Anger is my Meat
by David Ottlinger
I am writing on November 9th. Yesterday, I woke up genuinely happy. Early in the morning, I posted the Doors’ song “The End” on Facebook as a little joke. Come what may, we had reached it. This was the end, and I was happy to be there. My choice was more appropriate than I knew. The song sounds different now. Its ominous trance forms a good backdrop to our newfound political reality. It captures the mood of my corner of the country just now, which I would describe as one of dazed angst and dread.
As evening turns to night, I feel the odd but familiar mixture of weariness and elation. At the moment, this feeling is being buoyed artificially by gin. But, more deeply, it is the same feeling Alexis Alexandrovich had when confronted with proof of Anna’s affair:
He experienced the sensations of a man who has had a tooth out after suffering long from toothache. After a fearful agony and a sense of something huge, bigger than the head itself, being torn out of his jaw, the sufferer, hardly able to believe in his own good luck, feels all at once that what has so long poisoned his existence and enchained his attention, exists no longer, and that he can live and think again, and take interest in other things besides his tooth. This feeling Alexis Alexandrovitch was experiencing. The agony had been strange and terrible, but now it was over; he felt that he could live again and think of something other than his wife. 
Read “election” for wife and we are not far from our own situation. Alexis knows he will have to deal with the affair, but that will come later. At least, it will be a new pain. The old pain — the pain of suspicion, the pain of uncertainty — is gone. And so it is for us. We will have to deal with the horror of a Trump presidency eventually, but the long, dull ache of the election is over. Who can deny the relief? Judging from Facebook I think many of my “millennial” brethren are in the same emotional place. Expressions of rage and disgust are giving way to resignation and gallows humor. We may hate the outcome, but at least, this is the end.
When a man is in distress, he turns to what he knows, and one thing I happen to know is Shakespeare. I felt instinctively sure that he had something to say to me tonight and that what he had to say would be of some comfort. When Shakespeare thought politics, he most often thought of Rome. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the Roman plays are those in which he was most focused on politics and in which his political thoughts were often clearest. So, I began with Julius Caesar, the obvious choice.  This, the first play of the tragic period, concerns an angry elite reacting to a demagogue elected by an inconstant and short-sighted people. It was the natural choice. But very soon, it became clear that it was too obvious. I remembered Casca as having said, “Rome has the falling sickness,” but the actual quotation was quite unsatisfying. I kept looking. Later Casca thunders:
And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?
Poor man! I know he would not be a wolf,
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep:
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.
Those that with haste will make a mighty fire
Begin it with weak straws: what trash is Rome,
What rubbish and what offal, when it serves
For the base matter to illuminate
So vile a thing as Caesar!
This is mildly cathartic, but, as Brutus sees immediately, un-profound. Besides, I am not really angry with the American people. I can hardly blame their defiance. Our patricians and senatorial class dared them — mocked, goaded, and taunted them into elevating Trump. They looked down their aquiline noses and condescended to them, until they practically had no choice. I can’t feel what Casca feels. I have none of his dread of the people’s “sweaty night-caps” and “stinking breath.” He is too much a part of what got us into this ridiculous position in the first place. He fits in too readily at the editorial page of The New York Times.
But, as it happened, I was looking in the right place, and it wasn’t too long before I found what I needed. Epiphany came in the form of Volumnia’s words: “Anger’s my meat. I sup upon myself, and so shall starve with feeding.”  In the past, I often applied these words to myself, but now it suddenly came to me that these words might speak for vast swathes of the country. I will win no prizes for observing that American politics has become the politics of anger and outrage. That fact has been much noted and much analyzed. But the analysis has usually been focused on the root causes and political effects of this state of affairs. I think it is very likely that not enough attention has been paid to how this politics feels. What we need is a psychology of our politics.
I have pled my case against this style of politics before. I think it is bad for those who are silenced by it and bad for those who wish to hear those silenced voices. I think it breeds division and resentment. I think it interferes with the deliberative process that is essential to democracy. But I want to add one more reason — one that I think people may now be more ready to hear, as to why my friends on the Left should put an end to this style of politics — and that is that it is exhausting. If those who practice this kind of politics cannot give it up to profit others, perhaps they can be convinced to give it to profit themselves.
I realize now that I have begun to have this thought before but could not articulate it: This politics of outrage is not only bad for democracy and public discourse, it is bad for the people who practice it themselves. Back when I couldn’t say it yet, I remember reading the feminist columnist, Laurie Penny, as she flagellated herself for using gender exclusive language:
In a freezing-cold flat in Berlin, I’m standing under the shower with the water turned up as high and hot as it will go. I’m trying to boil away the shame of having said something stupid on the internet. The shower is the one place it’s still impossible to check Twitter. This is a mercy. For as long as the hot water lasts I won’t be able to read the new accusations of bigotry, racism and unchecked privilege. I didn’t mean it. I don’t understand what I did wrong but I’m trying to understand. I want to be a good person. It turns out that however hard you try to be politically correct, you can still mess up. I am so, so sorry. 
This ritual bathing was fascinating. It reminded me of the kind of religious ritual one reads about in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and has more than a little of the savor of the self-castigation of medieval monks in their austere search for purity. She was not just showering, the poor thing. She was trying to cleanse her soul.
I run into pieces like this, every so often, regarding the politically correct. There is the lament of never being able to be pure enough, sensitive enough, sufficiently right-thinking. Apparently, Jessica Valenti, the feminist blogger, recounts a similar moment in her book, which I know only from reviews.  There, Valenti relates her experience of being the victim of a terrible, emotionally upsetting crime. Obviously, such an experience should earn her all of our sympathy. But her reaction to this ordeal was puzzling. She had difficulty earning sympathy from herself. Instead, she felt shame at not being ashamed. She writes, “It did not destroy me or change who I am in the way I thought something like that is supposed to do.” I was flummoxed. In her reckoning, she was supposed to be destroyed. She felt guilty about not being so. And she is explicit regarding the ultimate reason for these feelings: “My politics call for it.” While I hate to comment on such personal experiences, I feel compelled for a simple reason. It is an astounding measure of the stringency of this morality that it has standards for how to be abused. I cannot help but pity someone, who at a moment when she most needed self-pity, self-regard and self-indulgence (as well as our pity, regard and indulgence) turned instead to self-castigation. I am troubled just thinking about the contortions she must go through on a daily basis.
Those engaged in this kind of politics should meditate on Coriolanus. Volumnia’s words speak just as well for her son. The anger runs in the family. You can hear something of the social justice warrior set in his fearsome cry, “Make you a sword of me!”  None of Shakespeare’s characters are more deceptively inward. Even Olivier was fooled. “Coriolanus doesn’t require a very deep mental faculty, I don’t think,” he once remarked, “It doesn’t require very great cerebral heights in the artist performing him. He is a very straightforward reactionary son of a so-and-so. And it’s quite easy to get on to him and his thoughts are not deep.”  In reality, Coriolanus is what Hamlet would have become if he had all the will and self-mastery he sometimes craved. His pathologies are no less complex. His warrior ethos and mythic sense of himself dictate his every gesture and thought. A good actor will make the audience feel how tight the knot is the pulled. Until, inevitably, it snaps. In their quieter way, many of these warriors for justice must have their own, no less violent battles with themselves.
And no one beats Coriolanus for contempt of the mob. It would turn Casca pale. Remember how he addresses them:
…What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?
We have ever your good word.
He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs..?
Not that Coriolanus is alone in this contempt. His fellow patricians refer to the common people’s “stinking” breath, their “reechy” necks, “stinking greasy caps”, and grimy teeth.  Shakespeare was never better at writing arrogance and contempt. In fact, I don’t doubt Coriolanus, in some measure, spoke for Shakespeare. He was common-born but saw himself, I think, as belonging to the aristocracy. And perhaps he was right. He died a gentleman. He has that in common with many of our writers. They too wish to join the elite by writing. They express disdain to identify with those above themselves. Contempt elevates.
But these would-be patrician writers have failed. None of their screeds — and there were many — was able to stop Trump. Indeed, they didn’t even seem to slow him down. They failed for the same reason Coriolanus failed. They lost all contact with and ability to mobilize the people. Their disparagement and posture of superiority only alienated them. By the time they sounded the alarm, there was no one left to listen. In Coriolanus, the last tragedy of the tragic period, Shakespeare has more empathy for this rabble and sees that they do the hard work necessary to support the patrician’s leisure and are paid for it with scorn and abuse. In our current drama, Trump plays the role of the Praetors, who finally are able to raise the people up. They achieve this by promising two things: grain and the prospect of enraging the patricians. The people may repay all the scorn they received and the result is political chaos. I don’t know what the next act of our drama will bring or how much it will diverge from Shakespeare’s. I am fairly certain, however, that we are not in a comedy.
The worst of it is that there is no end in sight. The familiar voices are already raising the familiar refrains. We are being told Trump’s election is the triumph of racism, misogyny and God knows what else. The same old words and music. The same old mixture of truths, half-truths and glaring omissions. Missing is some examination of what role the liberal elites themselves have played and what they can do to regain their effectiveness. To those now writing these pieces, I have a message. Stop this. Stop this before it is too late. We have, in effect, conducted a massive social experiment. We now know that no amount of mockery, abuse and derision will force half the country to abandon its beliefs, and we know this because we could not have indulged in any more of it. Anyone who continues to behave otherwise deserves to be branded as a fool. If you cannot stop for me or for the country, for God’s sake stop for yourselves. Are you not tired of the same tired chants and ritual self-abuse? Are you not exhausted? Come try politics our way for a little while. It’s a better way. I promise.
 I was looking mainly at this review:
 In the script this is a question. Coriolanus is asking if his men will use him as their weapon:
O, me alone! make you a sword of me?
If these shows be not outward, which of you
But is four Volsces?
But actors can and do perform it as an imperative, “Make you a sword of me!
 Here I am practically quoting from David Bevington’s introduction to the play in his edition. I’m looking at the fifth edition.