Monday, January 30, 2023

Heraclitus and Empedocles - Everything flows - eyes roamed alone

My rummage through the early Greek philosophers has been rewarding, but it is a strange exercise.  “Readers of this book will, I suspect, be frequently perplexed and sometimes annoyed” write Jonathan Barnes in Early Greek Philosophy, a collection with commentary of the most useful and interesting Presocratic fragments, which Barnes says he finds “objects of inexhaustible and intriguing delight” (p. xxxv).  Even more than in my ordinary reading, I am forced to assemble an author from scraps.

Part of the frustration is that so often there is so little to read.  As interesting a figure as Pythagoras, perhaps more a religious figure than a philosopher, left not a single line of writing, even in the works of his followers.  I construct Pythagoras from commentaries on Pythagoras written hundreds of years after his life.  The result, for me, is rather vaporish.

So I thought I would look today at two figures, Heraclitus and Empedocles, with strong personalities, not coincidentally because they both give me more to read.

Heraclitus was an aphorist by nature.  “Character is fate,” for example, although the compression of ideas here belongs as much to Novalis as to Heraclitus. 

Everything flows; nothing remains.

One cannot step twice into the same river, for the water into which you first stepped has flowed on.  (160 of Seven Greeks by Guy Davenport, who prefers “Herakleitos”)

I’m just picking out the most famous sayings, the “wise man” stuff, although these do seem unusually wise to me, the kind of simple but deep thing I associate with the idea of a sage.  It helps – the rewards of immersion – to know that Heraclitus is responding to Parmenides and Zeno and their idea that there is, really, no change at all, but just the illusion of change.  Heraclitus argues for the reverse. 

The “river” aphorisms (“The river we stepped in is not the river in which we stand,” 169) are also linguistic arguments.  Do we agree about what “river” means, exactly?  Heraclitus prefigures Wittgenstein.  Are we arguing about something real, or just about what words means?

The principle of all things is fire.  The world operates by means of opposites.  Knowledge is of the greatest value, but “[k]nowledge is not intelligence” (6), since the other philosophers are all idiots.  Like I said, strong personality.

We’ll return to Seven Greeks when we get to Diogenes the Cynic.

Empedocles, like Pythagoras, was a mystic, in fact a god by his own testimony:

I, in your eyes a deathless god, no longer mortal,

go among all, honoured, just as I seem… (203, tr. Brad Inwood in The Poem of Empedocles, 1992)

now wandering the earth in many forms to expurgate some unspecified sins:

I too am now one of these, an exile from the gods and a wanderer,

trusting in mad strife. (209)

He died by leaping into the volcano on Mount Etna, perhaps to move on to his next stage of godhood, or more hilariously to convince people that he had vanished into heaven, a trick foiled when the volcano spit out one of his distinctive bronze boots.

Empedocles gets credit for claiming all things are a combination of four elements (fire, water, etc.), a long-lasting idea.  He combines it with two forces, Love and Strife, that constantly, cyclically cause all motion.  How is this so different than a world made of 118 elements moved by four fundamental forces?  Empedocles accepts the Parmenidean idea of existence as a motionless sphere, but only in the most extreme, perfect stage of Love, before Strife causes the cycle to start again.

More original than the cosmogony of Empedocles is his theory of evolution.  Creatures begin to emerge from the muck, but they are only partial:

As many heads without necks sprouted up

and arms wandered naked, bereft of shoulders,

and eyes roamed alone, impoverished of foreheads (235)

As these semi-creatures randomly bump into each other they are either repelled or combine to form more complex animals:

Many with two faces and two chests grew

oxlike with men’s faces, and again there came up

androids with ox-heads, mixed in one way from men

and in another way in female form, outfitted with shadowy limbs.  (237)

The poems of Empedocles is really a poem, full of metaphor and imagination.  In terms of pure imagination, I doubt any of the later philosophers are going to top “eyes roamed alone.”

Next month I am going to explore the Sophists and read some of Plato’s dialogues that focus on either the Sophists or the Presocratics.  A month from now, I hope to write about Theaetetus (Presocratics) and Euthydemus (Sophists).  Also likely along the way: Parmenides, Sophist, and Charmides.  These are mostly quite short.  Theaetetus is 120 pages.  The Sophistic Movement by G. B. Kerferd (1981) will be a good supplement.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Paradoxes and epistemology - early Greek philosophy as conceptual innovation - "Zeno argues fallaciously."

The conceptual innovation of Thales that we identify as the birth of philosophy quickly spun off other conceptual innovations.  A real conceptual innovation does not require a book or even an argument.  You say there are many gods?  But what if there were one? Or none?  Everything is made of, at the base, water.  Why not fire, or air?  The question about the basis of existence is more important than the zany answers.  Where did existence come from?  Does it change?  Can there be a thing that is not a thing, the “void”?  How does infinity work?  The questions explode.

Much effort is used to understand motion.  Does anything move at all?  The answer would seem obvious, yet Zeno of Elea shows that Achilles will never catch the tortoise, and that the arrow in the air is not actually moving at all.  I am happy to see that Aristotle finds Zeno as aggravating as I do. Here is Aristotle on the Arrow Paradox:

Zeno argues fallaciously.  For if, he says, everything is at rest when it is in a space equal to itself, and if what is travelling is always in such a space at any instant, then the travelling arrow is motionless.  This is false; for time is not composed of indivisible instants – nor is any other size.  (from Physics, tr. Jonathan Barnes in Early Greek Philosophy, 2nd ed., p. 104)

We are now used to the cinematic special effect that stops time and freezes the bullet in flight along with the jumping dog and the pouring water.  Maybe the hero will pluck the bullet out of the air.  Clearly the arrow is not moving in the frozen moment, nor in any other of the infinitely other frozen moments.  How, then, can we say it is in motion when at no point is it in motion?

I am with Aristotle here, but Zeno’s effect is to demand some deeper thinking about how motion and time work.  My experience is that I must relax into philosophy at least a bit.  Look for the useful question generated by the nonsense and worry less about, or even enjoy, the nonsense itself.

Zeno is defending the rational system of Parmenides, who argues, step by step, in the first half of a rather tedious poem, that existence consists of a single thing, a giant motionless sphere.  In the second half of the poem he describes a world with motion and things but says this is all “opinion,” a phony artifact of our unreliable senses.  Fine, go about acting like there are many things moving around, but really it’s all just that giant sphere of gray goo.  Parmenides has invented epistemology, starting with the radical position that our senses are simply wrong about everything.  The less radical, inescapable question, will never leave us: but how do we really know anything?  I had not known that the question was so old, almost as old as philosophy itself.

Next week I’ll write a bit about Heraclitus and Empedocles, who I singled out because my impression was that they are more enjoyable to read in their own right than most of the other early philosophers.  I have spent a couple of weeks testing this idea, and I think I was right.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Thales, the first philosopher - what is philosophy, anyways?

He [Thales of Miletus] held that the original substance of all things is water, and that the world is animate and full of deities.  They say he discovered the seasons of the year, and divided the day into 365 days.  (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, p. 12, tr. Pamela Mensch)

My received history of philosophy begins with the beginning of that first sentence.  Thales deduces or imagines, sometime in the early 6th century BCE, that all things are made of water, really, when you think about it.  Heraclitus will argue: No, fire; Anaximenes says: No, air.   Anaximander, a student of Thales, picks as the basis of existence “the limitless” or “the indefinite,” an interesting swerve.  Maybe we are made of a mix of things, the four elements, say, or the more abstract microscopic atoms claimed by Democritus

Democritus in some sense got it right, sometimes uncannily right, but his system was as much an imaginative creation as anyone else’s.  Reading the early Greeks, I am witnessing not just the birth of philosophy but a step towards the invention of science, but without the scientific method, or any other method.  Water, fire, a mix: how can I tell which theory is correct?  Or, to ask the question that the scientific method can answer, how can I tell which are wrong?  The tools of philosophy do not have any better answers.

And how is any of this cosmogonizing different than what Hesiod does in Theogony?

Now sound out the holy stock

    of the everlasting immortals

who came into being out of Gaia

  and starry Ouranos

and gloomy Night, whom Pontos, the salt sea,

  brought to maturity (129, tr. Richmond Lattimore)

These stories can be enjoyed literally, but they are also blatantly allegories, attempts to answer the same questions Thales is working on.  Water and air and fire have proper names, that’s all.

The great conceptual innovation of Thales is linguistic, literary.  He removes the names, and removes the allegory.  Philosophy is what we call that.  “[H]e was the first, as some say, to reason about nature” (11) writes Diogenes Laertius, which is preposterous in a sense, but that “some” includes Aristotle who, two hundred years later, was the first writer to get serious about the history of philosophy, mostly in Metaphysics.  Thales is the first philosopher because Aristotle thinks he is.

Given how strong my sense was that “Water if the origin of all things” was the idea that was the origin of all ideas, it has been a genuine shock to discover that the idea of Thales is first found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics where it is likely misinterpreted as not.  The horrifying details are in The Presocratic Philosophers (Kirk, Raven & Schofield, 2nd ed., pp. 89-91).  We’ll never know the truth.

I have included a 17th century print, borrowed from Wikipedia and the Rijksmuseum, of Thales by Jacob de Gheyn III showing Thales doing his thing, somewhat anachronistically.  At some point people no longer wanted images from Thales, but not at that point.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Diogenes Laertius and the fun of the fragment

We have the complete Plato, from multiple manuscript sources.  We have lost every published book (widely copied scroll) of Aristotle’s, but a large mass of what are perhaps transcribed lecture notes survived, barely, in a single manuscript, so that is our Aristotle.  I don’t know the story of Xenophon’s manuscripts.  Every other Greek philosopher survives only in fragments.

“Fragments” suggests, to me, a scrap of disintegrating papyrus with a few words visible on it.  This piece of cloth once had an entire Sappho poem on it, but now we just have fragments of the poem.  Editors of the poems will use brackets to set off the gaps.

With the Greek philosophers, though, the “fragments” are quotations of now lost books found in the later books of others.  Sometimes they are quotations of quotations, centuries after the original, with a long chain of lost works in between.  Sometimes they are perhaps paraphrases.

As books disappear, the secondary source becomes the primary source.  Such is the case with Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (3rd century) by Diogenes Laertius, an eccentric but now invaluable compilation of biography, anecdotes, and quotations by and about dozens of Greek thinkers.  Laertius is now not just a source but the source for many philosophers.

If only it were a better book.  It does not compare to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives or Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, both of which have entries of high literary merit.  Eminent Philosophers often feels more like a collection of notes, the material that could be shaped into a great book.

Diogenes has some weird little obsessions, the oddest of which is writing poems about how philosophers died:

The story goes that, being bald, he [Ariston] suffered a sunstrike and so died.  I have made fun of him in choliambs:

Why, Ariston, though old and bald,

Did you let the sun roast your brow?  (etc., p. 269)

The 2018 translation by Pamela Mensch of Eminent Philosophers is superb: notes (by James Miller), bibliography, illustrations, the works.  Not quite enough to recommend the book as such to anyone not, like me, engaged in a crazy Greek philosophy project.

I owe a debt to “The best books on The Presocratics recommended by Angela Hobbs,” one of many interesting entries in the Five Books series.  Hobbs is Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy – what a title – at the University of Sheffield.  She points to two standard books that present the fragments of the early Greek philosophers.

One is Early Greek Philosophy by Jonathan Barnes, a model of clarity, clearly well-tested on undergraduates.  Barnes works to distinguish the words of each philosopher from the interpretations.  Diogenes Laertius is inescapable.  The section on Thales, the first philosopher, is nine pages long, and half of that is straight from Diogenes.  It is the great source, what can you do.  I strongly recommend the Barnes book to anyone curious.

The alternative mentioned by Hobbs is more advanced.  The Presocratic Philosophers by G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield spends more time interpreting the texts, which often means interpreting the sources.  What does Thales mean when he says such and such – no, what does Aristotle mean when he writes that Thales says such and such.  For some reason I am reading this book as well, and it is already leading to a new, exhausting, epistemological crisis.  Maybe I will write about Thales next week.

An alternative to the alternative would be to read each thinker as an aphorist and not worry so much about the source.  This is the approach taken by Guy Davenport with Heraclitus (and with Diogenes the Cynic, a much later figure) in 7 Greeks.  Heraclitus in 124 aphorisms over thirteen pages.  Maybe that is the way to read the fragments, with the interpretation and sources in the background.  I am reading them every which way.

Anyway, try 7 Greeks for Heraclitus or the Jonathan Barnes book for everyone. 

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Please read Greek philosophy with me - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, dog men, people jumping in volcanoes

Greek philosophy, readalong #2.

This idea got more interesting the more I thought about it, but had more organizational problems, plus the greater problem that I do not think of philosophy as a strength of mine.  My solution has been to convert the project into literature.

Is philosophy a branch of literature?  I treat it that way.  Philosophers, generally, do not.  As I progress this year perhaps this distinction will become clearer to me, or perhaps it will disappear.

I have organized nine months of reading – does that ever seem like plenty – along conventional historical lines like in many histories of philosophy and in the valuable Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (3rd century, probably) by Diogenes Laertius.  Each month I will work on a school or writer.  At the end of the month, I will write about a key text, giving the project a readalong-like quality, although anyone can read whatever seems interesting, obviously.  Ignore me except to the extent that I am useful.

Picking a text can be a challenge.  Among the dozens of Greek philosophers active from the 6th century BCE up to the Christian era we have intact, substantial texts for four of them: Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and Theophrastus, and his are mostly about botany.  Everyone else exists only in fragments, or not at all.  Of course some, like Socrates, did not write anything.  What is a philosopher, anyways?

Here is what I want to read:

January: The Presocratics. The texts: the fragments of Heraclitus and Empedocles.  We will at first embrace the fragment.

The birth of philosophy in western Anatolia and spread to Italy.  Science and mysticism; forbidden beans and jumping in volcanoes.  Heraclitus and Empedocles both lead the pack in the substantial number of fragments and are particularly important to later literature.  Democritus, the inventor of the atom, was tempting, as was Pythagoras, as I understand it not actually the inventor of the Pythagorean theorem.

Tomorrow I will post some advice on how to read these writers.

February: Presocratics and Sophists.  Texts: Euthydemus and Theaetetus, Socratic dialogues by Plato.  The former is about the Sophists; the latter about the Presocratics.

March: Socrates.  Texts: Plato’s pieces about the death of Socrates, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo. 

Xenophon fits here, with his own Socratic dialogues and his Recollections of Socrates.

April: Plato.  Text: The Republic.

I am spreading Plato over many months because I hope to read lots of his work along the way.  I think of him as a significant literary artist.  We’ll see how much I get read.  Most Platonic dialogues (not The Republic) are quite short.

May: Aristotle.  Text: The Nicomachean Ethics.  The obvious literary choice after Poetics

June: Cynicism.  Text: the fragments of my hero Diogenes and selected satires of Lucian.  A number of Greek philosophers are exemplars of turning a severe personality disorder into a coherent ethical system.

Lucian is one of those writers who opened up later writers for me.  He solved mysteries.  He is a satirist and fantasist, not a philosopher, if there is a difference.

July: Epicurianism.  Text: On the Nature of Things (1st C. BCE) by Lucretius.  This is an epic cosmological poem, a masterpiece of Latin poetry, and also the grand presentation of Epicurian ideas.

August: Stoicism.  Text: I don’t know.  The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is the obvious one.  On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero?  Something by Seneca?  All, again, Roman.  Stoicism and Epicurianism turned into major, long-lasting schools of thought, yet barely a scrap of writing by the founding philosophers has survived.

September: Plutarch.  Texts: some relevant essays, like “On the Daimon of Socrates.”  Plutarch is Greek, at least, not a philosopher but rather the inventor of the familiar essay.  He often wrote about philosophical subjects.  I thought it would be valuable, perhaps refreshing, to end with a more deliberately literary figure.

I hope to read a lot more than the texts I have indicated.  My plan is to write some kind of reading journal on Fridays, discussing whatever I have been reading.  Tomorrow, for example, I will write about reading Diogenes Laertius and Presocratic fragments.

Please feel free to suggest modifications and alternatives.  I don’t know who else is really interested in this, even at the level of reading one book.  I know that I sure am interested.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Please read the Roman plays with me (although not all of them) - Plautus, Terence, Seneca

Roman plays, a sampling, readalong #1.

Fresh off the Greek plays, I want to revisit some of the surviving Roman plays to remind myself what they are like.  Twenty-six comedies and ten tragedies have survived.  I read about half of them long ago and plan to reread fewer than that.

My idea is that I will organize by writer.

Plautus.  Twenty comedies barley survived of the more than a hundred he wrote.  We were down to a single manuscript in the 8th century.  His plays often have little gaps in them, scenes that the mice ate.  The plays are hard to date, but Plautus died in 184 BCE, so late 3rd century to early 2nd. These are actually the earliest surviving complete Roman texts, so for us the beginning of Roman literature.

If you glance at modern translations of Plautus’s plays you will quickly see which are the most famous titles.  The Manaechmus Twins and Amphitryon lead directly to Shakespeare.  Shakespearists should read those two and immediately revisit The Comedy of Errors.  Molière also has an Amphitryon – there are so many versions of Amphitryon – and Plautus’s The Pot of Gold is the basis of Molière’s The Miser.  Miles Gloriosus / The Braggart Soldier is one fans of Falstaff should not miss.  Pseudolus stars the archetypal cunning slave, the center of an endless number of plays, eventually softened into the clever servant.

I think I will stick to these: Pseudolus, The Braggart Soldier, The Pot of Gold, The Manaechmus Twins, and Amphitryon.  I will skip two I have read before, Rudens / The Rope and Casina. I am trying to restrain myself.  I have other things to do.  But it would likely be rewarding to read all twenty.

Terence.  Six comedies by Terence, written between 166 BCE and 160 BCE, the year the young playwright died – or at least disappeared – on the way to Greece where he was looking for Greek plays to pillage.  All of the Roman playwrights reworked Greek plays, the comedians looting Menander and his peers.  Menander typically took two New Comedy plays and combined the plots.  None of the Terence plays or the surviving Plautus plays match with the extant Menander, so we have no idea how original the Romans were.

Terence is sophisticated compared to the populist Plautus.  His Latin is apparently especially elegant, for all the good that does me.  I do not think Shakespeare directly adapted a Terence play, but he and his peers often quote or parody Terence.

It would be easy enough to reread all six plays, but I will try to stick with The Girl from Andros, his first play, written when he was nineteen, The Mother-in-Law, The Self-Tormentor and The Eunuch.  Chosen based on distant memory.

Seneca.  Perhaps not the Stoic philosopher, but I will assume that it is.  He wrote eight plays in the mid-1st century, none of them meant for any kind of performance.  I believe they are all imitations of Euripides.

Elizabethan and Jacobean theater are suffused with Seneca.  Most important, perhaps, are the gruesome Thyestes and the grisly Medea, along with Phaedra and Hercules Furens.

With the Romans we can read Elizabethan translations, a kind of fun unavailable with the Greeks.  The 1581 Seneca: His Ten Tragedies is the place to look.  I read Hercules Furens in this collection; it is astounding(-ly horrible).

Pseudo-Seneca and the Other Pseudo-Seneca.  Octavia is a unique specimen, a play about contemporary events starring Emperor Nero, Empress Octavia and, um, Nero’s advisor Seneca.  If Seneca did write this, he deserves a lot of postmodern credit, but I remember the play as having more historical than literary interest.

I do not know much about Hercules Oetaeus except that it is likely an imitation of Seneca – in fact in places something of a collage of other Seneca plays – and is twice as long as any of the other plays, longer than any Greek play, too.  I’m skipping it, I guess.


My idea is to read roughly a play a week but to write about them once a month.  So, Plautus in early February, Terence in early March, and Seneca in early April.

If you are interested in looking at any of these plays, please let me know if some other scheme would be more suitable.

I sometimes feel like I need to apologize for the Roman plays (thus emphasizing their influence, for example), pale silver imitations of their Greek betters.  But I read Amphitryon a couple of days ago and enjoyed it immensely.  No wonder it is rewritten so often.  It’s a great play.  It got me excited to read more Plautus, certainly, and more Romans.


Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music - enchantment is the precondition of all dramatic art

When I read Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872) several years ago I was interested in it as a 19th century work, as a key text in the cult of Richard Wagner and an early example of the vogue for fantasizing that stuffy Prussian or Victorian propriety will be de-stuffed by a good dose of the Dionysian, whatever that might be, Tristan and Isolde or subversive satyrs.  Here is the comparable Max Beerbohm skewering the latter.

Nietzsche’s central conceit is that the satyrs saved the Greeks, too.  They had been going through a rational, scientific Apollonian phase, as seen in their architecture, sculpture, and the naïve and beautiful Homer, “the complete triumph of the Apollonian illusion” (3, 29) – Nietzsche’s Homer is not my Homer – until the new cult of Dionysus introduced a new element of passion and nature.  The satyr chorus in particular, its music, an early Greek innovation in the Dionysian ritual, is the “rescuing deed of Greek art” (7, 47), “a copy of a more truthful, more real, more complete image of existence than the man of culture who commonly considers himself the sole reality” (8, 47).

Other Greek festivals also have music, but, for example, “the virgins who approach the temple of Apollo bearing laurel branches… remain who they are” while the satyr chorus “is a chorus of people who have been transformed…  they have become the timeless servants of their gods” (8, 50), and the audience to some extent follows along, temporarily.

It is all downhill from there.  Every step away from the satyr chorus, the pure electric guitar feedback and the suffering of Dionysus, like a narrative, or characters representing ordinary people, moves the balance back towards the Apollonian, until the villain Euripides, or really his puppet-master, the arch-villain Socrates, ruins Greek tragedy.  “[U]p to the time of Euripides Dionysus remained the tragic hero, and that all the famous figures of the Greek stage, Prometheus, Oedipus, and so on, are only masks of that original hero Dionysus” (10, 59).  Euripides killed tragedy when he brought “the man of everyday life” onto the stage, no longer depicting “the great and bold traits” but only “the botched lines of nature” (11, 63), “highly realistic imitations of thoughts and emotions devoid of any trace of the ether of art” (12, 70).  This looks like the argument we – well, some people – have about the novel once in a while: too much realism, or not enough realism.

Plus the music composed by Euripides was bad: “you [he is addressing Euripides directly] never managed to produce anything but a masked imitation music” (10, 62).  Nietzsche of course has never heard a note of any Greek music.

I had half-forgotten how much of The Birth of Tragedy is about the death of tragedy, how much of it is about the destructive “audacious intelligence” (12, 70) of Euripides.  Nietzsche has many insights about Euripides, perhaps because he is forced to give his enemy so much of his attention.

I have much doubt about the truth of Nietzsche’s imagined history of tragedy, and more doubts about its use.  “We did tire later” (I’m quoting Beerbohm; please follow the link up above).  But the origins of the plays are so murky, and the resulting works of art so powerful and complex, that I am happy to have many histories, especially when written with such vigor.

I read Douglas Smith’s translation in the Oxford World’s Classics edition.  The title quotation is from 8, 50.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

On Great Writing by Longinus - But greatness appears suddenly; like a thunderbolt it carries all before it

I will deposit my notes on On Great Writing, which is either a 3rd century text by Longinus, one of the great scholars and rhetoricians of his time, or was written earlier and is by someone else.  Who knows.  I will call the author Longinus, and call the work On the Sublime, the title that accompanied the work’s 18th century entry into the canon of literary criticism.  It hits a number of 18th century preoccupations.

Great writing does not persuade; it takes the reader out of himself.  The startling and amazing is more powerful than the charming and persuasive, if it is indeed true that to be convinced is usually within our control whereas amazement is the result of an irresistible force beyond the control of any audience .  (1, p. 4), tr. G. M. A. Grube)

The move from the “charming and persuasive” to “the startling and amazing” is the Enlightenment moving to Romanticism.

A writer’s “inventive skill” and “the structure and arrangement of his subject matter… slowly emerge from the texture of the whole work”:

But greatness appears suddenly; like a thunderbolt it carries all before it and reveals the writer’s full power in a flash.  (1, 4)

This has something in common with Nabokov urging his students to read not with the head or heart but the spine, and perhaps also with Kafka saying that the only worthwhile art is that which feels like an axe splitting the skull.  Roughly speaking, Aristotle was writing in Poetics about he big overall effect of a work, while Longinus is interested in the best individual scenes or images or lines, but they are both critics asking how it all works.

For much of On the Sublime, Longinus identifies rhetorical devices that are part of passages he finds especially great.  I can see how the author is a professional rhetorician – maybe he can teach me how to make my writing great.  But then I notice how much space he gives to bad writing.  My use of the very same devices will likely produce bad writing.  There is still a lot of mystery here.  The best I can do is emulate Homer and Demosthenes, even asking what these writers would think of my words.  “For as we emulate them, these eminent personages are present in our minds and raise us to a higher level of imaginative power” (14, 23).

Longinus mostly looks back at earlier Greek literature, mostly Homer, the three tragedians, and the 4th century BCE Athenian orator Demosthenes – as usual, mostly Athenians.  It is as if a book about great writing written today took the bulk of its examples from Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, which is not implausible.  I am setting aside the surprising appearance by Moses (9, 17) and the part where Longinus inadvertently saves the first stanza of a great Sappho poem (10, 17).

 This bit is like a Twitter game:

… which should be preferred in poetry or in prose, great writing with occasional flaws or moderate talent which is entirely sound and faultless? (33, 44)

Really, would you rather be the flawed but great Sophocles or the flawless but merely good Ion of Chios?  Longinus thinks that “no sane man would count all the plays of Ion to be worth as much as the one play, Oedipus” (33, 45), so on Twitter it the vote would be fifty-fifty.  I am starting to elan towards Ion of Chios myself, out of pity.

Longinus ends by wondering why the writing today, in his day, stinks so much.  His answer is money.  Such a book written today would likely have the same ending.

I plan to read Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872) soon, which will finish off this project.  My memory is that Nietzsche’s book is about two-thirds what it says in the title and one-third how Richard Wagner will save us from the cultural decadence begun by the super-villain Socrates.  I’ll write something up before Christmas.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Readalongs I wish someone else would organize - Cuban literature, August Wilson plays, and many more

The glory days of book blogs were full of “challenges.”  I hosted several: Scottish literature, Italian, Austrian, Scandinavian, Portuguese, always limited to the 19th century and earlier to keep the scope manageable.  The idea was that I read a lot, while others were invited to join as they found useful.  I found every one of these “challenges” to be highly useful, intellectually, meaning I read a lot of interesting books and learned a lot about the literary tradition.  Plus every time I attracted new, thoughtful, knowledgeable readers to the blog, people who did not necessarily care so much about Victorian literature but were excited about one of these other traditions.  I have even met some of these people in so-called real life.

So I occasionally think of some kind of readalong that would be exciting to me and I would hope to others.  Who knows, maybe someone else will want to borrow one of them.  I would happily read along with any of them.

My most neurotic idea is to read the ten most important American books that I have not read.  Beloved easily tops the list academically; To Kill a Mockingbird popularly.  The Woman Warrior, Ceremony, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, like that.  In 2017 or so I looked up, in the MLA International Bibliography, the 20th century American works most cited in academic writing.  I had not heard of Borderlands/La Frontera, a pioneering work of Chicana literature, I am told.

This one is a bad idea because it is too much about me, about what I happen not to have read.  Who cares.  But I would sure feel well-read if I did it.  Temporarily well-read.  That feeling never lasts.

Better ideas: contemporary plays.  Or within the last fifty years.   Or just read 21st century plays. Say ten or a dozen plays, once every two weeks.  They would mostly be American, British, and Irish, just based on the availability of texts. 

I have been testing this idea.  In the last year I read Women of Owu (2006) by Femi Osofisan (a Geeek adaptation), Cherokee Family Reunion (2012) by Larissa FastHorse (interracial family comedy) , The Ferryman (2017) by Jez Butterworth (family comedy mixed with The Troubles), and The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda (2019) by Ishmael Reed (a surprisingly gentle lecture).  Enough to see there is a lot to enjoy out there. 

Shakespeare is the center of the English tradition, yet contemporary plays seem increasingly distant from any literary discussion I see.  I do not know why that is.  The playwrights seem to be doing their jobs.

An obvious readalong would be to work through August Wilson’s ten play “Pittsburgh Cycle,” Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and so on.  This one practically organizes itself.

My preference, though, is to work on a tradition, not an author, often one about which I know little. I thought about a year of reading Caribbean literature, meaning islands; the United States is a Caribbean country.  Wilson Harris, Derek Walcott, V. S. Naipaul, Dany Laferrière, Maryse Condé, for example.  Wouldn’t that be interesting.

Poking around, I soon saw that Cuban literature would make a great readalong on its own.  Something like this, one book per month for ten months:

First two novels by Alejo Carpentier, maybe The Kingdom of This World (1949) and The Chase (1956) on the basis that they are short.  I have a prejudice that readalong books should mostly be short.


Paradiso (1966) by José Lezama Lima

Hallucinations (1966) by Reinaldo Arenas, although his memoir Before Night Falls (1992) is the more obvious choice

Three Trapped Tigers (1967) and A View of Dawn in the Tropics (163) by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Cobra (1972) and Maitreya (1978) by Severo Sarduy. Do these ever sound weird.

Everybody Leaves (2006) by Wendy Guerra, or Revolution Sunday (2016), or both.

Plus a poetry month to try Dulce María Loynaz or Nicolás Guillén.

Lots of strange, baroque books.  Sounds fun.  Since I drew up a plan, I might as well provide it.

I would like someone else to organize a readalong of postwar Italian literature, of Hungarian literature, of Sanskrit classics, of Arabic poetry, of contemporary American poetry, for that matter.  I suppose I could not join all of these, really.

The August Wilson plays, though, that is a sire thing.  You just have to decide on the order.  Easy.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Planning next year's readalong opportunities - Greek philosophy and Roman plays

If only I had another idea as good as reading all the Greek plays in order.  But I do have ideas.

1. Roman plays.  Up to five Roman playwrights have survived: the comedians Plautus and Terence and the tragedian Seneca, along with two plays under his name that were likely written by others.  The Roman creative spirit is often deeply imitative of Greek literature, and is that ever the case here, with Seneca adapting Euripides and the comedians pilfering Menander and the other New Comedy playwrights.

Twenty plays by Plautus have survived, along with six by Terence (his complete works – he died young), eight by Seneca, and the two “Seneca” plays not by Seneca.  It is certainly possible that the famous Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, did not write any of them, but I will assume that he did.

I would not want to read through all of the Roman plays.  Twenty Plautus plays!  I had enough trouble writing two posts about his model Menander.  Some of that reading is best left to graduate students.  But if you are on the road to Shakespeare, some Roman comedy and especially some Seneca are essential.  Shakespeare never read the Greeks, but he read the Romans.

So next year I will revisit the Roman plays.  Say one writer per month; maybe three or four plays per author?  No obvious reason to read the exact same plays.  Shakespearists should try, at least, The Brothers Menaechmus (for The Comedy of Errors) and The Braggart Soldier (for Falstaff) by Plautus and a couple of the more famous Seneca plays – say Medea and Phaedra and Hercules Furens.  Euripideans will be fascinated, or horrified, by what Seneca does.  A fun idea not available with the Greeks: Seneca’s plays are available in Elizabethan translation.  I read one of them twenty years ago and hope to try a couple more.

Three writers, three months, a dozen plays at most.  Easy.  Please join in if you want to continue the history of theater.  In fact, please read them all and let me know what you find.  I’ll write all of this up again in early January.

2.  Greek philosophy.  I think I have figured out how this would work as a readalong.  Each month I, or we, will focus on a specific school or writer.  We will have one central, famous text, but of course there is endless reading available.  Something like this:

Presocratics – the aphorisms of Heraclitus, or the verse of Empedocles, or both

Sophists – Theaetetus by Plato

Socrates – the three “death of Socrates” texts, Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, by Plato

Plato – The Republic

Aristotle – The Nicomachean Ethics

Epicureanism – The Nature of Things by Lucretius (I’m cheating, this is Roman)

Stoicism, Cynicism, etc.  – still thinking about these

I’ll use Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius as a gossipy, inaccurate guide to the subject.  The 2018 Oxford University Press edition of this 3rd century semi-classic is a wonder, newly translated, illustrated, and with a superb bibliography.

Philosophy, to me, is a branch of literature, a difficult for one for a number of reasons, one of which is that to most philosophers it something else, and perhaps I will learn to understand that idea as I read more, but until then. This will be a literary project.  There is so much Plato on that list because he was, in much of his writing, a great artist.

Again, I will write this up in more detail in January.

Please add any suggestions of your own, whether or not you are interested in reading along with this or that text.

I have a number of ideas for readalongs that are much better than these.  I will write about them tomorrow.,  Perhaps someone else will want them.

I still need to write up my notes on Longinus.  But this is easier to write.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Thanks and praise to celebrate the happiness of this great event – the end of the Greek play readalong

I am quoting the end of Alcestis by Euripides, his early whatever it is, not a tragedy, not a satyr play, not a comedy.  Admetos has won back his wife and the play is at its end, so he declares “a feast of thanks and praise” (tr. Arrowsmith), which is what I want to do.  If we had done all this in a real-life book group I would take you all out for gyros.  But Admetos ends the play with this:

From this day forth we must remake our lives,

And make them better than they were before.

We can only try.

So, first, many thanks to anyone who participated in any way, on your own, in the comments section, or otherwise.  Anyone who wanders around in the comments of my posts will find some superb responses and insights; anyone who follows the links to posts people wrote will find the same.  Intellectually, this exercise was very good for me.  I hope for you, too.  Endless thanks to everyone.

I had read all of the plays, except Menander’s Dyskolos, about 25 years ago, and had reread a few since then.  Antigone I knew from much earlier, from Western Civ in college.  The core stories and myths and characters I knew from childhood, and they are as familiar to me as another set of stories and characters I was absorbing at the same time, “Bible stories.”

What did I learn this time?

First, there was my epistemological crisis, visible in my earlier posts before I got over it.  The evidentiary base for what we know about classical Greek plays was much weaker than I had previously understood.  For example, we all know that each playwright directed three tragic plays and a satyr play, like the Cyclops of Euripides, full of booze and nonsense.  But Alcestis was presented in the “satyr” spot, and thus the evidence is actually half satyr and half not-satyr.  What was the real ratio?  How often did writers use the satyr spot for something more unusual and innovative?  Alcestis is unique among the surviving plays, but what does that tell us.

So, second, this time I understood how we were reading these extraordinary plays in a massive void of lost plays. Nine tragedies a year, plus three satyr plays, and an indeterminate number of comedies (four to six?) every year, and we have almost none of them, even by the most famous playwrights.  For the first twenty-eight years of Sophocles’s extraordinarily long career, we have Ajax.  He did not necessarily submit plays every year, but we could easily be missing eighty or ninety early Sophocles plays, pre-Antigone.  How I would like to get to know young Sophocles.

The remarkable thing, and I think everyone saw this, was how easy it was, after a couple of plays, to get a sense of the personality and sensibility of the author: rough, mythic Aeschylus; methodical, pious Sophocles, the perfect candidate to invent the detective story; turbulent, to use William Arrowsmith’s favorite word, Euripides.  With Euripides, we are lucky to have enough plays to even see his progression, to watch him become angrier with Athenian wartime politics until he becomes disgusted with the entire Athenian, or possibly human, experiment, culminating in his astounding late works of pessimism like Orestes and Bacchae.

But this is all a construction, the reader inferring the author from the available evidence, when most of the evidence is missing.  Who knows what Aeschylus or Sophocles would look like if we had seven more plays.  It is hard to believe that there are too many more masterpieces at the level of Agamemnon or Oedipus the King among the lost plays.

Given how much we have lost, the twenty-seven year or so stretch between the Medea of Euripides (431 BCE) and Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles (say 404 BCE) where we have a play, sometimes two, almost every year, takes on enormous meaning, especially when these plays are contemporary with the Athenian history described in detail by Thucydides.  The narrative is very strong.  Honestly, this is why I got so excited by reading the plays in chronological order, which I had not done before.  Just watching the hilarious one-sided duel between Aristophanes and Euripides.

Then, in a coda, Menander and the New Comedy come along, thinner but less alien, leading to Roman comedy, Shakespearean comedy, and television comedy.

Prmoetheus chained to the rock, Cassandra declaiming her own death, Oedipus learning the truth, Antigone arguing ethics with her uncle, the entrance of the chorus of the birds, Dionysus outsinging the chorus of the frogs, Medea murdering her children, Orestes burning it all to the ground, Dionysus dressing up Pentheus.  What things we saw.  The chorus in Agamemnon claims that Zeus “las it down as law / that we must suffer, suffer into truth” (tr. Fagles), but I feel we found a great deal of truth without much suffering, which is how great literature usually works.

I am thinking of writing a longer essay on our experience this year, and sending it – who knows – somewhere – so if you have any ideas you do not mind me stealing, please let me know.  Another debt.  My deepest thanks, as it is.

Friday, November 25, 2022

The Girl from Samos by Menander - I don’t think any one individual is better at birth than any other

It’s our last plays, the last surviving Greek play, The Girl from Samos (315 BCE) by Menander.  How tastes, or circumstances, had changed in the seventy years since Wealth, our last Aristophanes play.  The political and social satire is gone, the sexual and scatological jokes are gone, and the specificity of the Athenian moment is replaced by type characters and domestic conflicts.  Comedy has mixed with melodrama – the influence of the “romantic” strain of Euripides is as strong as that of Aristophanes – and the result would not be out of place on American television.

I mean, the conflict in The Girl from Samos is over a baby.  Imagine the great Greek dramatists worrying about some ordinary man’s baby.  Here we have, depicted in a mosaic, the baby itself, carried by the Girl from Samos.  We are in Act III where they are expelled from their home because of the usual misunderstanding which will be cleared up by Act V.  I know we are in Act III of The Girl from Samos because that is literally written in the mosaic.

This example belongs to a set of seven scenes from Menander that can be found in the House of Menander in Mytilene on Lesbos, not to be confused with the House of Menander at Pompeii.  In fact there are many extant mosaics depicting scenes from Menander’s plays.  He was enormously popular for centuries.  The Mytilene mosaics are like from the fourth century CE, six hundred years after Menander, like someone today decorating a home with scenes from Shakespeare.

I noted that the direct political satire of Aristophanes is long gone, suppressed perhaps by censorship (Athenian democracy is also long gone) as much as changing tastes.  But domestic comedy is also inherently satirical, critiquing familial and social arrangements.  Here Moschion, the father of that (currently illegitimate) baby, critiques the notion of illegitimacy:

MOSCHION:        I don’t think any

One individual is better at

Birth than any other. If you look at it

Rightly, it’s the moral man who is

Legitimate, the immoral who is

Illegitimate, and a slave.  This is

What Diogenes says, bidding us revalue.  (17)

I believe that is my hero Diogenes the Cynic.  It sounds like him.

I read Eric Turner’s 1972 translation of The Girl from Samos, written for radio performance, so meant to function; I don’t know what adaptations he made.  It works.  The (almost) complete text of the play was only discovered a few years earlier.

I have been writing the phrase “Our next play is” every week, but now there is no next play.  Next week I will write up kind of summary, and soon after I hope to write some notes on On the Sublime by Longinus.  And maybe another post after that: “what next”?


Friday, November 18, 2022

Menander's Dyskolos - each man would hold a moderate share and be content

This week it’s Menander’s Dyskolos, or The Grouch, or The Misanthrope (316 BCE), which may or may not have inspired the title of Molière’s great play, and nothing more than the title since the play was, like all of Menander’s plays, long lost.  A fairly complete Dyskolos was the first of a series of extraordinary 20th century discoveries of Menander texts on Egyptian papyrus, some fragments even recovered from mummy casings.  None of the bits we are reading, I don’t think.

Menander’s texts were lost, but his existence was well known.  He was the favorite source of the Roman comic playwrights, who freely plundered the works of Menander and the other writers of New Comedy, adapting the century-old Greek play to the Roman audience and Latin language.  Some are pure adaptation, some are combinations – plots from two Menander plays combined, some merely borrow a comic premise.  Menander was everywhere in Latin comedy, or at least in Plautus and Terence, our surviving representatives.

Plautus and Terence lead fairly directly to Renaissance theater, commedia dell’arte, Elizabethan comedy, French farce, and the 20th century sitcom.  This is what I meant when, last week, I claimed that Menander was more important as a generator of texts than any of the greater Greek playwrights.  Plautus and Terence get us to Shakespeare, and Menander is their source.

If I have overindulged in literary history, it is because reading Dyskolos, which I mentioned I had not read before, felt like an exercise in theater history.  Quite interesting, but as comedies go not so much fun.  Even the miserable title character is not so much fun:

What a confounded wretch he is!

The sort of life he leads! A tried and true

example of an Attic farmer

in battle with the rocks that yield

only thyme and sage.  He brings in pain

and reaps no good from it. (45)

I do like the little botanical detail.  The great interest in Dyskolos is that so many of the changes in comedy and theater are so clear.  For example, the social register has changed completely.  Aristophanes had some choruses of farmers, but this play is really about farmers, and their slaves, with Athens kept at a distance.  The romantic lead even has to go work as a farmer to win the heroine (I have illustrated the post with a pair of farmers and their wonderful pigs on a vase owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum).

The romantic lead – there is another innovation.  We have just read an entire tradition of theater where there was not, in comedy or tragedy, a single romance, as we call it, a plot about a young man and woman in love and the obstacles – the grouchy father, for example – preventing their happiness.  How many thousands will follow.  I am currently reading the last act of Beaumarchais’s The Barber of Seville (1775), much more sophisticated but at its core nothing more than the young couple in love, and the old man in the way, and the schemes of both parties.

The misanthrope is inevitably defeated in a humiliation scene (thousand more will follow), but it was interesting to hear his defend himself:

If all others were like me,

there wouldn’t be any law-courts,

and no one would send anyone to jail.

There’d be no war – each man would hold

a moderate share and be content.  (52)

Utopian misanthropy.

All quotations are from the Sheila d’Atri translation in the 1998 Menander, ed. David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie, University of Pennsylvania Press.

I remember the next Menander, The Girl from Samos (315 BCE), as being quite a bit better than Dyskolos, although perhaps the credit belongs to Eric G. Turner and his 1971 BBC Radio adaptation.  More coherent and more zippy.  We will see.  It’s the last play.  Forty more pages and we’re done.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Wealth by Aristophanes - gout here, pot bellies there, ... obesity beyond all bounds

We saw Sophocles and Euripides end their long careers with masterpieces, but we do not have that luck with Aristophanes.  Wealth (388 BCE) is thin, scattershot, perhaps even a bit defeated or exhausted.

The conceit is as usual excellent.  Plutus, the god of wealth, is freed from his customary blindness by an ordinary Athenian citizen.  As a result, Plutus can finally reward the good and deserving rather than the wicked, although the series of skits that make up the last half of the play become more of a satire on satiety.  If everybody has everything, what happens?  The god Hermes comes begging for help, because no one sacrifices to the gods anymore.  All anyone really asked for was wealth and now they have it.

HERMES:  Oh for the ham I once guzzled!

CARION: You’re giving a ham performance right now if I ever saw one!

HERMES: Oh for the hot innards I used to love!

CARION: Got a pain in your own, have you, eh?  (308, tr. Alan H. Sommerstein, Penguin Classics)

Hermes succeeds in acquiring a new role as the God of Competitions.  In a satiated world, all that is left is leisure activities.  Wealth would have some real interest to a Marxist critic.

The long scene in which the personification of Poverty makes her case against Wealth, and wealth, is interesting, although it is also perhaps an example of the weakness of the late Aristophanes plays.  Too static, too talky, too purely a debate.  Still, it is curious to see the moral case for poverty:

POVERTY:  You were talking about a pauper, who has absolutely nothing to live on.  Poverty is quite different.  It means living a thrifty life, sticking to your job, not having anything to spare but not having to go short either.  (289)

Wealth produces obesity and gout, while poverty creates “lean, wiry, wasplike men” who make good soldiers.  Unfortunately, none of this develops into anything.  Gout and obesity do sound likely for the newly wealthy main characters, but we will not see it.

All of this is a sad fantasy in that, as I mentioned last week, Athens was poorer than it had been in generations.  At the play's end, the characters “reinstall Wealth in his old dwelling in the rear chamber of Athena's temple” (310).  They can dream.

The illustration is “The Triumph of Riches” by Hans Holbein, a preparatory 16th century drawing for a now lost painting.  I believe that Plutus is the hunched figure in the chariot,  Here he is not obviously blind, but is led by Fortune.  Life, or at least wealth, ain’t fair.  Go to the Department of Graphic Arts at the Louvre to see the drawing in person.

I understand anyone who reads the last Aristophanes plays and says “I’m done” but I still have two Menander plays on my schedule, the last barely surviving classical Greek plays, written seventy years after the final Aristophanes.  If I judge the importance of a text by its generation of further texts, the Menander plays are arguably the most important plays we will read. 

But really I wanted to keep going because I remember the 1972 Eric Turner version of The Girl from Samos (315 BCE) as so good.  I have not read our next play, Dyskolos (216 BCE) or The Grouch or perhaps The Misanthrope, the only play of the entire project I had not previously read, and I think I will try the Sheila D'Atri version.  His Menander book includes four plays, but two of them are fragments, as much Slavitt as Menander.  They all require some textual help, though.  My inclusion of the two most complete plays was a little arbitrary.

Anyway, next week, Menander’s Dsykolos.


Monday, November 7, 2022

Notes on Aristotle's Poetics - What are the conditions on which the tragic effect depends?

Aristotle did not invent literary criticism with Poetics (late 4th c. BCE, maybe) – we just read The Frogs – but for centuries it was the base of Western literary criticism, not a source of insight but rather a set of rules.  The Unities, the Tragic Flaw, catharsis, the ranking of forms, with the epic poem on top.  The medieval importation of Aristotle from Muslim Spain was a great advance for European civilization, but it was not always so good for literature.

How prescriptive did Aristotle mean to be?  I am not sure.  His initial impulse is the central one of the enterprise: experiencing a powerful work of literature, he wants to know why it affected him so much.  “What are the conditions on which the tragic effect depends?” (13, 681) So he assembles the evidence, arranging the tragedies by how they affected him, and begins to generalize.  Perhaps he is just describing his own taste, but the patterns he sees are clear enough.  One central action as opposed to many; stories about families; tragic results caused not by “depravity” but “in some great error on [the protagonist’s] part” (13, 682); writing that is a mix of the simple and ornate.  

These, the strange word, the metaphor, the ornamental equivalent, &c., will save the language from seeming mean and prosaic, while the ordinary words in it will secure the requisite clearness (22, 699).

Aristotle is the originator of “make it strange” (but not too strange).

Oedipus the King is the perfect tragedy for Sophocles, with other plays approaching it in power.  It is the best, so other plays should be like it, and then it is just a small step to must.  But it is clear enough that Aristotle valued other kinds of plays.  He criticizes Euripides in many ways but is fascinated by – finds a kind of catharsis in – Iphigenia in Tauris, a tragedy that is not even tragic.  But he has a strong taste for scenes of “discovery,” where the emotional effect turns on sister’s recognizing long lost brothers and so on.

That is one example of taste as prescript.  Here is another where Aristotle is obviously wrong, when he argues that a story should not be about:

… an extremely bad man [] falling from happiness into misery.  Such a story may arouse the human feeling in us, but it will not move us to either pity of fear; pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves… (13, 681)

His assumption that the bad man is not like ourselves is kind.  But my point is that many people absolutely love such stories, and also stories about virtue rewarded and for that matter vice rewarded.  Who am I to judge the catharsis of others?  But perhaps those stories are more common in a later, not less but differently fatalistic, Christian culture.

I have been quoting from the Ingram Bywater translation as found in the Modern Library Introduction to Aristotle.  Bywater conceals the key Greek terms.  A different translation might well look like a different argument.  I don’t know Greek, but I can see where they are hidden, where “fear and pity” translates “catharsis” [completely wrong! see comments below, please] – “The tragic pleasure is that of pity and fear” (14, 683).  Up above is the “tragic flaw” or “hamartia” concealed by, translated as, “some great error.”

I’m going to round out my look at Classical Greek literary criticism with On the Sublime or On Great Writing by Longinus (1st c. CE), whoever he was.  On the Sublime is not as play-centered as Poetics, so a bit of a tangent, but it is the major alternative to the aesthetics of Aristotle.  It is full of interesting things, and is perhaps sixty pages long.  I will try to write about Longinus at the end of the month, after the last Menander play.

I am also beginning to wonder if it would be a good idea to take a fresh look at Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872), which is directly related, or about two-thirds related, to this last year of reading, so maybe that will be the final text in the aesthetics series.  Please join me if interested.

Friday, November 4, 2022

The Assemblywomen by Aristophanes - Octopus tunnyfish dogfish and skate

The Assemblywomen by Aristophanes – or The Parliament of Women, or several other titles – was performed in 392 BCE, thirteen years after The Frogs.  In the interval many things had changed.  Athens had been conquered; democracy was overthrown but restored; one endless war ended and another began.  So maybe the one thing that changed, and is now detectable in the play in a way I had not perceived before, is that Athens, once rich, is now poor.  No more spectacularly costumed Choruses of the Birds.  Fortunately, comedy is cheap.

The central conceit of The Assemblywomen is outstanding.  The women of Athens, fed up with it all, as they were in Lysistrata and The Poet and the Women, disguise themselves as men (see left) in order to infiltrate the democratic assembly en masse and vote to put the women in charge.  The disguise scene is a quarter of the play. 

The women, once ruling as women, enact communism, a communism so close to that of Plato’s Republic, written over a decade later.  Not only is wealth held in common, but so are children and most importantly for comic purposes so is sex.  The last half of the short but rambling play is a series of comic sketches about life under communism.

It ends with the invitation to a feast.  Here we find the famous Longest Word in Greek, 171 letters long, just a stew but with the ingredients and even the recipe contained in the name of the dish.  The word by itself is a great gag, full of possibilities for performers, full of tension for the audience.  English translators occasionally try to reproduce it but generally break it up:

                          For –

                              there’ll –

                                     be –

Mussels and whelks and slices of anchovy

Octopus tunnyfish dogfish and skate

Savoury chutney and sauce with a zing in it

Lashings of pickle to pile on your plate…

[seven more lines about fowl] – and that’s about that.  (263, tr. David Barrett)

Is The Assemblywomen cruder than the other Aristophanes plays?  Certainly compared to the last few we have read.

The Assemblywomen is performed fairly often – you can see it at the Warwick Ancient Drama Festival in January, for example – but I had trouble finding a performance still I thought was interesting, so I borrowed a promotional image, visible above, from a 2010 production by the No.11 Productions company.

Scholars have found it useful to call The Assemblywomen and next week’s play, Wealth (388 BCE), “Middle Comedy,” distinct from the Old Comedy we have been reading and the New Comedy of Menander.  It is transitional, perhaps, with a reduced role for the chorus, more prose and less verse, and more stereotypical comic characters.  Maybe so, but I thought it was recognizably Aristophanes, not just in the gags but in the moral imperative: Someone clean up this city!

I do not remember Wealth at all.  The title subject is obviously of endless satirical value.  Next week.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles - indeed his end / Was wonderful if ever mortal’s was

Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles is one of the plays that got me excited about the entire project of reading or re-reading the complete plays.  The last surviving tragedy, even if it hardly recognizable as a tragedy, it provides a coherent ending to the tragic tradition.  It is perhaps a play of reconciliation.

Old, blind Oedipus, led in his wanderings by his daughter Antigone (this play precedes the events in Antigone), find himself in the grove of the Furies, just outside of Athens.  How often have the plays featured an altar as the center of the action?  We have a slightly different holy place this time.  Oedipus realizes that this is the destined place of his death and apotheosis.  The Thebans want him back, though, for vague oracle-related reasons. 

The cursed Oedipus, near his end, is curiously transformed into a holy object.  That is what I mean by “reconciliation.”  A happy ending for Oedipus, of all people, given that to the Greeks it is as important to die well as to live well.

MESSENGER:            But in what manner

Oedipus perished, no one of mortal men

Could tell but Theseus… 

For he was taken without lamentation,

Illness or suffering; indeed his end

Was wonderful if ever mortal’s was.  (150, tr. Robert Fitzgerald, in the Sophocles I University of Chicago edition)

The religious rituals preceding leading to the death of Oedipus are described in some detail; Sophocles believed in them.  The transformation of Oedipus into a cult figure, a mystery, is the sublime core of the play, as much as it was in The Eumenides of Aeschylus, which is an origin story: how Athens (old Sophocles, unlike Euripides, still believes in Athens) becomes the home of the Furies.  The Furies in another aspect are The Kindly Ones, welcoming Oedipus into their holy site and ending his wandering.

As is often the case with ancient Greek religion, I find all this alien but also moving.

Elsewhere in the play, for example the conflict between the sons of Oedipus, which we saw performed in Seven Against Thebes and The Women of Trachis, reconciliation is refused.  Perhaps Antigone, in this version, succeeds in her mission of peace, although I doubt it.

Oedipus at Colonus features many extraordinary poetic passages, often voiced by the Chorus, like this surprising eruption of flowers in the grove of the Furies:

Here with drops of heaven’s dews

At daybreak all the year,

The clusters of narcissus bloom,

Time-hallowed garlands for the brows

Of those great ladies whom we fear.

The crocus like a little sun

Blooms with its yellow ray… (111)

The song climaxes in a very Athenian paean to the olive tree, “The blessed tree that never dies!”

Oedipus is given an interesting speech about entropy:

OEDIPUS:              The immortal

Gods alone have neither age nor death!

All other things almighty Time disquiets.

Earth wastes away; the body wastes away;

Faith dies; distrust is born.  (107)

Oedipus at Colonus was produced posthumously, in 404 BCE or perhaps 401 BCE.  I prefer the earlier date for its horrible irony, since 404 was when Athens was conquered.  Many things ended in 404, including the Peloponnesian War and Athenian democracy, so it seems fitting that Greek tragedy ended, too, although of course it did not.  The annual Dionysia continued with new plays, all lost to us, and my understanding is that it was in the 4th century BCE that the old plays began to be produced frequently, spreading to theaters throughout the Greek-speaking world and eventually to us.

I borrowed a pair of 18th century prints from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  “Oedipus before the Temple of the Furies between his Daughters Antigone and Ismene” is by Anton Raphael Mengs and “Oedipus at Colonus, Cursing his Son Polynices” is by Henry Fuseli.

Next week – wait, aren’t we done?  We now skip ten or twelve years and things have changed.  Comedy has changed, enough that the last two surviving Aristophanes plays are sometimes called “Middle Comedy,” transitioning from the Old Comedy we have been reading to the immensely popular and influential New Comedy of Menander.  Let’s read The Assemblywomen (392 BCE) and see if we can spot the difference.  It is, as is obvious from the title, a companion of Lysistrata and The Poet and the Women.  How different can it be?  It also features the Longest Word in Greek – possibly the longest word in literature – so don’t miss that.