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?


On forgiving one’s mother

April 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

My mother has written to me, out of the blue, a flippant, lighthearted message, as if nothing has ever happened, that she was in Poland and did I want the number?

The bronze of it appalled me. How does her mind work? Does she imagine that one may betray someone and then go back and continue the old acquaintance as if nothing has happened? Is it because she thinks that betrayal isn’t a big deal – no more than a lapse in table manners? Or does she think that a mother may do anything and children have no right to take offense?

Would an admission of wrong have changed anything, asked Matilda who has never admitted a wrong in her life, and gave an example of an acquaintance who’d cut off his sister totally, which devastated her but apparently cost him nothing: he had apparently made the simple calculation that his sister was worth more to him gone from his life forever.

Oh, yes, I replied, an admission of guilt would have made a difference.  The Catholic church, which has thought about contrition and forgiveness perhaps longest of all organizations on earth, recommends that a reconciliation have four parts: an admission of guilt, an apology, an atonement, and a promise of improvement. Properly conducted, such an apology places a moral onus on the offended party to accept: not to accept would seem vicious. A properly apologizing person – whether a mother or a total stranger – has the power (right?) to compel forgiveness.

Perhaps to change the uncomfortable topic, Matilda turned her thoughts to the nearby subject of her relationship with her son.

The topic is much on her mind, she has interviewed many men about their relationships with their mothers and she concluded there was reason to hope: none was as close to his mother as her son was to her. Ah, no, I exclaimed, on the contrary!  Precisely therein lies the danger: my relationship with my mother had been very close, too: the closer they are the more dangerous any break.

It is inevitable that your relationship with your son will cool dramatically, I continued.  Soon, he will no longer need you; the laws of nature will require him to move on; any spare time he gives you going forward will come from his good will and nothing else.  What is more:  it will be begrudged him by others. In that calculus all your past sacrifices mean nothing — as a child walker means nothing to an adult.  Hence, god forbid you should ever cross him — we already know you do not understand the importance of apology and I can tell you your son will not accept an argument that you and he are not friends and that your relationship with him exempts you from ordinary decency.  He will expect an apology, an atonement, and a solemn promise of improvement.

At the very least.

Last year I spent two weeks in Japan

August 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last year, I spent two weeks in Japan.  Catching up with old friends was part of the visit.  I found them all older, sicker, greyer and — in the same dead-end jobs, in the same apartments, and with the same “one day I will x” plans, none of which have advanced an inch since I had left.

And that was 25 years ago.

I have since lived in four countries on three continents, learned four languages, new literature, new music and new art:  but for them, nothing has happened.  Meanwhile, fifty’s just around the corner, what chance the next decade will pass in the same way while they continue to muse about how “one day they will x”? When will they notice x isn’t going to happen?

I remember a story about someone’s uncle, born a penniless outcast in Hyderabad, who’d conceived the vision to go to America and become a self-made billionaire.  The next day he got up, bathed, prayed, ate his chapati, and — started walking west.  It took him three months to reach Bombay, and it is possible that he never actually reached America — but that is not the point, the point is — there is never any other time to do x than now.

Any statement which begins with “one day I will” really means “I will never”.

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