Balladeer’s Blog presents another examination of an ancient Greek political satire. This comedy by Aristophanes was one that I was planning on covering very soon when I started posting my reviews of Attic Old Comedy years ago. For various reasons it kept falling by the wayside.
Where am I going with this? For Aristophanes’ line “In Cloud-Cuckooland things become what they are called rather than being called what they are” make it “In Ivory Towerland things become what they are called rather than being called what they are.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Birds is Aristophanes’ lengthiest surviving comedy and also the most analyzed (some would say over-analyzed). So much has already been written about this particular work that I’ve decided to forego my usual intensive examination of every scene. Instead I’ll go with a brief synopsis followed by a way I feel The Birds could be adapted (as opposed to translated) for the present day. To close things out I’ll add a few comments on how The Birds compares with other Utopian Comedies of the era.
More than 2,300 years before George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, Aristophanes was dealing with some of the same political themes.
Pisthetaerus and Euelpides, Athenians feeling alienated by the increasingly restrictive laws and lawsuits of their home city have left Athens behind to start over with a new society. Part of the comedy centers around the ages-old theme of how those who seek to overthrow oppression often wind up becoming the new oppressors themselves. (Think of the 1960s generation of American liberals who became just as oppressive as they claimed previous generations had been)
Another Orwellian theme finds Aristophanes satirizing the way in which the ruling class in any society uses and corrupts language to strengthen the subjugation of the populace. The Birds even features the importance of religious and historical myths in any culture as the leaders of the new civilization conjure up an all-new cosmology with “the birds” at the center to justify their own rule.
In the end even the gods the Greeks worshipped are conquered and brought under the thumb of the bird-centric city. That brave new world turned old-fashioned dictatorship is called Cloud-Cuckooland, and is so notorious it was even referred to in the musical Evita.
The founders of Cloud-Cuckooland (Nephelococcygia) started out motivated to find a place of greater freedom but then, once in power, realized they didn’t mind a totalitarian state as long as THEY were the ones in charge. Their real gripe with the world they left behind was that they had no power to impose their will on others. In Nephelococcygia they hold the reins.
One obvious – and relevant – parallel would be with the endlessly self-congratulatory 1960s generation of American Liberals. They became disgusted with the real world for not immediately conforming to their personal vision. The least constructive but most shrill elements of 1960s Liberalism figuratively left the “oppressive” real world behind for a world they could distort to make their immature and unworkable ideas seem like the only viable worldview – the realm of pure theory. In other words the academic world.
Remember – I don’t lump all members of the 1960s political left into that category. People from the 1960s generation who really did want and campaigned for more social freedom went on to enjoy that freedom out in the real world. They grew up and got on with the lives that the new freedoms made possible for them.
The 1960s leftists who gravitated to the prolonged adolescence of the “academic” world were the kind who can still be found heading educational departments or running entire universities. They’ve thrived in their bureaucratic dictatorships and – just like the founders of Nephelococcygia slightly changed the meaning of a few words and then declared themselves a city-state – the 1960s burnouts basically banished reason and logic from the campus and turned collegiate life into one long, reality-ignoring wallow in their flawed philosophies centered around resentment.
People like Bill Ayers and Angela Davis are sad and pathetic examples of this crowd that has never grown up. Watching those two pretentious jackasses addressing college-age audiences I wondered if it ever sinks in to either of them that the only ones who buy into their immature worldview are people too young to have experienced real life yet.
To say nothing of how outrightly creepy it is that elderly and embittered codgers like Ayers and Davis hover over young people trying to browbeat them into remaining trapped in the past like they are. Ayers and Davis are in their seventies yet they find their largest numbers of like-minded political robots only among people in their teens or early twenties.
Hey, Bill and Angela, your worldview was formed several decades ago! For you two to still act like you’re edgy and rebellious would be like someone in the 60s acting edgy and rebellious while pushing a worldview formed at the turn of the century.
Many of the youngsters harassed into comformity by people like Ayers and Davis in the “academic” world will eventually realize how narrow-minded and one-sided their instructors were. In other words, they will mature, causing the shrill Ayers and Davis types to claim that they’re “becoming conservative” as if growing up is to be avoided at all costs. To the 1960s generation want-to-be’s who DO conform to the outdated worldview of their teachers it IS to be avoided at all costs. Many of them, too, will spend their lives hiding from the real world in the prolonged adolescence of the “academic” world. For them and their kind it’s better to rule in Cloud-Cuckooland than face failure in the real world.
Returning to an adaptation of The Birds, the 60s burnouts, like Pisthetaerus and Euelpides and their bird allies, gained and retained power through all the proto-Orwellian means that I mentioned in the synopsis at the start of this article.
History was rewritten with the 1960s generation at its center. Generations of vulnerable minds were taught that the world was nothing but one big mass of oppressors and their helpless victims until “the most self-aggrandizing generation” came along to save everyone. Also like the characters in The Birds the 60s burnouts who slowly took over academia eliminated or exiled all dissidents.
A generation that idolized the murderous, homophobic would-be dictator Che Guevara acted like anyone who ever killed on behalf of non-leftist causes must have been fascist oppressors, even World War Two heroes like Greg “Pappy” Boyington, whose statue was removed from the University of Washington because of his status as an alleged “white male warmonger.”
Plus he served in the Pacific Theater of the war, so to the deluded asses of American Liberalism since Boyington fought against the Japanese that means he MUST have been motivated by (yawn) racism. And that’s just one example of how the campus left insists on scouring their surroundings of anything that offends their delicate sensibilities.
And, as Camille Paglia loves to point out, the insecure pseudo-intellectuals of the American teaching field took deconstruction even more seriously than the (swoon) Europeans they got it from. Older works of art or literature were examined purely in terms of (yawn) racism or colonial narratives or cisgender privilege or any other pet issue that came along. It’s like how Christian Conservatives relate to older works of art or literature purely in terms of how “sinful” or “evil” they find them.
The rapid-fire “blackout sketches” of The Birds could feature the rulers of Ivory Towerland driving off all the figures of Western Civilization (Remember “Heigh ho, heigh ho, Western Civ has got to go”) just like Pisthetaerus and company drive off or bar any Greek figures THEY don’t like. Reason itself could be depicted being driven off of campuses to reflect the way irrationality and self-serving mental contortions have replaced intellectual inquiry.
To make the parallel with The Birds clearer, I’ll mention that in that play the forces of Cloud-Cuckooland eventually conquer the gods on Mount Olympus by intercepting all of the tribute that is sent up to the gods in the form of literal burnt offerings. The smoke from the animals and other sacrifices that the Greeks burned was thought to figuratively “feed”the gods. Cloud-Cuckooland’s position in the sky enabled its inhabitants to intercept those offerings, thus starving the gods into surrender.
I know it’s a stretch but the 60s burnouts taking over the academies put them in position to “intercept” the minds of many young people who would go on to vote and to have successful careers in various influential fields. The 60s generation distorted Liberalism into a philosophy critical ONLY of the Western World, so vulnerable minds were taught only the worst elements of their own society’s history and only the best elements of the history of any perceived opponents of their own society. (See the left’s attempt to whitewash Islam’s colonialism, misogyny, homophobia, genocidal killing, expansion of slavery and overall intolerance.)
At any rate the 60s burnouts – in France they call such people the Soixante-Huitaires – intercepted all those young minds like Nephelococcygia intercepted the offerings headed for Mount Olympus. This enabled them to sculpt those minds into conforming to their worldview and rejecting any dissident voices as (yawn) racist or imperialist or fascist, etc.
The inhabitants of Cloud-Cuckooland acquired great power through their strategy, just like the denizens of Ivory Towerland have, in their case by campaigning to have many of their irrational beliefs imposed on people in the real world. Do I even need to cite more specific examples? Check out the news on just about any given day.
But I don’t mean for this adaptation to sound overwrought or pessimistic. The emphasis would be on comedy. Former 60s leftists like David Horowitz or Roger Simon or Camille Paglia or David Mamet and others often write the kind of barbed and hilarious criticism of the current left that I would envision for this adaptation of The Birds. (Paglia goes so far as to say her generation had their chance but they screwed up the world even more than it already was.)
The type of clashes that people like Milo Yiannopoulos or Christina Hoff Summers or Mike Adams have with the totalitarian campus left show that if anyone really did this adaptation the comedy would virtually write itself. +++
For more ancient Greek comedies click here: https://glitternight.com/ancient-greek-comedies/
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