Friday, May 30, 2003

Kurosawa: High and Low

I like extremes because I find them most alive. -- Akira Kurosawa

On Wednesday night I went with a friend to a screening of Kurosawa's High and Low at Charlottesville's Vinegar Hill Theatre (our town's sole art cinema, and manna from heaven for local cinephiles). It was my third time to see the film, but my first time to see it on a large screen. I left with quite a few questions: Where can we place this film in the Kurosawa canon? Is it one of his greatest minor works, or a lesser major work? Most importantly, what is this film about, and what makes it good?

After reading a good deal of film criticism about the film, I'm no further along than I was when I started. For some writers, the opening hour -- which takes place entirely within one apartment and focuses on a single character's ethical dilemma -- is far and away the best part of the film. For others, the opening hour is far too static and stagy, and the police procedural of the film's second half is more compelling, with its baroque film noir visuals and pulpy overstatement. One critic claims that Kurosawa's message about class politics is far too obvious, while another will say that the film is ideologically incoherent. The final scene is too short and pat, or it's emotionally searing and unforgettable. Whatever else it is, High and Low is a film of extremes -- and yet, also a film in which those extremes get blurred in fascinating ways.

One thing at least is certain: Nowhere else, not even in The Bad Sleep Well, does Kurosawa so thoroughly indulge his affection for vintage American crime dramas. If the dark climax shows the unmistakable influence of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, the scenes leading up to it feel like one of Sam Fuller's underworld thrillers. But what, then, do we make of the opening scenes, which are filmed with meticulous compositions, in lighter whites and grays? At the risk of sounding momentarily left-wing, I'm going to claim that these stylistic features seem to be subordinate to themes of class and class consciousness, which would explain the film's popularity among unreconstructed Marxists like Fredric Jameson. But I'll also claim that Kurosawa's perspective on these issues, which upholds the work ethic as a worthy successor to the traditional virtues of nobility, is about as far from doctrinaire-Marxist as you can get.

The plot, based on an Ed McBain "87th Precinct" crime novel (King's Ransom), concerns a wealthy industrial magnate named Kingo Gondo, played by Toshiro Mifune in one of his best performances. Gondo is planning a buyout of National Shoes, but just as he prepares the check to close the deal he receives a phone call. His son, he is told, has been kidnapped, and the ransom is an exorbitant 30 million yen. But, in a bizarre twist of fate, his his chauffeur's son has been kidnapped by mistake. The kidnapper threatens to kill the boy if Gondo does not offer the ransom. But Gondo has overextended himself in the buyout deal. If he pays the ransom for his servant's son, his creditors will close in and repossess everything he owns. Will Gondo sacrifice the chauffeur's son, or will he relinquish his own good life?

The character of Gondo is easily viewed as a modern equivalent of the noble samurai that Mifune portrays in Kurosawa's earlier films. He is a corporate warrior, perhaps even a forerunner of today's "raiders" in his business dealings, but he lives by a strict code of honor. When a handful of top National Shoes executives propose a new line of stylish footwear that will be cheap to produce but will wear out in less than a month, Gondo rips one of the shoes apart with his bare hands. "The shoe carries the weight of the body," he tells the executives, and proposes instead to create shoes that are stylish, yet durable. "More expensive to make, but more profitable in the long run," he claims. But the greater point is not lost on us: Better shoes are also more honorable. At this point, honor and profit are inseparable, because, as Gondo reminds us, the basis of a corporation's prosperity is a good reputation among customers. Companies known for making shoddy merchandise don't fare well in the long term.

It's no coincidence that Gondo is a self-made man who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps (with some help from his wife's dowry) into the company leadership. As a factory boss, he sees himself as personally responsible for the shoes his company creates, in no small part because he got his start as a worker on the same factory floor. Employees describe him as "A fine boss to good workers," and readily forgive his occasional outbursts of temper -- a product, they note, of his own passion for making good shoes. But this self-made man who rises from to rags to riches suddenly finds himself under siege from both the wealthy managerial class and an alleged representative of the disgruntled poor (or at least, so it seems at first). The company executives plan to oust Gondo from his post, a deal which only his leveraged buyout can prevent, and a kidnapper from the slums of Tokyo intends to knock him back to the gutter with a staggering ransom demand.

We're not exactly surprised when Gondo decides to sacrifice his entire fortune and pay the ransom. We know he is an honorable man, and we know (before he does, perhaps) that he is unwilling to sacrifice another's life for the sake of his own prosperity. But the conflict between profit and honor is clear: Gondo will gain no tangible benefit through his altruistic action, and will almost certainly lose the fruits of his long, hard labor as a result. In essence, his goodness will send him packing from the cream of society, back to the working class whence he came. This is a harsh injustice against Gondo, who is doomed by his own goodness, and Kurosawa quickly enlists our sympathy for the man. As a result, High and Low is one of a very few films in which a wealthy entrepeneur is presented as a worthy soul who earns his wealth honestly and rises on his own considerable merit. The hard-boiled "Bos'n" may speak for the audience when he says, "I never much liked rich people before, but this Gondo fellow is all right." We even see Bos'n shed a tear when the chauffeur's kidnapped son is safely reunited with his father.

The kidnapper, on the other hand, comes straight out of the new urban bohemia. He is young, he lives in a small apartment, he works as a hospital intern, and he is full of ressentiment that finds a convenient target in Gondo. He has neither honor nor moral scruples; he enlists drug addicts from the hospital to aid him in his schemes, then kills them with an overdose of uncut heroin. The scenes in the sleazy bars and gutters of Tokyo's "Dope Alley" resemble nothing so much as the "cinema fist" of Sam Fuller, with its unblinking, sensationalized view of poverty and addiction. It's important to note here that the wealthy Gondo is not responsible for their condition, and that he doesn't take advantage of them. But the kidnapper who purports to represent the wretched of the earth (yet is always seen in a spotless white shirt), thinks nothing of killing a young woman to test the potency of his heroin. He, not Gondo, is the true oppressor.

A friend of mine, who is much more sensitive to cultural nuance than I am, notes that the names in the film carry a class context that Americans are unlikely to notice at first. The name of the wealthy, self-made industrialist, "Kingo Gondo," is decidedly lower-class; an American equivalent would be something like "Jake Hatfield" or "Leroy Brown." But the kidnapper and murderer is named Ginjiro Takeuchi, a name that signifies middle-class origins. Since Takeuchi is a hospital intern, we can gather that he has completed medical school, which would again place him in a middle-class family environment. He is preparing to become a doctor, an occupation which would place him squarely in the middle- to upper middle-class. So the man we associate with "High" -- his house is high on the hill, he lives the high life, he is incredibly wealthy -- is actually quite low-born, while the man we associate with the "Low" is clearly high-born.

The film's original Japanese title, Tengoku to jigoku, translates literally to "Heaven and Hell." As a motif, the title figures prominently in the final scene, a confrontation between the now-ruined Gondo and the condemned Takeuchi. Takeuchi tells Gondo that he is not afraid to die -- the classic statement of a samurai warrior -- but he breaks into tears as he confronts his impending execution, giving the lie to his initial bravado. He claims that his life has always been "hell," and he holds Gondo responsible because of his conspicuously high position. No further explanation is offered, but all evidence in the film indicates that if Takeuchi's life has been a "hell," it has been a hell strictly of his own making. His Marxist-proletarian dreams of class warfare have been revealed as mere pretension, and he is left with nothing but anger.

Meanwhile, the true samurai Gondo has accepted his downfall with stoicism and grace. He even tells Takeuchi that he is making shoes again. "It's a small company," he says laconically, "but I'm in charge." Having made a fortune and lost it, the honorable free-market entrepreneur simply gets back on his feet and starts over. The spoiled-brat bohemian, however, can do no such thing. His victory -- if we can call it that -- is strictly Pyrrhic. Gondo is defeated but not destroyed, while Takeuchi is destroyed and defeated.

You may have guessed, gentle reader, that I think High and Low is a major work in the Kurosawa canon, one which brings the traditional values of his noble-samurai epics squarely into the contemporary world and reaffirms their ultimate worth. I wish I could go more into the film's stylistic ambiguities -- for example, why a film called "Heaven and Hell" has so little verticality in its compositions (an inevitable result of the widescreen Tohoscope format, but also potentially an intriguing visual analogy to the blurring of social distinctions that Gondo represents) or the way Kurosawa uses deep-focus cinematography both to give a sense of place and, paradoxically, to flatten out his image. But ultimately, I think any critical reappraisal of the film -- which is to say, any attempt to place this film among Kurosawa's best efforts -- has to begin by complicating the film's apparently simple class distinctions, which have been exacerbated over the years through the rather unfortunate American title.

Vinegar Hill Theatre will be showing a number of Akira Kurosawa / Toshiro Mifune films over the next few months in association with the Virginia Film Society. For a full schedule, click here.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

The Matrix: Refried

I just received a letter from a loyal reader, this one an avowed leftist who likes the writing here but hates the politics -- sort of like me and, at least most of the time. I'm printing his letter only slightly abridged, with occasional editorial interference:

Your points on "The Matrix Reloaded" are extremely intelligent and most interesting, though I object to a couple of things. Now, I haven't yet read "Manufacturing Consent," or seen the videotapes, but I am pretty familiar with Chomsky. I don't think it's at all fair to brand him an "anti-humanist," unless by "humanist" you mean "one who likes human beings to be enslaved to the dictates of multinational corporations through relentless brainwashing," multinationals that really dominate the world economy. Noam Chomsky, like me, is a libertarian socialist; we're people who think that individual freedom can be achieved and maintained inviolable without the atomization, alienation, exploitation, and irrationality of capitalism. Nonsense, you say. Impossible, you say. [Tim's note: Yep, that's pretty much what I say. To me, being a libertarian socialist is sort of like being a vegan cannibal.] To be fair, I am certainly not uncritical of Chomsky. But I like him because he is an egghead-activist, a guy who is willing to eviscerate a lot of b.s.

The other side is, you mischaracterize the "top-down" vs. "bottom-up" revolutions issue. Once one cuts your quasi-Thatcherite gobbledygook about radical-left this and that, one notices that you've named the American Revolution and the achievement of the Magna Carta as "top-down revolutions," and the French and Bolshevik Revolutions as "bottom-down." Sorry, but I think you're wrong. Neither the American "Revolution" nor the Magna Carta constitute revolutions. What's revolutionary? The former was a divorce from Britain, albeit one that ultimately produced some pretty good documents in favor of individual and, to some extent, collective freedom, though kind of, by accident. After all, the Constitution was really intended to keep the commoners down. The oppressed, in fact, had to fight to fix the interpretation of and even amend the Constitution in order to mitigate somewhat the class-rule aspects of its creation and implementation. The latter, well, that was some nobles getting some additional guarantees from their king. That ain't no revolution.
[Tim's note: I think this is what I said a postmodern, radical-left view of the American Revolution and the Magna Carta would look like. I quote from my earlier post: "Indeed, a revolution implemented by the masters would be so insignificantly incremental that it would hardly be worthy of the name. Better to go big and ugly."]

As for the Jacobin and Bolshevik revolts, they were, in fact, "top-down" revolutions. A leading crop of intellectual-politicians, the cream of the rising bourgeoisie, crafted the ideology and called the shots in Paris. The fact that the peasants and workers did most of the dirty work of concrete revolt does not alter this fact. After all, the Chinese Revolution was the largest mass-based revolution in history, but in the end, tragically, it was Mao who called the shots, not the peasants or the small, and thus ineffectual, Chinese working class. The Bolshevik Revolution is something we've discussed a great deal. The "bottom-up" revolution consisted of the formation of the real soviets -- those pesky, ultra-democratic peasants' and workers' councils, which pooled property, made decisions after seeking everyone's consent, and cut right to the roots of social problems. Too democratic, way too much filthy contingency, not orderly enough, or not Lenin-oriented enough, I guess. So this, the authentic "bottom-up" Russian revolution, was taken over by Lenin & company. Thus, the specifically Bolshevik Revolution, as opposed to the genuinely Marxist and libertarian people's struggle arising from the February Revolution, was actually "top-down." All orders came from Lenin and the other Bolsheviks, and were enforced by the Cheka. Now, maybe some "postmodern anti-humanists" really do believe what you claim they do about these four historical events. But this radical leftist (and, yes, I'm proud to be one) does not.

[Tim's note: I did write that all revolutions were part of the Matrix, and therefore controlled. But inasmuch as these revolutions would never have occurred at all without extensive involvement from the peasants, I think we can still safely characterize the French and Bolshevik Revolutions as "bottom-up." The same with the Chinese Revolution, or with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. This "bottom-up" quality doesn't mean that these peasants aren't getting marching orders from others: After all, even the "city of Zion" in Reloaded has a Board of Directors.]

Would the "Matrix" revolution necessarily become basically fascistic? No. The corruption of the revolution is, of course, a possibility. [Tim's note: According to Friedrich Hayek, it's not just possible, it's inevitable.] I think, rather, that fascism is liberal democracy running scared -- that is, when shit really starts to hit the fan, the capitalists who were previously content with the norms of liberal democracy -- and, by the way, I love many of those norms, like free expression, due process, freedom of conscience and worship, and many positive achievements of the Constitution and the law -- so they turn the game over to the thugs.

If you haven't read Jack London's The Iron Heel, you damn well should.
[Tim's note: Don't read The Iron Heel. It's okay, but badly dated. I'd recommend Call of the Wild first -- it's a Horatio Alger success story with dogs as the main characters. The anthropomorphism gives the book its satiric (ahem!) bite.] He pretty much predicted Hitler and Mussolini ... in 1912. And he recognized them correctly as capitalistic heroes. Yes, Hitler may have offed some "problem" capitalists ... [Tim's note: By this I think my loyal reader means anyone who didn't want his business completely taken over by the State. Nationalizing industry doesn't exactly endear one to capitalist "elites."] ... but he staved off a proletarian revolution, the real bottom line for the industrialists and large landowners. That revolution, by the way, would have prevented the Holocaust. But I guess I'm just an anti-humanist. Of course, Neo is a problematic figure, and, probably, only I can really be trusted not to became a murderous despot in the post-revolutionary society.

[Tim's final note: I've said many a time that I don't think an uncorrupted proletarian revolution is possible. It's never happened in all of recorded human history, which I think is a pretty good sign that it can't happen at all. That said, I also think this loyal reader can and should manage a weblog of his own, although considering that he's genuinely engaged with the problems as well as the possibilities of the American Left, he may have a far brighter future in store than mere Web writing. If you want to encourage him, gentle readers, send me an e-mail and I'll be sure to pass the message along.]

It's translation time with My Stupid Dog!

Today's text comes from Scott Thill's essay in about the new Cartoon Network show "Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law." We'll be translating from English ... to English.

Thill: Rather, pretend we're witnessing a bizarre discourse on popular culture, fictional systems (including their explosion) and psychosexual norms. Because it is then that Larry McCaffery's theories on metafiction and intertextuality -- the mechanisms of postmodernism outlined in his seminal work of literary criticism, "The Metafictional Muse" -- come into play. If, as McCaffery argues, "we inhabit a world of fictions and are constantly forced to develop a variety of metaphors and subjective systems to help us organize ... experience," then metafiction is the pomo tonic for our time, a Derridean (the name-dropping will end soon, I promise) playfulness that "becomes a deliberate strategy used to provoke readers to critically examine all cultural codes and established patterns of thought."

MSD translation: This weird little show takes the cartoons you saw on TV back when you were a kid, mixes them up, and then gives them all a deviant, wicked spin, stressing the sexual and political stuff you couldn't show on TV before the ratings system got started. The idea of mixing together everything you remember seeing before is known as "intertextuality," and it might change the way you look at pop culture. Scott Thill read a book of theory that explains why, and since he probably based most of his graduate-student career on this book, he might as well talk about it here, too. Basically this guy Larry McCaffery (whose name, strangely enough, doesn't sound at all French) says that we think about the world using the stories we've been told. However, when several old stories are placed next to each other in a new context, we can see the assumptions behind the old stories in a different light. McCaffrey calls this type of storytelling "metafiction," because the stories that result are not about life or people so much as the nature of stories themselves. The most important thing about metafiction is that it can make us better thinkers. Therefore metafiction is good for you -- like spinach, or castor oil, or Salman Rushdie. Of course, if you're not really careful it could also turn you into a jargon-heavy poseur like Thill.

Got it?

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

McDonald's: The Euro-weenies just can't get enough ...

Some years ago I was in Vienna -- yes, that Vienna -- and found myself near St. Stephen's Square for lunch. I checked out those picturesque local cafes and found them all but deserted. Where, oh where, could the Viennese be eating?

Of course by now you've figured it out, gentle reader. St. Stephen's Square has its own McDonald's. So instead of waiting an hour and a half to get lunch at a local cafe, like the poor American suckers, the locals buy a quick, tasty, and relatively cheap McSandwich-and-fries combo. Once they get their food, they gulp it down in a rush, then spend the rest of their lunch break hanging out and goofing off, just like normal employees do all over the world. (Because of import restrictions and excessive governmental regulation, food prices in Vienna are exorbitant, even more so than in the rest of Europe. Ten years ago, a typical McDonald's combo there cost between eight and ten dollars American, which was still less expensive -- by about a third -- than the daily special at a local bistro / greasy-spoon.)

This is why I break into stitches whenever some Euro-weenie cries "Cultural Imperialism!" at the sight of all those McDonald's restaurants. Trust me, those hamburger joints aren't in business because Americans are eating there. In fact, if my friends and I were at all representative of late-twentieth century innocents abroad, I can safely claim that most Americans try to avoid those golden arches whenever possible. After all, if we really wanted to eat at Mickey D's, we'd have stayed home, thank you.

Except, of course, that this is where the locals eat -- damn near all of them, as far as I could tell. So when my fellow travelers and I decided to catch some honest-to-God authentic local color, we had to go to the McDonald's. Otherwise, we realized, we might never meet any native Viennese at all. Pardon me for a moment while I chuckle snobbishly at Old Europe's expense.

For wherever you go on the European continent, you find that the locals love their McDonald's (if they're fortunate enough to have one). I don't mean that they just eat there, like Americans do; I mean that they honestly love their McDonald's. At times this approaches fetishism, such as when the Swiss built a chain of self-service Golden Arch Hotels around a McDonaldland theme. Sweet mother of pearl, but we've never done anything like that over here in the States. The whole set-up sounds pretty awful to me: Hotel beds have double-arches headboards, the desk chairs have that golden-arch design, the lobby is all done up in red and yellow -- in short, the hotel is Ronald McDonald's aborted attempt at feng shui. These places even have their own McDonald's restaurants next door, where patrons can eat the American-style fast food on which their hotel room was based. Golden Arch Hotels seem popular enough, and the rates are pretty reasonable as European hotels go. But I wonder just how many Americans would volunteer to stay there. Certainly not me, unless I were doing it as some kind of in-joke. With all those corporate logos in the room, I might just go rock-star berzerk.

By the way, as a much-touted extra for those of you who know what horrible pits European hotels (even the ostensibly nice ones) can be, the hotel advertises that the shower is separate from the toilet, "for perfect hygiene." I take it that by "toilet" they mean "water closet," since the shower comes inside its own, special round stall. This way, you don't have to deal with a shower nozzle and hose sticking out from the middle of the sink. How reassuring.

Against Democracy: Shakespeare's Coriolanus

What do John Derbyshire, Fareed Zakaria and William Shakespeare have in common? Read on ...

Most critics seem to agree that Coriolanus is the last tragedy Shakespeare wrote. It's difficult and demanding, both for the actors and the audience, and as a result it is very seldom performed. Recently Shenandoah Shakespeare mounted a production of the play in their new and, to my mind, much overrated Blackfriars Playhouse, a modernized replica of a 17th-century indoor theater. Despite the limitations of the space and the company (and my impression that tickets cost far too much for what you get), they did a decent job overall. I saw the final performance, so there's no sense in my writing a review of the production. Frankly, I'd rather talk about the play.

Coriolanus doesn't really feel like a Shakespearean play, because all the virtues we've been trained to celebrate in the Bard's writing are conspicuously absent. The one-note protagonist, repugnant and unsympathetic, is about as far from tragic-hero status as you can get. He never attains so much as an instant of self-awareness, and so the play lacks an identifiable catharsis. (That the play achieves tragic closure without catharsis makes it, to my mind, one of Shakespeare's greatest achievements as a playwright, but I digress.) Comic relief is nearly nonexistent, and when it surfaces it's intentionally boorish and unfunny. Even the poetry is pared down to a minimum, replaced by intricate, businesslike description and detail. This is not a tragedy about great individuals; it is a drama about politics and ideas. Small wonder, then, that George Bernard Shaw called it "Shakespeare's greatest comedy."

The play takes place in the early days of the Roman republic, just after the kings have been expelled. There is a void of power at the top, and a crisis at the bottom: Famine wracks the young nation, and the common people protest against the state. In particular, they want the Senate to open up the grain reserves, so that they can all have a nice handout in this time of trouble. But the protagonist Coriolanus tells them they're not worth the corn:

He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. ... Your virtue is
To make him worthy whose offense subdues him,
And curse that justice did it. Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man's appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil.

In other words, common people don't know what's really good for them, and what they want -- more power and a free lunch from the government -- will end up undermining natural authority and ruining everyone. The rabble, whom Coriolanus calls "scabs," are sick, perhaps incurably so, and the business of government is to give them the medicine they need whether they want it or not. Of course, he is deeply indecorous to make this point directly to the people. As de Toqueville noted, the one thing you can't do when the majority rules, is criticize the rulers.

Yet within the context of the play, Coriolanus's words prove correct. The drama's chief crisis arises not because the people are denied what they want, but because they get it. Specifically, the people get five elected tribunes to represent them in the Senate. But the tribunes prove to be demagogues, stirring the people against the nobility, and always looking for new ways to expand their personal power. When Coriolanus returns from a war in which he defeats an invading army almost singlehandedly, these tribunes deny him the consulship -- a position for which everyone else (common and noble alike) thinks him not only qualified, but worthy. He is even elected to the post, but in a society where the people rule and law has no force in itself, elections can be revoked at a moment's notice.

And why do the tribunes deny Coriolanus the consulship? Because (and here the play feels remarkably contemporary) they claim that he will strip the people of their civil liberties. These tribunes, who would make good liberal Democrats, accuse Rome's greatest military hero of being "a traitor to the people," incite the people to riot against him, then banish him from the city. Coriolanus flings a final curse at the fickle people: "I banish you! / And here remain with your uncertainty!"

Coriolanus sees the ideal state as one where leaders lead and followers follow, and he makes no bones about saying this. But in the new republic, where even commoners have a voice and a vote, leaders can't lead and followers won't follow. He sees this social upheaval as a recipe for disaster, for the people will make every possible demand on the state, and the leaders won't have the courage to tell them what to do. Again he is proven right: By the end of the play, Roman nobles are pitted against commoners, the military is pitted against civilians, and politics has degenerated into a war of all against all. So in the face of a new invading army, this one led by Coriolanus himself, the mechanisms of the state are utterly paralyzed. No army halts (or even meets) the invasion; nobles and commoners worry and dither; and Rome is left defenseless.

However, Rome is not sacked, because Coriolanus's wife and mother plead with him to spare their city. In essence, two patrician women, loyal to the old aristocratic order, achieve what the Roman republic in the hands of commoners can no longer do: They confront a threat to the polis and neutralize it. This is nothing less than disgraceful for the senators and tribunes, and the peace treaty Rome is forced to sign with the invading army is deeply humiliating to the once-mighty power. What's more, the Roman republic is far weaker and more vulnerable for its democratic experiment. (For yielding to his wife and mother, Coriolanus is ignominiously slaughtered, bringing the tragedy to an abrupt and bloody end.)

I mention all of this because it seems that Coriolanus's ideas about majority rule are making an uncomfortable comeback at the moment. John Derbyshire in today's National Review Online is currently inveighing against universal suffrage (a common beef among many libertarians as well, because they want the franchise to be restricted solely to individual property owners, as the Framers intended). Fareed Zakaria, whose book The Future of Freedom is currently all the rage in conservative circles, argues that individual liberty is better secured under an authoritarian regime than under majority rule. In both cases. the intent is clear: Better to have an individual king than for the populace to rule. Why, as Derbyshire notes, even Hitler came to power by constitutional means and with majority approval -- at least, until that very last step, when he seized absolute power for himself. (Which strikes me as sort of like saying that John Wilkes Booth was a law-abiding fellow except for that whole shooting-Lincoln thing.) If only someone had stepped in to save those deluded, childlike citizens from themselves! Then again, isn't that what so many dictators have said over the centuries?

At a Paris performance of Coriolanus not long before WWII, Fascists and Communists decided the play was propagandizing against them, and tore up the theater together. They might not have been wrong, either. But the alternative to mob rule, as proposed not only in Shakespeare's play, but in the modern-day echoes of Derbyshire and Zakaria, is an authoritarian monarchy or dictatorship, not a constitutional republic. I don't think we would really want an authoritarian state, even under the best leadership, and I don't think it's mere democratic prejudice that would lead us to say so.

Perhaps it would behoove us to go back to Plutarch's original account of Coriolanus, at least for a moment. What Shakespeare sees as a decadent republic, Plutarch saw as a rising nation in some pretty typical growing pains. Coriolanus isn't so much a hero who makes the mistake of speaking the truth openly; he's an immature, rather loutish fellow who doesn't understand the basic difference between peacetime politics and military command. (More than a few traces of this characterization survive in Shakespeare's account as well.) The Roman republic manages pretty well without Coriolanus, too. After all, it lasted a few hundred years after he died, and then endured several hundred years more as a dictatorship.

Another point which Plutarch does not make, but a writer like Suetonius does: Individual liberties, on the whole, were far more secure under the Roman republic than under even the most benign of Caesars. Zakaria is right to note that dictatorships and monarchies will preserve individual liberty, but only if the individual dictator or monarch wishes to do so. Through most of history, there has been very little incentive for dictators or monarchs to show an interest in individual liberty.

What Shakespeare, Derbyshire, and to a lesser extent Zakaria fail to recognize is that individual liberty is equally imperiled under authoritarian and majority rule. The real opposition, as de Tocqueville saw better than anyone, is not between patricians and commoners, or even between leaders and the mob, but between the rule of man and the rule of law. Whenever man rules (whether as a dictator or as a tyranny of the majority), individual liberty exists solely at the whim of the rulers. But when laws rule, individual liberties are more thoroughly protected, because no single person or group of people can take them away.

Since Shakespeare never saw the rule of law in action, I'll give him a pass on the modern debate, and say that Coriolanus is a profound play that raises some fascinating questions about republicanism and the franchise. I won't let Derbyshire or Zakaria off so easily, though.

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