BMCR 2007.08.53

Aristophanes and the Carnival of Genres

, Aristophanes and the carnival of genres. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (x, 257 pages).. ISBN 9780801893339 $55.00.

The link between Old Comedy and Bakhtin’s carnival, with its mixture of the high and the low, the serious and the ridiculous, and its marked uncrowning of authority, has long been recognized by modern scholarship. Specifically, the discussion has broadly concerned itself not with these overt commonalities, but with how carnival’s ambivalent laughter operates within such a politicized text as Aristophanic Old Comedy. The term “politicized” here cannot be underestimated. While it is clear that the genre of Old Comedy was not entirely politicized, Aristophanes’ surviving plays are; these extant plays may owe their survival to the fact that Antiquity read them as political satire.1 Here, Anthony Edwards’ article on historicizing the popular grotesque is seminal (the revised version is conspicuously absent from P’s bibliography). In his final analysis, Aristophanic comedy manipulates the popular grotesque in order to convey political messages that are otherwise opposed to its inherent function. For if carnival’s negative laughter espouses a political position, then it becomes the very thing it detests: seriousness.2 Carnival, thus, as a sociological phenomenon, is exploited rather than allowed to operate normally. In positioning itself with this larger discourse, Charles Platter’s Aristophanes and the Carnival of Genres is clearly combative. By narrowly examining Aristophanes’ generic intertextuality through the Bakhtinian lens, Platter (P) hopes to create the possibility of an “alternative political reading,” one characterized by the “antinomian elements” and ambivalence that pervade Bakhtin’s dialogism and carnival. (p. 41) Simply put, P seeks to unleash the full force of Bakhtin’s carnival upon the fields of Aristophanes.

First and foremost, P offers an astute and lengthy introduction to Bakhtin. After revisiting crucial aspects of Rabelais and His World, The Dialogic Imagination, and Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, one finds the typical, scopic definitions of carnival and dialogism. Carnival, thus, is an excessive, heteroglossic construct that engages the established order in a combative dialogue marked by comic inversion and laughter, while dialogism is a complex linguistic matrix where multiple voices (Bakhtin’s utterances) interact and respond to one another. More to the point, in P’s overall application of Bakhtin to Aristophanes, he focuses on the concepts of disputation and ambivalence (unfinalizability) implicit in these theories. Within P’s broad intertextual, inter-generic matrix, such polyphonic conflict brings the text to a point of stalemate, and thus all the generic voices involved have the potential to be “right” and generate meaning for the audience. Audience reception, in fact, is ultimately decisive for P’s reading. It is the various mental faculties within a given fifth century audience that dictate which generic voices are perceived and through which meaning is attained 3 And so, P believes that this inter-generic and intertextual interface, primarily played out within Aristophanes appropriation of tragedy and epic, and within the crucial framework of audience reception, can “produce what might be termed a ‘carnival of genres” (p. 6). Under such lens, no generic voice can attain primacy, and those of traditional authority are ultimately dethroned.

1) “Dikaiopolis on Modern Art.” In looking at Dikaiopolis’ reflections on artistic performance, P covers a well-trodden path: the first sixteen lines of Acharnians’ prologue. P (well versed in the scholarship concerning this passage) immediately injects Bakhtinian ambivalence into an otherwise “political” passage. Further, P’s execution of the dialogic principle is meticulous and, to a large extent, convincing. And so the rustic farmer may appear to laud the better days of Aeschylean tragedy, but his words are in fact a complex, agonistic interface of comic and tragic elements that undermine his overtly conservative rhetoric. Simply put, by positing the well-known irony of Old Comic discourse within a Bakhtinian framework, P exhibits the potentially tenuous nature of Dikaiopolis’ voice. For example, when Dikaiopolis complains that he has found little joy in recent performances, the “bathetic specificity” of τέτταρα is juxtaposed with repetitious βαία, a term that simultaneously functions within the registers of tragic, lyric, and comic diction (p. 47). And when he asks what exactly was worthy of joy, colloquial φέρ’ ἴδω collides with tragic (most likely a quotation from Euripides) ἄξιον χαιρήδονος. Consequently, the rustic, and presumably uneducated farmer, not only comically assumes the role of literary critic, but his incongruous use of high and low diction undermines the viability of his position: any grandiloquence that arises from an uncouth mouth is unavoidably pedantic and even seemingly nonsensical. P thus cogently emphasizes that the tension inherent in his voice thus cuts both ways and is decentralized. A state of ambivalence then emerges since Dikaiopolis, on the linguistic level, operates successfully neither as a rustic nor as a critical persona. That is, the audience must decide which, if any, is credible. The chapter continues to argue in such fashion, citing more examples from the prologue and confronting Dikaiopolis’ intertextual appropriation of Euripides’ Telephus, all of which are dialogically sound. Nevertheless, the reader will note — and this will continue to pervade the entire book — that P’s dialogic matrix is largely a refashioning of Aristophanic irony, intertextual or otherwise. While P stresses the importance of its comic effects and irony’s role as a mechanism that can speak to multiple voices, to ultimately read ambivalence in such passages compels one to nearly reduce Aristophanic irony to a type of Gorgianic game. Further, his push to reach this point of ambivalence through intertextuality/irony may seem reminiscent of readings typical of the New Critics, semiotics, and deconstruction.

2) “The Failed Program of Clouds.” Continuing to isolate the forces of decentralization, P ambitiously claims that dialogic elements undermine the interpretation of Clouds as a pure attack upon Socrates, Euripides, Cleon, or the sophists. To do so, he exhibits the historicity of the name “Megacles,” the incongruous presence of lyric alphas in the parodos, and the dialogic intertextuality of the agon between Right and Wrong. Overall, the real gem of this chapter is P’s analysis of the parodic use of lyric alpha instead of Attic eta. As in the case of Dikaiopolis, the use of tragic diction and words of polyvalent function by both Strepsiades and the chorus produces instability on the linguistic level. Any surface mockery of Socrates or the sophists is then attenuated as these characters travesty both tragic diction and quotation, while they are conversely travestied by their own pretensions. In other words, “tragedy is mocked by the inappropriate deployment of its diction, and the individual comic figures are made to sound pompous and overreaching” (p. 69). So, for example, the chorus’ depiction of Socrates as λεπτοτάτων λήρων ἱεροῦ may lack linguistic veracity. Here, P is on top of his game, so to speak, acutely applying the irresolvable, agonistic lens of Bakhtin to elicit a state of ambivalence. If the chorus’ voice is unstable, only the audience can resolve its significance. Nevertheless, his section on the historicity of the name “Megacles” is somewhat loose. P lucidly shows how it operates dialogically in the context of social strata and audience reception. The name can signify the Alcmeonids, the contemporaneous Athenian Treasurer, or function as a joke (etymological pun on mega-) referring to the “big shots” around town (p. 67). How it supports the chapter’s agenda, however, doesn’t clearly emerge. And while P provides a judicious review of the Clouds’ agon, how Wrong’s discourse is dialogic is not made explicitly clear. One has to formulate on his/her own — not a terribly difficult task — that sophistic language is innately dialogic; that is, in this case, Wrong exploits Right’s discourse (especially his appeal to the morality of the gods), recontextualizes it within an intertextual framework, and then exposes contradictions. Moreover, the crux of P’s decentralizing argument does not stem from the agon’s language itself, and thus it does not produce a state of ambivalence. It may undermine Right’s “monologic” appeal to the superiority of antiquity, but the tenuous and ultimately ambivalent nature of Wrong’s victory, in the context of Strepsiades’ overall failure, is not manifest until the end of the play.

3) “Clouds on Clouds and the Aspirations of Wasps.” In respect to P’s goal of eliciting Bakhtinian ambivalence, this chapter is quite appealing. Here, P isolates important decentralizing forces within Wasps’ prologue and parabasis. Capitalizing on the overt intertextual dialogue between these two elements and Clouds, specifically in the context of its failure in the previous year, P illustrates how Aristophanes’ reactionary claim to comedic moderation is undermined at the very moment of its utterance. When Xanthias, for example, with Clouds as an intertextual reference point, claims that this comedy will not represent the other Megarian (i.e. vulgar) type, nor recycle those typical attacks upon Cleon, these comic assertions are in fact dialogically ambivalent; the Megarian reference, Μεγαρόθεν, is duplicitous, an ambiguous mechanism by which Old Comic poets praise and blame one another, while to refrain from attacking Cleon can constitute a more subtle reproach than does overtly assailing him once again. Further, in the parabasis, P illuminates a complex intertextual dialogue with Clouds’ parabasis (revised version), in which not only Xanthias’ prologue is overturned by blaming the audience for misunderstanding Clouds’ humor, but then is also paradoxically filled with the same rhetorical rejection of the prior “vulgar” comedy. Moreover, P cunningly injects ambivalence in to the parabasis by positing the chorus itself as a dialogized obstacle to concrete meaning; the chorus is dialogically both itself and the poet, ultimately creating a tenuous linguistic playground. And so, while Wasps ironically sides with Clouds, P argues for an ambivalence that underscores the audience’s interaction with such language. Again, the language cuts both ways, paradoxically operating on all levels at once.

4) “Questioning Authority: Homer and Oracular Speech.” Here, the monolithic authority of epic discourse is the target of carnival’s tradition of “uncrowning.” Yet, for this chapter to be truly efficacious, one must accept P’s classification of oracular speech as a subdivision of the epic tradition. Although he argues broadly, citing passages from Lysistrata, Knights, Peace, and Birds, the majority of his texts deal with oracular discourse; only Peace directly engages Homer. Be that as it may, P’s goal is to demonstrate how epic-oracular discourse is dialogically relativized, i.e. rhetorically appropriated to benefit two opposing parties, whereby it is ultimately diluted, removed from its privileged position, and transformed into an everyday language. In this respect, P presents a convincing argument. In each case we find a character, whether it be Lysistrata, Paphlagon, Hierocles, or the Oracle-Seller in Birds, who attempts to control a situation by an appeal to epic-oracular authority (overtly marked by epic diction and meter). A parochial interlocutor then undermines this authoritative stance via linguistic and/or metrical co-option. The Knights’ agon, for example, is paradigmatic of the chapter’s methodology. Every time Paphlagon uses oracles to manipulate the demos and to consolidate his power (such as linking his birth to the famous Delphic Oracle concerning the wooden walls), the Sausage Seller interrupts midstream and re-interprets the oracle, transforming it into an attack on Paphlagon. Moreover, the Sausage Seller then not only introduces his own combative oracles, but also undermines the gravity of their hexameters by contaminating them with prosaic/comic diction. Epic, authoritative discourse is thus dialogically pulled from its pedestal as it becomes malleable to the whims of a common street vendor. In short, the authority of epic-oracular discourse, complete with its hexameter rhythm, is made both palpable to the demos and a tool for its rhetorical use. In P’s analysis, this example, as well the others, works parallel to Bakhtin’s theory whereby the novel “injects ‘semantic openendedness’ into valorized categories like the speech of the gods.” (p. 123) P thus soundly demonstrates how the monolithic nature of epic, as a source of cultural authority, is opened up and exposed to multiple semantic possibilities as it falls into the hands of the common people.

5) “The Return of Telephus: Acharnians, Thesmophoriazusae, and the Dialogic Background.” Not quite finished with his discussion of Telephus in chapter one, P returns to examine the various usages to which Aristophanes puts this Euripidean play. In particular, he contends that Aristophanes’ intertextual appropriation yields a set of conflicting dialogic relationships that makes Euripides “profoundly ambivalent” (p. 143). Once again, P’s arguments and deployment of dialogism are impeccable. He is also very comprehensive in investigating the presence of Telephus in the Aristophanic corpus, even suggesting that Aristophanes’ intertextuality may extend beyond the Euripidean tradition. Nevertheless, focusing on Acharnians and Thesmophoriazusae, P not only creates an illuminating tripartite relationship between the three plays, but also emphasizes the one between Aristophanes and Euripides as correlative/rival innovators in their respective genres (aptly conveyed by Cratinus’ neologism εὐριπδαριστοφανίζειν). Specifically, P demonstrates how Aristophanes uses Euripides’ Telephus as a metafictional ploy to help drive the plot, yet, simultaneously travesties Dikaiopolis’ reenactment by recontextualizing it in prosaic terms. Thus, Aristophanes successfully (perhaps even favorably) employs a Euripidean role, which itself nearly broaches upon the comic (the incongruous beggar king), to win the agon. Yet, the re-enactment, regardless of its success, is prosaically overturned as the tragic axe ( πέλεκυς) is replaced by the common butcher’s block ( ἐπίξηνον), upon which Dikaiopolis comically pleads his case. The intertextual moment, then, paradoxically works on the level of both parodic mockery and respect. Conversely, the hostage scene in Thesmophoriazusae is then juxtaposed as yet another means of manipulating poor Telephus. Though intertextually linked to both Euripides and Acharnians, Mnesilochus’ execution of the Acharnians’ metafictional ploy — making the scene doubly dialogized — ends in a paradoxical, ironic failure. As opposed to Dikaiopolis, Mnesilochus attempts to faithfully re-enact the tragic scene, but to no avail. Consequently, P presents a wonderful matrix of ambivalence. In Aristophanes’ hands, Euripides is in a constant state of flux, manifesting in both positive and negative usages. What is more, as tragic diction/allusion, Euripides also undergoes a perpetual cycle of “uncrowning” within Aristophanic parody and irony.

For any student of Old Comedy, Platter’s book will attain a kind of “ambivalent” success, in a very Bakhtinian sense. His deployment of the dialogic principle is so acute that, even if one does not wholeheartedly agree, one still has to repeatedly validate his argument. As he presents it, the “carnival of genres” exists; the collision of comedy, tragedy, and epic, within a larger comic construct, not only results in the “uncrowning” of traditionally authoritative genres, but, in the context of audience reception, can also dilute and democratize the respective voices at play. The problem, then, is not his methodology, but the overall application of the methodology. When the collision of generic voices circumscribes historical personae and/or events, Platter brings us to a point where the voices of Aristophanic and Bakhtinian scholarship are themselves in dialogic conflict. Can we accept Aristophanic irony, both intertextual and discursive, as a producer of both ambivalence and a political posture? Does Aristophanes really avoid taking a position on the most significant debates of his time? I fear that the weight of Aristophanic scholarship, stemming from the Hellenistic construction of Aristophanes as a politico-satirical author, is far too great to entirely allow this. Moreover, I think Platter is well aware of this fact. He aims not to overthrow traditional views. Rather, he is keen on presenting his work as a cogent, heuristic endeavor. As such, he is quite successful.


1. For the evolution of Greek comedy, including the construction of Old Comedy as a politico-satirical genre by Hellenistic scholars, see Eric Csapo, “From Aristophanes to Menander? Genre Transformation in Greek Comedy.” In M. Depew and D. Obbink (eds.), Matrices of Genre: Authors, Canons, and Society (Cambridge, Mass, 2000), 116.

2. Edwards. A. T., “Historicizing the Popular Grotesque: Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World and Attic Old Comedy.” In R. B. Branham (ed.), Bakhtin and The Classics, (Evanston, Il, 2002), 27-55. (Originally published 1993. In R. Scodel (ed.), Theater and Society in the Classical World (Ann Arbor, 1993), 89-117.)

3. Platter is heavily influenced by Goldhill’s work on Greek poetics; see Simon Goldhill, The Poet’s Voice: Essays on Poetics and Greek Literature (Cambridge, 1991), 167-222.