent terpsichorean and oneiric figures that proliferate throughout the text.  Nietzsche rejects Schopenhauer’s gloominess, his dourness, though he agrees that the maintenance, sustenance, and perpetuation of the human species is the result of a more fundamental human impulse than that of the principle of individuality (the principium indivuationis).

Nietzsche advances another step beyond his ex officio teacher and mentor, Schopenhauer, when he calls attention to how vices and how (later) squandering contribute to the will-to-live: Hatred, malice, envy, aggression, the desire to steal—all of these forms of so-called “wickedness” belong to “the astounding economy of the conservation of the species” ([die] erstaunliche[-] Oekonomie der Arterhaltung) [Paragraph One].  Much later, Nietzsche informs us that “Evil” is nothing more than another name for those who are vigorous, for those who are passionate (leidenschaftlich) [Paragraph 326], for those who enhance life, for those who stimulate opposition, with their passionate individualism and unconventional ideas.

Life is neither ugly nor beautiful, good nor evil in itself; we make it so.  That is to say: Neither Good nor Evil exists.  “Good” and “Evil” are mystifications, simplifications (and hence falsifications), abstractions.  The dichotomy of Good and Evil is replaced, by Nietzsche, with the terms strong / fertile / healthy and the feeble / sterile / sick.  Nietzsche seems to be using dualisms / dichotomies / binary oppositions himself.  One must be careful not to think that Nietzsche is substituting one dualism for another, however.

The strong and the weak do not form a dualism, but a continuum or an “axis” (to use Brian Eno’s term).  There are no opposites, only continua / axes.  Sickness and health are not opposites—there are subdivisions, gradations, degrees, nuances, levels between the antipodes of “strength” and “feebleness,” between “sickness” and “health.”  Health cannot do without sickness, as we learn from Paragraph 120 of The Gay Science and the 1886 Preface of Human, All-Too-Human.  All values are derived from disvalues.  Logic comes from illogic [cf. Paragraph 111].  Altruism is the chick that is hatched from the egg of selfishness.  In Human, All-Too-Human, we learn that generosity is drawn from a selfish lust for power.  In Paragraph 118 of The Gay Science and Daybreak, passim, we learn that benevolence (and pity, the affect that motivates benevolence) is the effort of the strong to appropriate the weak.  Opposites interpenetrate.

The most fundamental human impulse is not the will-to-reproduce-life, as Schopenhauer believes.  In the following words, Nietzsche definitively breaks with Schopenhauer: “In nature, it is not distress which rules, but rather abundance, squandering, even to the point of absurdity.  The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the life-will; the great and small struggle revolves everywhere around preponderance, around growth and expansion, around power, in accordance with the will-to-power, which is simply the will-to-live” ([I]n der Natur herrscht nicht die Nothlage, sondern der Ueberfluss, der Verschwendung, sogar bis in’s Unsinnige.  Der Kampf um’s Dasein ist nur eine Ausnahme, eine zeitweilige Restriktion des Lebenswillens; der grosse und kleine Kampf dreht sich allenthalben um’s Uebergewicht, um Wachsthum und Ausbreitung, um Macht, gemäss dem Willen zur Macht, der eben der Wille des Lebens ist) [Paragraph 349].

The will-to-live is only the restriction of a much greater will.  For Schopenhauer, the Will is the will-to-live; in Nietzsche, the Schopenhauerian Will is transformed into the will-to-power.

What is the will-to-power?  The “will-to-power” means the following: All of life is composed of relativities of power.  One creature is the dominant; the other is the subordinate.  One creature is the master; the other is the slave.  Not the desire for power, but desire as power is the fundamental characteristic of the will.  Exertion, struggling, striving for the preservation of the human species is a secondary characteristic.  The essential trait of the Will is the drive toward supremacy, toward ascendancy, over other organisms and entities.

All live organisms strive for dominance over other live organisms—but they also strive for dominance over the world.  Such is the will-to-power.  Power is not an object that is separate from the will; it is inherent to the will itself.  The will-to-power is the will of power, the power-will.

 

NIETZSCHE LOVES WOMEN / NIETZSCHE LOVES MOUNTAINS / NIETZSCHE DOES NOT LOVE WOMEN / NIETZSCHE DOES NOT LOVE MOUNTAINS

 

Nietzsche, sadly, writes a number of disobliging things about women in The Gay Science.

Am I the first reader to notice that Nietzsche writes about women in almost the same way in which he writes about mountains?  In Paragraph Fifteen, he tells us that mountains are only beautiful at a distance.  A mountain is beautiful to look at, but it is not beautiful to be a mountain.  The man who gazes at the mountain from the comfort of the Swiss boarding house is charmed; the mountaineer is not so enchanted.

In Paragraph Sixty, Nietzsche writes almost exactly the same thing about women.  Women, we are told, produce magical effects on the spectator only at a distance.  Fascination / bewitchment / enchantment implies distance.  The comparison between women and mountains could easily be interpreted as a misogynistic comparison (for what is a mountain but a large rock?).  However, as I have written elsewhere (in my commentary on Human, All-Too-Human), Nietzsche is not always merely a misogynist.

At other times, Nietzsche praises women to the sky.  Consult Paragraph Sixty-Four: Old women—Nietzsche slyly utters while twisting his Vercingetorix moustache—know that the superficiality of existence is its essence.  In other words, experienced women are more philosophically minded than experienced men.  A philosopher (I will return to this point below) is not someone who sees the Platonic idea (eidos) through the masquerade of appearances.  A philosopher is one who knows that there is no idea behind the curtain.

Anyone who still thinks that all of Nietzsche’s thoughts on women are reducible to misogyny should read on.  In the poignant paragraph that follows, we learn that Nietzsche has sympathy (perhaps even empathy) for women who offer their bodies—and their shame—to men who neither appreciate them nor return their love.  At another point, he even equates life itself to women / women to life itself: “Yes, life is a female!” (Ja, das Leben ist ein Weib!) [Paragraph 339].  This is the highest encomium that could ever be accorded to anyone.  What is this if not philogyny (the love of women)?  What is this if not crypto-feminism?

 

NIETZSCHE WAS NOT A FASCIST.  NIETZSCHE WAS NOT A PROTO-NAZI

 

Of all the tabloid lies that have been told about him, none is as blatantly untrue as the rumor that Nietzsche was a fascist or a proto-Nazi.  Such slanderous gossip could be refuted in a few words.  Nietzsche renounced his German (Prussian) citizenship in 1869.  He vilified the authoritarian state in Thus Spoke Zarathustra—and there has never been a fascist who did not revere the authoritarianism of the state.  He believed in a rule of intellectuals [cf. Paragraph 283], or, to invent words, a cognocracy or a philosophocracy—surely, fascism is nothing if not anti-intellectualist (see my brief article “Fascism”).  He inveighed against nationalism, racial hatred (Rassenhass), and the fetishistic piety of epidermal worship or “mendacious racial self-admiration” (verlogne[-] Rassen-Selbstbewunderung) [Paragraph 377].  Not only does Nietzsche suggest that “racial purity” (whatever this means) is undesirable—he even seems to suggest that it is impossible.  He never ceased to ridicule and condemn Anti-Judaism (for one example of this, consult the final pages of Toward the Genealogy of Morals).  He constantly expresses his admiration for the Jewish people [read Paragraph 475 of Human, All-Too-Human and Paragraph 205 of Daybreak].  On 29 March 1887, Nietzsche inked and mailed a letter to Theodor Fritsch, self-anointed Anti-Semite and one of the vilest ideological precursors of National Socialism, that contained these words as its closing paragraph: “Finally, how do you think I feel when the name Zarathustra is mouthed by an Anti-Semite?”  Nietzsche was demanding that Fritsch stop sending him copies of the rag that Fritsch edited: the Antisemitische Correspondenz und Sprechsaal für innere Partei-Angelegenheiten.

This is scarcely the profile of a fascist or a proto-Nazi.  The ethnic purifiers, the racial homogenizers, the phenotype idolaters, the ideological Aryans, the alt-rightists, the Neo-Nazis should find another “fave” philosopher (might I suggest Hegel?).  Nietzsche revolted against everything these thugs, mugs, and lugs stand for.

 

OUT-KANTING KANT: ONTOLOGY IS PHENOMENOLOGY

 

The title Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (“the gay science”) has at least four meanings:

  • At the most literal level, the gay science is poetry. The term gaya scienza was used by twelfth-century troubadours from Provence as another name for poetic art.  The book itself is fringed by two series of poems: “Joke, Cunning, and Revenge” and “The Songs of Prince Vogelfrei.”  The most significant of these is “To Goethe” (from “The Songs of Prince Vogelfrei”), to which I will turn, briefly, below.

 

  • The title carries a personal meaning. In the 1887 Preface, Nietzsche attributes the provenance of the book to a personal convulsion, the “saturnalia of a mind” (Saturnalien eines Geistes), an overturning, an overthrow of the romantic pessimism of Schopenhauer and of Schopenhauer’s disciple Wagner.  The rejection of romantic pessimism does not lead Nietzsche into optimism (thank goodness).  “The gay science” is the impassioned affirmation of the world-as-such in all of its ugliness, not the naïve hyperbole of Leibnizian optimism, which sees the world as the best of all possible worlds.  To see the world as the best of all possible worlds is to see the world as better than it is, since there is only world.  This is the world, and there is no other.  Optimism and pessimism are surpassed in favor of the life-affirming repudiation of all religion, of all morality, and of all metaphysics (which serves as the foundation of religion and morality).  Metaphysics, by definition, posits a supraworld, a world-beyond-the-world, an Apart-from-the-world.  This explains the book’s frequent references to Epicurus, who believed: If there are gods, they do not concern themselves with us.  The Gay Science is not a Leibnizian book (far from it); it is an Epicurean book.

 

  • The gay science, as I suggested above, is the consciousness of the purposelessness of existence—unless the promotion of life is itself a purpose. But how could the impulse to continue, to perpetuate, to reproduce the human species be a “purpose”?  If the concept of purpose implies free will (and surely it does), then the impulse to propagate the human species is no purpose at all.  The gay science is the joyous assumption of necessity.  It is the cheerful knowledge that a supercomputer would be able to preprogram all of human behavior centuries before any of that behavior was enacted.

 

  • The gay science is Nietzsche’s phenomenological ontology.

 

Let me address this final theorem here.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche gives us a philosophy of superficiality.  Nietzsche tells us, “We cannot see around our corner” (Wir können nicht um unsre Ecke sehn); the human intellect cannot avoid seeing itself, things in the world, and other selves under its own perspectival forms [Paragraph 374].  All we have are surfaces and surfaces of surfaces.  The world is a glittering, glistening, trembling, quivering play of surfaces without depth—a scintillating mosaic with nothing behind it.

But if there is no depth, can there be a surface?  For Nietzsche, there can be depthless surfaces—there is nothing beneath the surface; there are only grooves, filigrees, fissures, grooves incised on the surface of the world.  There are nothing but veils and veils that veil veils.  As he writes in the 1887 Preface: “We no longer believe that the truth still remains the truth when the veil is pulled off” (Wir glauben nicht mehr daran, dass Wahrheit noch Wahrheit bleibt, wenn man ihr die Schleier abzieht).

The disciple of the Temple of Sais pulls off the veil that veils the statue of Isis—there is nothing there beneath the veil.  No revealed mystery, no depth.  The unveiling is a forced striptease that does not lead to nudity, that does not lead to the truth, that never reaches an essence, that never comes to an ultimate profundity, but one that leads to another set of impermeable veils.  What this means is that depth is superficiality, as superficiality is depth.  A frog is a frog, a log is a log, a bog is a bog.

It takes a deep person to recognize that the world is superficial, which is why Nietzsche writes that mystics are not even superficial / surficial: “Mystical explanations are estimated as deep; the truth is, they are not even superficial” (Die mystischen Erklärungen gelten für tief; die Wahrheit ist, dass sie noch nicht einmal oberflächlich sind) [Paragraph 126].  My interpretation of this statement: A mystic / mystagogue is someone who ignores the surfaces of life in favor of a deeper world that does not even exist.

The all-important Paragraph Fifty-Four—the centrifugal force of the book—liberates appearances from essences.  We learn here that a phenomenon is not the appearance of a thing; a phenomenon has its own integrity.  Appearance is not the opposite of some essence (Gegensatz irgend eines Wesens).  Appearance is not a death mask (eine todte Maske), an unknown X (ein[-] unbekannt[es] X), the crust or shell of a thing.  “Semblance,” Nietzsche writes, “is the acting and living itself” (Schein ist für mich das Wirkende und Lebende selber).  Though Nietzsche does not write the following explicitly, he appears to imply: Appearance is essence.

In this extraordinary paragraph, Nietzsche emancipates himself from his unofficial teacher Schopenhauer and from Schopenhauer’s unofficial teacher Kant.  It is not merely the case that we only know appearances and never things in themselves, Nietzsche suggests to us.  Nietzsche celebrates and affirms—with the giddiness of gaiety—phenomenality without Dinge an sich (“things in themselves”).  Here, Nietzsche is moving away from Schopenhauer (and from Schopenhauer’s predecessor, Kant), who still believed that there is a supersensible truth beyond the world of appearances.  Whereas Kant believed that things in themselves underlie appearances, Nietzsche here affirms that there are only appearances and no things in themselves.

Further, Nietzsche is against all ethics of prudence.  Reason does not have a pure employment—all ethics are ethics of prudence, of convenience, of self-interest.

Kant does assert repeatedly that the forms of knowledge (particularly, the forms of sensibility, space and time) cannot be applied to things as they are in themselves.  Neither are they applicable to three “Ideas of Reason” that entranced the originators of Christianity (and, to an extent, Christian Wolff): God, the free will, and immortality.  On this, Nietzsche and Kant are in agreement.  The “Ideas of Reason” have no correlative in experience.  Where is God?  Where is the free will?  Where is immortality?

However, Nietzsche goes much further than Kant.  Nietzsche utterly denies the reality of God.  He utterly denies the reality of the free will.  He utterly denies the reality of immortality.  We must admit that Nietzsche was far more enlightened than Kant.  In comparison with Nietzsche, Kant appears to be clouded by intellectual benightedness.  Nietzsche thinks that God, the free will, and immortality are intellectual errors and that human reason is by no means bound to accept them even as noumenal realities.

Nietzsche, then, is out-Kanting Kant: There is no noumenal self, no supersensible morality, no noumenal world.  There is no separation between the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds.  Although Nietzsche never actually writes this, we can aver with confidence that Kant was not enlightened enough.  Kant is not the representative of the Enlightenment that most think him to be.  Nietzsche, who was born forty years after Kant died, takes the Enlightenment to its logical conclusion.  He certainly took the Enlightenment much further than Kant ever did.

Nietzsche phenomenalizes the world.  That is to say: Nietzsche superficializes the world.

Heidegger is wrong when he claims that Nietzsche inverts Platonism.  To “invert” Platonism would be to place the phenomenon above the essence (eidos).  Nietzsche does not invert Platonism.  He displaces Platonism.

Does this imply that life is a lie?  Nietzsche will write in the Nachlass that “[t]ruth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live.”  This, regrettably, is one of the most unfortunate things that Nietzsche ever wrote.  For does not this interpretation of truth presuppose truth?  Is Nietzsche not assuming that his own statement is true?  Is he not hoping that we, the readers, will accept his statement as a true statement?  Or is he suggesting that his own statement is erroneous?  This is one of the Megarian paradoxes: A man comes from a city where everyone lies.  He says, “I am lying.”  Is he telling the truth?  Nietzsche writes that truth is a lie.  Is he telling the truth?

Nietzsche’s argument might be saved if we rewrite his statement as follows: “There is no truth (no absolute reality, no reality absolved of perception and perceptibility); there are only things that we take as the truth.”  To cite a popular-culture example: The film I, Tonya (2017) seems to proceed from this understanding—all the while discounting any perspective other than that of Team Tonya.  In the film, Tonya Harding is the victim, not Nancy Kerrigan.

Most of the poems in The Gay Science are nothing more than silly fun (and Nietzsche admits this), but there is one that stands out: “To Goethe.”

World-Play, the masterful,

Blends being and semblance:—

 

Welt-Spiel, das herrische,

Mischt Sein und Schein:—

 

To paraphrase: There is no “deeper life.”  Being is appearance, Sein is Schein, ontology is phenomenology.  Life is a scintillating mosaic, a play of surfaces.  Again, this is not an inversion, but a displacement of Platonism.

This is why Nietzsche praises artists, creators of illusions of profundity.  This is why artists are compared to lovers, and lovers are compared to artists; both conceal naturalness [Paragraph Fifty-Nine].  Art is the “good will to semblance” (gute[r] Wille[-] zum Scheine) (Paragraph 107)—that is, art is illusion without the pretext of being true (unlike, say, religion).  Art resembles existence, which is already aesthetic.  This does not mean that art represents things in the world, as Aristotle believes.  It means that art repeats the phenomenal character of existence.  We are drawn to works of art because they remind us that life is already art—that is, they remind us that life is already a shallow play of appearances.  Art reminds us that life is already a constellation / a clutch / a cluster of illusions.

This is why what flying fish love most about life is its skinnishness / skinness / skinnedness / epidermality (Hautlichkeit) [Paragraph 256].  For life is a vast skin without fat or muscle—a skin of many pigmentations.

This is why the name of a thing (its reputation) is more important than the thing itself.  A name describes the human relation to a thing; it does not describe the thing itself.  The name of a thing is the skin that becomes its very body [cf. Paragraph Fifty-Eight].  Indeed, without a name, a thing is not accessible at all.  Language gives birth to reality—Nietzsche almost writes this [cf. Paragraph 261].

Language is not reducible to some meaning behind letters and punctuation marks.  Language inheres in letters and punctuation marks.  This point is reflected by Nietzschean novelist Hermann Hesse, a writer who has long been adored by public and reviled by Germanists, in the fourth chapter (“Awakening”) of his novel Siddhartha.  In this chapter, the eponymous protagonist throws off religion and affirms his self, the surfaceness of life, and the signifierness of language (sit venia verbo):

“Meaning and essence were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them” (Sinn und Wesen waren nicht irgendwo hinter den Dingen, sie waren in ihnen, in allem).

The affirmation of the empirical is not scientific reductionism, for science destroys mystery / ambiguity [cf. Paragraph 373].  It is not scientific reductionism; it is the gay science.  The gay science: to be unfavorably disposed toward meta-phenomenal ideas and toward absolute unbudgeable convictions.  The gay science is the joyous, impassioned affirmation of empty phenomena.

The lightness of being is not unbearable—to write against the worst of the pseudo-Nietzschean novelists, Milan Kundera (Hesse is his superior).  Not only is the lightness of being bearable, it is joy-inspiring.  Nietzsche celebrates the joyous weightlessness of existence.  The gay science—and The Gay Science—is a gay phenomenology.

 

“GOD IS DEAD”: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

 

How could God die, if God never existed to begin with?: Both Georges Bataille and Christopher Hitchens have posed this question.  The answer, of course, is that Nietzsche never intended the literal death of God when he wrote, “God is dead.”  He meant the implausibility of believing in the otherworld, the unbelievability of belief in the otherworld.  One should recall the story of the lunatic in the marketplace that Nietzsche tells us in The Gay Science: The people of the marketplace do not even believe in God and are indifferent to the lunatic’s rantings.  The point is not that God does not exist, but that the idea of God is unbelievable.

If God is dead, this is because God is depth.  Any belief in metaphysical depth becomes incredible.

God is dead because God is depth.

 

WHAT DOES NOT KILL ME KILLS ME: WHAT DID NIETZSCHE MEAN WHEN HE WROTE, “WHAT DOES NOT KILL ME MAKES ME STRONGER”?

 

Nietzsche is a thinker who many talk about, but few have read—thoroughly, at least.  One of his statements that is repeated everywhere throughout American popular culture, a statement that permeates everything from the now-moldering and –smoldering Web site MySpace to the sounds of Kayne West, is “What does not kill me makes me stronger” (Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker) [from Götzendämmerung].

The 1887 Preface helps one understand this, probably most oft-quoted statement that Nietzsche ever made (eclipsing perhaps even the death of God and the abyss-that-is-looking-into-you): “I doubt that [the great] pain ‘improves’ us—; but I know that it deepens us” (Ich zweifle, ob [der grosse] Schmerz ‘verbessert’—; aber ich Weiss, dass er uns vertieft).

The 1887 Preface clarifies in advance what Nietzsche meant by “What does not kill me makes me stronger”: What Nietzsche means by “what does not kill me” is “the great pain,” the most excruciating pain of one’s life.  The great pain makes me deeper.

But what or who is this “me”?  The “me” is the free spirit.  What does not kill the free spirit makes the free spirit deeper.  Pain makes the free spirit become another person—the free spirit is always becoming another person.  A way of retranslating this famous formulation, then, might be: “The great pain annihilates and recreates the free spirit.”

What does not kill me kills me.

The new person is a questioner—one who poses questions as to the questionableness of existence.  After an experience of pain, the free thinker—the survivor of the trauma—delights in the experience, for s/he knows that pain is necessary and produces meaning.  Pain problematizes existence, highlighting its ambiguity / equivocality.

What does not kill me makes me more profound—and (to retranslate this remark into the terms of The Gay Science) my profundity makes the world appear superficial.

 

WHAT IS THE ETERNAL RECURRENCE OF THE SAME?

 

The Gay Science contains the first published reference to the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same (an unpublished reference occurs earlier, in the notebooks—see the notebook of August 1881): In order to attain your highest humanity, “you desire the eternal recurrence of war and peace” (du willst die ewige Wiederkunft von Krieg und Frieden) [Paragraph 285].  By the “eternal recurrence of war and peace,” Nietzsche does not intend that our lives will repeat themselves infinitely.  He intends that we ought to live our lives as if our lives will repeat themselves infinitely.  The infinite repetition of our lives is a thought-experiment, not a metaphysical claim.  The infinite repetition of our lives is a philosophical imperative, an “Ought.”  (I will pursue this topic in much greater depth when I discuss Beyond Good and Evil and the Nachlass.)  The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is the philosophical imperative: Live your life for nothing other than its own infinite repetition.

Schopenhauer constantly refers to Hinduism (or as he calls it “Brahmanism” or “the Vedanta philosophy”) throughout The World as Will and Representation.  The extent to which Nietzsche is indebted to Hinduism has yet to be sufficiently explored.  One should not ignore the epigraph to Morgenröthe, which comes from the Riga Veda: “There are many days that have yet to be dawned.”

Is it possible that Nietzsche was inspired by Hinduism when he came up with the Eternal Recurrence of the Same?  I am thinking of the Hindu concept of samsāraSamsāra is the endless recycling of rebirth and redeath.  The only way out is nirvāna, the extinction of the self (the word nirvāna originally referred to the extinguishing, the snuffing-out, of a candle flame).  For the Hindu, the point of life is not to reenter the cycle of samsāra.  The point of life is to suspend samsāra—not to perpetuate it.

The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is not a matter of hopefulness, even though the future is perfect.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

 

Aphorisms on Consumerism and Genius

 

Aphorisms on Consumerism and Genius

by Joseph Suglia

 

In consumer culture, genius is reduced to the level of vulgarity.  And vulgarity is elevated to the level of genius.

Everyone gets an award, and everyone is famous, which means that no one is famous.

The real problem is this—everyone is an artist, which means that no one is an artist.  Everything is a work of art, which means that nothing is a work of art.  There is a general lack of aesthetic discrimination, and this can be seen in the rise of the hipster and in the rise of self-publication, unfortunately.  A novel is published every five minutes.

Joseph Suglia

Aphorisms on Art

Aphorisms on Art

by Joseph Suglia

Art is not art the moment that it ceases to be a fabrication.  I support anything in art, on the basis that it is choreographed / fabricated.  The moment that a human being wounds, mutilates, kills an animal, the boundary that separates art from life has been crossed.  The moment that an artist kills an animal in the name of art, she or he has ceased being an artist in my eyes.

Art is a way of making life seem more interesting than it actually is.

Art transforms the spectator’s relation to the world, to others, and to oneself.  It is a human activity, not a natural or divine activity.

I have become an aesthetic nihilist: The word “art” is applied to whatever a person or a community believes is art.  I can only speak or write with authority on what I think art is.

Joseph Suglia

 

Caesar Anti-Trump

Caesar Anti-Trump

by Joseph Suglia

 

“Nackt kann die Wahrheit vor dem Volke nicht erscheinen.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Zweiter Band, Kapitel 17

 

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America gives further evidence, if needed, that Americans wish to be led by cartoon characters.  It was not Trump the human being who acceded to the presidency.  It was his screen double, which is all the American electorate has ever known of him.  It was Trump the Rich Man of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992).  It was Trump the Boss of The Apprentice (2004-2015).  It was Trump the Billionaire of Wrestlemania 23 (2007).  Donald Trump is every bit as unreal as Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl or Colonel Sanders—all three of these characters are strategic unrealities.  All are holograms, shadows of living beings rather than living beings themselves.  They are not human beings; they are human seemings.

Since the accession of Trump to the presidency, there have been multiple stagings, visualizations, stylings, dramatizations of the decapitation and even of the assassination of the forty-fifth President of the United States.  Such simulated deaths must be understood not as calls to actually decapitate or to assassinate the living human leader, indeed the leader of the world’s sole superpower, but rather as simulations of the death of a holographic projection, stylizations of the death of a clownish figure no more real than Donald Duck.  Trump belongs to Nineteen Eighties trash culture alongside other two-dimensional caricatures of human beings such as Rowdy Roddy Piper, Joe Piscopo, and Morton Downey, Jr.  If any of these characters had been assassinated, their deaths would seem as unreal as these figures themselves are.  One thinks of Hegel’s meditation on the derealization of death in the time of the French Revolution and wonders if Hegel’s remarks aren’t still as fresh as the paint on our computer screens: Death in the time of the French Revolution, Hegel writes, was the “coldest, shallowest of deaths, with no more significance than cleaving a cabbage head or swallowing a gulp of water.”

In J.G. Ballard’s great novel The Atrocity Exhibition, public figures such as Ronald Reagan and Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy are subjected to the morbid and sordid fantasies of the main character.  Since human beings are often dark creatures, their fantasies are often dark fantasies.  Why should Trump be immune from the processes of dark-fantasization and fetishization?  The imaginary assassinations of Donald Trump are simulated assassinations of a character who is already a simulation.  The simulated deaths of Donald Trump are nothing more than the deaths of a simulation.  Donald Trump does not exist.  You cannot kill something that does not exist.  Just as money is the abstract representation of desire, Donald Trump is the abstract representation of a gatherer of abstract representations.  To become sentient of this simulation is to become something else: to become aware that what we are witnessing is a holographic image.

I will now turn to discuss the simulated assassinations of Donald Trump.  I am excluding from this discussion the real attempt on Trump’s life on 18 June 2016 by a young Briton, as well as the subornation of Trump’s murder by celebrities such as Johnny Depp (a Kentucky-born actor with an affected European accent) and Madonna, who are themselves also unrealities.

In a 2016 promotional video for his tenth studio album Heaven Upside Down (a much better title than Say10, the original name of the album), Marilyn Manson chimerized the decapitation of Donald Trump.  This is the first and most artful chimerical execution of the president.  The other representations of the assassination of Trump could safely be classified as agitprop or as artless publicity stunts.

In a video for the song “Lavender” by the Toronto-based electronic jazz band BadBadNotGood, Snoop Dogg (also known as “Snoop Lion” and “Snoopzilla”) can be seen mock-executing a clown who resembles Donald Trump.  Incredibly, Snoop once had a congenial relationship with Trump, who sang dithyrambs in his honor: “You know Snoop Dogg?  He’s the greatest.  One of the nation’s best-selling hip-hop artists.  And I’ll tell you what: He’s a great guy.  And he’s a lot different than you think.  You know, you think he’s a wild man?  He’s a very, very smart, tough businessman, in addition to being a great musician.”  The director of the video, professional YouTube videographer Jesse Wellens, was wise not to directly represent the execution of the president.

The most sanguinary simulation of the assassination of Donald Trump was performed by comedienne Kathy Griffin, who arranged a photograph of herself in which she raised a severed wax head that resembled the head of the Commander-in-Chief.  Her hair the same shade of red as the hair on the blood-bespattered head she holds aloft, her facial expression joyless, and her skin alabaster, she seems like a French revolutionary a few moments after the guillotine chops off the head of the monarch.  At the press conference which she must have anticipated, Griffin said tristfully, as if in explanation, “I’ve dealt with older white guys trying to keep me down my whole life, my whole career.”  One cannot suppress the question: Was she thinking of her father when she said this?  Did the disembodied wax head perhaps summon memories of her father?  Does she have a conscious or unconscious hatred for her father?  Her real father, John Patrick Griffin, died in 2007 of a heart failure at the age of ninety-one.  In any event, the performance piece was condemned by almost everyone on the Right and on the Left.  CNN announced that Griffin would not be invited back to host its annual New Year’s Eve program.  She was unwise to do worse what Marilyn Manson and Snoop Dogg did better.

Rightwing activists pretended to be scandalized by the 2017 open-air dramatization of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by New York’s Public Theater.  During the performances, which took place in Central Park, Julius Caesar is dressed up as Donald Trump.  The fictionalized murder of this Caesar-Trump is nowhere near as bloody as it is alleged to have been by Plutarch in his Lives, where, it is written, the body of Caesar was mutilated, mangled, and hacked to pieces.  Plutarch even records that Caesar’s genitalia were stabbed.  On 17 June 2017, Laura Loomer—one of the video personalities of Rebel Media, the Canadian rightist video company—jumped on stage during a performance of the play while live-recording herself.  She screeched: “Stop the normalization of political violence against the Right!  This is unacceptable.  You cannot promote this kind of violence against Donald Trump.”  She was joined by Jack Posobiec, former Washington correspondent for Rebel Media, who bellowed: “You are all Goebbels!  You are all Nazis like Joseph Goebbels!  You are inciting terrorists!”  Goebbels, then, is equated to each spectator in the audience, in the same way that Trump is equated to Caesar.  One imagines a grid of 1,000 cultural references: An invisible line connects one point on the grid to another point on the grid.  The historical context of each point of reference is ignored.  History is neutralized, reduced to space.

By disturbing the performance of the play, both of these people resembled those who the Right hates—those who commove performances and presentations.  How are they any different?  Even worse, they shattered the dramaturgical illusion that the architects and the performers of the play were struggling to create.  Loomer twittered about the incident breathlessly: “The moment I rushed the stage of Julius Caesar.  Listen to the violence and stabbing of ‘Trump’ that occurred right before.  It is revolting.”

Before I consider the question as to whether Shakespeare’s Caesar has anything in common with Donald Trump, I will turn my attention to the text of the play itself.

 

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The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599) is Shakespeare’s attempt to explain the motives behind the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E. and to show the baleful consequences that emerged from this assassination.  (The Ides of March: the fifteenth of March on the Roman calendar, the day of settling debts.  The day on which Caesar is forced to pay his debt to the conspirators.)  The play also passes judgment, I believe, on the conspiracy to assassinate the Roman leader.  In doing so, it passes judgment on all such plots to overthrow monarchies, dictatorships, and tyrannies.  It is the antithesis of Measure for Measure (circa 1603), Shakespeare’s most politically liberal play, and one almost as politically conservative as The Tragedy of Coriolanus (1605-1608), one of T.S. Eliot’s favorite works of literature.

When we hear of him in the first scene of the play, Caesar is fresh from destroying the sons of the previous emperor, Pompey, in the Battle of Munda, the last battle against the optimates of the old Roman Republic.  Caesar has been anointed the “perpetual dictator” of Rome, a dictator with no term limit.  He is slated to become king.  But there have been no kings in Rome, not since Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and that was in 495 B.C.E., over four centuries ago, and most of the Roman senators and tribunes worry that Caesar will become overweeningly arrogant and sodden with his own godlike authority.  Above all, most of them envy Caesar.

The assassination of Caesar leads to self-assassinations, lynchings, pogroms, purges, and civil war.  The play culminates in a Jonestown-like mass suicide.  The same blade that Cassius stuck into the emperor is plunged into Cassius’s own torso.  He does so on his birthday.  The anniversary of the day of his nativity coincides with the day of his self-imposed death.  I cannot think of a clearer example of cosmic irony in Western literature than that of Cassius’s suicide—the fact that Cassius murders himself with the same blade that he sunk into the body of the Dear Leader.  Titinius follows him.  Brutus expires while exhaling Caesar’s name: “Caesar, now be still” [V:v].  Portia “swallows fire” [IV:iii], literally—a ghastly death that mirrors her husband’s inward bursting, his imploding.  She is burning up on the inside literally; her husband is disintegrating on the inside metaphorically.

The crowd turns mobbish, and mobbishness takes over Rome.  The mob tears an innocent man to pieces in the street (the Poet Cinna).  This scene (Act Three, Scene Three), which quickly moves from the comic to the hideous, recalls the opening moment of the play, in which a crowd of plebeians jeers at Flavius and Murellus, sneering tribunes of the people.  The point seems to be that democracy, when it uses antimonarchical means, is indistinguishable from ochlocracy.  The city descends into mob violence as the result of the antimonarchical violence of the conspirators.

Until tyranny takes hold once more.  Octavius, the new tyrant, and Antony are motivated not so much by revanchism, by the desire for righteous vengeance and for the restoration of the ancient regime, as by political ambition, or, what amounts to the same thing, the hatred of subjection.  Their “love of Caesar” is really a lust for power or is coterminous with the lust for power.  The senators fail at establishing a constitutional monarchy (assuming that this is what they desired to begin with).  Such the cosmic irony of the play: One tyrant replaces the other.

The reconstitution of tyranny is brought about by rhetoric—by swaying the crowd with words.  Rhetoric is the art of persuading people to do what you want them to do—not to do what you would do yourself.  Rhetoric is the art is the art of persuading people to believe what you want them to believe—not to believe what you believe yourself.

When Antony says that his heart is in the coffin with Caesar, this triggers an emotional response in the audience.  Brutus’s introductory speech is weak (it is logocentric).  Shakespeare intentionally writes it weakly.  Antony’s speech soars on the wings of pathopoeia (it is pathocentric) and thus throws the crowd into a frenzy.  A classic exercise in rhetoric, pathopoeia is an emotionally provocative speech or piece of writing, the content of which is insignificant.  It is not a speech in which the speaker cries, but a speech that makes the audience cry.  As such, it is pure manipulation: Notice that Brutus says things that he could not possibly know—for instance, where on the body each conspirator stabbed Julius.

The point seems to be that democracy fails.  Human beings are political animals, and the lust for power supersedes the humanistic and demotic impulses.  Only Brutus has a genuine love of humanity, and his role in the assassination of Caesar was motivated by a sincere desire to better the lives of the Roman people.  But he is presented as politically naïve.  The naïve, incautious idealist, he naïvely allows Mark Antony to speak to the crowd, which ends in Brutus, Cassius, and company being driven out of Rome.  Cassius, who is much shrewder politically (he is a Realpolitiker) and politically more mature, cautions Brutus against doing so.  Indeed, Cassius recommends that Antony be slaughtered along with Caesar, and Cassius knows well that slicing Antony’s throat open would have saved him and his brother-in-law from their fates.  “This tongue had not offended so today,” Cassius says sneeringly to Antony, “[i]f Cassius might have ruled” [V:i].  And yet Cassius is willing to give Antony political power after the assassination is done: “Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s / In the disposing of new dignities” [III:i].

Misinterpretations surround the execution of Caesar: Not only does Brutus catastrophically underestimate Antony; Antony underestimates Cassius [I:ii].  Cassius, in turn, misapprehends Titinius, which leads to Cassius’s self-murder, and Caesar, of course, underestimates those he calls his friends.  He ignores the warnings of Calphurnia, the Soothsayer, and Artemidorus.

This leads one to wonder if Brutus did not overestimate the tyrannical nature of Caesar.  The entire argument for Caesar’s assassination is based on a surmise, a conjecture, a speculation: “So Caesar may. / Then lest he may, prevent” [II:i].  Epexegesis: In other words, Caesar might become an unbearable tyrant; therefore, he will become an unbearable tyrant.  The justification after the deed: Caesar would have become an intolerable tyrant, if he were allowed to live.  One is reminded of the question asked in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone: “If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him?”  Many would answer, “Yes.”  Yet the argument that Caesar would have become a brutal tyrant and the Romans would have become slaves is a specious one.

It is the Iago-like Cassius who seduces Brutus into murdering Caesar in a way that is similar to the way in which Iago inveigled Othello into committing uxoricide.  Cassius presents himself as Brutus’s own “glass” [I:ii], as both the mirror and the image that appears within the mirror, as the speculum and his specular image, as his replica, as his double, as his simulation, as the reflective surface by which Brutus is able to see himself—as the only means by which Brutus is able to see himself—and as his own reflection.  Cassius imposes upon Brutus’s mind the plan to commit tyrannicide.  He insinuates his own thoughts into the mind of Brutus.

(Let me remark parenthetically that Cassius even sounds like Iago.  His “If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius, / He should not humour me” [I:ii] proleptically anticipates Iago’s “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.”  The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice will be written five years later.)

Brutus has a divided self.  A fractured self.  On the one hand, he has genuine affection for Caesar; on the other, a ghostly, anonymous, impersonal voice has colonized his mind and is commanding him to kill a man toward whom he bears no ill will: “[F]or my part, / I know no personal cause to spurn at him / But for the general” [II:i].  From an external perspective, he is a freedom fighter who believes that a constitutional monarchy would be better for the Roman people than a tyranny—but this idea is not his own and does not correspond to his feelings.  This self-division would explain why Brutus, with a guilty conscience, proposes to carve up Caesar’s body as if it were a feast for the gods rather than hew his body as if it were a meal for the hounds [II:i].  But what is the difference, ultimately?  Killing is killing, knifing is knifing, hacking is hacking, shanking is shanking.

Shakespeare teaches us, around the same time that he begins work on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, that there is no such thing as a unified personality—that every subjectivity is fractured and complexly self-contradictory and self-contradictorily complex.  Indeed, Brutus’s soliloquy is the precursor to Hamlet’s more famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy.  Whether or not to kill himself is not yet the question; the question is whether or not to kill Caesar.  Rather than ask “To be or not to be,” Brutus asks, in effect, “Should Caesar be, or should Caesar no longer be?”  Brutus’s “[T]here’s the question” [II:i] forecasts Hamlet’s “That is the question.”  Brutus, as the proto-Hamlet, is speaker and listener at the same time.  He affects himself.

No wonder that Portia, Brutus’s wife, gives herself a “voluntary wound” in the thigh [II:i].  She is mutilating herself literally, whereas Brutus is mutilating himself metaphorically.  She is a cutter, but so is Brutus.  Her self-cutting mirrors his self-cutting.  It is disappointing that this scene was cut from the 1953 and 1970 film versions of the play.

No wonder that Brutus will suppress his feelings for his wife after she kills herself: “Speak no more of her” [IV:iii], he says with mock coldness to Cassius.  He suppresses his feelings for the emperor, after all.  But this does not mean that Brutus is cold-blooded; far from it.  I believe Brutus when he says to Portia that she is as “dear to [him] as are the ruddy drops / [t]hat visit [his] sad heart” [II:i].  He is a Roman Stoic (with Platonist leanings), and Stoics do not betray their feelings—another sign that Brutus is divided against himself.

Not merely is Brutus divided into warring factions; Rome is divided into warring factions.  When Brutus says in Act Two, Scene One that “the state of man” is suffering “the nature of an insurrection,” he is referring both to himself and to Rome.  Two acts later: As the conspirators run for their lives and fight from the outside, Octavius, the adopted son of Caesar, comes to Rome, and Mark Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus form an unholy triumvirate and will divide the spoils among them after the defeat of their enemies.  “Happy day,” indeed [V:v]!  It is clear that Antony is planning to kill Lepidus once Lepidus has stopped being useful to him.  He expends more words on his horse and on asinine and equine similes than he does on the serviceable Lepidus himself:

Octavius, I have seen more days than you; / And though we lay these honours on this man / To ease ourselves of diverse slanderous loads, / He shall but bear them as the ass bears gold, / To groan and sweat under the business, / Either led or driven, as we point the way: / And having brought our treasure where we will, / Then take we down his load and turn him off, / Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears / And graze in commons…  Do not talk of him / But as a property [IV:i].

Not only that: Antony threatens to curtail the benefits to the Roman people that were promised in Caesar’s will (a stimulus package for every Roman, access to Caesar’s once-private gardens and orchards)—the promise of these benefits ferments and foments the crowd, turning the crowd into a mob.  (The word mob comes from the Latin mobilis, which means “movable,” and is etymologically connected to the words mobile and mobilize.  A mob is a crowd in action.)  Antony says to Octavius and Lepidus: “[W]e shall determine / How to cut off some charge in legacies” [IV:i].  In other words, we will reduce the number of drachmas that every Roman was promised and perhaps repossess the gardens and orchards that we promised them, as well.

Within the factions, there are factions: Cassius and Brutus squabble as if they were fractious luchadores in the third scene of the fourth act.  Mark Antony and Octavius disagree on who should move to the left in the first scene of the fifth act:

ANTONY: Octavius, lead your battle softly on, / Upon the left hand of the even field.

OCTAVIUS: Upon the right hand I.  Keep thou the left.

ANTONY: Why do you cross me in this exigent?

OCTAVIUS: I do not cross you: but I will do so.

Let us not forget the intrusions of the supernatural / the intimations of the supernatural: The lioness that whelps in the street [II:ii].  The graves that yawn and yield up their dead [II:ii].  The nightbird that hoots and shrieks at noon in the marketplace [I:iii].  (Why no filmmaker, as far as I know, has represented these oneiric images is a mystery to me.)  The lightning storms that frame the conspiracy to dispatch Caesar—in the third scene of the first act and in the second scene of the second act.  Calphurnia listens to the thunder and studies the lightning and interprets these as fatidic signs, as if she were a ceraunomancer (someone who divines supernatural or transcendent meaning from the heavens) [II:ii].  Cassius is a ceraunologist (someone who poetically or pseudoscientifically compares the movements of the heavens with worldly events): He sees the “dreadful night / [t]hat thunders, lightens, opens graves and roars” [I:iii] as the celestial complement to Caesar’s unnamed worldly violence.  The ghosts, the supernaturalized beasts, the signs of the heavens that are interpreted as wonders or metaphors: The point of the supernatural is to call into question the tyrannicide.

The self-murder, the military violence, the mobbishness, the madness, the pandemonium, the infantile squabbling, the familial betrayals, the portents, the interference of the supernatural—all of this issues from the killing of Caesar or from the conspiracy to kill Caesar.  All of these are symptoms of a disease brought on by the pathogenic act of violence against the emperor.  Shakespeare would seem to agree with Goethe, who claimed that the murder of Caesar is “the most absurd act that ever was committed”; for Goethe, this act proved that even the best of the Romans did not understand what government is for (Nachgelassene Werke, xiii, p. 68).  Seen from this perspective, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is a politically reactionary play, one that justifies authoritarian dictatorship, if not outright tyranny.  Again, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most politically conservative plays, second only to The Tragedy of Coriolanus, one of the most reactionary plays ever written.

If the play is politically ambiguous (neither endorsing statism nor rejecting it), then why do we see so little evidence of Caesar’s unbearable tyranny?  The play shows us more instances of Caesar’s feebleness than of his tyrannousness (all in the second scene of the first act): Caesar’s epileptic fit in the marketplace, his poor hearing, his feverishness in Spain, his near-drowning in the Tiber.  Save for the sole instance of the banishment of Publius Cimber, there is no evidence that Caesar is oppressive.  There is much more evidence that the play condemns the assassination of Caesar than there is evidence that the play takes a neutral stance on the assassination.  Indeed, one could write, without fear of repudiation, that the play takes a stand against the assassination of Julius Caesar—and thus, a stand against the overthrow of authoritarian dictatorships.

Despite its title, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is not the tragedy of Julius Caesar.  (Nietzsche knew well that the play was given the wrong title.  See The Gay Science, Paragraph 98.)  Caesar only has 130 lines and, in spite of what Whoopi Goldberg claims, does not die at the end of the play, but in the middle.  The execution of Caesar divides the text into two parts: the first deals with the motives behind the deed; the second deals with its consequences.  It is the tragedy not of Caesar, but of Brutus, whose desires are not his own and who is not his own.

 

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The Tragedy of Julius Caesar anticipates its reception by future audiences.  Like the atrociously underrated Troilus and Cressida (1602), characters are conscious that they are the unreal representations of real historical human beings.  In Troilus and Cressida, Achilles spreads the fake news that “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain,” and the reader / the spectator gets the impression that Achilles is aware that the legend will be printed and become historical.  In Julius Caesar, characters (Cassius and Brutus) are conscious that the play will be performed for centuries after the death of their author in countless different languages.  Cassius: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown?” [III:i].  And why else would Julius’s final words be retained, untranslated, in the original Latin?  The characters look backward into the dizzying abyss of history.

Did Shakespeare ever anticipate that Caesar would be costumed as a buffoon?

To return to the Central Park staging of Julius Caesar: There are at least three reasons why Caesar has nothing in common with Trump.

 

Reason One: Trump panders, but does not debase himself

Caesar debases himself at Lupercalia, the Festival of the Wolf, by refusing a crown that is offered to him three times and—after swooning, foaming at the mouth, and falling in the public square—by begging “wenches” in the street for forgiveness [I:ii].  (Lupercalia took place on 15 February on the Roman calendar and celebrated Lupa, the lactating Wolf Goddess who suckled Romulus and Remus in the cave of Lupercal, and the Goat God Lupercus, the God of Shepherds.)  But his self-debasement is staged.  It is the staged inversion of relations between the powerful and the powerless.  It is not genuine, sincere self-mortification.  His repeated refusal of the crown, in particular, is what rhetoricians call accismus: the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.

Caesar is beloved of the people (we see this in the first scene of the play).  There is no question that Caesar was friendlier to the people than his predecessor, Pompey.  According to Suetonius, Caesar supported the plebeians and the tribunes, who represented the interests of the people.  Caesar endorsed the redistribution of land and opposed the optimates, who wanted to limit the power of the plebeians.  He was called a popularis for a reason.  Pompey, on the other hand, favored a much stricter authoritarian rule.

Trump styled himself as a populist political candidate, and this no doubt contributed to his triumph over Hillary Rodham Clinton, the establishment Democratic candidate, in November 2016.  Is Trump, then, a man of the people in the way that Caesar was a man of the people?

Trump’s language is the language of the people—of inarticulate, slow-witted people.  His grammatical skills are those of an unremarkable eleven-year-old boy, according to a 2016 study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University.  He used a relatively sophisticated language in the 1980s and 1990s, however.  Many of his sentences had an admirable rotundity—for instance, “It could have been a contentious route” and “These are the only casinos in the United States that are so rated” (qtd. in Sharon Begley, “Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change?” STAT, 23 May 2017).  While campaigning for the presidency, his verbal skills appeared to decompose.  On 30 December 2015, Trump peacocked to a South Carolinian crowd: “I’m very highly educated.  I know words.  I know the best words.”  He might have dumbed down his language for purely political reasons, for purely demotic purposes.  This has the effect of flattering those with low linguistic skills.

Dumbing down, however, is not self-abasement.  Trump never speaks in a self-deprecating manner.  He never displays the false humility of Caesar.  Trump reflects the vulgarity, the vaingloriousness, the cupidity, and the rapacity of the crowd.  He is endlessly trumpeting his own excellence.  He does not debase himself.  He represents himself as someone who demands that his glistening manliness be acknowledged and respected.

 

Reason Two: Trump is not constant

Caesar is nothing if not pertinacious.  Trump is nothing if not inconstant.

Caesar holds on to his decision to banish Publius Cimber, despite the senators’ entreaties to rescind his banishment.  He is as “constant as the northern star” [III:i].  Suetonius praised Caesar for his steadfastness.

Trump, on the other hand, is a syrupy waffle.  He has waffled on the travel ban and on the unbuilt Mexico-American Wall.  Incidentally, Trump loves waffles “when they’re done properly with butter and syrup.”  He rhapsodized: “There’s nothing better than properly done waffles with butter and syrup all over them.”

 

Reason Three: Trump is the betrayer, not the betrayed

Julius Caesar was betrayed by his intimates, even by his favorite, Brutus.  Though I cannot find the source of this citation, I remember reading a saying attributed to Caesar: “Against my enemies my guards can protect me; against my friends, they can do nothing.”  This saying has been repeated, without acknowledgement, by Voltaire (“Let God defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies”) and Charlotte Brontë: “I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!”

Trump, on the other hand, has betrayed members of his inner circle—Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, James Comey, Sally Yates, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon—in a series of Night of the Long Knives-style purges.  One thinks of The Apprentice’s slogan and mantra: “You’re fired.”  I am writing this paragraph on 18 August 2017, the day on which Bannon’s faux-resignation has been announced.  Who else in his administration will Trump have fired by the time you read my words?

Trump shares nothing with the Julius Caesar of Shakespeare.  There is nothing wrong with contemporizing art—I myself have done this with Hedda Gabler—but there must be reasons for specific contemporizations.  Those who believe that Julius Caesar can be reasonably dressed up as Donald Trump are the same people who think that a text-message Hamlet or a dubstep Macbeth is a good idea.  I have descanted at length on the play’s political stance: If the staging equates Trump to Caesar, then Trump is exonerated by the production.  The Central Park performance of the play unintentionally defends Trump.

Consumer culture idolizes the ordinary.  To use Adorno and Horkheimer’s language in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the trumpery of the culture industry “heroizes the average.”  In this culture, which is gradually becoming the only culture on the Planet Earth, untalented filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino are hailed as geniuses, whereas visionaries such as Michelangelo Antonioni are written off as boring.  Incompetent writers such as David Foster Wallace are lionized, while truly great writers such as James Joyce are blithely dismissed as “pretentious.”  Even worse, the works of both filmmakers / writers are sometimes leveled off, as if they were of equal quality.  Along the same lines: Trump is screened through Shakespeare not because Shakespeare represents the highest values and Trump represents the lowest values, but because the highest values have no meaning in a culture in which the low trumps the high.  In the Central Park staging of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Trump is not vaunted to the heights of Shakespeare; Shakespeare is dumbed down to the status of Trump.  Why is this?  In consumer culture, what is low is elevated and what is high is degraded.

Joseph Suglia