Wednesday, May 9, 2012

There Is No New Thing Under Mars

This morning, while driving my daughter to school, I heard an interview with my friend Ben Fountain on KUT radio here in Austin.  The interview was taped last week when he was in town for a reading at Book People in conjunction with promoting his new book:  Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  (By the way, that book just received a rave review from Janet Maslin in the New York Times. Buy and read the book, pretty please.)  In this morning’s interview, Ben described the American psyche with respect to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as “hypocrisy bleeding over into schizophrenia.”  The book and interview emphasize the contradiction between American over-the-top public displays of patriotism and the absence of actual shared sacrifices to support those asked to serve in those wars—either while they are fighting or upon their return—and on our collective oblivion as to how that contradiction may impact those who actually experience the visceral horrors of combat. The book focuses on how one young Texas soldier, Billy Lynn, gets broadsided by that contradiction during a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys’ halftime show.

While listening to Ben’s familiar drawl and admiring how smart and sober he sounded on the radio, I was also struck by the fact that his theme resonates with Shakespeare’s in Coriolanus.  (Interestingly, Ralph Fiennes recently made a film version of this infrequently performed play, which, I am sad to say, I have not yet seen.  But that is because I only manage to get to the movies about once a year these days—which, some might say, is like this blawg: yet more evidence that my life is one lived in another century or on another dimension from regular folks.  But that’s another story.) 

Coriolanus is basically a gory revenge drama.  It focuses on a real Roman general “Caius Martius,” who is dubbed “Coriolanus” after he performs some dazzling military feats to siege the town of Corioles in Rome’s name.  The event that compels Coriolanus to seek revenge against his country is akin to a theme in Ben’s new novel.  Coriolanus, like Billy Lynn, shows how common folk and the powerful alike are quite willing to “shout[] their emulation” at a war hero (1.1.219); but the community will turn on him just as quickly if he does not fit into the narrative the culture demands.  And the victims of this tension—those who have put their very lives on the line and who are left feeling used and alienated as a result—can turn on the culture that placed them in this untenable position:

For you, the city, thus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere. (3.3.132)

But both Shakespeare and Ben seem to suggest that the individual is always going to lose in the end: 

Like a dull actor now,
I have forgot my part, and I am out,
Even to a full disgrace. (5.3.40)

In Coriolanus, the elites are ultimately able to exploit Coriolanus’s love for his family whose members convince him to lay down his arms and negotiate peace on Rome’s behalf; then, when he lets his guard down, the elites arrange to have him kill as punishment for the betrayal that the community itself sparked.  The character Coriolanus differs from Billy Lynn, however, in that the former was a member of the elites—who raged against the very concept of democratic rule, which, in his opinion, permits "crows to peck the eagles."  Billy Lynn by contrast is a pleb who, of necessity, is compelled to use the elites’ willingness to accept him in the army as a means to avoid serving time in prison.  But both Coriolanus and Billy Lynn are victims of the same cluster-f* that can cause individuals to feel that war itself is somehow more honest than peace:

Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it's spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy: mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war's a destroyer of men. (4.5.238)
Those of us who are supposed to sell reasonableness for a living—i.e., us lawyers—should be profoundly troubled by a costly cultural dynamic that hinges on layers of subterfuge and a fundamental disconnect between public rhetoric and hard reality.  Reading either Coriolanus or Billy Lynn should enable a hard look at how that dynamic is currently burdening our collective psyche.

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