Peisistratus of Athens (rules 546-27 BCE)

(from list of weekly goals)

3. Film. I’ve spent all my time for watching films instead reading Greek history. My parents are fed up with the book, because I leave it in the kitchen, and my father began reading it and said it was intensely boring, he said he read one page three times and still didn’t know what it was about, and asked if I did, and dared me to tell him, and it was about the construction of Odysseus’s house, everything from the dung pile to the unusually large central room with a space circling the ceiling for the smoke to leave. They’ve been removing it from the kitchen. But I’m making decent progress, and I’ve found a character that I find fascinating, and he also happens to be one of our Occidental villains, because he’s the tyrant who overthrew Solon’s democratic reforms. Now, I’ve read Plutarch’s chapter on Lycurgus, which may be the source of utopic fantasies of Sparta–but the truth is, even reading Durant’s negative depiction of Sparta, I’m still impressed, because as cruel and isolated as the place was, it sounds like a society filled with contented people, but then, I’ve never thought individuality was very wonderful to begin with, it’d be nice to just be normal and happy, and I can’t recall what Huxley’s people in ‘Island’ were like. But a society based on strength and beauty, that sounds to me ideal. Whatever. I can’t escape the creature I was born as. Anyway, the point is, democratic Athens birthed all that culture, but it’s celebrated over Sparta in the same way that we celebrate the English over the Spanish, in the same way that we celebrate the Greeks over the Trojans, all three examples that make me quite uncomfortable. So, Solon is celebrated over Peisistratus, the bringer of democracy over the tyrant. Tyrant? Or, rather, the executor of Solon’s reforms? The democracy could not persist beyond Solon because he embodied it in the same way that George Washington himself represented the United States, and beyond his death the country may have disbanded except for the creation of Washington DC as an idol of sorts, complete with its radiating spokes, its avenues, reminiscent of Louis XIV or the legend of Samson. And, the fact is that the tyranny of Peisistratus in some ways concluded as a republic because the people loved him, and I think there’s further evidence of this by virtue of their ousting his son from power after not agreeing with his method of rule, that is, they were uncomfortable with a monarchy once it became apparent that’s what it was. And as Peisistratus left the state essentially in order with Solon’s laws, including the divisions of power. Through him, arts flourished, such as the setting down of ‘Homer’s’ works as we now know them, and the basis for theatre as an art form. The state flourished, the lower classes grew wealthier and the upper classes retained their wealth–it was ideal, and it’s no wonder that Plato preaches against democracy. While Peisistratus gained his power by fairly indecent means, faking an attempt on his life in order to secure himself a bodyguard of 50, that he builds to 400, and then overthrows the government, his wisdom and what seems to be a dedication to securing the happiness of his people, proves that perhaps the route to democracy is impossible in only an instant, that it takes a generation acclimated to the ideas, and then a generation forcefully held to them by a system of both rewards and punishments, through dictatorship, before it can take root in a culture. And perhaps that goes for anything, as we see in Russia, where communism was fact for probably thousands of years before the revolution took place, and so a few years of democracy are difficult to swallow. But I know nothing of Russia. Well, okay, I know nothing of anything, actually.

film: Edwards – Victor/Victoria (1982)

victorI generally don’t like movies whose central theme is sexuality; they always somehow fall short. My parents wouldn’t let me see Rocky Horror when I was young, but when they went out of town I watched it and had the same reaction I do now: sleepiness. Perhaps I’ll just never understand what it is to have repressed something for so long and then finally have an outlet for which to expose and celebrate that hidden facet in the extreme…but that sounds suspiciously close to how it is when I go to dance parties…it’s all I want to do, it’s highly encouraged, and I just can’t do it. I think it’s an immature film and seems to me it, if anything, discusses the overconfident pursuit of a thing that makes one uncomfortable, for god knows what reason, although that’s the theme of most college parties.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch does a better job, in my opinion, because it leaves open more questions, which makes it more real. Is Hedwig gay? Well, we’re not sure. But he’s neither a man nor a woman, and although forced into the role of a woman by surgery, it’s ultimately his choice once his husband runs off. But there’s something profoundly unsexual about him also, besides the fact that he doesn’t have any genitals. A man who wants to be a woman, but is neither, who thus forces us to begin wondering what the hell we are anyway, because he’s also in love, and he discusses Plato’s myth of men and women once being single creatures bound together.

So, then we have Victor/Victoria, which treats the subject with humor and music, just as the other two films do, but despite being sillier to the point that it plays with completely Hollywood conventions, it’s also deals with the subject in perhaps the most mature fashion, and perhaps it’s also the most insightful. There are three or four absurdly slapstick restaurant/barroom fights, pianos always get destroyed, everyone always gets involved, wigs fall off, bottles get smashed, there’s never any real danger of anyone dying: that’s the sort of film this is. But it’s also a film about a heterosexual woman pretending to be a gay man pretending to be a woman. And when she falls in love with a straight man, King Marchand, he has to pretend to be gay. He’s the picture of manliness, she’s always Julie Andrews, and we all know it, we have to just pretend that everyone in the film believes her to be a man. We have aptly named Norma, the Marilyn Monroe knockoff who comprises every stereotype, the fake blond hair, the New York accent and boo-boo-pie-doo dancing and fake orgasms and cruelty in revenge from biting half the chocolates to maybe getting her ex, King Marchand, shot. There’s Toddy, who performs the stereotypical middle-aged homosexual very well, his ex, who is only gay in private, and otherwise very classy and snotty, and Mr. Bernstein, who has been in the closet until midway through the film, when we find that when he suddenly turns gay…well, nothing changes except that he has a boyfriend. It may be that the film is more concerned with discussing confidence than sexuality after all.

King Marchand is extremely confident in his heterosexuality, to the point that when he’s attracted to another man, he’s convinced the man is actually a woman when nobody else believes it. He’s correct. And perhaps my favorite lines in the film occur when they finally kiss:

“I don’t care if you are a man.”
(they kiss)
“I’m not a man.”
“I still don’t care.”
(they kiss)

The thing he cannot deal with is pretending to be gay. Yes, he has a problem with people believing him to be gay, but this is where things become confusing, because he tries to make the relationship work, he pretends to be gay. In the only review I could find of the film (Ed Sikov. Film Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1) the author suggests that after leaving the gay dance hall and sending Victoria home, he goes to a working-class bar to instigate a fight, the most un-gay thing he can think of doing. But that’s not how I saw it. He goes to the bar and orders milk and then picks a fight when he’s made fun of. But this is why I disagree: he goes in and orders milk in order to be as unmanly as possible, which is also stereotypically considered gay. So in what the critic sees as a blatant rejection of feigned homosexuality, I see as an attempt to wholeheartedly embrace the lifestyle, which includes getting the shit pummeled out of you in a bar, and somehow ends with everybody in the bar drunkenly singing ‘Sweet Adeline’ as friends. This, in my opinion, is a reaffirmation of what Mr. Bernstein proves to us: that it’s possible to be both ‘normal’ and gay. And it’s only afterwards that King Marchand is confronted by the mob for being gay, and withstands their pressure nonchalantly. I think it’s also noteworthy that the only person who makes any sort of groan of ecstasy is King Marchand.

On the other hand we have Norma, who might be considered the female version of King Marchand. The difference is that her confidence in her sexuality is precisely what holds her back and forces her into the most pathetic stereotypes of women, completely in the hands of men, but relishing the influence she has over them because of her sexual charms. In all this, it’s Victoria who is the hero/heroine, because she’s confident enough in her sexuality that sexuality isn’t even a concern when confronted with a proposition to pretend to be a man forever. She does whatever seems like a good idea, and when it no longer seems like the best idea, she stops doing it. She is the only character for whom there are no rules from outside herself, stereotypes mean nothing to her, and it’s her personal strengths that always carry the day.

Finally, I think it worth noting something Julie Andrews’ characters do in both this film and Mary Poppins: upon hitting the last triumphal note of a song, her face beaming with confidence and a reserved joy, she immediately follows it up with an expression of such emptiness and depression that it’s a bit horrifying. Why does she do this? It never seems to fit the character. It may be that it’s the world of music that’s most real to her as these characters, the world of perfection and beauty, and that the moment the song ends, the other reality must return, and she’s no longer who and where she wants to be. In this film, perhaps we get a closer glimpse of this when we see her in hysterics at the opera.

drama: Aristophanes: the Clouds (419 BCE)

The most important thing Meredith taught me was that I should shut the fuck up. Meantime, I have no regrets about the scene I just made in an Applebees in the middle of the Maine woods, in which I got into a very angry debate over French/American political relations, which always comes down to the same thing, someone throws out a stereotype about the French or the Roma or the any other group of people in the world, and I ask for some sort of evidence, of which nobody ever has any, and then I remind that the group we ourselves belong to not only is associated with some pretty bad stereotypes, but that in my experience they’re all true. And then everyone gets offended and pissed off because, well, we’re angels, and it’s the rest of the world who’s fucked up. So I’ve completely had it with hipsters, intellectuals, young people, the inveterate, fanatics, zealots, and artists. The only people I still like are: alcoholics, nymphomaniacs, chefs.

One might call Don Quixote “self-reflexive” in the way Cervantes’ own work finds its way onto the bookshelves of Don Quixote, and is soon after substantially criticized. Is this humorous? Only under the condition that we know whom Cervantes is, and that he wrote what we’re reading, and perhaps a bit about his past literary failures. And if somebody uses the same technique now, is it postmodern? And if it is postmodern, is it postmodern because it’s a borrowed technique? Or does its being borrowed just make it derivative? And if one bases an entire work on such techniques, is that then postmodern? Or is it what we now call “ironic”—a term which is now defined as “any act, pretense, or creation that is uninspired, derivative, uneducated, misinformed, or otherwise pageanted as unique, employed as a pretense for an antithetical interior.” When I attended a class on “Modern American Drama,” I scoffed at the idea that “one cannot begin to understand modern American drama before understanding what came before it.” And we spent 90% of the class reading wretched 19th century plays…but I was one of the lucky ones, because I accidentally fell into studies that led me away from our contemporary liberal arts education, it’s precisely that education that makes me cry every time I see someone reading Lolita (you don’t deserve to read Lolita!) or Ulysses (have you read anything else by Joyce? Do you own a dictionary?) or hear somebody exclaim that they’ve decided to begin a new religion…in earnest. I haven’t read Ulysses. Because I’m not ready yet. And I shouldn’t’ve read Lolita.

The world of art, in my eyes, is a meritocracy. Do you deserve to do what you’re trying to do? So I’m not bothered by musicians who don’t understand music theory so long as they have large musical vocabularies (thereby forcing them to have some unorthodox system of theory). I met a chef recently and asked her what she thought of a certain classy restaurant (I don’t own nice enough clothes to eat there) whose owners had no formal culinary education. She said their quality was inconsistent. But so was Paul Verlaine’s. Why is cheap porn legal when it tries so hard to ruin the choreography? If I ever hear “it’s just sex” or “I always thought it was pretty straightforward” again–I’m going to get violent–and I don’t mean sadistic, I just mean violent. I am bothered by artists who neglect studying history and chemistry—they forget that Picasso illustrated a volume of Buffon’s Natural History, or that Duchamp studied classical methods of painting, or that Warhol was a practicing Catholic (the parallels between Catholicism and his art should make you laugh…only they just occurred to me). I am bothered by poets who don’t live as if words are actions, who don’t understand verbal economics, who don’t press back into the cervix of literature before struggling to lick their mothers’ lips…which is where Aristophanes comes in:

Wouldn’t it be considered avant-garde if, during a play, the playwright himself walked out and began discussing the merits of his own work, the demerits of others’ work, and discussing the work we are currently auditing? There’s a word I like: audit. That’s why I only read poetry aloud—it belongs in the air. Imagine it in a film, actually, if in the middle of a comedy the director began speaking directly to the audience. And if that’s not strange enough, imagine if it wasn’t the director who was speaking, but rather if one of the characters began speaking as if he himself was the director, completely leaving his role in the film and pretending to be a person who exists outside of the film in reality, who helped create the film. Pretty fucked up. And yet this happened—to relatively little acclaim—twenty years before the trial of Socrates.

My second comment is this: I find it fascinating to see Aristophanes disagreeing with Socrates, to read Plato’s arguable portrait of Gorgias, to consider the idea that proponents of Aeschylus hated those of Euripides, or to recognize that American schools like to shy away from Plato’s critiques on democracy or Plutarch’s illustrious depiction of Lycurgus and his utopian Sparta. Have people really been people ever since the beginning? How quaint!


p.s. i need someplace to live during september. can i live with you?

Aristophanes: The Birds.

Click for source of picture.
Click for source of picture.

It’s difficult to care–I haven’t any desire to write this because I just don’t care for the play at all–but that should be beside the point, shouldn’t it? I mean, because it’s a classic I’m not meant to enjoy it, right? I’m just meant to absorb it so I can include myself in the collective unconscious of the cultured, right? Right? Can’t I find something at all that attracts me, that holds me? Yes–there’s this one thing: the concept transliterated as polupragmosune. Arrowsmith, in the introduction to his translation, calls it the “spectacular restless energy” amongst the Greeks peculiar to Athenians, going on to say that “on the positive side, it connotes energy, enterprise, daring, ingenuity, originality, and curiosity; negatively it means restless instability, discontent with one’s lot, persistent and pointless busyness, meddling interference, and mischievous love of novelty.” The Birds traces the unavoidable nature of this quality as Pisthetairos seeks simplicity away from Athens, which results in his combination of Athens and Olympus, and his own apotheosis. And it’s this polupragmosune that worries me about my own nature–I don’t believe it’s the nature of all Americans, but I think it’s the nature projected upon the rest of the world. We find ourselves sympathizing with Athens rather than Sparta, when reading Plato and Plutarch has convinced me to reconsider democracy, and I worry about what a president of the EU could mean, what a United States of Europe could do to destroy history and culture, if it means another great superpower, if it means war. So is polupragmosune something like the artist’s lot? Or is it a political and social plague? Is it something I should be proud to possess, or does it clothe me in the most highly criticized qualities of Americans? This leads to one last question, then: can one possess these qualities to a less offensive extent than is dramatized by Aristophanes? Arrowsmith recognizes that these qualities were “born of life and aggressive hunger for larger life” in conjunction with Aristophanes’ illustration that the restlessness always results in one’s loss of happiness, one’s loss of dignity, peace, and honor. Victor Ehrenberg notes that polupragmosune has an opposite, but there is nothing in the middle, that only when one acts in extremes can “a conclusion be drawn as to his own nature.” And I am reminded of the epidemic of tedious melodrama we come across daily, the stories and obsessions, the hurt feelings and revenge tactics used to waste time, to convince ourselves that our own lives are worthwhile and fascinating, to convince ourselves that we are doing something in the meantime. Is this polupragmosune manifested in a modern democracy, where we all feel the need to build monuments at any cost?

“Polypragmosyne: A Study in Greek Politics, by Victor Ehrenberg”