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Coriolanus:
Man Against the Mob

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Many of an contemporary “alternative Right” orientation blame Christianity for bequeathing the dogma of egalitarianism to the modern world. Such people claim that the attempted abolition of natural hierarchies and destructively “leveling” momentum of democracy and campaigns of enforced “equality” derive from the Christian doctrine that all human souls are equal before God, a notion which finds its most famous formulation in the words of St. Paul from his New Testament epistle to the Galatians: “In Christ, there is neither slave nor free, Gentile nor Jew, male nor female.”

I have written elsewhere on this subject (www.alternativeright.com/main/blogs/untimely-observations/christianity-and-western-man); here it will suffice to observe that in the two millennia since Jesus Christ walked the earth, social, gender, and racial hierarchies have, prior to the cultural revolutions of the last few decades, generally remained untouched.

William Shakespeare, Christendom’s greatest playwright, lived at a time of great intellectual ferment and cultural tumult, yet even in his time both Protestant and Catholic alike affirmed the prudence of continued social stratification. If all men were equal before God, this in no sense mandated any presumption of equality of title or status between individuals, cultures, races, or sexes. If the serious Christian of the Reformation era took seriously Paul’s declaration regarding the absence of distinctions between different groups of humanity, he also acknowledged the divine origin of Biblical passages commanding slaves to obey their masters and instructing wives to be subservient to their husbands.

Most of the Shakespeare canon affirms a conservative worldview, but Coriolanus (set in pre-Christian times) is unusually severe, even reactionary. Like the more famous Julius Caesar, it is devastating in its critique of “democracy” as a manifestation of mob rule. Its titular tragic hero is a man of fierce pride in his patrician status, who regards the commoners with lordly contempt. Meanwhile, the villains of Coriolanus are two crafty and devious tribunes who expertly use the hero’s uncompromising integrity against him, for their own selfish purposes and to the grave detriment of the state.

Coriolanus, usually regarded as a “minor” Shakespeare work (although it was one of T. S. Eliot’s favorites) has recently been adapted into an artful and compelling motion picture, which, though set in a startlingly modern world, nevertheless remains true to the essentially anti-modernist trappings of the text. This is surprising, since Coriolanus is undoubtedly the third most politically incorrect play of the Shakespeare canon, just behind the gleefully sexist Taming of the Shrew and the vigorously anti-Semitic The Merchant of Venice. Its protagonist is a difficult and not always sympathetic man, whose sensibilities jar against our own Zeitgeist in nearly every way imaginable.

Caius Martius Coriolanus of Rome loathes the plebeian class, and isn’t afraid to say so. He almost seems eager to court their hatred, in fact. Confronting an angry mob of commoners about to riot for more bread, Martius (he hasn’t yet earned his “Coriolanus” title) snarls with vituperation from the get-go:

What would you have, you curs,
That like not peace nor war? The one affrights you;
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese. You are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice
Or hailstone in the sun . . . Hang you!

As over the top and impolitic as this rant may be, it also expresses a good deal of insight and truth. The mob is fickle, inconstant, unfaithful, and easily manipulated. Coriolanus is also correct to disdain the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus for shamelessly truckling to the masses (those referred to in recent rhetoric as “the 99 percent”) for transparently demagogic ends. Coriolanus hates flattery, and deplores the greasy machinery of politics, whereby one obtains one’s goals through trickery, deceit, and unctuous, disingenuous rhetorical appeals. He much prefers the clean, brutal honesty of the battlefield.

In Act II, we see some of Coriolanus’s legendary marital exploits — indeed, he defeats a horde of invading Volscians nearly single-handedly, after most of his comrades have lost the nerve to fight. One would think that the display of such courage in defense of Rome would cover a multitude of sins in his countrymen’s eyes, that his ascension to the position of consul is all but assured. But the conniving tribunes have other plans.

Once he returns from battle, Coriolanus is urged by his fellow patricians to show off his war wounds to the multitude, and to pledge himself to their service. Coriolanus finds this notion utterly repugnant, disgraceful, and vulgar. After all, he didn’t fight so bravely in order to win the approval of the lower orders, but out of a stout conviction of personal honor and duty.

It is worth noting that Coriolanus dislikes being flattered just as much as he disdains the notion of flattering others. One striking gesture particularly calls attention to itself in this regard: while his heroic feats are being discussed in the Senate, Coriolanus gets up and briskly walks out; he finds it unseemly to sit and have others sing his praises in his presence.

Coriolanus is, surprisingly enough, a momma’s boy, and it is his mother Volumnia who eventually talks him into showing his wounds to the plebs. But being the man he is, Coriolanus cannot bring himself to engage in the custom in anything more than a half-hearted manner. The two tribunes afterwards seize upon his obvious lack of enthusiasm to talk the credulous lower orders into believing that Coriolanus not only looks down his nose at them (he does), but that he is also their mortal enemy and seeks to do them harm. In no time, a lynch mob is assembled, calling for the would-be consul’s death, or at least his banishment. In the midst of this mounting fury, Coriolanus blasts his attackers with words that I confess I have always found thoroughly rousing in a “punk rock,” Johnny Rotten-esque way:

You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek o’ th’ rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air; I banish you!
. . . Despising
For you the city, thus I turn my back
There is a world elsewhere.

Indeed, even audience members inclined to lack sympathy for the haughty and proud Coriolanus cannot help but admire the defiant fortitude and fearlessness he shows on this occasion. In the teeth of the hostile mob’s murderous braying, this warrior isn’t the least inclined to back down. What is more, he will make good on his threats: Rome will come to rue the day that it spitefully rejected him.

The new filmed version of Coriolanus captures the angry intensity of this character’s stern, strident personality, and places it in a startling new context: Rome is re-imagined as a modern Baltic state (!) in the post-Soviet era, a grim, gray, dangerous place roiling with ethnic and social upheaval, whose events unfold before ever-present TV cameras, and are subjected to endless commentary by cable news pundits.

Ralph Fiennes, who also directed, lends the character of Coriolanus a dour yet undeniably telegenic air; he is just the sort of military leader whose authoritative delivery would compel our attention if we saw him on television, regardless of whether we loved or hated his politics.

A strong supporting cast includes Gerard Butler as Volscian strongman Tullus Aufidius (who in a further, amusing Babel-like confusion of ethnicities, speaks with an über-Scottish brogue, pronouncing “twine” as “tween”), and most notably Vanessa Redgrave, who doesn’t so much portray as embody the part of Coriolanus’s gung-ho iron lady mom, Volumnia.

Coriolanus manages to stay true to the feel and substance of Shakespeare’s tragedy, including its patently “reactionary” politics, while radically revisioning the setting. It should be of interest to all critics of our fanatically egalitarian age, which all too often confuses the erasure of necessary distinctions and the leveling of natural hierarchies with the machinery of “justice.”

 

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6 Comments

  1. MOB
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    Netflix has an excellent 1984 BBC version of Coriolanus on DVD.

  2. Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    “Such people claim that the attempted abolition of natural hierarchies and destructively “leveling” momentum of democracy and campaigns of enforced “equality” derive from the Christian doctrine that all human souls are equal before God”

    The thing is, as Evola observed, it wasn’t Christianity that took over the Empire, the way the Bolsheviks took over Russia, killing off the “masters” and redistributing property, but rather a compromise formation, less ‘primitive Christianity’ than Roman Church. No state, to say nothing of an Empire, could survive on the literal interpretation of ‘turn the other cheek” or “Thous shalt not kill” etc. This was the formation that “preserved the classical heritage”, “built the cathedrals” and all the other “contributions of Christianity to Western civilization” that get trotted out. Thus, the more outspoken Protestants today refer to the Roman Catholic church as ‘paganism.’

    As long as the Book was in the hands of the monks, heresies were internal, and easily co-opted; who remembers the Franciscans as dangerous commies? More serious threats arose from contact with still living pagan traditions — the Albigensians in Provence — or other religions — the Templars vis a vis Islam in the Middle East.

    Protestantism was another internal heresy — Luther the Augustinian monk — but the doctrine of sola scriptura proved to be the mother of all heresies. First, the Reformers tried to base themselves on scripture without Tradition [as the Orthodox patriarchs pointed out at the time; remember, 'no paganism!'] and soon fell out among themselves as each ‘interpreted’ the ‘clear’ meaning of the texts.

    Then the Bible fell into the hands of the peasants, and every tinker and cobbler could “decide for himself”. ‘Turn the other cheek’ — i.e., what we now know as ‘pacifism’ — was the least of the Church’s problems. Consider the Adamites, who, reasonably enough, interpreted Genesis as teaching that clothes were among the wages of sin, and thus the saved would go about naked.

    Thus was born “freedom of thought” and the host of heresies we have come to know. The fact that they soon took a “secular” form — “enlightenment”, equality, communism, etc. — does not refute their origin in the doctrines of ‘primitive’ Christianity

    Backing up a bit, a similar process to the Romanization took place later in Central Europe, as discussed in James Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). In the Preface he suggests that the Church’s recent obsession with “social justice” reflects an attempt to de-Europeanize itself, stressing its ‘universality’ by rejecting the “aristocratic” features derived from the Germans in favor of “the original message of Christianity.”

    From 30AD to today, the message is the same: down with masters, up with slaves.

    • Free Man
      Posted April 27, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

      Revilo P. Oliver said the same thing in “The Jewish Strategy” early Christianity was a form of communism promoted by jews to damage the Roman Empire (Niestzche inversion of values ), Christianity became good because of the Europeans still respecte hierarchy (especially northern Euros). Western Liberalism is a return to the “primitive” Christianity,.

  3. Posted April 24, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    James, I appreciate your commentary here, as elsewhere, but I think you’re off the mark on this one: there are numerous passages in the Bible (including the New Testament) which advocate strongly for the continuance of earthly hierarchies. I mention two of them in the article (commanding wives to submit to their husbands, and slaves to be loyal to their masters), but there are many more. Belief in spiritual equality before God, does not in any way necessarily equate with a a “down with masters, up with slaves” perspective.

  4. MOB
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I know the film being reviewed here is quite different from the original–but in the interest of comparison and understanding the role Corioanus plays in his own fate, the BBC version, which I watched a year or so ago, follows this train of events (copied from Wikipedia):

    Coriolanus retorts that it is he who banishes Rome from his presence.

    After being exiled from Rome, Coriolanus seeks out Aufidius in the Volscian capital of Antium, and offers to let Aufidius kill him in order to spite the country that banished him. Moved by his plight and honoured to fight alongside the great general, Aufidius and his superiors embrace Coriolanus, and allow him to lead a new assault on the city.

    Rome, in its panic, tries desperately to persuade Coriolanus to halt his crusade for vengeance, but both Cominius and Menenius fail. Finally, Volumnia is sent to meet with her son, along with Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia and child, and a chaste gentlewoman Valeria. Volumnia succeeds in dissuading her son from destroying Rome, and Coriolanus instead concludes a peace treaty between the Volscians and the Romans. When Coriolanus returns to the Volscian capital, conspirators, organised by Aufidius, kill him for his betrayal.

  5. Fourmyle of Ceres
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    THEIR GOAL IS GENOCIDE. OURS. WHAT’S YOURS?

    Andy Nowicki in blockquote:

    James, I appreciate your commentary here, as elsewhere, but I think you’re off the mark on this one: there are numerous passages in the Bible (including the New Testament) which advocate strongly for the continuance of earthly hierarchies. I mention two of them in the article (commanding wives to submit to their husbands, and slaves to be loyal to their masters), but there are many more. Belief in spiritual equality before God, does not in any way necessarily equate with a a “down with masters, up with slaves” perspective.

    I think the argument is more one of emophasis – in practice – as very few Christian churches teach the history of how we got the Bible we have today. Thus, Sola Scriptura – the Bible alone, Protestantism in a phrase – clashes with the unfolding dynamic of the Magisterium the teaching majesty of the Roman Catholic Church. All sides are opposed to Tradition, at any cost, and, to quote George Carlin, “There’s a reason for that. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not going to get any better.”

    In PRACTICE, the Bible is used to make the Dispossessed feel morally and spiritually superior to those who Own all they can see, and most of what they think they possess. Note that the accredidation of preachers by seminaries assures System Churches will have a solid line of preachers who preach the Owner’s line.

    In effect, they are caught in the Consensus Trance formed when Constantine used his definition of Christianity to meld an Empire. The shift has been one of minor emphasis, and not major focus.

    Something needs to Be Done about that, and the success of the very serious Pagan Orders offer a learning opportunity for one and all. For one, they are ruthlessly Traditional. For all, they are very supportive of Masculine endeavors, and offer uniquely Masculine Initiation rituals.

    For further proof, look where all things are far advanced, and much worse off, then they are here. Look at formerly Great Britain, and see how half a century of devaluing Masculinity has left a power vacuum that Islam is only too glad to fill, and, tragically, does so by default.

    What’s In YOUR Future? Focus Northwest!

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