Monday, August 29, 2022

There were also the legendary but altogether real nocturnal attacks by large packs of wild dogs - some rewarding César Aira completism

Why have I been reading the 1995 Rizzoli coffee table book Argentina: The Great Estancias?  “Estancias” are estates, enormous cattle and sheep ranches, many of which have central houses – mansions – palaces – of great architectural and historic interest, given any interest in Argentinean ranches.

Edited by Juan Pablo Queiroz and Tomás de Elia, photos by the latter, text by César Aira.  There we go!  Aira was at this point a know writer in Argentina, unknown elsewhere, author of a mere twenty books.  This book is a professional gig, and I now think also a favor for friends.  This bit that I am writing is perhaps of narrow interest, to Airaists and fans of, I guess, Argentinean ranch architecture, but it is also a tribute to the pleasures of completism.

Aira is a conceptual artist and a surrealist.  His best quality, as far as I am concerned, is his inventiveness, his screwy surprises.  In The Great Estancias he is on his best behavior, which is unfortunate, but once in a while there is a reward:

There were also the legendary but altogether real nocturnal attacks by large packs of wild dogs.  (185)


In one of the old buildings, known as la casa de los huesos (the house of bones) Natalie Goodall maintains a collection of skeletons of dolphins, porpoises, and seals.  (200)

Those sound like Aira sentences.

Aira is also suspiciously attentive to visiting writers and to libraries:

That’s at the San Miguel estancia in the Córdoba province. 

Even with the ladder, those highest shelves, how?

This book was quite helpful in filling in the background of Aira’s subset of historical pampas novels, Ema the Captive (1981), The Hare (1991), and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000).  The protagonist of the latter, the German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas, is discussed on p. 50 – not that this is five years before the novel is written – and the book includes a Rugendas drawing that will be specifically parodied in Aira’s novel.

So I learned a lot about Argentinean ranch houses, which are frankly pretty interesting, and I learned some things about Aira and his art, which is why I sought out the book.

Aira recommends a book himself:

Lucas Bridges recounted the story of his father, Harberton [the estancia], and Viamonte in The Uttermost Part of the Earth, a beautiful book published in 1948 and reprinted many times.  (198)

This is Harberton, with the whale tooth arch, on Tierra del Fuego.  I of course immediately requested the book from the library.

The joys of completism.  I recommend the book to all amateur Airaists.  I was inspired to finally pin down Argentina: The Great Estancias because of the recent Mookse podcast on Aira.  I have not heard the show but I will eagerly read the transcript as soon as it is available.  For some reason Mookse omits this book, and one other, from a list of Aira books available in English.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Lysistrata by Aristophanes - we feel the members of the audience endure sufficient hell

Lysistrata (411 BCE) is easily the most famous Aristophanes play.  Spike Lee made a version of just seven years ago; Hollywood is a pretty clear measure of fame.  It’s the play where the women of Greece go on a sex strike until the men give up on war, an outstanding comic conceit that invites adaptation to whatever the horrible war of the moment might be.  The jokes of Aristophanes are often maddeningly specific, but the conceit is as universal as can be.

Compared to the variety show anarchy of his earliest plays, Lysistrata is focused, moving forward logically and relentlessly to peace and hedonism.  The play is utopian, and surprisingly sincere.  Where Euripides, as the war worsens, sours on the entire Athenian – or Greek – project, Aristophanes remains a believer, even if he cannot figure out, especially after the recent Sicilian disaster, why the war continues.  So he shows the Athenians some peace, which they presumably enjoy and then ignore until peace is forced upon them by catastrophe.

Aristophanes even gives up the usual personal attacks on audience members.

We’re not about to introduce

the standard personal abuse…

      because we feel

that members of the audience

endure, in the course of current events

sufficient hell.  (pp. 86-7, tr. Douglass Parker)

Amidst the jokes and farce, the women occasionally mention the deaths of their sons in Sicily.  Aristophanes is ironic about the human animal (“we want to get laid,” 69) but not about peace and war, not this time.

In Lysistrata, more than any previous play, the choruses carry the action.  The other characters are practically adjunct chorus members.  The brilliant decision was to split the chorus in two, men and women, allowing conflict between the choruses.  The choreography of Lysistrata must have been unusually complex.

Are the puns tiresome?  So many puns, and the ones I see are the invention of the translator, essentially meant as signposts saying “pun in the original.”  Hopeless.

Scrutinize those women! Scour their depositions – assess their rebuttals!

Masculine honor demands this affair be probed to the bottom!  (52)

Parker does his best.

Hey, look, there’s Timon of Athens, “the noted local grouch,” on p. 76, the earliest appearance of Timon I know.  Shakespeare got his Timon from Plutarch, more or less, not Aristophanes.

Pablo Picasso illustrated a 1934 edition of Lysistrata, and I borrowed his depiction of the climactic feast from the copy owned by MOMA.

The next play is another Aristophanes comedy, The Poet and the Women, performed at a later festival in the same year as Lysistrata.  Guess who the poet is!  That’s right, it’s Euripides, who appears as a character in three surviving Aristophanes plays.  I wish I remembered anything else about this one.  “Can’t beat Euripides for insight…  Talk about realist playwrights,” says the male choral leader in Lysistrata.  We’ll see.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

On learning Portuguese

Last October I began taking a Portuguese class.  Since January I have been reading literature, real literature, in Portuguese.  I thought I would write a note about the How and Why of that.

The Why:  My French is decent now.  My French reading.  I always have a book in French going, and I read whatever I want.  However slow my pace, that makes me an advanced reader in French.

So it was time for an experiment.  Could I use what I have learned about learning French to learn another language faster than I learned French?  Have I learned something about learning, was the question?

The How: It had to be a Romance language, so I could apply my French and for that matter my Spanish, which at points in my life was not so bad, although never quite at the level to read seriously.  The choice between Italian and Portuguese was arbitrary, but we were taking a little vacation to Portugal in December, so why not Portuguese.  We took a class – minha esposa is learning Portuguese, too – from a local Brazilian.  We visited Lisbon and the Azores and spoke a bit of limited but actual Portuguese, and bought books in Portuguese at Europe’s oldest continually operating bookstore.  Of course, what I really want is to be able to do is read Portuguese.  When will I ever need to speak it, really?

I also want greater understanding of the lyrics of great Brazilian songwriters like Gilberto Gil and Tom Zé.  Just this year, at the age of 85, Zé released a superb album that is actually about Brazilian Portuguese, Lingua Brasilieira, or Brazilian Tongue.  My resentment of Bob Dylan’s Nobel is that it was not shared with Gilberto Gil.  I have digressed.

My first book in Portuguese was the tiny As Fadas Verdes (The Green Fairies) by Matilde Rosa Araujo, a book of children’s poems, appropriate for third graders, which I know because it says so on the cover.  I advanced quickly, to Contos e Ledas de Portugal e do Mundo (Tales and Legends of Portugal and the World), “recommended for the 5th year,” and O Pássaro da Cabeça (The Bird of the Head) by Manuel António Pina, “required for the 5th year.”  The tales were a mix of the familiar (Grimm) and the new, which did not hurt; nor did the fact that Pina’s children’s poems were quite good.  I was just starting, and I was reading literature.

You can see the stamp on the covers: “Ler+, Plano Nacional de Leitura.”  These are assigned books, part of the “national reading plan” in a country that had one of the lowest literacy rates in Europe not so long ago (fifty years ago in not so long).  I want to emphasize – this is something I learned studying French – that if the goal of language study is to read literature, it is helpful to get a sense of the reading level of various books, and the easy way to do that is to see what is assigned in school.  Push yourself, but not to the point of frustration.

It will be a long time before I can read, in Portuguese, a novel by José Saramago or a book of stories by Miguel Rosa, but in the last eight months I have read stories by Eça de Queiroz, Alexandre Herculano, and Machado de Assis, and poems – entire books of poems – by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Sophiade Mello Breyner Andresen, Eugénio de Andrade, Antero de Quental, and Fernando Pessoa, in the guise of Alberto Caeiro, the shepherd poet.  The anthology Primeiro Livro de Poesia (First Book of Poetry) assembled by Andresen, a book of poems from throughout the Portuguese world and  not really for children but suitable for children, was expansively useful:

I have never read anything else by writers from Timor or São Tomé and Príncipe.  Note the “Ler+” mark on the book, and the separate stamp celebrating Andresen’s centenary.

Since I am reading literature, and poems, the vocabulary I am learning is not always so useful.  Dawn, dusk, sword, fairy, angel, dew.  Lots of horsey words; lots of parts of castles, lots of seashore vocabulary.  A great surprise, since the idea was to read Portuguese, is that because of the recent appearance of Angolan immigrants in Portland I have, in real life, been speaking Portuguese: “Thank you for waiting,” Please have a seat,” and so on.  How helpful to have even a little bit of Portuguese.  What luck.  Italian would have been useless.

My “Currently Reading” box does not have anything in Portuguese now because I am not reading but studying grammar, which will last exactly as long as I can stand it.  Then back to the pleasures of Machado de Assis, or perhaps a 19th century poet.  A great disadvantage of studying Portuguese, compared to French, is that the availability of texts, whether electronic or physical, is much spottier in the United States.  And Portuguese has nothing like Georges Simenon, who wrote a huge number of engaging books with an easy reading level.  How many American readers kept up their college French with the help of Simenon?

What I am trying to say is that the experiment has been a success, and I recommend it to anyone who has the time and concentration.  Take a class, then start reading.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Helen by Euripides - What is god, what is not god, what is between man and god, who shall say?

Helen (412 BCE) is Euripides’s romantic comedy about the survival of middle-aged love.  We know it was performed with the lost Andromeda, a romantic comedy about young love, our culture’s favorite subject but something the Greeks did not care about at all.  Why did Euripides write such things under the preposterous guise of “tragedy”?

In his last decade, Euripides was making a broad, complex critique of Athenian and Greek culture, alongside a more specific protest against the imperial war with Sparta.  Helen was performed soon after the destruction of the Sicilian expedition, the catastrophe that provides the astounding climax of The Peloponnesian War of Thucydides.  I think of it as the climax, since it is all downhill for Athens from there.  Euripides responds to this disastrous news by staging light, witty love stories.

He had, based on the surviving plays, two structures available.  One is cynical, violent, and perhaps nihilistic: Herakles, The Trojan Women, Elektra.  The other is full of fairy tale devices and happy endings: Iphigenia at Tauris, Ion, Helen.  We will see more examples of both types.  Both are openly revisionist: maybe the story went a little differently than we usually tell it.

For example, maybe Helen was innocent and never ran off with Paris, but was carried way to Egypt while a savage war was fought over “a Helen-image” that was “dispatched… to Ilium so men might die in hate and blood.”  I am quoting from Electra – from the end of my previous post – and I still find it curious that Euripides previewed Helen in Electra.  Euripides did not invent this revisionist story of Helen’s innocence, by the way.  It is almost as old as Homer.

So, happy endings, for Helen, for Iphigenia, but not for the thousands slaughtered on the battlefield, not for Clytemnestra.  Her reason for murdering her husband was a fake.  The entire reason for the Trojan War was a fake.  The background of the “happy endings” are violent, spiraling catastrophes cause by cabals of capricious, or insane, or evil gods.  The romances are nearly as nihilistic as the violent plays.

I have been puzzling over this bit sung by the chorus, which comes just after a direct statement about the human costs of the Trojan War, surely standing in for the Peloponnesian War.  Euripides is not afraid to be direct at this point, but he moves into a more abstract idea:

What is god, what is not god, what is between man

and god, who shall say?  Say he has found

the remote way to the absolute,

that he has seen god, and come

back to us, and returned there, and come

back again, reason’s feet leaping

The void?  Who can hope for such fortune?  (237, tr. Lattimore)

Having said all this, I think Helen, on its own, is a marvelous little thing.  Since it is almost identical to Iphigenia in Tauris – discovery and reunion, a Greek-hating barbarian king, a trick allowing escape – I wonder if the that is in fact the third play in the trilogy. Perhaps Andromeda also had the same structure.  My sense is that Euripides was perverse – postmodernist – enough to present three almost identical plays.

For an illustration, I chose a crater owned by the Louvre that depicts Menelaus encountering Helen, but in the traditional story, after the sack of Troy, so in our sense it is Menelaus encountering the false Helen, which perhaps explains the presence of the cute little Eros flying above them.  This piece is famous enough that the artist is now “the Menelaus painter.”

Our next play is Lysistrata by Aristophanes, a landmark, a must-read if there were such a thing  We have read anti-war Aristophanes before, but nothing like this.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Electra by Euripides - Thus it is always told

A screwball, the Electra of Euripides (c. 413 BCE), but at this point his plays are all screwballs.  Electra is perhaps more subtly screwy.  It is not just his "version" of the story we already know from Aeschylus and Sophocles, but an attack on the story.

Many critics have wondered if it is a pure parody.  Some of it is a parody, most famously the mockery of the recognition scene in Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers, which Euripides dismantles piece by piece.  “Besides, how could a lock of his hair match with mine?” (30, tr. Emily Townsend Vermeule) and so on, the rationalist side of Euripides making fun of the classics. 

The removal of the setting from the palace and tomb of Agamemnon to a rustic farm cottage is itself a deflation of the story.  But the subtle changes are in the characters, and the approach to the central problem of the play, by which I mean that Electra and Orestes reveal themselves as awful, and their desire for revenge more personal, more pathological, than divine.  Meanwhile neither Clytemnestra or even Aegisthus look so bad.

The murder of Aegisthus is a sick farce.  Why is he out in the country?

He happened to be walking in the water-meadow,

Scything young green shoots of myrtle for his hair.  (44)

I love that.  Hippie Aegisthus is a welcoming host, and his reward is to be stabbed in the back, with a knife that he himself gave to Orestes.  Clytemnestra is lured to the countryside to be killed by telling her that she is finally a grandma.  Even for Greek plays, these are cruel, odd killings.  Euripides is revising, perhaps undermining, the famous old stories.  Maybe he did not think he went far enough in this one, since he returns to the story in Orestes, a nihilistic masterpiece.

I will note one of the curious songs of the chorus (of peasants, also curious).  Just after Orestes and Electra are reunited, the chorus sings about, surprisingly, an episode in the terrible life of Thyestes, the great-uncle of Orestes and Electra, who wins the throne of Argos with a trick involving a magic golden lamb that results in Zeus reversing the sun’s course in protest.  As they finish the story:

Thus it is always told.

I am won only to light belief

that the sun would swerve or change his gold

chamber of fire, moved in pain

at sorrow and sin in the mortal world

       To judge or punish man.  (42)

Not disbelief, but “light belief.”  Euripides is working towards something.

I chose an image of an 18th century actress playing the role of Electra, not in a Greek play, I assume, but perhaps Crebillon’s 1708 Electre.  The print is from a 1772 book owned by the British Museum.  This is not the Electra of Euripides – all that hair, all that fabric, where his Electra has a shaved head and wears rags.

Unusually, we get a preview of next week’s play embedded in this week’s play.

CASTOR:     She never went to Troy.

Zeus fashioned and dispatched a Helen-image there

to Ilium so men might die in hate and blood.  (62-3)

What?  What?  Next week: the Helen of Euripides.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Ion by Euripides and H.D. - but why have you hidden this?

Ion by Euripides, one of the plays that survived by chance.  Among Euripides’s “romances” I think of it as the most Shakespearian, the purest fairy tale.  A foundling, a prophecy, a mistaken identity where first the mother tries to murder her son and then the son his mother, and finally a classic recognition scene:

KREOUSA:  there’s a blanket,

                    my own embroidery ---  (113)

That kind of fairy tale, the healing and reconciliation type.

KREOUSA:  I had thought you lost,

                     long ago,

                     with the ghosts

                      in death --- (115)

Euripides is reaching back to one of the old stories here – Ion, the foundling, is the reasons some Greeks are Ionian.  His grandfather was literally born from the earth, although since this is mythology the earth is Gaia, a goddess.  Euripides is working with one of the foundational stories of Athens.  What is he doing with it?

I note that Ion is the only surviving play set at the Delphic shrine of Apollo, curious given how important Delphic oracles are in so many other stories.  Euripides seems to be critiquing the oracles. Well, “critique,” he thinks they’re nonsense.  Even in the fairy tale context, they are simply arbitrary.  Pythia here is the Pythian priestess, at the time of performance the most important religious figure in Greece.  It is a bit like having the Pope as a character.

PYTHIA: I reveal things, long secret:

ION:       but why have you hidden this?

PYTHIA: it was the god’s wish:

Yes, yes, yes, but why was it the god’s wish?  We’re never going to get an answer to that.  Since Apollo is the father of Ion, the god who abandoned (and later rescued) his child from his brief affair with Queen Kreusa, I cannot help think about his more human motives.  Euripides is thinking about them.

The translator of the lines I have quoted is the poet H.D., a deep Classicist and an unusual Modernist.  Her translation is certainly an H.D. poem.

The broken, exclamatory or evocative vers-libre which I have chosen to translate the two-line dialogue, throughout the play, is the exact antithesis of the original.  Though concentrating and translating sometimes, ten words, with two, I have endeavoured, in no way, to depart from the meaning.  (32)

H.D.’s Ion is a book that leads, and not so gently, its readers to her interpretation of the poem.  I will include a photo of the above page.  It is not an introduction or foreword; the commentary is embedded in the paly:

I love this and think H.D.’s Ion is gorgeous, but I can imagine the reader who begs H.D. to get out of the way of Euripides.

The poetry rises clean cut to-day, as it did at the time of its writing.  And to-day, for the abstract welded with human implication, is in its way, ultra-modern.  (30)

Well, yes, it is now, but there are other ways to translate, I know.

The play’s chorus is superb, but I will mention another example of the play’s “[i]ndestructible beauty” (H.D. commenting again, p. 30).  One of Ion’s jobs as temple attendant is to keep the birds out of the gardens – but he loves birds!  A bird theme runs through the play, even, in a fairy tale, moment, turning the plot at one point.  Here is a bit of Ion’s Song of the Birds, warning them to stay away so he does not have to shoot them:

for this,

O, this, I would not kill,

your song

that tells to men,

God’s will.  (21)

The birds are the authentic oracles.  The human ones are trouble-makers.

I have included a photo of an actual Pythian tripod and cauldron, which can be seen at the Archeological Museum of Delphi.

Next week: Electra.  Didn’t we just read this?  No, that was Sophocles; this is the Electra of Euripides.  It will be different.