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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Answers to My Quiz with a “Twist”: Austen meets Aristophanes!

I’m thinking of a great work of literature that meets ALL of the following criteria:

ONE: It was written long ago by an author whose name is known to countless people, including many who’ve never read their works:  


 TWO: It was one of this author’s earliest works, but one that they significantly revised later in their career:  

Both NORTHANGER ABBEY and THE CLOUDS were youthful works later revised.

My central claim is that when Jane Austen revised Northanger Abbey in 1816, she was not only aware of the great early Greek comic playwright, Aristophanes, but that she made The Clouds a central allusive source for her novel about a naïve heroine who achieves self-knowledge.

Today, I will just give summary answers to the clues I listed in my Quiz. In followup posts to come, I will go into greater detail on some key points, all fleshing out the surprising news (to many, but not to me) that Austen’s knowledges of the ancient classics was very deep and granular, indeed.

THREE: Among the general public, it is NOT the most famous of that author’s works:

Her most famous novel is PRIDE & PREJUDICE.         His most famous play is LYSISTRATA

FOUR: It focuses on the theme of self-knowledge, and how one can help another person find it.

Henry Tilney says to Catherine Morland:
“Such feelings ought to be investigated, that they may know themselves”. This statement epitomizes Henry’s teasing manner of speaking to Catherine, and virtually repeats Socrates’s most famous maxim that a life well lived has the goal of self-knowledge. But the key point is that Austen had both Plato’s Socrates and Aristophanes’s Socrates in mind as she wrote Northanger Abbey, and wove both of them into the character of her charming hero.

FIVE: It has a major male character who:
is a braggart of mammoth proportions;
who constantly lies;
contradicts himself in every other sentence he speaks;
who is particularly obsessed with racing his horses and chariots/carriages; and
who repeatedly uses the expression “By Jove!”

John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey and Strepsiades’s son, Pheidippides, in The Clouds both fit every one of these specific points to a tee, far past the possibility for coincidence.  Compare these two passages:

1853 Translation of The Clouds by William James Hickie:
[STREPSIADES to SOCRATES, seeking to receive education at the latter’s school in the art of lying, so as to be able to go to court and get out of all his debts that his son’s horse obsession got him into]:

 “I will do so in reliance upon you, for NECESSITY oppresses me, on account of the blood-horses, and the marriage that ruined me. Now, therefore, let them use me as they please. I give up this body to them to be beaten, to be hungered, to be troubled with thirst, to be squalid, to shiver with cold, to flay into a leathern bottle, if I shall escape clear from my debts, and appear to men to be BOLD, glib of tongue, audacious, IMPUDENT, shameless, a fabricator of FALSEHOODS, INVENTIVE of words, a practiced knave in lawsuits, a law-tablet, a thorough RATTLE, a FOX, a sharper, a slippery knave, a dissembler, a slippery fellow, an impostor, a gallows-bird, a blackguard, a TWISTER, a troublesome fellow, a licker-up of hashes. If they call me this, when they meet me, let them do to me absolutely what they please. And if they like, by Ceres, let them serve up a sausage out of me to the deep thinkers….”

And now look at the strong parallelism to the above speech in Catherine Morland’s reaction to John Thorpe’s endless lying and boasting:

“Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing; for she had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a RATTLE, nor to know to how many IDLE assertions and IMPUDENT FALSEHOODS the excess of vanity will lead. Her own family were plain, matter-of-fact people who seldom aimed at wit of any kind; her father, at the utmost, being contented with a pun, and her mother with a proverb; they were not in the habit therefore of telling lies to increase their importance, or of asserting at one moment what they would contradict the next…”

And the above parallels are why I give “credit” to Donald Trump for unwittingly helping me discover these parallels between Aristophanes and Jane Austen, both of whom obviously knew, and knew of, men in their worlds, 2200 years apart, who were just like him.

SIX: It has a major male character who repeatedly, teasingly asks questions which seem to be designed to provoke his conversation partner to think outside the box, to question basic assumptions, and to seek self knowledge.

Henry Tilney, to Catherine Morland            Socrates, to Strepsiades

SEVEN: It has a short scene in which clouds are observed and interpreted as meaning or signifying different things.

In The Clouds (this scene was also clearly a source for Hamlet’s riddling of poor addled Polonius), Socrates teaches Strepsiades that we see what we want to see, and not necessarily what is there:

Socrates. Answer, then, whatever I ask you.
Strepsiades. Then say quickly what you wish.
Socrates. Have you ever, when you; looked up, seen a cloud like to a centaur, or a panther, or a wolf, or a bull?
Strepsiades. By Jupiter, have I! But what of that?
Socrates. They become all things, whatever they please. And then if they see a person with long hair, a wild one of these hairy fellows, like the son of Xenophantes, in derision of his folly, they liken themselves to centaurs.
Strepsiades. Why, what, if they should see Simon, a plunderer of the public property, what do they do?
Socrates. They suddenly become wolves, showing up his disposition.
Strepsiades. For this reason, then, for this reason, when they yesterday saw Cleonymus the recreant, on this account they became stags, because they saw this most cowardly fellow.
Socrates. And now too, because they saw Clisthenes, you observe, on this account they became women.
Strep. Hail therefore, O mistresses! And now, if ever ye did to any other, to me also utter a voice reaching to heaven, O all-powerful queens.

Then they go on to discuss the relationship between clouds and rain.

Austen, the mistress of ironic deflation, clearly had this scene in mind when she wrote about Catherine’s anxious imaginings about rain interfering with her planned outing with the Tilneys, in Chapter 11 of Northanger Abbey:

“The morrow brought a very sober-looking morning, the sun making only a few efforts to appear, and Catherine augured from it everything most favourable to her wishes. A bright morning so early in the year, she allowed, would generally turn to rain, but a CLOUDY one foretold improvement as the day advanced. She applied to Mr. Allen for confirmation of her hopes, but Mr. Allen, not having his own skies and barometer about him, declined giving any absolute promise of sunshine. She applied to Mrs. Allen, and Mrs. Allen's opinion was more positive. “She had no doubt in the world of its being a very fine day, if the CLOUDS would only go off, and the sun keep out.”
…. At half past twelve, when Catherine's anxious attention to the weather was over and she could no longer claim any merit from its amendment, the sky began voluntarily to clear. A gleam of sunshine took her quite by surprise; she looked round; the CLOUDS were parting, and she instantly returned to the window to watch over and encourage the happy appearance. Ten minutes more made it certain that a bright afternoon would succeed, and justified the opinion of Mrs. Allen, who had “always thought it would clear up.” But whether Catherine might still expect her friends, whether there had not been too much rain for Miss Tilney to venture, must yet be a question.”


And to add to all of the above I add a final “twist”, hinted at in that last word of my Subject Line. It is no accident that (1) Strepsiades meant “twister”, as in twister of words, i.e., liar, in ancient Greek, and (2) we read the following in Northanger Abbey, as Catherine Morland suffers through her final conversation with John Thorpe in Chapter 15:

“Shall not you be late at Devizes?” said Catherine. He made no answer; but after a minute's silence burst out with, “A famous good thing this marrying scheme, upon my soul! A clever fancy of Morland's and Belle's. What do you think of it, Miss Morland? I say it is no bad notion.”
“I am sure I think it a very good one.”
“Do you? That's honest, by heavens! I am glad you are no enemy to matrimony, however. Did you ever hear the old song 'Going to One Wedding Brings on Another?' I say, you will come to Belle's wedding, I hope.”
“Yes; I have promised your sister to be with her, if possible.”
“And then you know”—TWISTING himself about and forcing a foolish laugh—“I say, then you know, we may try the truth of this same old song.”
“May we? But I never sing. Well, I wish you a good journey. I dine with Miss Tilney today, and must now be going home.”

Twisting himself indeed – It is Jane Austen who has the last laugh on the fools of the world!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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