Friday, October 18, 2019


Politics and Literature

Anatole France (1844-1924), The Opinions of Anatole France. Recorded by Paul Gsell, tr. Ernest Boyd (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922), pp. 59-61:
When bespectacled and hide-bound old pedants at school made us translate some Greek tragedy, ("Oedipus at Colonus," for example) they used to say:

"Note that charming second aorist. Observe the conciseness of that genitive absolute. The dignity of that optative is marvellous."

They used to din hundreds of similar remarks into our ears, until in the end we began to believe that it was the grammatical perfection of Sophocles which had aroused the enthusiasm of his contemporaries. But there was one point which our gerund-grinders overlooked, namely, when Sophocles celebrated the name of Oedipus, the Theban hero whom the Athenians received with open arms when he was hooted by his own countrymen, the Greek dramatist's intention was to glorify Athens at the expense of Thebes, which had been its bitter enemy during the Peloponnesian war.

Bearing that knowledge in mind we can easily imagine what the first performance of "Oedipus at Colonus" was like, shortly after the death of the aged poet: the whole audience on their feet, interrupting every line with cheers, hissing the Thebans and stamping in frantic applause for this eulogy of their city. And thus we discover the real reasons, the political reasons, for this enthusiasm.

When our venerable pedagogues used to comment upon "The Knights" of Aristophanes, they would carefully analyse the parabasis and point out the commutation, the anapests, the macron. And they taught us that this play was a perfect example of the style known as Old Comedy. But you will readily conceive that it had other attractions for the sailors of Piraeus. What delighted them was to see Aristophanes grabbing Comrade Cleon by the seat of the trousers. The performance was punctuated with laughs and shouts and slaps. I suspect things were pretty rough. In a word, it was politics.

You will have to reconcile yourself to this, my dear Haraucourt. More often than not politics and literature merge into one. In Rome did not gentle Virgil do but propaganda for Augustus?

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