Saturday 30 May 2015

Comedy's 2,500th Birthday

Supremely Aristophanic 'Joseph Smith, American Moses' number
This week has been all about comedy. On Wednesday I spent my birthday present money rediscovering  the therapeutic power of laughter at the musical Book of Mormon. My rib-cage ached and my mascara ran after two straight hours of hilarity. 

The work is a trenchant satire on imperialism. Its climax—the Ugandan villagers’ riotously obscene musical-pageant reprise of the Mormon foundation story, complete with artificial phalluses and frog-shagging—is the nearest thing any of us will ever experience to Greek Old Comedy. This is not surprising, given that Trey Parker (of South Park), one of Book of Mormon’s creators, has previously milked an ancient Greek text, the Odyssey, in his cultish Cannibal: the Musical!

And I’ve achieved a long-held ambition by making it onto the cover of the June issue of the admirable magazine History Today with an article about the birthday of comedy.  It was exactly 2,500 years ago, in 486 BCE, that comic theatre was born when it was integrated, for the very first time, in the drama competitions of the democratic Athenian state.  In an outdoor theatre in the sanctuary of the wine-god Dionysus, a musical chorus of men dressed in obscene costumes accompanied knockabout actors who yelled versified abuse at an audience of tipsy citizens.

What is in the basket on his head? Frogs? Figs? 
The inventor of comic theatre was a man called Sousarion. The prize for the best comedy in that first competition was a basket of figs and no fewer than forty litres of wine. The actors will have worked up a thirst mocking anybody who ‘put their head about the parapet’ in public life. They talked freely about sleaze, corruption, and personal toilet habits. They subjected gods and powerful humans to trial by vitriolic laughter which makes most modern equivalents—Private Eye, Spitting Image, Not the Nine O’clock News—look half-hearted in comparison. Eleven Athenian democratic comedies survive, all by one dramatist, Aristophanes.

The Actor on the right plays a King or Tyrant (eagle-topped sceptre)

In 486 BC, when that epoch-making first competition in comic theatre was held, a comic attitude to life was of course not new. The ancient Greeks were cracking jokes from the first minute in history when we can hear their voices: the Cretans who lived in Bronze-Age Knossos must have had their tongues in their Mycenaean cheeks when their called their ploughing cows ‘Nimble’, ‘Swift’ and ‘Chatterbox’, names we can read in the early script, Linear B. Celebrants of festivals connected with fertility and viticulture had for centuries hurled abuse at local individuals while they processed in mummers’ costumes through the villages. The stem kom- in komoidia, ‘comedy’, means ‘revel’ or ‘carousal’, while also sounding like the Greek word for an unwalled rural village: komoidia thus means a ‘revel-ode’, with rustic overtones.

But ad hominem satire incorporated into a musical drama, along with a wildly imaginative plotline, was something completely new. A brilliant idea which has had a long future. Any tips on shows offering Aristophanic laughter as hardcore as Book of Mormon will be very gratefully received.

Sunday 24 May 2015


Mirren: Undermining Female Credibility
On Friday Hampshire Police finally apologised for mistreating a rape victim from Winchester. She reported the crime at the age of 17 in 2012. They threatened her with prosecution for lying about the attack. I remember a male ‘friend’ crowing to me in 2013 that she was one of the allegedly enormous number of women who, ‘like Phaedra’, frame innocent men for sex crimes because they have been rejected or out of simple spite.

One of the Most Familiar Stories in the Ancient World
When the police finally bothered to do forensic texts on the T-shirt she had provided, they realised her evidence was entirely credible. The rapist was charged and convicted. The case has clarified my intuitive loathing of Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus, a play of exquisite poetic beauty but toxic ideology in which Hippolytus’ stepmother Phaedra falsely accuses him of rape.

Between the Greek original, Seneca’s Phaedra and Racine’s Phèdre, let alone descendants like O’Neill’s Desire under the Elms and Mike Nichols' The Graduate, this story has been mightily applauded on centuries of stages and screens. Countless star actresses like Bernhardt and Mirren crave playing the mendacious rape-accuser of fiction. Every performance constitutes another ‘proof’ of the mass delusion that information imparted by women is unreliable—the delusion which philosopher Miranda Fricker calls Epistemic Injustice against them.

Potiphar’s wife in Genesis is one of multiple counterparts of Phaedra in every world myth system. Patriarchy needs this fiction. Without belief in it, far more prosecutions would  be mounted relative to reports of rape (in the UK, only one in 38 of cases reported to the police—let alone unreported ones—ends in a conviction).

Society’s attitude to female testimony is summed up in the standard textbook on evidence used to train US lawyers in the mid-20th century, by J. Wigmore:   ‘Modern psychiatrists have studied the behaviour of errant young girls and the women coming before the courts in all sorts of cases. Their psychic complexes are multifarious and distorted ... One form taken by these complexes is that of contriving false charges of sexual offences by men.’

Madame Rachel in Racine's version
Doubting women’s evidence is an international menace. At its most extreme, under Sharia law, women’s evidence is officially worth half or quarter of a man’s, if admissible at all. At the other end of the spectrum, it has merely impeded women’s progress in professions where custody of the truth is central—the church, the law, academia.

Hampshire Constabulary’s Chief Superintendent David Powell concluded the lukewarm official apology to the Winchester victim with an attempt to ‘reassure all victims of sexual assault that we do take you seriously. We do believe you, we appreciate how hard it is to come forward to report these offences, we do not judge you and we are committed to ensuring a professional and supportive response.’  Sorry, David, but it’s too late. It’s women’s turn to doubt the credibility of what men say.

Saturday 16 May 2015

Robots & Utopia Ancient & Modern

Google have just announced that their robot cars will be driving on public roads by this summer. I will be visiting California at the end of June and do hope I can flag one down. I have always hated driving. Since I can’t multitask, driving safely precludes even lively conversation, let alone marking essays or admiring the scenery. I prefer the sipping-champagne-in-the-back-of-the-limo approach to road transport. I don’t understand why Bob Hoskins’ character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) had to sit at the wheel when Benny the Cab was a sentient being.

Why did Benny Need to be Steered?
The ancient equivalents of robot cars are the self-steering, intelligent ships of the Phaeacian islanders in the Odyssey. Their king, Alcinous, promising to sail Odysseus home to Ithaca, explains that their ships have no helmsman. The ships use telepathy to learn the desired destination, and their knowledge of universal geography to reach it safely.[i] 
But the Phaeacian ships still needed energy to propel them. It was provided, as for any  penteconter, by fifty oarsmen. Robot cars may diminish fuel consumption, because theoretically they will lead to fewer total hours spent in cars by any given population. But the other advantages are debatable, besides freeing up drivers to sip Bollinger: they may or may not lead to fewer road traffic casualties.

Insurance is a problem. If someone is hurt by a robot car, who will be liable? The passenger? The manufacturer?  The Athenians had the answer: a special court, the Prytaneum, where inanimate objects like rocks and statues could be put on trial. The statesman Pericles and the philosopher Protagoras once spent an entire day debating whether a javelin could be held criminally responsible for the death of a youth who had run accidentally into its path. Will the Californians ever charge a Google car with Manslaughter?

Hephaestus & his Robots imagined by Fuseli
But Google’s news is still exciting. Despite the ethical issues surrounding Artificial Intelligence, I remain convinced that robots offer respite from the hard labour to which 90% of humans have usually been condemned.  Utopian robots were another Greek invention: Hephaestus is already served by robots he has made himself in the Iliad, a passage which prompted Aristotle to realise that slavery could indeed be abolished ‘if shuttles wove and plectrums played harps of their own accord’.

Lafargue & Laura Marx Busy Doing Nothing in 1870
No wonder Karl Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, who was of mixed African, Amerindian, Jewish and French heritage, was also inspired by the robotic mechanisms of Homer and Aristotle to argue that winning the ‘right’ to sell their labour was no victory for the lower classes. He expressed this view in Le droit à la paresse (The Right to Idleness, 1883), in its time the second most widely read Marxist text after The Communist Manifesto. Re-reading it in the back of a robot car with a well-stocked fridge is now one of my dearest ambitions.

[i] See further my book Introducing the Ancient Greeks, published in the UK last month, which I am delighted to say has had almost embarrassingly stellar reviews and last week made no. 4 on the Evening Standard’s non-fiction bestseller list. Alcinous’ name means ‘Strong in Mind’ and his father’s name was ‘Nausithous’, ‘Swift in Ships.’ The story is related to the Greeks’ awareness that they had immeasurably expanded their intellectual horizons by their maritime adventures. They  strongly associated intellect (nous) and travel by ship (naus).

Saturday 9 May 2015

The Woman Demosthenes Told to Run for President

Woodhull, Demosthenes' Mentee
In a year when we have a real chance of the first XX-chromosome president of the USA, let us celebrate Victoria Woodhull, who stood for this office in 1872.  Raised in a one-room wooden shack in Homer, Ohio, and the recipient of less than three years’ education, her rise to prominence was overseen by her spirit guide, the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes.

Victoria’s father, Buck Claflin, was a working-class mid-western charlatan. He sold his daughters’ paranormal powers in boarding-houses for $1 per consultation—Victoria practised as a medium, and Tennessee (‘Tenny’) as a ‘magnetic healer.’

Victoria claimed that she had always been aware of her clairvoyant gift and could remember her own birth. She was radicalised by an unhappy first marriage and by talking to women left widowed and starving by the Civil War. She read Wollstonecraft and Mill. She became a socialist and feminist during her fruitful second marriage to another spiritualist as well as a freethinker, abolitionist and suffragist.

"Move to Manhattan and stand for the Presidency!"
In 1868 Victoria had a vision in a hotel in Pittsburgh. Her ‘guide’ appeared to her, and wrote the name DEMOSTHENES on the marble table at which she was sitting ‘in English characters which gradually outlined themselves from indistinctness to incandescence so brilliant as to light up the entire apartment.’  Demosthenes, clearly fluent in English, bade her hasten to 17 Great Jones Street, Manhattan, where ‘she would find a house swept and garnished for the commencement of the work she had to do.’ So she moved to the specified brownstone, where she found a copy of the Orations of Demosthenes conveniently awaiting her in the parlour.

The following year, Demosthenes presented her with the text of a petition to Congress when she was asleep. He wrote on a scroll ‘The Memorial of Victoria C. Woodhull,’  claiming under the Fourteenth Amendment the right of women as of all other ‘citizens of the United States’ to vote and demanding that the State of New York, of which she was now a citizen, should be restrained by federal authority from preventing her exercise of this constitutional right.

Douglass, nearly Woodhull's Co-Nominee

So along with her sister she set about her mission. They set up the first female-led stockbroker firm in the US, and made millions. This allowed them to found a feminist journal, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which also supported workers’ rights and published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto. In its very first issue, Victoria’s candidacy for presidency was announced. She was constitutionally ineligible being under 35 years old. But she received the presidential nomination of the Cosmo-Political or ‘Equal Rights’ Party (Frederick Douglass was nominated to be their vice-president, but turned it down).

The patriarchal ruling elite was having none of it. She spent the election behind bars, arrested on obscenity charges (she campaigned for Free Love and enjoyed exposing the hypocritical adulterous liaisons of the very male authority figures who objected to her advocacy of women’s sexual freedom). Ulysses S. Grant won the election in a landslide.

"The Death of Demosthenes"--not such a great role model
But Woodhull had put women’s exclusion from politics at the centre of the public radar. Just fifteen years later, a woman became mayor of a US town—Argonia, Kansas—for the first time in history. 

Those of us who would like to see a woman finally become president must hope that Hillary Clinton does not get stitched up on obscenity charges before November 3rd 2015.  I also recommend she acquire a better netherworld mentor than Demosthenes, whose own political career ended in suicide on the run after the Macedonian conquest. I have personally been visited in dreams by both Aeschylus and Aristotle, but then I have no current plans to run for president.

Saturday 2 May 2015

Odysseus, the EU, & the Dispossessed of Lampedusa

The last month saw hundreds of migrants drown while crossing the Mediterranean in fragile vessels, so desperate are they to flee intolerable situations. Both cadavers and survivors often wash up on the prizewinning tourist beaches of Lampedusa, where prosperous northern Europeans tan themselves.

Capsizing between Libya & Lampedusa
The Mediterranean, once crucial to European colonial domination, is now an aquatic equivalent of the electric fence excluding Latin Americans from the USA. International waters are misused as liquid prisons to confine and exclude people whose plights are by no means unconnected with European policies past and present.

Nicolini: Moral Hero
The 6,000 residents of Lampedusa, led by their humanitarian mayor Giuseppina Nicolini, have been requesting the EU to replace the military ships patrolling the sea with search & rescue vessels, and send funds to enable the island to treat its struggling guests properly. Nicolini quotes Pope Francis: ‘Lampedusa is the door to Europe, not its exit.’   

How different is she from the vindictive resident nymph of Lampedusa, Lampetie, best known for being turned into a tree in Ovid's Metamorphoses. But in the Odyssey, where her island is called Thrinacia, she is a grimly suitable personification of Fortress Europe. Adverse winds have confined Odysseus’ crewmen to the island for weeks. They are starving. They eventually slaughter the cattle of the Sun-God which Lampetie, his daughter, herds, but they gratefully promise to build a fine temple to Helios on Ithaca when they return. 

But Lampetie, the most spiteful snitch in Greek epic, who could have interceded on behalf of the hungry mortals weeks earlier, now runs to her daddy, who run to Zeus. Once the humans set sail, Zeus rouses a tempest, and blasts their ship with a thunderbolt, killing all but Odysseus. The men ‘floated like sea-gulls in the breakers round the black ship. The gods had robbed them of their homecoming,’ a passage tragically prophetic of photographs of African boat people whose ships have capsized. 

Romare Bearden, 'Cattle of the Sun God'
The Odyssey is an instruction manual on good and bad ways to behave both when arriving as a desperate wanderer and when receiving strangers on your shores. There is a speech in a later episode which Lampedusa’s mayor might deliver to the EU bureaucrats who refuse to help. Imagine them represented here by the vicious slave Melantho, who loads insults on Odysseus, in his beggar’s disguise: ‘Go away, you loser, and eat your supper outside, or you will soon find yourself beaten away with a blazing torch.’  This is Odysseus’ unforgettable response:

Tischbein, Odysseus begs.
Strange woman, what is the reason for such anger with me? Is it because I am dirty, and dressed in rags, and go begging from people? I have to do this out of necessity. That’s what indigent men and beggars usually do.  There was a time when I too was a wealthy man, who could hold my head high as master of my own flourishing household; in those days I often used to give things to tramps who lived as I do now, regardless of who they were or what it was that they needed.

Alternatively, his rebuke could be inscribed on the lintel of the European Parliament, along with Marx and Engels' 'to each according to their need.'