The revitalization of the Loeb Classical Library continues apace, at least for some major Greek authors. Alongside Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones's Sophocles (complete), David Kovacs's Euripides (three volumes to date), and William H. Race's Pindar (complete), now arrive the first two volumes of Jeffrey Henderson's Aristophanes.
It is the general aim of these new Loeb editions to print a sound, up-to-date Greek text (with an abbreviated apparatus criticus) on the verso and a clear, plain, literal English rendition on the recto. There are helpful short introductions to the author as a whole and to the separate works, plus running notes. It may sound unsexy, but the enterprise is, in whole and in part, invaluable. These modestly priced volumes can in fact be recommended even to those who cannot read Greek and want to know what the texts said. The new editions are often replacing editions with less than stellar Greek texts and with English at once sodden with Victorian fustian ("High emprise brooketh no coward wight") and inaccurate. The joke had it that, in some of the old Loebs, one had to consult the Greek on the left to make sense of the English on the right. Nous avons change tout cela.
Aristophanes is a special case. The old Loeb Aristophanes, first issued in 1924, was based on the texts and translations of Benjamin Bickley Rogers, an assiduous scholar and a deft comic versifier. (Five of his translations from Aristophanes composed the 1955 Doubleday-Anchor paperback that introduced many to the playwright.) The copy on the back of that book boasted of Roger's "lyric powers, which range from the pure song of Shelley to the witty patter of W. S. Gilbert."
To illustrate what Rogers could do, it is useful to cite a brief scene, the awe-inducing entrance of the chorus of Clouds in Clouds, followed by Socrates's devout welcome and by the newly enrolled pupil Strepsiades's terror:
CHORUS: Clouds of all hue, Rise we aloft with our garments of dew. Come from old Ocean's unchangeable bed, Come, till the mountain's green summits we tread, Come to the peaks with their landscapes untold, Gaze on the Earth with her harvests of gold, Gaze on the rivers in majesty streaming, Gaze on the lordly, invincible Sea, Come, for the Eye of the Ether is beaming, Come, for all Nature is flashing and free. Let us shake off this close-clinging dew From our members eternally new, And sail upwards the wide world to view. Come Away! Come Away! SOCRATES: O Goddesses mine, great Clouds and divine, ye have heeded and answered my prayer. Heard ye their sound, and thunder around, as it thrilled through the tremulous air? STREPSIADES: Yes, by Zeus, and I shake and I'm all of a quake, and I fear I must sound a reply. Their thunders have made my soul so afraid, and those terrible voices so nigh: So if lawful or not, I must run to a pot, by Zeus, if I stop I shall die.
The Shelleyan rhapsody is here followed by Gilbertian patter in anapestic heptameters that rhyme internally and terminally. Whatever he missed, Rogers captured a genuinely Aristophanic lilt, brio, wit, and joy. There have been far worse introductions to Aristophanes--namely, most of the more or less smutty prose translations that have come along since.
But Rogers will no longer do. Aristophanes was more than a comic Edwardian with a lyric streak. He was dirty, he was political, and he had perhaps the most playful imagination of any writer who ever lived.
First, the dirty Aristophanes, the writer who revelled in, who was capable of taking ten lines to build up to, a dopey joke about excretion or buggery. The editor Jeffrey Henderson is the man to give us this side of the dramatist (not that he doesn't do, superbly, much more). He is the author of The Maculate Muse: Obscene Language in Attic Comedy (Yale 1975; second edition, Oxford 1991), a delightful tome that lists and explicates the obsessively frank language of Old Comedy under headings like "Male Organs-Proper, Euphemistic, Agriculture, Metaphor.... Female Organs--Agriculture, Gates, Rings and Circles, Holes, Sea Animals, Cookery, Food, Birds." It was 1975 and it was time for the sexual revolution, for the new parrhesia, to air out Aristophanes, and Professor Henderson did the job with vigor. His Loeb Aristophanes is as frank as one would expect. Here is his version of the same lines from Clouds:
CHORUS: Clouds everlasting, let us arise, revealing our dewy bright form, from deep roaring father Ocean onto high mountain peaks with tresses of trees, whence to behold heights of distant vantage, and holy earth whose crops we water, and divine rivers' rushing, and the sea crashing with deep thunder. For heaven's tireless eye is ablaze with gleaming rays. So let us shake off the rainy haze from our deathless shape and survey the land, with telescopic eye. SOCRATES: Most stately Clouds, you have clearly heard my summons. (to Strepsiades) Did you mark their voice and, in concert, the bellowing thunder that prompts holy reverence? STEPSIADES: I do revere you, illustrious ones, and I'm ready to answer those thunderclaps with a fart; that's how much I fear and tremble at them. And right now, if it's sanctioned, and even if it isn't, I need to shit!
Rogers and Henderson display, perhaps, different kinds of fidelity to the spirit of Aristophanes, but there can be no question which is the more accurate. In the lyric strophe, "clouds everlasting" is what the Greek says, not "clouds of all hue"; "rainy haze" and "telescopic eye" are also more literal renderings. In the dialogue, the excretory references are explicit. But here too, in this very explicitness, something is lost. Call it the sense of the surprising, the naughty, the unexpected that clings to the Greek (in Aristophanes, the obscene and the scataological often occur as bathetic closing words or phrases in lines that have until then been aping the solemn diction of tragedy). In today's American English, Henderson's monosyllables are merely plumped down with an effect of numb banality. Indecorousness depends on decorum, and the collapse of decorum in today's language (and culture) means that indecorousness is without force or savor. But these developments are not Henderson's fault; he is right to go for the full verbal monty and he could, in fact, have skipped an apology for the plays' political incorrectness. "Old Comedy" he writes, "may strike some readers as being shockingly crude, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or the like. But we should bear in mind ..." blah blah blah. Between coarseness and the new book-burning, let us by all means choose coarseness.
Aristophanes is political and topical. In his general preface Henderson swallows hard and admits that
The wealthy as a class are never criticised, whereas the poor often are.... All of his political targets were on what may be called the left.... This bias cannot be satisfactorily explained as merely an automatic response to the political predominance of the left during Aristophanes' career, on the theory that political comedy tends to attack the powers that be whatever their political stripe, for these reasons: Aristophanes also mentions some political figures favorably, all of them opponents of leftists; he not only ridicules leftist policies but also champions right-wing policies on their merits; and during periods when the leftists were in eclipse, he continues to attack them and to spare the currently ascendant rightists.
These are truths scholars have often shirked facing. But what complicates the translating and reading of Aristophanes is not his overall ideology but the plethora of references to political cowards, official bribetakers, demagogic buggerees, and so on. The plays are thickly implicated in the minutiae of Athenian public and private life, mostly during the tense years of the Peloponnesian War. This pervasive topicality--plus an equally pervasive addiction to puns--is what makes Aristophanes resistant to translation and impossible to revive. "This boy can't learn any mode but the Quid Pro Quorian," writes Henderson in an attempt to render, in Knights, the word dorodokisti, which is a portmanteau pun on "Dorian" (a musical mode) and "bribe-taking." Can we really hear "Gregorian" behind Henderson's "Quid Pro Quorian" or is it wasted donnish cleverness? His version of another pun in Knights--"Athene Tritogenes tritogenated it"--needs, in order to be understood, both a footnote and a look across the page at the Greek.
Except for the overrated Lysistrata, Aristophanes is seldom revived off campuses because of this topicality. (The generic tales of long-lost heiresses and wily slaves that dominate the subsequent New Comedy --of, for example, Menander--have proved wholly comprehensible and infinitely adaptable.) A recurrent temptation is to adapt an Aristophanic text to contemporary circumstances, as in a recent production of Lysistrata that featured New York's Mayor Giuliani as the heavy. Such ideas are always mistaken.
The five plays, the earliest surviving, in these two volumes were written in the years 425-421 B.C., grim years in the middle of the seesawing war. In Acharnians, a simple old rustic called Dicaeopolis ("Just-city") tires of his war-caused suffering and makes a separate peace. In a key scene that depends on a kind of dramaturgical pun or metonymy, Dicaeopolis drinks three peace agreements, "spondai" meaning both "libation" and "treaty." This characteristic trope of Aristophanes shows his taste for linguistic play, his penchant for making the abstract concrete and the concrete abstract. He may have been a political conservative, but he was, imaginatively, a child of the fifth-century Sophistic Enlightenment. He rejected the moral relativism of the Sophists; indeed, his fervent patriotism and his filial reverence for the old generation that won Marathon shine through everywhere. But his sensibility was drawn to the Sophistic sense of language as a site of inversion, play and surprise. He had Lewis Carroll's view of language as a field of nonsense, joined to Dickens's feel for society, Rabelais's bawdiness, and Ben Jonson's knack for comic construction. The writer he reminds me most of is the Joyce of Ulysses; Joyce's talky, smelly, metamorphic Dublin is sister to Aristophanes's Athens.
Knights is, as Henderson says, a sort of allegory in which Demos (i.e., the People), a deluded geezer, is being bamboozled by a scheming slave (a character based closely and clearly on Cleon, the corrupt, vain, belligerent novus homo who succeeded Pericles in power in Athens and was the playwright's pet hate). An even more outrageous flatterer succeeds this Cleon-type in the favor of Demos but-- surprise! -- proves to be a true "lover" (erastes) of Demos and transforms the old man back into the youth he was at the time of the Persian Wars in 490-480: "Here he is for all to see, wearing a golden cricket, resplendent in his old-time costume, smelling not of ballot shells but peace accords."
Peace (421) again finds a rustic, this time a vintner, sick of war. He decides to excavate peace in the form of a statue, after first flying to heaven on a Pegasus-parodying dung-beetle to complain to Zeus about the war.
These are plays directly concerned with the war, seen always as dependent on anti-Spartan fervor whipped up by interested demagogues. Wasps (422) attacks another institution of the out-of-control democracy: the law courts staffed by huge paid popular juries. A loving son called, by Henderson, Loathecleon (could I suggest Cleophobe?) tries to keep his jury-addicted father, called Lovecleon (Cleophile?) at home by arranging for the old man to put the family dog on trial for stealing cheese. Again, the old generation that won Marathon and created Athenian greatness has been corrupted by demagoguery and government handouts (here, jury pay).
Clouds (423, but the version we have is an incomplete revision dating from some four to seven years later) takes on the new education, presented as a hotbed of pseudo-science, public rhetoric (both in the assembly and in court), lewdness, and atheism. Once again a grumpy geezer takes matters (here, bankruptcy at the hands of his spendthrift son) into his own hands; he decides to enrol in the Thinkery run by arch-Sophist Socrates in order to learn how to outargue his creditors in court. Much ink has been spilled--from Plato on--worrying whether or to what degree the portrait of Socrates as bombastic, cynical, atheistic, and (above all) greedy had any justification. Henderson's verdict is blandly evasive: "In the absence of unbiased information about Socrates, however, we must accept Clouds as a valid expression of what public opinion believed, or might be expected to believe, about him in the Athens of 423-c. 4-16." True or not, the play's Socrates remains a definitive and hilarious picture of the intellectual as fraud. Aristophanes's metamorphically vivifying imagination is at its most intense here; the central agon (debate) pits Better Argument, praiser of the old ways and days and virtues, against Worse Argument, a glib & constructor of traditional mores. Henderson's text in Clouds stays close to that of Dover's 1968 edition; he does, however, catch a double entendre missed by Dover: "compass" in the sense of a leg-spreading "passive homosexual." Clouds came in third and last in the play-judging in 423, perhaps because Socrates's cunning and atheism triumphed in the story and the audience was shocked; the revision has Socrates's Thinkery burned to the ground by a pious Strepsiades. Aristophanes expresses his anger at the audience in the revised parabasis, or direct address to the audience, but he abandoned the attempt to rewrite the play. These were dangerous waters, even for a merry playwright.
Henderson's sound texts and plain translations give us exactly the Aristophanes we need: a reliable prose waiting to be quickened into poetic life by the reader's imagination, laughter, and amazement.
Donald Lyons is the theater critic of the New York Post and the author of Independent Visions (Ballantine).
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 1999|
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