Thursday, 4 July 2013

England and Japan: Rome and America

Now recovering from a marathon of three conferences and a public lecture in, respectively, Stratford, Durham, Durham and Lambeth. Normally I'd like to pick out papers given by some of the graduate students at these, but there is a limit to how much I can go around praising my own current or former students (Aude de Mezerac-Zanetti, Anna French and Susan Royal all spoke to great effect). And the other papers that really struck me were from two more well-established scholars.

In Durham, Anne Dillon (of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge) spoke about how English Catholics in the 1630s were devouring martyr-stories from the near-extermination of Japanese Christianity: so we were given a tour of the breathtaking brutality of the persecution, and of how the stories gained in the telling (importing a wild tiger, for example). The sucker-punch came at the end: apparently, there is a strong case that the shift in Japanese policy from scepticism and discrimination to active persecution was triggered by the arrival of an English commercial mission in Japan in 1613. The English were all too ready to spread tales of Jesuit duplicity, and to relate conspiracies such as the Gunpowder Plot. This apparently sparked the beginning of real persecution in Japan.

Anne was inclined to read this as an irony: the conspiracies of one generation of English Catholics ended up inadvertently feeding their children's hunger for martyr-stories. I'd see a bitterer pattern at work. Isn't this absolutely typical of English imperialism: not exactly to commit large-scale atrocities, but to create the circumstances in which other people are going to do it for them? And to do it deniably, with some degree of justification (these were half-truths, not lies), and not entirely inadvertently?

The other paper that stays with me addressed another empire, or empires: David Anderson of the University of Oklahoma spoke about Shakespeare's Coriolanus, a grim play which has been a favourite of mine ever since studying it as a teenager. The point of David's fascinating paper was to read the Christian symbolism of the play, which - he argued - used its setting in the pre-Christian era to depict Rome as the Augustinian city of the world, the opposite of the city of God: the city of the wolf (who suckled Romulus and Remus), not of the lamb (of God). 'Pray you, who does the wolf love?', Menenius asks in Act II scene 1: the answer being, of course, 'the lamb'.

And in this light, it seemed to me and to some others (David was cautious about this), Coriolanus himself looks like an anti-type of Christ: the man more virtuous than the whole city, but who therefore despises the city rather than having mercy on it. When he stands for election as consul, he has to humble himself before the people, and show his battle-scars, in grotesque parody of Christ showing his wounds and inviting doubting Thomas to put his hands into them. 'If he show us his wounds and tell us his deeds,' one of the plebeians comments, 'we are to put our tongues into those wounds and speak for them'. Later, Coriolanus, enraged by the humiliation of having to pander to the crowd, says with vicious irony, 'I have wounds to show you, which shall be yours in private. Your good voice, sir; what say you?'

Which fits with my own longstanding instinct about Coriolanus: that this is a play, not about Rome nor about Christianity, but about the USA: the new, ever-so-classicist republic, where, from George Washington, through Jackson, Grant, Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower, and even to John Kerry and Colin Powell, war heroes are expected to cash their reputation into a political career, and to do by kowtowing to the whims of the electorate regardless of the cost to their dignity. Mercifully, the US has not yet elected a Coriolanus, but you can imagine it, can't you? What I'm now thinking about is the US's place as the new Constantinian empire, as well as the new Ciceronian republic: the self-consciously and genuinely Christian power, which also sits askance to Christianity, both because of its plural and secular identity, and also because, as Augustine knew, a truly Christian state is an impossibility in this world.

So far, I think, the US has negotiated these contradictions better than the Romans did. But when someone (please!) makes a film of, or based on, Coriolanus set in modern American politics, I'll be first in line.


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