The Bard and Bubba

  • Share
  • Read Later
HISTORICAL PICTURE ARCHIVE/CORBIS

Caius Marcius Coriolanus, tragic hero

We started to prune the apple trees on a day of pure, frigid clarity, the snow crusted and dazzling. The sun is still too far in the south, but beginning to think, I hope, of spring. The trees are so old that no one around here can identify the kind of apples they bear — not especially apple-shaped, but resembling ancient gnomes, or a leprechaun's collection of shrunken heads. A meager harvest. The deer eat them, but we do not. We're hoping to bring the orchard back. We pruned one tree last year so radically that it was more stump than tree, but since then it has managed an irrepressible little renaissance, firing fresh shoots up out of its own ruins.

I have not been thinking about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln over this President's Day weekend. I am not sure that anyone ever does. Car dealers dress up in white powdered wigs to hawk Japanese cars on local TV. What historical commentary there is may have George Washington as slave-owner, and Abe Lincoln as racist. American history seems to have deteriorated in the way that our orchard has, and what we have is not a harvest of heroes, but of shrunken heads. On the other hand, Americans spent $30 million over the weekend to see a movie about Hannibal Lecter eating people.

I'm beginning to feel as nasty as a cannibal myself. I have been considering Caius Marcius Coriolanus, for whose attitude I have developed a sneaking admiration. I spent the weekend rereading both Plutarch's and Shakespeare's version of the story. Coriolanus, a great warrior and fierce hero of early Rome — scornful, intolerant, and an early masterpiece of political incorrectness — so offended the plebeians by refusing to flatter and truckle to them (he was supposed to kiss babies and campaign for their approval in order to be ratified as consul) that they mobbed up and came close to throwing him off the Tarpeian Rock. They settled for banishing him from Rome forever. Coriolanus requited their hatred by allying himself with their enemies, the Volschians, and marching on Rome.

As Coriolanus says, we "bring in the crows to peck the eagles." The crows of the media; the crows of correctness. There's something bracing about his exhilarating contempt. It's what we miss now: not mere radio ranting, but efficacious and inner-directed contempt.

During a brief moment in Shakespeare's play when Coriolanus has agreed to flatter the masses, he promises, "I'll mountebank their loves." That brings up the subject of William Jefferson Clinton, who is America's outstanding mountebank of love. Much of his own crowd has now turned on Clinton and cast him down from the Tarpeian Rock. Hard to think of Clinton as Coriolanus, of course; the Roman was a man of fierce principle. Clinton is more like Sportin' Life. Our first black president, as Toni Morrison called him, has banished himself to 125th Street, there to condescend to the African-Americans (they don't yet seem to mind it) and to profit from the subtle dynamic dictating that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. If big white power has turned on Bill, he must be all right.

No one imagines the exile will last long. You can prune Bill Clinton down to a stump and he rises every time from his own ruins. It's happened many times before, it's his motif — death and resurrection. He turns up like Tom Sawyer at his own funeral. "Coriolanus," being a tragedy, had to end in the protagonist's death. Clinton is incapable of tragedy. What he needs is a new project.

Habitat for Humanity won't do. I have often thought that Clinton needs another country to run. Let's give this some thought. Hmmm. The Japanese prime minister's popularity polls over this weekend have sunk to an astonishing, rock-bottom 9 percent. There should an opening available in Tokyo soon, though the language would be a problem. The language did not stop Douglas MacArthur, however, who served quite admirably as dictator of Japan after the war.

On the other hand, Castro can't last forever.