Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Aristophanes on frustration

rested against him, shook away a tear,
and pressed his hand in both her own, to say:
"Oh, my wild one, your bravery will be
your own undoing! No pity for our child,
poor little one, or me in my sad lot--
soon to be deprived of you! soon, soon
Akhaians as one man will set upon you
[...] Be merciful! Stay here upon the tower!
Do not bereave your child and widow me!"

Great Hector in his shimmering helmet answered:
"[...] Go home, attend to your own handiwork
at loom and spindle, and command the maids
to busy themsemselves, too. As for the war,
that is for men" 

Iliad, Book VI (Fitzgerald translation)

LYSISTRATA: Always till now we have controlled our feelings and uncomplainingly endured whatever you men did--and in any case you wouldn't let us say a word. But don't think we approved! We knew everything you were up to. Many a time we'd hear at home about some major political blunder of yours, and then when you came home we'd be inwardly in great distress but we'd have to put on a smile and ask you: 'In the Assembly today, what did you decide to inscribe on the stone underneath the Peace Treaty?' And what did my husband alsays say? 'Shut up and mind your own business!' And I did. [...] But sure enough, next thing we knew you'd take an even sillier decision, and then we might go so far as to ask, 'Husband, why are you men persisting with this stupid policy?' Whereupon he'd glare at me and say 'Back to your spinning, woman, or you'll have a headache for a month. As for the war, that is for men!

Lysistrata (starting at 508), Aristophanes (2002 Sommerstein revised translation, Penguin Classics edition)

Aristophanes has Lysistrata's husband quote Hector, giving one statement of the play's theme. Everyone knows the premise of "Lysistrata": the women of Greece band together to withhold sex from the men until they negotiate a peace and end the Peloponnesian War. The fighting men in the play, running around with painful unrelieved erections, entreat the women to forgo the boycott, but the women hold out and are victorious. War as male activity with sexual overtones. I reread a lot of Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" this morning while I thought about Aristophanes' play. Shakespeare probably never read Aristophanes. 

In another scene in "Lysistrata," the leader of the male chorus tells the leader of the Athenian delegation to the women that he'd better cover up his erection, because "You wouldn't want your sacred emblems mutilated, would you?" This is a reference to events in 415 BCE, shortly before the disastrous expedition to Sicily: images of Hermes in Athens (consisting of a square pillar with a carved head and an erect phallus) were defaced, or rather, de-phallused, in an antiwar statement of some kind.

Aristophanes wrote possibly his most organized and focused play with "Lysistrata," which is surprisingly unified and has a clear, unbroken through-action. The jokes are funny, the characters are mostly well drawn, and it's clear that the playwright placed a high value on his central message, not letting himself stray from it for long. In this sense, it's also one of Aristophanes' most simple plays, at least in terms of structure. It's very funny (even to me, who am not so much a fan of Aristophanes), but the humor is a cover for the deep pessimism of the play. Yes, the Athenian and the Spartan warriors agree to terms laid down by their more rational wives, mothers, and daughters. Yes, there is peace. Except that Aristophanes doesn't even believe in his fictional peace. The chorus, near the end of the play, sings a song about how beautiful the future will be, how there will be plenty of everything for everyone, except that THERE WON'T, that all their promises will be broken, and the world is still the same pile of stinking khezein that it always was:

Embroidered horsecloths--magnificent robes--
Gold jewellery--whatever you need,
If your daughter's been given a basket to bear,
[...] Take freely whatever you seek.
You should look very closely to see what there is,
Explore every cranny with care,
For unless you have got sharper eyesight than me,
You'll find there ain't anything there!
[...]Let anyone who feels a lack
Of food, come round with bag or sack:
I've told my Manes he must be
Prepared to give you wheat for free.
One thing I should have said before--
You'd better not come near the door.
I hereby give you notice to
Beware the dog--she'll go for you!

Note that the dog is a she. The play ends with a hymn to Athena, apparently a traditional hymn that the audience would've known and not something that Aristophanes wrote himself. The playwright does a lot of work to put the idea into the audience's head that the gods--particularly Athena, the patroness of Athens--want the war to end. But nobody is listening to Athena, nobody is going to overcome the male pride that keeps the war going, and "Lysistrata" is a fantasy of a peace that nobody believes in. The image that came to me as I thought about Aristophanes writing this play was the captain of a sinking ship making jokes about the Titanic.

As noted above, I read Alan Sommerstein's 2002 revision of his 1972 translation, in the Penguin Classics edition. Lots of good introductory matter, lots of good notes, highly recommended. I found Sommerstein's edition lying on the sidewalk when I was walking to catch a bus, two weeks ago. What a coincidence.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Much cooler


The succession of hot days these last two months has done nothing good for my ability to concentrate. It's difficult to sleep, so atop the symptoms of heat exhaustion are the signs of sleep deprivation. I'm whinging, is what I'm doing, but also making note of the reasons why I've not been active on line much this summer. Summer is trying to kill me, is why. I shake my fist at Summer.

On a relatively cool day earlier this week, I did manage to do a little writing. Not for this blog, but instead the beginning of a new short story to be fitted into my growing novel-in-stories Islands and Other Places, which novel will be submitted to a plucky indie publisher in a month or so. I have notes for another story for this book, a story called "Baptists Under Water" that is not about Baptists under water, but I find myself not writing that story, despite the fairly detailed notes I've made. No, my Summer-addled brain has decided to write something else, for which I have no notes, no plan, no idea where the story goes, what happens, or why. What I have are two scribbled pages, which start like this:

Gregory is not surprised to hear a knock at the door. He's been expecting it, expecting the police, expecting the old woman in the house next door to report the shouting, the obscenities, the breaking windows and the fires. What does surprise him is that the policeman is not in uniform, is driving an older unmarked sedan, and has not come to investigate a domestic disturbance. The policeman has come, he says, to investigate a murder.

Gregory doesn't know anything about any murder, he says. Did someone get killed?

Two people got killed, the policeman says.

The policeman is tall, angular, and aloof. He wears dark glasses and a gray cowboy hat. Deep creases run down his cheeks, as if he is carved from the trunk of an old dead willow. The policeman nods in the direction of the wooden swing that hangs from chains at the western end of the porch.

Mind if we sit down, he asks.

Sure, Gregory says. He steps out onto the porch, closing the door behind him. Gregory is barefoot, in dirty jeans and a dirty black t-shirt with a faded Led Zeppelin logo across the chest. Gregory has short hair that hasn't been washed in a week, and he needs a shave.

You mind if I smoke, he says.

It's your house, the policeman says, taking a small notebook and a pen from the inside pocket of his canvas jacket. A pistol in a shoulder holster is momentarily visible and Gregory shivers. He does not like guns. He is afraid of police. When he was younger, in the Sixties, he'd had long hair and a beard--his Jesus Christ phase, as he thought of it--and police frequently stopped him after dark to pat him down, digging through his pockets looking for drugs. Gregory rarely used any kind of drug. He doesn't even like aspirin.

The policeman sits on the porch swing. It creaks as he settles into place.

And on like that for a few more paragraphs. I don't, as I say, know what happens next, but by now I've written enough short stories that I can tell that this story will work itself out as I go along. I have (so I tell myself) developed a sort of instinct for it. I can feel a whole, fully developed story behind this scanty opening. I cannot, despite how hard I try to convince myself, feel a whole, fully developed story behind the notes I've made for "Baptists Under Water." As a writer without a publisher and without readers, I have pretty much nothing but my process and my internal experience of that process in the way of a writing life, so naturally my writing processes fascinate me. I understand that they are not so fascinating to others. 

I'm reading some Vita Sackville-West stories, published the same time as Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. One of the stories is even dedicated to Woolf. They are odd little stories, artistically of high interest even if relatively unknown. I will probably not write about them unless the weather improves before I finish the book. No bets.

Monday, August 1, 2022

something whatever newish for someone wherever


One of my unpublished novels is a thing called Mona in the Desert. It's a family story spanning sixty-odd years, etc. Cervantes, witches, Shakespeare, cigarettes, sex, literary criticism, pyromania, frog ova, the works. War and peace and tequila. Stewardesses and fortune tellers. The synopsis is not important. What is important--to me at least--is that I continue to think that Mona in the Desert is a beautiful and startling and very good book. Alas, I have come to the conclusion, in the eight years since I first wrote the book, that no US publisher is going to put out an edition of my beautiful and startling and very good book. So I have added Mona in the Desert to the unpublished manuscripts available for your amusement or not on my Out of Print page. A clever reader will see this as a gesture of defeat, or submission, if they are not the same things. Yet it remains a good book. Read it or don't; nothing is at stake either way.