Every kid should read Aristophanes in junior high. When I’m dictator of the world, this will be done. It will re-open generations of young minds to the possibilities of literature. What? they’ll say. South Park isn’t original? You mean they were doing this stuff 2500 years ago?
I picked up a few of Aristophanes’ plays at a church second-hand book sale here a few days ago, to go along with the Herodotus that I’m slowly making my way through. Read a few yesterday, and was utterly, pleasantly shocked at how entirely crude and obscene they were. I should know better by now; Shakespeare was crude, and the Romans weren’t exactly Queen Victoria’s choirboys. But in print, it never fails to surprise me.
Aristophanes was a comic poet, a satirist who prided himself on skewering those in power. Or anyone else who got in his way. He was merciless to Socrates, who he apparently considered an arrogant con man, and to the leaders of democratic Athens, whom he generally considered crooks or worse.
The heroes thus far are simple farmers and peasants, who want simple things: peace during a time of war, and not to be bothered by misguided patriotism. Wealth, insofar as that involves getting out of debts without actually paying them. Food, drink, wine. They are classic, crude clowns, who can speak truth to power for that reason.
That truth, it seems, includes fart jokes pretty much every few lines. Here’s Socrates explaining how thunder isn’t Zeus’ thunderbolt, after all, but the clouds being too full of rain:
SOCRATES: You yourself are living proof of it. You have no doubt at some time – say, at the Pan-Athenian Festival – had a bit too much soup for dinner? Well, didn’t that make your tummy grumble, not to say rumble?
STREPSIADES: It certainly does, straight away, a terrible noise just like thunder. Gently at first, then like this, and when I crap, it really lets fly — just like they do. (The Clouds)
SOCRATES: Well, if a little tummy like yours could let off a fart like that, what do you think an infinity of air can do? That’s how thunder comes about. In point of fact, I happen to know that in Phrygian – the oldest lanauge on earth – they actually call thunder “phartos.”
And so on.
On another note, the Greek comics had postmodern down to a T in the 400 BCs. The plays are extraordinarily meta, with comic asides to audience, whole sections where the chorus jumps in and takes the playwright’s voice (sounding like a rapper trumpeting his own bling), and generally undermining all the conventions that had already sprung up, winking at the audience while it happens.
It’s a shame that anyone ever gets the idea that ancient literature is boring.