As if swept up by a sinister, laughing wind, the characters of Aristophanes scattered across the American election. Sophists, sycophants, demagogues, and tyrants—all Greek figures employed by the Athenian “Father of Comedy”—blew across the political and media landscape. Swap Donald Trump and his caballing acolytes with the pseudopopulist heroes and villains of Aristophanes and few would notice. “The Theatre,” Trump declared, “must always be a safe and special place”: if only he knew the Aristophanic arsenal amassed for ridiculing his “ancient Trumps” like Cleon and Alcibiades. The comedian coined demagogue and devised its comic archetype, an eel-fisher who catches nothing in clear waters but reaps bounties by stirring slime. Thus if Trump never existed, Aristophanes would be forced to invent him. Mere decades after democracy’s inception in Athens, the playwright yoked it to comedy; when democracy mires itself in the mud, we spot him on the scene. From carnivalesque populism to debates over political correctness, Aristophanes whispers his stage directions to the political order. No one else so effortlessly captures the careening hypocrisies of born elites who pursue populism. No one else understood that the populist farce, in the repetitions of history, comes before the tragedy—the reverse quip of Karl Marx. The winds blow Aristophanic.
Peisetaerus of Birds becomes the best backbone for Trumpian flesh. A bombastic sophist, fancying himself a developer for the tremendous new city of Cloudcuckooland—to be surrounded by a great wall—Peisetaerus means “persuader of his comrades” in Greek. Disillusioned with Athenian (American) life, he quarrels with the gods (Washington elites) after pitching his increasingly grandiose schemes to the birds (American people). Peisetaerus bests the Olympians (Rubio, Bush, Kasich), eventually being crowned tyrannos: a buffoonish sophist-god-tyrant. The apotheosis of Peisetaerus—god of the gods—marks the finale of Birds, ending its prophecy for 2016.
There was no sequel, but a great many Trumpian motifs: a scam university in Clouds, an assault on the judiciary in Wasps, a meat salesman’s campaign for power in Knights (sausages, not steaks). Right out of Trump supporters’ nightmares, Praxagora of Assemblywomen wins the election and encourages her fellow women to implement a socialist regime. Yet Aristophanes was no Marx; intractable ironies stifle these political programs. The quasi-feminist sex strike in Lysistrata leaves critics wondering whether Aristophanes—like Trump says of himself—“is the best for women” or simply practices classic Athenian misogyny. Aristophanes believed in democracy more strongly than Trump, but in both we find a kind of comedic realpolitik. Winning the Dionysia festival, like winning business or votes, was paramount. “Vote for us,” cry the titular creatures of Birds, “or we’ll shit on you.” Scholars interrogate the playwright’s politics as the Aristophanic question par excellence; now its uncertainty is itself Trumpian.
Aristophanes’ cornucopia of churlish wit belongs mostly to the left these days, but electing a “pussy-grabber” represents a dubious right-wing victory against “political correctness”—of all political terms, the most incoherent. Though often used against left identity politics, this linguistic policing classically belonged to the right, protecting authority and the state. Its logic is patriotism; civil language was civic. Even the irreverent Aristophanes offered a “safe space” for certain conservative elements in Athens. Classical Greek obscenity did not recognize tainted words, argues Jeffrey Henderson, only a concept of bringing shame (crucial in Trumpian rhetoric). In Henderson’s fine translation—the first unexpurgated one in English— Peisetaerus decrees that if the gods trespass (through the fabled wall) “then clap a seal on their boners, so they can’t fuck those women anymore.” Yet obscene language in Aristophanes and Trump conceals reactionary political prohibition. The first “politically incorrect” comedian was sometimes a hypocrite, a term whose meaning was aptly embroidered by ancient drama, whose mantle robes Trump so extravagantly today.
The spirit of 2016 was a carnival of sinister comedy rejecting policy-politics-polis as serious inquiry. Mikhail Bakhtin understood carnivalesque literature as turning the world upside down; each play of Aristophanes indeed turns Athens inside out. Bakhtin wed the carnivalesque with the grotesque: the openings and protrusions of the body, elements that are “disgusting”— Trump’s favourite word. Trump injected the grotesque into politics in an Aristophanic throwback. He made politics bodily again: about menstruation (Megyn Kelly), his small, germophobic hands (the “short-fingered vulgarian”), and his histrionic hair (Aristophanes, famously bald, lacked Trumpian technologies). The penile exchange between Trump and Marco Rubio was ripped right out of Birds with its cocks of many feathers. If Straussians fancy robing naked power with decorum, then Trumpians dress it in the costumes of old comedy, padded outfits affixed with giant leather phalluses.
The notion that jesting statements are harmless first ran aground when Aristophanes lampooned Socrates in Clouds, influencing the jurors who later sentenced him to death. This literary-political relationship haunts G. W. F. Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, and Leo Strauss. Aristophanes’ engagement with the real inhabitants of Athens, however, is inseparable from his rhapsodic imaginings of the polis undergoing sexual and socialist revolutions. His comedies are neither utopias nor dystopias, yet each reveals the contingency of the political order. Some escape Athens, others return to an older Athens, each rips through the status quo like the thunderous flatulence in Clouds—the “winds” of revolution and deviance. Already recognized as the “prince” of comedy, he should be hailed as patron of dissent and political imagination.
Western democracies claim and clamour over their Greek heritage. Yet they repressed Aristophanes—who insists he is among the greatest comedians of all time—and now his spirit returns, demanding exaltation. If greatness demands relevance, then Trump vindicates Aristophanes. A superlative satirist before satire even had a name, Aristophanes coined spoudaiogeloion, or the seriocomic. Tragedy seems apt for the terrifying state of the world today, but hearing the raucous, knowing laughter of Aristophanes, we must study how comedy arms and disarms; laughter can be both virtuous and vicious. Post-truth may be the word of year, but we are not postcomedy—as dire as this seriocomedy proves to be. Trump claims the world is “laughing at us”: as always, the questions are who to laugh with, who to laugh at, and when there must be no laughter at all.
Working between rhetoric and philosophy, Jonathan Doering studies the reception and presence of classical and modern rhetoric in French thought, and examines sophists both ancient and modern. He is finishing his PhD at the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism in London, Ontario.
De IN THE MOMENT, 13/01/2017