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Posts Tagged ‘Aristophanes

“I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.”*…

Joy Walker: Three Boxes Three Ways, 2009

Nonbeing belongs to that category of concepts that seem self-evident and self-explanatory, but as FT explains, it has perplexed philosophers for ages…

Bertrand Russell’s 1951 obituary for Ludwig Wittgenstein is only a few paragraphs long, and the second consists largely of a single pointed anecdote:

Quite at first I was in doubt as to whether he was a man of genius or a crank…. He maintained, for example, at one time that all existential propositions are meaningless. This was in a lecture room, and I invited him to consider the proposition: “There is no hippopotamus in this room at present.” When he refused to believe this, I looked under all the desks without finding one; but he remained unconvinced.

The exchange is typical of the two philosophers’ relationship: Russell’s proper British demeanor was frequently ruffled by the Austrian’s dry humor. But it also illustrates two general approaches to philosophy: one that takes pleasure in complexities, absurdities, and ironies, and one that takes pleasure in resolving them. Just as Wittgenstein surely realized that there was no hippopotamus in the room, Russell surely realized that Wittgenstein’s objection could not be dispelled empirically by looking under each desk. At stake was not a fact of perception but the epistemological status of negation—the philosophical meaning and value of assertions about nothing.

Nothing, or nonbeing, belongs to that category of concepts—like being, space, and consciousness—that seem self-evident and self-explanatory to most people most of the time, but that for philosophy have been objects of deepest perplexity and millennia-long dispute. It’s a little like breathing, which happens automatically until we stop to think about it. To most of us, Russell’s statement “There is no hippopotamus in this room” is both easily understood and easily verified. We think we know what it means, and most of us would only need a quick look around to affirm or deny the proposition.

But here our troubles begin. If you look around the room and don’t see a hippopotamus, presumably you do still see something: some kind of perception or sensory data is reaching your consciousness, which allows you to make a judgment. What is it that you do see when you see a hippopotamus not being there? Are you perceiving a nonbeing, seeing a particular thing whose nature is absence, or are you not perceiving any being, seeing no “thing” at all? When you see a hippopotamus not being there, are you also seeing a whale and a lion and a zebra not being there? Is every room full of all the things that aren’t in it?

From an evolutionary perspective, one predator not being there is just as good as any other predator not being there, but dialectics and logic are a little more particular. If every possible animal is not there at the same time, what specific truth-value can the assertion “There is no hippopotamus in this room” possibly have? Hence Wittgenstein’s insistence, facetious or not, that all existential propositions are meaningless. In this manner the complications and implications of nothing spill into every area of philosophical inquiry, and we quickly come to sympathize with Aristophanes’ brutal satire of philosophers in The Clouds:

Socrates: Have you got hold of anything?

Strepsiades: No, nothing whatever.

Socrates: Nothing at all?

Strepsiades: No, nothing except my tool, which I’ve got in my hand.

Nonbeing, through the ages: “Apropos of Nothing,” from @ft_variations in @nybooks.

* Oscar Wilde

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As we analyze absence, we might send mindful birthday greetings to Mahasi Sayadaw; he was born on this date in 1904. A Burmese Theravada Buddhist monk and meditation master, he had a significant impact on the teaching of vipassanā (insight) meditation in the West and throughout Asia.

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“Comedy too can sometimes discern what is right”*…

What’s old is new again…

When​ Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released ‘WAP’ in August 2020, ‘conservative’ commentators such as Tucker Carlson expressed outrage that the song might corrupt ‘your granddaughters’; Alyssa Rosenberg in the Washington Post celebrated it as an ‘ode to female sexual pleasure’. The video featured the two long-lashed goddesses twerking their way through a gilded McMansion in fabulous candy-coloured outfits, like bethonged Disney princesses. The lyrics create a cluster of ambiguities: are the speakers supposed to be sex workers struggling to pay their college tuition and running in fear from ‘the cops’, or wealthy A-list celebrities? Or are they, as Black women in a white man’s world, both? Do they really want anyone but each other? Do they own the house through which they strut? The song mocks its listeners and viewers for yearning for these superior beings in their state of limitless desire. At the same time, its sly laughter invites us to feel, for a couple of minutes, part of their glittering, multicoloured world.

The song’s genius lies in its inventiveness: its mastery of rhythm, and its innovative abundance of metaphors for the ‘wet-ass pussy’ of its title. You come for the nasty, but you stay for the poetry. The two artists celebrate the power of their bodies to express desire and joy, but more fundamentally, they celebrate their gushing waterfalls of linguistic ‘flow’. The joke of the title hinges on the fact that language is both literal and metaphorical: one body part is used as a linguistic modifier for another. The most memorable lines contain no words that would be unsuitable for a nursery school sing-along, but provide brilliantly funny images: ‘Swipe your nose like a credit card’, ‘Get a bucket and a mop’, or – climactically – ‘Macaroni in a pot’. It’s wild and down to earth at the same time, and for ever changes the way you think about cooking spaghetti.

Ancient Athenian comedy of the fifth century BCE – mostly known to us through the work of Aristophanes – can be usefully compared to a number of different modern genres. Like traditional TV sitcoms, it featured typical or stereotypical characters, and showcased their ridiculous lust, avarice, stupidity and ambition. Like modern stand-up comedians or late-night TV hosts, comic poets included speeches in their plays in which they railed at the audience about the state of society and their personal grievances. Like Saturday Night Live, comedy in fifth-century Athens included caricatures of people who might well have been in the audience – such as Socrates, Euripides or the politician Cleon. Like The Simpsons or 30 Rock, the dialogue had a high rate of jokes per minute, and catered to multiple different audience sensibilities, including a taste for lavatory humour. As in Broadway musicals or on the Disney Channel, characters in lavish costumes were liable to burst into song and dance at any moment – although, unlike on Hannah Montana, the male characters wore large strap-on phalluses. Old Comedy anticipated modern sci-fi, and shows like The Good Place, in its willingness to carry out fantastical thought experiments (talking frogs, a city of birds, a singing chorus of metaphysically inclined clouds, or, weirdest of all, women with real political power), and considered their social and political repercussions. Like pantomime or Punch and Judy, it included formulaic riffs on falling over, violence and cross-dressing.

But the lush comic hip-hop of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B is one of the most useful modern analogues, because it illustrates the core element of Old Comedy that is most often obscured in contemporary Anglophone translations – the flow. Aristophanes, like the creators of ‘WAP’, was a musician, songwriter, choreographer and poet, and his linguistic effects depend, like theirs, on the artful manipulation of rhythm and sound in words and imagery. The poetic affinity between rap and Old Comedy is explored in Spike Lee’s film Chi-Raq, a hip-hop adaptation of Lysistrata set on the South Side of Chicago…

Aristophanes and rap: “Punishment By Radish,” from Emily Wilson (@EmilyRCWilson), the translator of a wonderful edition of The Odyssey.

* Aristophanes

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As we LOL, we might we might send dramatic birthday greetings to Nathan Field; he was born on this date in 1587. A contemporary and colleague of Shakespeare, Field was– like the Bard– both a dramatist and an actor.

As an author, Field wrote alone (e.g., the comedy A Woman Is a Weathercock), and in collaboration with John Fletcher and Philip Massinger (e.g., the tragicomedy The Knight of Malta). As an actor he ended his career in the Kings Men, working alongside Shakespeare, where he appeared in Shakespeare’s plays and in Ben Jonson‘s Volpone and The Alchemist, among other productions.

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“Punctuation is a deeply conservative club. It hardly ever admits a new member”*…

 

The earliest writing existed at a time when the spoken word was king; texts were created without spaces or punctuation marks.  It infuriated Greek playwright (and librarian) Aristophanes, who began what the Keith Houston calls the “punctuational big bang.”

Aristophanes created a system where people could add dots to lines of text to signify pauses. A dot in the middle (·) signified the shortest pause, called the comma. For an intermediate pause, known as the colon, the dot was at the bottom (.), and the period was the longest pause, represented with a dot at the top of the line.  Aristophanes’s system evolved over the years—the colon got an extra dot, the period dropped to the bottom of the line, and the comma got a curve and dropped to the bottom of the line—but it’s remarkable how much has stuck around…

And it’s remarkable why (spoiler alert, it has to do with the printing press, and the standardization that it brought… though new tech in general and emoticons in particular are shaking things up again).

From the ellipsis to the exclamation point, “The origins of punctuation marks.”

(Word usage continues to evolve as well…)

* Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

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As we come to a full stop, we might send dark, but elegantly-punctuated birthday greetings to Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, or as he’s better known to English readers, Joesph Conrad; he was born on this date in 1857. An early modernist who spoke and wrote in three languages (his native Polish, French, and English), he imported a non-English diction and tragic sense to his work, which included Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, 17 other novels, and dozens of short stories.  A success in his own time, Conrad’s influence grew; he’s been cited as a formative influence on writers including D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Malcolm Lowry, William Golding, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez, J. G. Ballard, John le Carré, V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Hunter S. Thompson, J.M. Coetzee, and Salman Rushdie… and of course, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 3, 2015 at 1:01 am

“I have known uncertainty: a state unknown to the Greeks”*…

 

Octadrachm, reverse: jugate portrait Ptolemy I and Berenice I, Alexandria, 260–240 BCE

The Ptolemies who ruled Egypt for nearly three centuries, from about 320 to 31 BCE, had a difficult dual part to play: that of Hellenistic monarchs, in the mold of Alexander the Great, and, simultaneously, Egyptian pharaohs. The founding father of their line, Ptolemy I Soter (“Savior”), a Macedonian general in Alexander’s army of conquest, secured rule over Egypt amid the confusion following his king’s death, crowned himself monarch in 306 BCE. But he bequeathed to his heirs—the fourteen other Ptolemies who would succeed him, not to mention several Cleopatras—a difficult demographic and geopolitical position. The Ptolemies’ palace complex, staffed by a European elite, stood in Alexandria, one of the world’s original Green Zones, a Greek-style city founded on a strongly fortified isthmus facing the Mediterranean. To the south, nearly cut off by the vast marshes of Lake Mareotis, lived most of their Egyptian subjects. Some scholars have reckoned the country’s ratio of Egyptians to Greco-Macedonians at ten to one…

Find out how the Greeks did it at “When the Greeks Ruled Egypt.” (Spoiler alert:  it involved respect for and tolerance of Egyptian religious and social beliefs.  Genghis Khan operated in a similar fashion; more modern empires, not so much…)

* Jorge Luis Borges

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As we go native, we might spare a thought for Aristophanes; he died on this date in 386 BCE (or so many scholars deduce; the exact date has not been documented).  A poet and dramatist, Aristophanes– whose works are the sole surviving examples of what is known as “Old Comedy”– is widely known as as “the Father of Comedy.”  His eleven surviving plays essentially laid the foundation for satire as we know it, and have a significance that goes beyond this artistic value: Aristophanes acute observations of classical Athens are perhaps as important as historical documents as the writings of Thucydides.  They had impact in their own time, as well.  His powers of ridicule were feared and acknowledged by influential contemporaries; Plato singled out Aristophanes’ play The Clouds as slander that contributed to the trial and subsequent condemning to death of Socrates (although other satirical playwrights had also caricatured the philosopher). His second play, The Babylonians (now lost), was sufficiently scathing to be denounced by the demagogue Cleon as a slander against the Athenian polis.  Aristophanes survived The Peloponnesian War, two oligarchic revolutions, and two democratic restorations– evidence that he was not himself actively involved in politics; rather, an objective “commentator.”  In this, he agreed with Socrates (as “reported” by Plato in The Apology): “he who will fight for the right, if he would live even for a brief space, must have a private station and not a public one.”

Illustration from a bust found near Tusculum (likely altogether imaginary, as Aristophanes was reportedly bald)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 11, 2014 at 1:01 am

The (Modern) Benefits of a Classical Education…

How refreshing it is to see a group of young people who are not only familiar with the work of Aristophanes, but who are also putting its insights to pubic-spirited use!

As we analyze the applicability of Aeschylus, we might offer a great big “Buon Compleanno” to the Italian epic poet Ludovico Ariosto, the author of Orlando Furioso; he was born in Reggio Emilia on this date in 1474.

Natura il fece, e poi roppe la stampa. (Nature made him, and then broke the mould.)

Orlando Furioso, X, 84

Titian’s “Portrait of a Man,” long believed to be Ariosto

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 8, 2009 at 12:01 am

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