Since coming back to school, I have spent more time reading for my thesis than reading for leisure, but thankfully found time for these two short works.
Aristophanes: The Frogs. I was at a bookstore purchasing a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad on someone’s recommendation and, noticing this little volume of Aristophanes for only a few dollars, I threw it on the checkout counter for good measure. And I’m glad I did! Shortly after I started Atwood’s take on an ancient classic, I found myself desiring to read something actually ancient and Aristophanes was ready for that purpose. And how excellent it was! I remember having to read The Clouds and The Birds in college and, though funny in parts, I was mostly put off by the vulgarity and how irreverent it was toward Socrates (someone I held in great veneration). Picking up this one, I was struck by how easy it was to imagine on stage. The early scenes of Dionysus (dressed as Hercules) bantering with his servant sounded like something that would appear on SNL in our own time. As the play goes on, Dionysus goes down to the underworld and for all of its silliness, there is actually worthy reflection on the relative merits of serious, grave literature (represented by Aeschylus) and popular literature (represented by Euripides). Aristophanes does an excellent job in presenting caricatures of these poets while also composing the poems by which they duel against each other to claim top spot in the underworld. I wonder if Dante had the works of Aristophanes and was in some way influenced when he depicted his own favorite poets in the underworld. This work did what good writing should do: It made me want to keep reading. I started looking for the plays of Euripides after this and also wanted to discover how difficult Aristophanes is to read in Greek, since I’m sure the poetry jokes have much more nuance in the original. I can easily recommend this to anyone who ever has or will read Greek drama. If you didn’t like other plays by Aristophanes, give this one a shot.
Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet. I bought this at a used bookstore in Jerusalem. I think I was buying a copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson and the worker couldn’t make change, and so he said I could take another book at half price, and it was Rilke’s that caught my eye. It is a series of letters which Rilke wrote to another aspiring poet, containing advice and helpful criticism. Although I did not care for all the advice, I appreciated his recommendation to spend time with things. His view was that a poet communicates something of reality, and so a poet must place himself in front of things in order to have an object to communicate. His observations on sexuality also indicate a bit of wisdom, even in the midst of folly. One example is his understanding that sex is ordered to procreation, to the begetting of the next generation, and that this is not unique to man but is common among all animals. Seeing through the sentimental and individual aspects of sexuality to the natural and universal is not something one sees so often, so I appreciate this. Another observation in this area is that even if one seeks to escape institutions (for example, that of marriage), one ends up inventing institutions all the same and being caught up in them. He sounds a bit fatalistic when he says this, but it is true observation that should encourage one to make the most of existing institutions. One last piece of advice that is worth repeating was his recommendation to avoid writing satire while feeling uninspired. He says that one should only write satire at one’s best because it is far too easy to write bad satire and does not contribute to becoming a poet. I would recommend these letters of Rilke, probably not to everyone, but to anyone who has some aspiration to be a poet.