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In Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, first acted in 1599, a group of Roman patricians conspires to commit murder. Their enterprise is a dark one. Of it, Brutus says, “O conspiracy / Sham’st thou to show thy dang’rous brow by night, / When evils are most free?” Portia, Brutus’s wife, has seen the conspirators: “for here have been / Some six or seven who did hide their faces / Even from darkness.” None of the tidings in this play are good ones; murder begets revenge, noble intention meets shrewd rebuttal and popular turmoil. The conspiracy accomplishes its immediate task but as far as the health of the Roman state is concerned it fails. Brutus, who is seen as an epitome of Roman virtue, finds his final act of valor in suicide.
The events about which Shakespeare wrote occurred over two millennia ago and involved a small group of men. (The women in the play offer warnings that are not heeded.) The conspiracies bruited about in modern times are vast and nebulous and, as they are purveyed on the Internet, not very secret. The claims are so legion that one could feel a dial-a-conspiracy sort of feeling. Imagination, to say nothing of paranoia, can run wild but those who attend to notions of conspiracy are not necessarily fanciful. Cabals, collusion, cells, conspiracies—as Julius Caesar testifies, history seethes with plots and manipulations. In recent centuries the secret police have been busy while bombs have been thrown, wars provoked, presidents murdered and senates attacked. Or they weren’t busy at certain times for certain reasons. Secrecy is like that.
When Cassius, Brutus and the others murder Caesar, they are employing a very basic power—fatal violence. They murder Caesar because he has diminished their power and become an idol to the people (the “vulgar”) who “rejoice in his triumph.” The tribune Flavius remarks that Caesar “would soar above the view of men / And keep us all in servile fearfulness.” Power exists in relation to powerlessness and almost as a matter of course breeds hubris: the powerful seem untouchable, one enticing step from all-powerful. Powerlessness breeds resentment: Cassius resents that Caesar, a mere man and not a very good swimmer (“Help me, Cassius, or I sink!”), should “bear the palm alone.” Brutus puts resentment on a higher plane by appealing to the civic good. He rhapsodizes to himself, “O Rome, I make thee promise, / If the redress will follow, thou receivest / Thy full petition at the hand of Brutus!” The exclamation mark speaks to the pitch of feeling.
Contending with powerlessness is, thus, not something new under the human sun. In modern times, however, there seems more to feel powerless about. I (to make this personal) am subjected to endless news, little of which concerns me directly but all of which may somehow have some bearing on me. That “somehow” haunts me, for I know in some fashion corporations and nation-states control how I am able to heat my house or get to work or purchase food or educate my children. My vaunted free-will, despite all the ravishing choices advertising presents me with, is not so free. In the emotional realm, that inner murk where feeling, belief, opinion, prejudice, tribal allegiance and self-justification all cross paths, my powerlessness can feel nothing so much as an insult. The patricians in Julius Caesar are very sensitive to their stature. A person in a mass society may well question—as modern literature often has done—the very notion of stature. “Mass” means a lot; “one” pales beside “millions.” A fatalism may set in, though fatalism is another long-standing disposition. Cassius explains it to Brutus: “Men at some time are masters of their fates. / The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” And what do “underlings” know?
What Caliphurnia, Caesar’s wife, knows is dread stemming from a dire dream of Caesar’s murder. The dread that many carry around in modern times is quieter, more obscure yet chronic—a psychic cough that won’t go away. Behind an immediate concern—the safety of an automobile, the effects of cigarettes, the reason for a war, the fall of a political figure—lurks some hidden intention that is not benign. The headline may proclaim, the TV announcer may announce, the photo footage may show but the dread does not go away. Behind a curtain, machinations occur. Decades after the killing of John F. Kennedy (as Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” testifies) hard feelings remain.
The pharaoh was always remote from the slave and the king from the serf, but the modern world brought into play a different remoteness. There are many pharaohs and kings and they do not sit on thrones but are part of corporations, banks, foundations and governments. Their power resides in fantastic wealth that can do as it chooses and make any claim, wealth that destroys any sense of proportion about human affairs. Anyone making an hourly wage is in that economic sense a modern serf, someone inherently left behind and not part of the story of power. Some people are okay with that as they focus on the basics of a life but some are not okay and look anywhere for reasons about the powerlessness they feel. The situation creates gargantuan resentments, the more so because the issue of whom to resent can change with the political and economic weather. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries offer a litany of bogies: “international Jewry” (to begin in quotation marks with perhaps the most notorious), Islamic fundamentalists, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, kulaks, secularists, liberals and, yes, super-wealthy capitalists and corporations. Whatever group is chosen, they can be perceived as automatically guilty of conspiring and colluding. Association offers many varieties of guilt, all the worse because as with Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers and OxyContin, the guilt—after the disastrous fact—can be all too real.
How murderous blame can become is a matter of historical record. The subjection the Roman senators felt was very palpable. In the words of Cassius, “. . . we petty men / Walk under his huge legs and peep about / To find ourselves dishonorable graves.” The subjection we are exposed to in modern times seems more insidious because our stature as human beings is so uncertain. Like kings and pharaohs, the modern ideologues of various stripes have liked to think of people as human material, a devastating notion yet understandable given the ruthless capabilities of modern propaganda. Caesar’s greatness and triumphs lay in wars of expansion and subjugation, the founding of an empire. Such wars continued in modern times but a whole psychological dimension was added that went far beyond the impulsive rumors of crowning Caesar. The trappings of identity—the party card and fealty of a good communist or fascist—turned stature into a statue, something supposedly human but grimly monolithic, someone who became some thing capable of abandoning all moral pretenses in the worship of an idol, be it a Soviet Utopia or a master race. Lest I seem to put this idolatry in the past, I would offer as contemporary examples China’s totalitarian capitalism and the American belief in wealth as an end in itself with the concomitant dismissal of the commonweal.
When Antony eulogizes Brutus at the play’s end, he says “His life was gentle, and the elements / So mixed in him that Nature might stand up / And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’” In modern times, identity has tended to replace character. In the United States, one has to look no further than a comparison of two Republican presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Donald Trump, to see that character has come to count for very little, if anything. The identity may be nothing more than opposition—anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, anti-climate awareness—but the loud, nay-saying rigidity is all that matters. As commander of the allied forces, Eisenhower dealt with an enormous responsibility, but with the election of an actor in 1980, the door of fantasy as fostered by modern media, opened wide. By the time Trump showed up on the Twittering, computer-driven scene, the work, so to speak, was done: the image was all; talk condoned more talk; character and truth were both irrelevant. A “man,” as defined by Antony, was little more than a self-regarding vessel of belligerent emptiness.
A sorry state of affairs. Again, to touch a personal note, I have thought of what my father, who died twenty years ago and who was a WWII veteran, would have made of the events of January 6, 2021. Growing up as we did in Baltimore, my sister and I were often taken by our parents to Washington, DC to see the national sights. I recall going to the Capitol for the first time and my father’s veneration for what was to him a shrine of democracy. My father was an accountant who rarely read a book. Until Reagan—a “faker” to use my father’s word—was elected, he was also a Republican. I think the events of January 6 would be incomprehensible to my father. He didn’t go to war so a vain manipulator could overturn an election and mock the Constitution.
Perhaps the conspirators involved in those events will be apprehended. Perhaps they won’t. My father believed in the importance of character but also knew it’s a very rare human being who doesn’t have some species of clay feet. Given the disparity between venal reality and idealistic aspiration, between self-interest and empathy, democracy can make a hypocrite of most of us. Without the aspiration, however, democracy becomes not much more than the thuggery of know-nothingism and corruption. Those who see no hypocrisy are no better than the hacks; to claim, as they have, that they are a “moral majority” is a presumption that derides the very notion of morality.
Although uncontested innocence is among the rights many Americans claim, at this point in time the shroud of conspiracy is at once permeable and brittle. Anyone can ponder the hundreds of thousands who are the OxyContin dead or the decades of proxy wars and coups fostered by the Central Intelligence Agency. Anyone can view the scenes of the rally and the crowd surging through the halls of Congress. Not so strangely, the events of January 6 have a Roman cast to them as a vengeful, self-styled emperor urges the plebeians to attack the Capitol. My father would be shaking his head at the shame of it. He had very little doubt in him but he knew when he was being deceived. What he didn’t know was a world where deception might be the norm.
Copyright 2022 Baron Wormser
Baron Wormser’s many books include Legends of the Slow Explosion: Eleven Modern Lives (Tupelo, 2018).