Sunday 11 April 2021

Countering Misery with Greek Authors beginning with A


I have not been able to blog for weeks during the worst professional time of my entire working life. I will be able to explain in more detail soon. I know that many have it immeasurably worse than I do, but that has not prevented paroxysms of weeping and anxiety attacks. Medication, a sympathetic doctor, an outstandingly supportive husband and children and a huge phalanx of true friends mean, however, that I am coming out the other side.

And the three great classical Greek authors whose names begin with ‘A’ have helped me every day. I’m just finishing my edition of the greatest verbal symphony on emotional pain ever composed by a human brain, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. It is not that I am having to deal with kin-murder, incest, massive war fatalities or a violent coup d’etat. But my emotional identification is with the amazing elderly chorus of Argive citizens. 

Their poetic expressions of apprehension, helplessness, terror, humiliation, and anger, but also patience, commitment to decency, and compassion for those far worse off than themselves are truly inspiring. They use about twenty different words for ‘sorrow’ alone, a challenge to any translator. But by sharing pain and standing up to tyrants, they manage to survive. The city-state of Argos can and will one day see off all incompetent, vindictive and petty-minded people who happen temporarily to hold power.

Argos Will Survive--The Chorus of Aeschylus' Agamemnon

Next up is Aristophanes, on whom I’m finishing a book I’ve been writing for thirty years. His utter hilarity and joie de vivre banish tension. I defy anyone to enact the opening chorus of his Wealth without collapsing in hysterical laughter: the super-smart slave Cario impersonates Polyphemus the Cyclops, driving his flocks (the chorus dressed as lambs) out to pasture, singing to his lyre and leading an animal dance, ‘lurching from side to side with both his legs’. He tells his flock of youngsters to bleat repeatedly (the onomatopoeic blēchōmenoi), fart and wave their ithyphalloi. Then he pretends to be Circe, and the chorus-men impersonate pigs. The best possible script for Home Karaoke.

Aristophanes and Aristotle

But last is my stalwart buttress, as Aeschylus might call it, the ethicist Aristotle. In his discussion of good and bad ambition (philotimia), he says that when things go wrong and a person is disrespected, s/he can always cope if they do not forget what they were trying to achieve in the first place. No insults, casual brutalities, demotions, lack of gongs or approbation can have any real effect if you stay true to your real mission—in my case, although I like praise as much as the next woman, it is to make ancient Greek ideas fun, free and intelligible to as many people as possible. No tyrant of Argos can stop me from doing that. Onwards and upwards, comrades!