Friday, December 19, 2008

Aimless Reading: The A's, Part 18 (Hellenic Interlude 1)

Aristophanes
The Complete Plays


This book surely dates to my undergraduate days at Fordham. A lot of my classical reading came, oddly enough, from taking courses in political philosophy with an extraordinarily conservative woman, whose name, Mary something, is on the tip of my tongue. Despite her politics, she was an excellent undergraduate teacher, and her fluency in Greek made her an extremely useful resource for classical reading.

Anyhow, her courses were unique in that we would compare say, the values of a republican society with those of a capitalist one by reading Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice. In the case of Aristophanes, we read Lysistrata as a means to enter into a conversation about Feminism, which she absolutely despised. Most of the contemporary readings in feminism she presented were the most radical, like Shulamith Firestone, and thus the easiest to poke holes in or make fun of. Nonetheless, she pointed us in the direction of some really interesting contemporary reading, even if the only way to think about it objectively was outside classroom discussions.

I read all of the plays in here at some point. I think 'Clouds' is a hilarious satire of the "ivory tower." Here's a snippet:

The machine swings in SOCRATES in a basket.

STREPSIADES
Socrates! my little Socrates!

SOCRATES loftily
Mortal, what do you want with me?

STREPSIADES
First, what are you doing up there? Tell me, I beseech you.

SOCRATES POMPOUSLY
I am traversing the air and contemplating the sun.

STREPSIADES
Thus it's not on the solid ground, but from the height of this basket, that you slight the gods, if indeed....

SOCRATES
I have to suspend my brain and mingle the subtle essence of my mind with this air, which is of the like nature, in order clearly to penetrate the things of heaven. I should have discovered nothing, had I remained on the ground to consider from below the things that are above; for the earth by its force attracts the sap of the mind to itself. It's just the same with the watercress.

STREPSIADES
What? Does the mind attract the sap of the watercress? Ah! my dear little Socrates, come down to me! I have come to ask you for lessons.

SOCRATES descending
And for what lessons?

STREPSIADES
I want to learn how to speak. I have borrowed money, and my merciless creditors do not leave me a moment's peace; all my goods are at stake.

SOCRATES
And how was it you did not see that you were getting so much into debt?

STREPSIADES
My ruin has been the madness for horses, a most rapacious evil; but teach me one of your two methods of reasoning, the one whose object is not to repay anything, and, may the gods bear witness, that I am ready to pay any fee you may name.

SOCRATES
By which gods will you swear? To begin with, the gods are not a coin current with us.

STREPSIADES
But what do you swear by then? By the iron money of Byzantium?

SOCRATES
Do you really wish to know the truth of celestial matters?

STREPSIADES
Why, yes, if it's possible.

SOCRATES
....and to converse with the clouds, who are our genii?

STREPSIADES
Without a doubt.

SOCRATES
Then be seated on this sacred couch.

STREPSIADES sitting down
I am seated.

SOCRATES
Now take this chaplet.

STREPSIADES
Why a chaplet? Alas! Socrates, would you sacrifice me, like Athamas?

SOCRATES
No, these are the rites of initiation.

STREPSIADES
And what is it I am to gain?

SOCRATES
You will become a thorough rattle-pate, a hardened old stager, the fine flour of the talkers....But come, keep quiet.

STREPSIADES
By Zeus! That's no lie! Soon I shall be nothing but wheat-flour, if you powder me in that fashion.

SOCRATES
Silence, old man, give heed to the prayers.

In an hierophantic tone

Oh! most mighty king, the boundless air, that keepest the earth suspended in space, thou bright Aether and ye venerable goddesses, the Clouds, who carry in your loins the thunder and the lightning, arise, ye sovereign powers and manifest yourselves in the celestial spheres to the eyes of your sage.

STREPSIADES
Not yet! Wait a bit, till I fold my mantle double, so as not to get wet. And to think that I did not even bring my travelling cap! What a misfortune!

SOCRATES ignoring this

Come, oh! Clouds, whom I adore, come and show yourselves to this man, whether you be resting on the sacred summits of Olympus, crowned with hoar-frost, or tarrying in the gardens of Ocean, your father, forming sacred choruses with the Nymphs; whether you be gathering the waves of the Nile in golden vases or dwelling in the Maeotic marsh or on the snowy rocks of Mimas, hearken to my prayer and accept my offering. May these sacrifices be pleasing to you.

Amidst rumblings of thunder the CHORUS OF CLOUDS appears.

CHORUS singing


Eternal Clouds, let us appear; let us arise from the roaring depths of Ocean, our father; let us fly towards the lofty mountains, spread our damp wings over their forest-laden summits, whence we will dominate the distant valleys, the harvest fed by the sacred earth, the murmur of the divine streams and the resounding waves of the sea, which the unwearying orb lights up with its glittering beams. But let us shake off the rainy fogs, which hide our immortal beauty and sweep the earth from afar with our gaze.

SOCRATES
Oh, venerated goddesses, yes, you are answering my call!

To STREPSIADES.

Did you hear their voices mingling with the awful growling of the thunder?

STREPSIADES

Oh! adorable Clouds, I revere you and I too am going to let off my thunder, so greatly has your own affrighted me.

He farts.

Faith! whether permitted or not, I must, I must crap!

SOCRATES

No scoffing; do not copy those damned comic poets.

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