Two reflections on Coriolianus

April 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Coriolianus stirs two reflections:  first, on the man’s excessive pride, which ruins his otherwise promising career.

I, too, am a victim of destructive pride:  so many projects and relationships have been crossed out because they offended, because they were judged beneath me.  My  retirement is as much a result of the aesthetic repugnance at the world as of my inability to act in it — a kind of paralysis brought on by pride.

But this is not necessarily a loss:  Coriolianus does not become consul, so what?  I do not miss what I have not achieved in the world because — pride helps me see it — these are worthless, airy things.  To be a consul is to rule over (i.e. receive submission and adulation) of men who are beneath us anyway.  To concern oneself with what others think is to stoop.  The consulship here is a metaphor for all socially recognized achievement.

Such is not the nature of Coriolianus’ pride:  it is, as it were, a cut below: he does worry about what others think; and when he is banished, he takes revenge; in the end he dies because he insists on reminding the Volskis that he had once beaten them.  In short, to Coriolianus, what others think matters — and so he dies.  (If analogy has any power to compel effect, I shall live forever).

Second, the motherhood.  Coriolianus dies as he lives — as many men live, perhaps most — to please his mother.  Why does this feel like a loss?  If one chooses an active life, one will have to please someone — the Roman people, the critics — the object of one’s pleasing might as well be his mother, provided she’s not too old and isn’t going to die early leaving one purposeless halfway.

What puzzles is the mother:  what motivates her?  Social-climbing, perhaps:  she will achieve a higher position in Rome if she can maneuver her son into consulship; failing that, by saving Rome from his wrath.  Yet, when she comes to beg of him to spare the city, she must understand his standing in the Volskian camp and realize that if he relents, the Volskians will kill him.  Does she not care?


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